Picture yourself as a matchstick. You burn strong and bright at first, but unless that flame is transferred to kindling, you will eventually reach the end of the match and fizzle out. This is similar to how burnout works. You can’t keep up your energy (flame) without the right resources and support (kindling/fuel). Eventually, you will reach a point where you simply can’t keep going unless you shift gears (and light a new match).
Before we get into how to prevent burnout, let’s talk about what it is. Burnout is a somewhat abstract idea, but if you’ve ever experienced it, you know how it feels. It seems as if all your energy reserves are depleted, and even the simplest tasks become difficult. This condition has become so prevalent (with 60% of workers experiencing frequent burnout) that the World Health Organization (WHO) has begun investigating the symptoms and roots causes of burnout.
The WHO defines burnout as, “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The organization goes on to describe its main characteristics as depleted energy/exhaustion, increased negativity about one’s job, and flagging work performance.
No one wants to feel this way, of course. The day seems so much brighter when you’re excited and energized about work. And many people do feel this way when they start a new job or begin a new project—it’s the energy that comes with a sense of newness and the opportunity to explore new possibilities. Just like a slowly dwindling flame, burnout happens over time.
What causes burnout?
It can be difficult to pinpoint the root causes of burnout. Some resources point to overwork and/or juggling too many responsibilities, while other resources say that a lack of emotional support, resources, or purpose is the main culprit. Since everyone’s situation is different, it can be difficult to unearth the exact cause(s) of burnout, but there are some steps you can take to prevent it.
How can you prevent burnout?
1. Recognize the Signs
It’s impossible to deal with impending burnout if you’re unfamiliar with the common traits. As with any disease or disorder, it’s better to deal with burnout as soon as its symptoms begin cropping up. Are you constantly feeling exhausted? Worn down? Unenthusiastic? Are you struggling with daily work tasks? These traits may signal an impending burnout.*
*NOTE: These symptoms may also indicate a more serious underlying condition, such as depression. If you suspect this might be the case, it is always best to consult a qualified mental health expert.
2. seek support
Remember how that flame fizzled out once it reached the end of the matchstick? That likely wouldn’t have happened if we fed the flame more fuel (read: resources). That “fuel” might come in many forms. If your burnout is stemming from overwork, you might find extra “fuel” by delegating certain tasks or collaborating with others to complete a project. If your burnout is coming from a lack of purpose or recognition, you may require emotional support. Or maybe you simply do not have the right resources or skill set to complete an assignment, in which case you might have to talk about how to obtain the necessary skills OR shuffle your work to someone who is qualified.
Whatever the case, it’s a good idea to talk to someone in the workplace to find the support you need. Consult your supervisor, seek support from HR, or talk to a colleague who might be able to share insights or resources.
3. be candid
When seeking support, it doesn’t pay to be indirect or vague about your situation. Talk with those who are in a position to help (supervisor/HR manager/colleague) and let them know how you’re feeling. When we normalize expressing our emotions at work, we aid in creating a healthier environment with improved wellbeing and emotional intelligence.
4. take charge
When it comes to preventing burnout, you have more power than you might think. Begin by creating healthy boundaries—do not answer emails outside of normal work hours, do not take on more work than you should, and make a clear separation between work and home (this can be tricky if you work from home, but it is possible). If you’re asked to take on a project that is either A) outside your wheelhouse or B) too demanding with your current workload, push back! Be clear about your current capabilities and limitations, and have a candid discussion about alternate options.
Today, burnout is an epidemic, but it doesn’t have to be. To keep your flame burning brightly, seek the appropriate resources and support. If you find yourself lacking energy or focus, feeling exhausted, or are generally unenthusiastic about work, have the courage to take action! Finding the kindling you need now will help sustain your flame, going forward.