How to Handle and Prevent Work Burnout

McKenna Princing Fact Checked
© Ilya / Stocksy United

It’s not just Amazon: Workers everywhere are more stressed than ever, and workplace culture continues to place value on workaholism. While some people might thrive in fast-paced, always-on-the-clock environments, many of us do not. Working too much—or in a high-stress environment—can lead to burnout, a catchphrase that is thrown around in casual conversation but that is actually a serious condition.

This is because burnout is associated with anxiety, depression and other serious psychological ills, says Matthew MacKinnon, M.D., a third-year psychiatric resident physician at the University of Washington School of Medicine who studies burnout.

Burnout has distinct signs from other kinds of stress, as outlined by psychologist Christina Maslach, Ph.D. in the 1981 Maslach Burnout Inventory. These signs are emotional exhaustion, cynicism and decreased sense of personal efficacy.

Emotional exhaustion is a decrease in psychological and emotional energy. Cynicism refers to a bleak outlook about one’s work as well as the process of depersonalization, where the worker starts to distance themselves from people they work with. Depersonalization can be understood as a coping strategy to deal with overwhelming emotional exhaustion, MacKinnon says. Decreased sense of efficacy, the third sign of burnout, is when someone feels they aren’t accomplishing as much at work as they used to.

It is important to recognize that individuals alone are not solely responsible for combating symptoms of burnout—organizations need to step up, too, MacKinnon says. Research has shown that individual efforts to reduce burnout are often more effective in the context of organizational change.

“If organizations only offer individual level burnout interventions—like mindfulness, stress-reduction, or resilience training—there is an implicit message that the worker is defective and solely responsible for his or her burnout. This ignores the evidence that organizational environment plays a large role in the development and perpetuation of burnout,” MacKinnon says.

Still, organizations are usually slower to act than individuals, and a change in workplace culture might not be on the horizon for some people. Here are some strategies for addressing burnout that MacKinnon says are backed by scientific research.

Talk with your supervisor about making your schedule more flexible

Having some control over your work hours and how flexible your schedule is can help prevent burnout. Talk with your supervisor to see if it is possible for you to come in or leave at a more convenient time, or work from home sometimes. Even if your job doesn’t allow for these kinds of changes, you can still make changes to your own routine by reorganizing how you handle daily tasks or restructuring self-imposed deadlines. For example, if you’re feeling energized and have a lot to get done, tackle your bigger projects first and save checking your inbox for the middle of the day when you’ve hit an afternoon slump.

Teach yourself mindfulness or other stress-reduction techniques

Establish a daily mindfulness routine or try meditation. There are plenty of free or inexpensive smartphone apps that can teach you how to be more mindful if you have never tried it.

Take breaks

This applies to lunch breaks as well as short breaks throughout the day to help boost your energy. It can also be helpful to know when you need to take a day off to de-stress. Taking a break allows you to be more in control of your workload—or, at least, how you respond to it. And while it seems counterintuitive to take short breaks when you have a lot to get done, it actually helps you work more effectively by giving you a chance to recharge.

Don’t work late

Avoid staying late at work and working on weekends. It can contribute to burnout by not giving you sufficient time to reconnect with your life outside of work.

Schedule ‘quality’ time

You may not think you have to pre-arrange time where you can focus on the things you value, but that’s exactly what you should do. On weekends and when we’re off work, it’s easy to keep working with chores and errands or to idle away the time watching TV. But make sure you’re scheduling some time to do the things and be with people you value, whether that’s getting together with good friends, exercising, reading or spending time with a loved one. Research shows that the quality of the time off is just as important as the quantity of time off.