The ultimate guide to burnout

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All you need to know about Burnout: we did the research so you wouldn’t have to. 

The backstory

The subject of burnout has been around for literally decades, and we mean the old definition of literally, not the revamped one! The research goes back to the 1970s, borrowing the term burnout from those who used it to define high-school dropouts. This rebranding of sorts was used to describe the exhaustion from workers of human services, such as hospitals and fields alike. Then, they realized that it applied to many–if not all–types of industries.  

Fast forward to May 2019 where the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized occupational burnout as a syndrome–yet not as an actual medical condition–that “causes feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from work or a cynical or negative attitude towards work, and a drop in professional performance“. Yet, even in 2020 the mainstream-known signs and advice around burnout are insufficient or misleading. 

Definition 

Up until fairly recently, burnout had been conceptualized as “a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy“. Though we agree with that concept, recent research adds a fourth dimension to burnout, shedding light on the human factor as a possible stressor, which is just as important: Depersonalization.

BEFORE TOO LATE: THE TELLTALES OF BURNOUT

The road to burnout has a destination that we never want to reach. In order for a person to not reach that point, it’s important to understand the signs that can point towards burnout risk, so the person can turn things around before it’s too late.

The 4 dimensions of burnout

There are many things that can raise red flags that should point you towards burnout detection, or at the very least, prevention. If not addressed, burnout can lead to additional health issues, including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, and coronary heart disease. Understanding the four dimensions of burnout can help you have a head start to get this under control before it’s too late and your physical and mental health are compromised. 

Exhaustion

Personal exhaustion may be the first and perhaps most acknowledged symptom of burnout. Though it can sometimes be brushed off as being “just tired, exhaustion is the fatigue produced by the excessive effort–mainly psychological (cognitive and emotional)– that you’re making when completing your tasks. Remember, your cognitive and emotional energy is limited. A few symptoms that can surround exhaustion are lack of motivation, fatigue, insomnia, memory issues, nervousness, irritability, among others.

Consequences of Exhaustion:

This one is a no-brainer. There are no health benefits when your exhaustion levels remain high over time. This is not sustainable without some sort of problem arising, related to either work or health. If the stressors (the causes of exhaustion) remain present during a period of time, you might even develop mental health problems such as anxiety, distress, and depression.

Cynicism

Cynicism is the most present dimension of all. Within a work context, cynicism is a distant attitude that people adopt towards tasks and processes when it has been some time since they received any payoff as a response to their efforts. This way, people feel like they are not adding value to their work or that work doesn’t add value to them. People start withholding their effort because work no longer gives them satisfaction nor pleasure. Their levels of quality and productivity drop in a causal spiral along with their levels of positive emotions.

Consequences of Cynicism:

When your cynicism levels are high your work loses quality, productivity, and creativity. Also, your well-being suffers because of your diminished emotional connectivity with work.

Self-inefficacy

You don’t feel confident in your own skills and resources to execute the tasks that your current position entails. This does not mean that you’re not capable of doing them, you’re just lacking faith in yourself. 

If it’s a new position, it’s quite normal, and it actually helps you to maintain high levels of attention and focus in order to avoid mistakes. However, if this is sustained over time, you need to work on your confidence regarding your professional skills, otherwise, this will lead to being extra hard on yourself.

Consequences of Self-inefficacy:

Having high perceived self-inefficacy does not mean you’re incompetent, but that you feel that way, and having to perform tasks that you feel unequipped for is heightening your emotional discomfort. 

A lot of people tend to procrastinate when faced with demanding or difficult tasks, and then they end up being highly pressured by deadlines. This isn’t healthy because it increases your levels of anxiety, worry, and brings unnecessary interpersonal conflict by not meeting deadlines. This also reduces your rest time.

Depersonalization

It’s the distant attitude that a person can take towards coworkers and other people (i.e. clients, vendors, authority figures, collaborators, etc.) when they (or some of them) seem to be the root source of their emotional wear.

When the depersonalization levels are high it’s because the person activated emotional defense mechanisms. These are visible through the distant attitude one has towards others (colleagues, clients, authority); and due to these people (or one of them) being a source of negative emotions, and the stress that comes from the frustrating relationship the person currently has with them.

Consequences of Depersonalization:

The main consequence is that this state increases the chances of interpersonal conflict and emotional disconnect, which complicates matters when working in a team. It’s possible that the person enters an emotional process that leads to a lack of empathy towards others, or feeling that others are not empathetic towards them regarding their needs.

How can we prevent Burnout?

Work doesn’t have to turn you into a ball of stress that weakens your immune system. Change begins from within, in every individual, and those at the top of every team and organization. Evidence suggests that people with high levels of emotional competitiveness are more likely to maintain mental well-being under difficult circumstances.

Job-and-Emo crafting

Yerbo’s Head of Behavioral Sciences shares with us two key things that you can do to improve your situation:

Improvements based on external factors: Job-crafting. It means trying to make your job work for you. Understandably, this is not always possible, but when it is, it’s a good rule of thumb to tailor your job description to fit you, and not the other way around. You can do so by trying to lower external demands (i.e. turning off notifications after work hours) and increasing external resources (i.e. learning a new skill that can increase your confidence on the job or bring something new to the role).

Improvements based on internal factors: Emo-crafting. This means working on your emotions, how you understand and regulate them. You can do so by trying to lower internal demands (i.e. always trying to be the best and constantly trying to prove yourself to others) and increasing internal resources (i.e. working on your self-awareness in order to better understand your emotions, triggers, etc.)

BURNOUT AND WORK ENGAGEMENT 

There’s an old saying that goes “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”. Such a thing can be said about work engagement, it can be taken for granted and only appreciated once it’s lost, either to burnout or to a state close to it. 

Definition and dimensions of work engagement

The most recurring definition of work engagement states it as “a positive, fulfilling, work-related affective- cognitive state of mind characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption” (Schaufeli et al., 2002). Its three dimensions are vigor, related to the high levels of energy one has while working;  dedication, regarding the pride and enthusiasm that comes from performing tasks; and lastly, absorption which refers to the state of deep focus in the work that one seems to be immersed in.

Twins or enemies?

Sometimes it’s hard to define something without also thinking of an opposing idea. That’s the case with burnout and work engagement. Either as opposite ends of the same spectrum or as completely separate entities, these two concepts seem to work hand in hand, with work engagement representing the positives, and burnout the negatives.

In the late 90s, three researchers (Maslach, Leiter and Schaufeli 2001) put work engagement, within the context of occupational well-being, as the opposite of burnout: in the correct circumstances one tends to start a new job with complete energy (vigor) and enthusiasm for tasks, and as stressful situations arise, energy lowers and dedication drops, leading to the path to burnout.

However, there’s another interesting view coming from two authors, Schaufeli & Bakker, that states that even though these can be considered opposite concepts, the absence of one state does not necessarily mean that the other state is present. A person can be going through something at work where they are lacking enthusiasm, and therefore lacking work engagement, but this doesn’t automatically mean that they are burned out. A compromise could be to understand that there’s a gray area and that it’s important to try to identify the signals that can show the path to burnout, so there’s time to stop it from completely unraveling. 

These ideas are gaining more and more empirical evidence which leads us to new fields of understanding to prevent burnout and promote work engagement.

Causes for Burnout and work engagement. 

The causes are quite complex; however, there are different areas in which we could fit them. To begin with, we can separate them between external causes–related to resources, company policy, team members and leaders, etc, and internal causes–regarding emotions and how a person deals with them. Down below you’ll find a more detailed breakdown of internal and external causes.

External causes that that can either promote burnout or boost work engagement

The following list highlights the causing factors that come from different leadership styles and choices; interpersonal relationships between coworkers; the way tasks and job positions are designed; and the impact that the organization has on a person.   

Leadership

Promotes Burnout: when there is role conflict, mobbing or bullying, absent leadership–no guidance that leaves everyone having to fend for themselves, lack of feedback. 

Boosts work-engagement: when there’s clarity in everybody’s role, quality feedback, recognition for both efforts and results.

Team

Promotes Burnout: when there are interpersonal conflicts, bullying, lack of coordination between team members, inefficient meetings. 

Boosts work-engagement: when there’s cooperation, group creativity, coordination and efficiency.

Tasks

Promotes Burnout: when there is an absence of challenges, extremely demanding deadlines, lack of resources and tools, work overload. 

Boosts work-engagement: when there’s a correct use of skills, comfortable deadlines, available resources, and an overall challenging feeling.

Organization

Promotes Burnout: when there is a perceived inequality, shame of being a part of the company.

Boosts work-engagement: when there are both proper economic compensation and non-financial benefits; when one feels valued, proud of being a part of the company.

Life-work balance

Promotes Burnout: when one feels overworked, pressured to be available beyond work-hours, when one doesn’t have time/energy for hobbies, poor off-time management or even the complete absence of time off.

Boosts work-engagement: when there is time and energy for relaxing activities that disconnect the person from the job; when a person finds challenges beyond work, when they feel in control.

Internal causes that can either promote burnout or boost work engagement

There’s also research on the impact that certain mental processes (both cognitive and emotional) have on the experiences a person has at work, which can promote burnout or boost work engagement. We can highlight:

Emotional Self-Awareness

Promotes Burnout: when there are frequent negative emotions. It can also happen that the negative emotions are not frequent, but when they do come around, they’re very intense. Also, a low emotional ratio (which is the average between positive and negative emotions) can promote burnout. 

Boosts work-engagement: when the person experiences frequent positive emotions. It can also happen that the positive emotions are not frequent, one simply cannot be happy all the time, but when the emotions do come around, they’re very intense and can often make up for any rough patches. Also, a high emotional ratio (which is the average between positive and negative emotions) can boost work engagement. 

Emotional Regulation

Promotes Burnout: when there are negative biases such as the dampening of positive events. Also, burnout can be promoted when there’s maladaptive regulation, which is how we deal with stressful situations in a negative way, for example recurring to self-blaming, mental rumination, catastrophizing, among other mechanisms.

Boosts work-engagement: when there are positive biases such as positivism. Also, work engagement can be boosted when there’s adaptive regulation, which is how we deal with stressful situations but in a positive way, for example, a person can face a stressful situation with perspective, emotional acceptance, focusing on plans, positive reinterpretation, among other mechanisms.

TECH: FIELD OF DREAMS, LAND OF BURNOUT.

Working in tech seems to be the dream until it’s not. 

While burnout is a part and parcel of almost every trade, the tech industry is quite unique because of its fast-moving environment with high expectations on all corners, and the focus on the technical side of work, sometimes leaving the human side way forgotten.

Hint: Overwork isn’t the only cause of burnout. Ping pong tables and snack rooms aren’t going to fix the problem, but managers who really care about their teams could help prevent it. Burnout isn’t simply a synonym for stress, it’s the result of deep, long-term stress that hasn’t been dealt with, either by the sufferer nor their employer.

“Move fast and break things”

Many of today’s tech workers live by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s now-famous motto: “Move fast and break things”.  The question that arises is: how do we do this without also breaking people on the way?

It doesn’t matter how much you love your job, or how strong and committed you are: everyone has a breaking point. When that point is reached, that’s when burnout strikes.

Stories of Burnout Symptoms: Exhaustion and Self-Inefficacy

Nearly five years ago, while managing a team at my former job, I was overworked, unsupported, unheard, undervalued, and got burnout. The hardest thing was I couldn’t talk openly about how I was feeling. First came the feeling that my work wasn’t being appreciated or that it even mattered, later the constant worry that I couldn’t do anything right, besides my team was performing well. I found myself working at home ‘till 2 am and crying more nights than I could count on. I started to be rude to others when they asked for a new task or iteration. Then I stopped caring, I used to love my job but that love just vanished after a while. Finally, my body gave me a hard stop, I had to quit because the following months I could barely leave my bed and eat, feeling nothing; sometime after that, I learned that burnout leads to depression. With ups and downs, sometimes feeling very surrounded and supported, and sometimes very lonely, I managed to recover after many attempts. I managed to rekindle my love of what I do again and change what success meant to be, I redefined what I want and how I want it.” Mars, Community & Growth at Yerbo.

BURNOUT AND THE ROLE OF COMPANIES AND LEADERS

Much like with many things in this world, burnout research tends to focus on the individual and not in the external causes and environments that can–and should–change to improve the situation. If we stop thinking of burnout as something that is wrong with the individual and we focus on the environment the individual is immersed in, things will finally take a turn towards progress.  

The constant pressure to do great at work, to produce and be the best–because that’s how we’re taught to show our value–is slowly but surely taking over moments and places that used to be just leisure. Companies need to start implementing and enforcing work-life balance policies. 

A few simple examples could be to encourage people to stop for lunch, actually stop, not grab a sandwich with one hand and type with the other, or only stop for a few minutes instead of 30 minutes or even a full hour to decompress and come back to work feeling fresh. 

Another no-brainer should be to limit email and messaging communications to work hours. Even if a person is working odd-hours and decides to send an email, the recipient should only get a notificacion the next morning. 

Yes, these are extra simple suggestions, but little things go a long way in the hopes of changing workspace structures and cultures. We believe in each industry’s ability to find creative and amazing ways to show their collaborators that they’re valued and cared for, and we can’t wait to see how that turns out. 

Leading the way

Managers and team leaders can often hide behind company policy but they cannot be let off the hook. They are the first line of defense for workers that should feel protected by their leaders against a higher corporate hierarchy.

Here’s why this is not an impossible task: leaders are people too! There will come a time, hopefully in a (very!) near future when these issues of understanding workers as humans and not perfect machines will just be second nature and not an actual effort. 

The tools that truly enrich the future of the work place have one mission: 

taking care of your team

At Yerbo we believe that it’s possible to balance life with work, to focus on emotional intelligence to deal with day-to-day stress. In a nutshell: it’s possible to feel like a human being and not a machine. If teams feel like they’re a part of something bigger and taken care of, cooperation and collaboration will follow, leading the way to higher work engagement and dare we say…happier teams! 

We developed the all-in-one Burnout Prevention tool for teams​ where they can easily measure, track, and get science-backed recommendations to prevent burnout, all within the frame of a Slack app. Want to learn more about it and join the ranks in the fight against burnout? We’ll be right here

Sources and bibliography

https://www.who.int/classifications/icd/en/
https://elemental.medium.com/the-great-burnout-debate-431c677c9e50
https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
Maslach,C., Schaufeli, W., Leiter, M. (2001). Annual Review of Psychology. 52:1, 397-422
Schaufeli, W. B., & Bakker, A. B. (2010). Defining and measuring work engagement: Bringing clarity to the concept. In A. B. Bakker (Ed.) & M. P. Leiter, Work engagement. A handbook of essential theory and research (p. 10–24). Psychology Press.
Trógolo, M., Morera, L., Castellano, E., Spontón, C. & Medrano, L. (2020). Work engagement and burnout: real, redundant, or both? A further examination using a bifactor modelling approach. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/1359432X.2020.1801642
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