The way the term “burnout” gets thrown around, you may believe we all have it. Many of us think we do. In a 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time workers, almost 1-in-4 reported always or often feeling burned out at work, while another 44% reported sometimes feeling burned out.
But how can you tell if you truly have burnout or if it’s normal fatigue and stress?
You could consider the definition from the World Health Organization. At the end of May, WHO declared burnout is an “occupational phenomenon.” According to the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11): “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.”
If you just said, “Yep, yes and definitely,” then you have an opportunity. For a lot of people, this can be the wake-up call that helps them get on the career path they truly want to be on.
“See these signs [of burnout] as data and get curious,” says Melody Wilding, a licensed social worker who coaches high achievers. “Ask, ‘What is this trying to tell me? What new direction do I want to go in?’ Then use it to spark some insight.”
Here’s how to turn your burnout into a positive.
“It’s normal to go through stressful periods at work and feel fatigued or exhausted from that,” Wilding says. “What separates that from burnout is how long-term and persistent it is.”
A good way to spot the difference is to pay attention to how you feel after a long weekend or vacation away. If you return to the office and still feel stressed, depleted, distanced from your work, cynical and unmotivated, that’s a sign of burnout, Wilding says.
Also, while having a big project often leads to high stress and days you have to push through, there’s an end in sight. With burnout, though, there is no end. And if it happens for longer than six months, it’s definitely burnout, Wilding adds.
If you realize, yes, this is burnout, examine what led to the burnout, says Wilding, explaining that usually it’s a combination of our own habits and the environment we’re in.
The upside of our habits leading to burnout is we can change those. Take notice if you tend to overwork, be a people-pleaser, always say yes to requests, stay late to complete projects and otherwise lack boundaries at the office. “If you don’t take the time to examine these and put healthier habits in place now, your habits will follow you to the next job and repeat there,” Wilding says.
You can consciously change your workload, says life coach Susie Moore. Tell yourself you will not volunteer for extra things and will say no to everything that’s not necessary, she suggests. It can be hard to do so and there may also be some underlying things making you overwork, so you may want to work with a career coach or therapist.
On the environmental side, look at your job and your workplace. Then do some job crafting, Wilding says. “Burnout can sometimes result from being chronically under-challenged or feeling like you have no power, autonomy or ability to affect anything in your job,” she explains. “Reflect on what brings you satisfaction and the role you want, then approach your boss about crafting your job to better fit your strengths and desires so you feel more meaning and investment in it.”
If your boss isn’t open to shifting your role, you can discuss what you need, Moore says. This may be more support, more time on projects or to be able to leave at 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
If you talk to your boss and nothing changes, it may be best to leave your situation. Of course, that’s not always easy, so weigh what the burnout is doing to you (and your loved ones) against the risk of going elsewhere. Also think about what you want in your next role, both in terms of what the job is and what the work environment is like.
“Understand the size of the team, the support you will have, the work culture, if they pull all-nighters and listen to what they tell you,” Moore says. “Is that what you want?”
Whether you choose to stay at your current job or seek other employment, during the process, prioritize self-care, Wilding says. “Take on outside projects or have informational conversations with people in career paths that interest you,” she says. Also make time for friends and family and don’t forget about your workouts, eating healthy and hobbies you enjoy. “Find things to feel invested in outside of work,” she says. “Diversify your self esteem. Your sense of confidence is not just from your job but other areas as well.”
Have some self-compassion too. “We hate uncertainty, but confidence isn’t being perfect. It’s being willing,” Moore says. “Understand that you are doing your best.” Look back at past moments when things were up in the air and remember how things worked out then — and they will now, too, though you can’t predict when that will be.