Dear Sam: Recently the term “burnout” has become a buzzword, but how can I identify the difference between burnout and just normal work stress and fatigue, and what can I do to remedy it? – Michael

Dear Michael: In 2019, the World Health Organization updated the classification of workplace burnout. Now it is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and (3) reduced professional efficacy.” Essentially, workplace burnout occurs when you experience what you refer to as “normal work stress and fatigue” for an extended period, which can result in workplace burnout. Of course, there are going to be times where you need to put in extra time or a demanding project requires extra attention, but eventually, your resources will be depleted. It’s important to try and take inventory of your mental and physical health each week to ensure you are not approaching burnout.

To learn how to identify and address burnout, let’s dive a little deeper into the three dimensions mentioned above.

According to a 2017 study performed by the National Safety Council, “76% of workers say they feel tired at work.” So if the majority of workers are feeling unrested at work, how can you identify if it is an ongoing problem and will eventually lead to burnout? Try to keep track of your sleep patterns (e.g., time asleep, interruptions, quality of sleep, etc.) to determine if you can improve your nightly rest. Be sure to schedule breaks at work; whether it’s as small as taking your lunch away from your desk or as large as planning a vacation, breaks will help provide you with rest. If you are still experiencing exhaustion, then you might consider speaking directly with a manager about your concerns of burnout and what he or she recommends.

There are bound to be bad moments or days at work. The issue is when those bad days turn into bad weeks, bad months, and so on. If you find yourself or another coworker consistently down and negative regarding work, then it could be a good time for a self-assessment or to check-in with your coworker. Are there certain things in your work life that are a source of your negative experience? Try to identify as many factors as you can, and from there you could speak with someone on your team about how to cope or remedy the situation. Perhaps you might even be able to remove some of the factors or adjust your responsibility allocation to improve your outlook.

Reduced Performance
Have you found yourself making more mistakes than usual, or noticed a coworker moving slower than usual? These signs of reduced performance could also indicate burnout. It’s a good idea to monitor any changes in typical behavior. Burnout can affect you physically; if you are experiencing physical symptoms (e.g., insomnia, headaches, or anxiety), these symptoms could be related to your work stress. These symptoms can be linked to other health issues as well, but they are some common physical signs that can accompany burnout and affect your performance.

Hopefully, this helps to explain the difference between typical stress from the workplace and experiencing burnout. Identifying and creating a plan of action for burnout is a great way to healthily address the issue for you or a coworker.