What is burnout?
Burnout is more than an unmotivated Friday when we’re itching for the weekend to begin. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” and specifically tied it to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Burnout can stem from working exhaustingly long hours for an extended period of time, but it can also emerge from monotonous work environments where we don’t feel supported and/or appreciated. Symptoms of burnout can include an increased sense of cynicism, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and decreased productivity.
Because burnout symptoms and depression symptoms often overlap, there tends to be confusion between them. In a paper comparing burnout and depression, Psychologist Stacie Fishell-Rowan, Ph.D. provides some helpful insight:
“Depression is marked by feelings of sadness, loss of interest in daily life, and hopelessness. These feelings can be pervasive throughout all areas of life, including work and family,” she says.
“Burnout, on the other hand, tends to be directly related to your career and job. The symptoms may feel much the same as depression, but there is one key difference — burnout symptoms may diminish during weekends or vacations.”
While burnout is pointedly job-related, that doesn’t mean one has to work a classic 9-to-5 to experience it. Burnout can also apply to other aspects of life that innately involve an element of work or emotional labor like parenting, caregiving, or activism.
Of course, frequently toggling between some — or all — of these different roles can expedite burnout as well.
If we recognize we’re experiencing symptoms of burnout, we can consider first taking a moment to give ourselves a bit of grace by remembering that it’s now incredibly normal. According to a 2021 survey, more than half of America’s workforce currently feels burned out.
While it’s certainly not solely the employee’s responsibility to “address” burnout — managers and organizations must work to create conditions that make burnout less likely — we can take steps ourselves to build our own personalized burnout recovery plans. To start, we might try to understand which burnout subtype we identify with most.
What are the types of burnout?
For years, burnout was treated as a one-size-fits-all workplace issue. But thanks to new research on the topic, burnout is now categorized into 3 specific subtypes: frenetic burnout, under-challenged burnout, and worn-out burnout. Here’s how to identify each:
Frenetic Burnout. This burnout subtype is experienced by individuals who are so highly committed to their work that they end up overworked and exhausted.
They likely consider themselves ultra-ambitious go-getters who wear their hustle as a badge of honor, unaware it’s dragging them down. They might define themselves by their role, or feel immense loyalty or obligation to their profession — even if not required.
Because of this all-in attitude, they neglect to create boundaries, don’t feel able to push back on unrealistic deadlines, and frequently place the pursuit of professional success or recognition over personal well-being. As a result, they can often find themselves agreeing to take on more responsibility and regularly work overtime.
Under-challenged Burnout. This burnout subtype is essentially the opposite of the frenetic type because individuals may feel a strong sense of indifference regarding work. These workers were likely engaged in their role — or idea of the role — to start but lost interest over time for various reasons, including lack of development or opportunities for growth.
In this type of burnout, work may feel mundane, monotonous, or unstimulating. On top of this general dissatisfaction, these workers might also receive little feedback or acknowledgment, which only increases the sense of boredom or apathy. Those in parenting, caregiving, and other labor-intensive roles commonly experience this type of burnout.
Worn-out Burnout. This burnout subtype is experienced by individuals who feel so disengaged that they disregard the responsibilities of their position. They’re past the point of perseverance; instead, when faced with difficulty, they may give up or even show outward neglect. They might even feel like they’ve hit a wall.
Worn-out burnout often accumulates after a prolonged period of feeling undervalued and unrecognized, ineffectively managed, or having a lack of control (for example, an employee who has been repeatedly passed up for promotions, or an activist who advocated for a cause but has seen little change over time).
We might now ask ourselves: “Do any of these burnout subtypes describe my experience?” Maybe we can sense the onset of one subtype of burnout, or maybe some of us have identified with all 3 at different points in our life. Under any amount of prolonged stress, acknowledging where we’re at is a big step — it’s also the first step to beating burnout.
Dealing with burnout
There are 2 wildly popular solutions suggested for overcoming burnout: take a vacation and find a different job. While vacation does have some very real health benefits and changing jobs may help quickly escape a toxic work culture, these fixes simply aren’t an option for some.
They also may not address the bad habits and unrealistic expectations we may have developed as workers over the years — something that will follow us in any new role.
Once we feel like we have the capacity to consider our current situation and identify exactly what subtype(s) of burnout we’re experiencing, we can start to zero in on the science-backed solutions.
If work-life balance is a struggle, consider starting a mindfulness practice.
In a paper exploring potential solutions for the 3 burnout subtypes, researchers describe workers prone to frenetic burnout as “patients who have little insight into their dysfunctional condition and, therefore, little likelihood of independently readjusting their behavioral pattern towards healthier forms of conduct.”
In other words, these workers are actively unaware that clearer boundaries need to be established. The paper adds that these workers need to experience critical health or life event to become fully aware of their unhealthy work habits.
Incorporating elements of mindfulness and meditation into a daily routine can nurture a deeper sense of self-awareness, shining a light on our behaviors and ambitions so that we can ask ourselves how healthy they are.
If it already feels like there aren’t enough hours in the day, know that mindfulness practice doesn’t have to be time-intensive. We might begin with a short meditation: something as brief as a 1-minute daily meditation, working our way up to a 5-minute meditation in time.
If work feels unfulfilling, try “job crafting.”
To address under-challenged burnout, this practice can help make one’s work feel more engaging and meaningful.
According to The Harvard Business Review, job crafting is comprised of 3 crucial components: Task crafting (altering the type, scope, sequence, and several tasks that makeup one’s job), relationship crafting (altering who one interacts with during the workday), and cognitive crafting (mindfully modifying the way tasks and/or work is interpreted so that it feels more meaningful).
Putting these 3 job crafting tactics into practice has the potential to disrupt the monotony of work and dramatically shift the way one sees their role, pulling you away from the apathetic feelings that often come with this burnout type.
If work leaves us feeling disengaged, we might focus on cultivating personal connections.
Interestingly, science shows that for those experiencing long-term worn-out burnout, creating intimate connections is key. Researchers found that “a stable relationship could be a protective factor of the worn-out burnout subtype.”
Establishing strong relationships with people outside of work can offer a safe space to vent, a way to escape shoptalk, and ultimately help these individuals feel valued, trusted, and appreciated more regularly.
Another study adds that forming quality relationships with colleagues “may reduce exhaustion and depersonalization over time, in addition to fostering feelings of personal accomplishment at work.” It’s an opportunity to reestablish a crucial connection with the workplace they may currently feel isolated from.
Ultimately, a successful recovery from burnout is less about simply finding a way to “bounce back.” In addition to sufficient employer support, it requires us to undergo a hard reset with our long-term relationship with work.
While certainly a tall task, finding the courage to take on the challenge is an opportunity to establish new boundaries and mindfulness practices that can benefit work-life balance for years to come.