Are You Burned Out? Or Is It Something Else?
Whether we’re feeling pressure from a looming deadline, tension from a strained work relationship, or compounding stress from a myriad of work issues, lack of engagement is inevitable. When those feelings related to work stress become debilitating, we often automatically jump to labeling our experience as burnout. But not all feelings associated with work stress are consistent with the full psychological syndrome of burnout. Examining and characterizing your stress-related feelings are the first and most important steps to connecting to the support that will be most helpful given your unique experience. The authors offer three questions to ask yourself to help you determine whether the feelings you have are consistent with burnout or if they’re something less serious that could lead to burnout if left unchecked.
Feeling a little bit disengaged at work is not only common; it’s normal. Whether we’re experiencing pressure from a looming deadline, tension from a strained work relationship, or compounding stress from a myriad of work issues, a lack of engagement is inevitable.
When those feelings of stress become debilitating, however, we often automatically jump to labeling our experience as burnout. But not all feelings associated with work stress are consistent with this condition. In one of our (Kandi’s) ongoing, unpublished research studies of highly stressed leaders, there is strong evidence to suggest that prolonged exposure to extreme work stressors does not always correlate with the full psychological syndrome of burnout.
So how can you learn to tell the difference?
Examining and characterizing your stress-related feelings are the first and most important steps to connecting to the support that will be most helpful given your unique experience. To help you determine whether the feelings you have are consistent with burnout, or if they’re something less serious that could lead to burnout if left unchecked, consider the following question: Are you experiencing a migraine, or is this just a headache?
When we interview or coach leaders who are burned out, they often say the experience is like the difference between these two conditions. Like migraines, burnout isn’t just a little pain or irritation that interrupts your day — it often results in significant functional impairment. It may feel excruciating and debilitating, and it causes feelings of intense emotional exhaustion, extreme cynicism, and minimal professional efficacy. Determining whether you’re experiencing burnout is extremely important, since it’s associated with increased long-term risk of serious medical problems like atrial fibrillation, type 2 diabetes, and high cholesterol that can lead to coronary artery disease.
Further, since burnout is really an organizational issue and is not simply the result of a deficiency in self-care, the interventions to address it are more complex and require strategies beyond the commonly prescribed “get more exercise” or “get better sleep.” Discerning whether you’re experiencing burnout doesn’t just provide insight into your personal work experience, but it can also help you advocate for meaningful change at the organizational level to support the well-being of your colleagues and your organizational culture as a whole.
If It’s Not Burnout, What Is It?
While some of the highly stressed leaders in Kandi’s studies have expressed a lack of full engagement, the vast majority of them are not burned out. Instead, they’re experiencing strong feelings associated with just one of the symptoms of burnout, resulting in an experience of ineffectiveness, disengagement, or overextension.
Consistent with Kandi’s research, perhaps you’re experiencing one of these feelings, and not the full syndrome of burnout. To help you clarify, consider the following questions.
Do you feel you deserve more?
If you feel underappreciated, undervalued, or taken for granted, you may not feel as effective at work as you know you can be. Few things are more demoralizing in a professional setting than working hard and going unnoticed. These feelings are typically the result of an absence of extrinsic reinforcement — feeling worthy of more recognition and/or respect from others.
If you feel generally engaged and are not emotionally drained or pessimistic, you’re most likely experiencing feelings of ineffectiveness rather than burnout. Researchers say that feelings of ineffectiveness have less to do with stressors and more to do with a lack of positive qualities of work, such as appreciation, meaning, autonomy, and helpful feedback, to name a few. To increase your sense of effectiveness, consider asking your boss for more challenging or meaningful work, more independence, and feedback that shows they care about your development.
Do you frequently think, “This isn’t what I signed up for”?
If you often feel disappointed at work or question whether you’re in the right place, it’s likely that you’re experiencing feelings of disengagement. For example, one of our coaching clients, Casey,* loved working for a small startup. She felt challenged, had the flexibility she needed to care for her two young children, and saw a direct connection between her work and a positive impact on the organization’s clients. But when she learned that they were being acquired by a much larger firm, she began to feel overwhelmingly disconnected with the direction she believed the organization was going.
Organizational psychologists refer to this as a break in the psychological contract. People like Casey who feel disengaged at work are generally able to handle the demands of the job and usually feel confident in their abilities. Instead, their stress stems from feeling misaligned with the organization’s values, culture, other employees, or the profession itself. If this is you, consider giving the situation a bit more time before you decide to look for another job. And don’t forget to use your emotional intelligence to embrace changes associated with psychological contract breaks.
Do you work to keep up or do you work to escape?
If you’re feeling emotionally exhausted, but generally have a positive attitude toward work, you’re likely experiencing feelings of overextension caused by overworking. One of our coaching clients, Lance,* is a physician who is dedicated to his job and derives a strong sense of meaning from his work, but he feels exhausted due to long hours and inadequate time to recover. People like Lance tend to feel fulfilled and involved in their work, but they’re also incredibly tired. Lance’s psychological experience is one of overextension, and this is distinct from the feeling of being both exhausted and cynical, two core symptoms of burnout.
It’s no secret that overwork can lead to burnout. The difficult part is determining what, or really who, is driving the work demands. Burnout is caused by workplace-imposed overexertion, where the demands of the job overwhelm the resources available.
Self-imposed work demands lead to a different phenomenon. Work addiction, commonly called workaholism, isn’t always bad, especially if you love your work. If you’re not careful, however, you may become addicted to compulsively overworking, often in an effort to escape emotional distress. If left unchecked, workaholism can be associated with a number of serious health consequences, including increased risk for heart disease and diabetes. If you find yourself overworking, try setting a specific goal for how many hours a day you will work, find a hobby or an enjoyable non-work activity, or learn a new skill.
Workplace stressors are an inevitable part of the professional experience, and heightening our awareness to our feelings will keep us from being snowed under by work demands. By examining our internal experiences, we can accurately label our feelings and seek the help and support we need to remain resilient, resolved, and engaged in the pursuit of our professional passions.
* Real names have been changed.