It can begin slowly. You may not recognize the symptoms. You may find yourself becoming increasingly irritated with people and situations that never used to bother you. You struggle to fall asleep and wake up throughout the night. You are frequently tired. You start to take regular naps after work. You sleep for hours on the weekend. You tell yourself and others that you are just fine. You will feel better after a few days off. You don’t.
It becomes harder and harder to stay focused on the task at hand. You worry about making a mistake at work. You worry about not being able to keep up. You know you should be more engaged at work. You are tired all the time. You used to love what you do. You just don’t feel capable anymore. You tell yourself and others that you are just fine. You will feel better after your vacation. You don’t.
Your stomach feels tied up in knots and your headaches are becoming more frequent. You are not as productive at work as you used to be. You are easily overwhelmed. You don’t think you add value to your workplace. You find yourself reaching for a glass of wine more than you used to. You tell yourself and others that you are just fine. People depend on you after all, and you really want to be helpful. You tell yourself you will feel better when it gets less busy at work. You don’t.
You don’t want anyone at work to know that you are struggling. You don’t want anyone to know that you can’t keep up. You feel ashamed and guilty. What will people think? What will people do? You tell yourself to just put one foot in front of the other. You tell yourself you can do this. You can’t.
A recent comprehensive research study commissioned by Workplace Strategies for Mental Health reported that one third of all working Canadians are feeling burned out. Some industries that showed burnout rates well above the national average include health care, transportation, education and childcare, and first responders. The World Health Organization defines burnout as chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed. It is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, a sense of feeling not as engaged and disconnected from your job and decreased job satisfaction.
In other words, burnout is an extended period of stress that feels like it can’t get better.
Burnout is not a mental illness, but it can negatively impact your mental health. It can affect your ability to manage your day-to-day responsibilities at work and at home. There are many causes of burnout at work. They include an unmanageable workload, unfair treatment at work, lack of communication and support from managers, unreasonable time pressures, and lack of role clarity to name a few.
Compassion fatigue and moral distress are two other terms that are frequently spoken about when we talk about burnout, however they are not the same. Compassion fatigue is a type of stress that results from helping or wanting to help others in distress. Moral distress is a type of stress that occurs when we can’t do what we know is right in each situation. If these become chronic in the workplace both can lead to burnout.
What can you do if you feel you are burned out? The first step is recognizing and admitting that you are struggling. Acknowledging burnout takes courage and vulnerability but it can open new conversations, deepen relationships, and put you back in control of what’s going on. Sometimes it can help to talk to someone you trust like a friend, a family member, therapist, or work colleague. You might need to speak with a health care professional. Sometimes, but not always, you may need to take some time off work.
Finding a creative outlet, spending time in nature, meditation, exercise, and connecting with others are a few things that may help you cope with symptoms of burnout. Taking time to think about what makes you feel alive and what environments empower you to do your best work can help you reimagine what might be possible for you. Thinking and acting in new ways including setting healthy boundaries and learning how to say no can help you manage stress. You can recover from burnout with time but it’s important to understand that it is not just up to you.
Workers need to be supported in their wellbeing. As Jennifer Moss writes in her article titled Rethinking Burnout: When Self Care is Not the Cure in the American Journal of Health Promotion, focusing only on self-care “minimizes the problem for employees, [and] also reduces accountability for employers”. Employers must implement practices that support and promote psychological health and safety in the workplace. Employers must create a culture of prevention and shared responsibility when it comes to burnout. Identifying and resolving root causes of stress and burnout at work will contribute to a thriving workplace that supports the whole person. Workers also need to advocate for better workplace mental health. Workers can participate on health and safety committees, understand coworkers needs, and connect with leaders who are willing to listen.
Collectively, we also have a responsibility to recognize and change unjust structures that oppress people. As Vicki Reynolds writes in her article titled Resisting Burnout with Justice Doing, “self-care is not enough to offset the issues of poverty, violence and basic dignity people struggle with”. Industries that comprise of essential workers have burnout rates above the national average of 35 percent. In addition, many essential workers do not have access to paid sick leave, health-care coverage, and access to employee assistance plans. During the COVID-19 pandemic, essential workers including racialized, working-class migrant communities were disproportionately affected as demonstrated by explosive transmission of the virus in factories and warehouses. The absence of clear protocols on occupational health and safety procedures in many workplaces contributes to the overwhelming stress many essential workers experience putting many at risk of burnout.
At the OHC we are committed to ensuring that worker’s health is always our main priority. On our website you will find information sheets for essential workers in specific industries on COVID-19 protocols, resources on topics such as stress/violence, respectful workplaces, and bullying at work. We also provide customized workshops on psychological health and safety and related topics to ensure that workplaces have the supports needed to protect workers from burnout.