Feeling extra tired recently? Having trouble concentrating or finding motivation to work hard?

Or have you noticed an employee’s performance dropping after a busy period?

While it might just be a temporary fatigue, these scenarios can soon turn into something much worse. A more insidious, harmful form of exhaustion, burnout is a condition that affects workers in every type of organisation.

And taking a day off work won’t be enough to fix it.

People of all employment types are prone to burnout, which is why it's important to spot it early and take action. But what exactly is it? And how do you avoid burnout?

Defining burnout

Burnout? Isn’t that just a dramatic way of saying you’re tired?

Not quite - it’s a bit more than that.

Burnout is a state of severe mental and physical exhaustion that stops people thriving at work and enjoying life.

Occupational Burnout, as it’s called by the World Health Organization, is defined as:

“...a collection of issues from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised 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
3) reduced professional efficacy”

The founder of social media app Buffer, Joel Gascoigne, wrote about his experiences burning out in this blog post. Joel says the feeling hit him rather suddenly after a period of intense work:

"I lost motivation. I just didn’t care. I knew I cared deeply, but I had nothing left. I couldn’t get up in the morning. I felt very sensitive and emotional. It was like anything could set me off, and make me well up. I cried a lot, by myself and with people close to me.”

It’s clearly a mental and physical health issue that can sneak up on you unexpectedly. In periods of high stress, even if you’re enjoying yourself, you’re not necessarily operating in a healthy way. The problem with running on adrenaline is that you don’t always realise you’re doing it:

"As soon as the adrenaline subsided my body, and mind, suddenly realised everything I’d gone through. That’s when the burnout really hit me. The adrenaline had been masking things.”

We’re all capable of burning the candle at both ends without realising how much damage we’re doing to ourselves. So it’s important to prevent burnout happening, rather than try to cure it.

The main symptoms of burnout

Regularly pushing your body to its stress response (with lots of cortisol and adrenaline running through your system) is going to cause problems not just physically, but also for your mind.

People who experience burnout will usually end up with one or more of the following symptoms.

Mental health symptoms can include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Increased anxiety
  • Depression
  • Increased tendency towards procrastination
  • Distancing from loved ones and family members

Physical symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Problems sleeping
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Headaches and migraines
  • Gastrointestinal and respiratory issues
  • Musculoskeletal disorders, such as sprains, strains, back pain, and hernia

Having one or more of these issues doesn’t necessarily indicate job burnout, but if they’re occurring at the same time as increased levels of stress, it shows that there could definitely be a link.

What happens to companies when employees get burnt out?

The effects of burnout can be wide-ranging and harmful if even a few people get burnout.

A burnt out workforce will see its performance drop significantly. Employees will regularly feel overwhelmed, undervalued and disconnected. Energy levels will fall, and sickness absence levels will go up. Eventually, people will start to leave, and the company’s status as an attractive workplace will start to evaporate.

The causes of burnout

Burnout isn’t caused by a short-term period of exertion. It’s the cumulative effect of repeated stressors pushing people to their limits, over and over again.

The sorts of behaviours that keep people in this high-stress state can include:

  • Working too many hours per week
  • Taking work home with them regularly
  • High-pressure responsibilities
  • Not taking annual leave
  • Not enough variety in their work
  • Not enough self-care and time to themselves
  • Unhealthy life habits (too much caffeine, alcohol, junk food, disrupted sleep habits etc.)

How to avoid burnout

When you’re wrapped up in exciting work projects, or are under lots of pressure in a busy environment, it’s easy to fall into bad habits and run yourself down. That might mean overdoing it on the junk food, alcohol, or electronic distractions.

This kind of thing can lead to a negative cycle - getting burnt out leads to not relaxing and getting enough sleep, meaning we’re less effective at work, so we’re more prone to getting snowed under with workload, and want to escape with unhealthy indulgences.

The best solution is some proper time away from it all.

For many people, it can involve time away from screens, getting out into nature, and slowing down. Spending good time with friends has to be high on the agenda, and some time doing absolutely nothing does a lot of good, too.

A weekend off won’t be enough. You need to spend a significant amount of time away from your major source of stress. That might mean taking a holiday, or it might even require finding a new job.

As well as these main remedies, there are a few specific tactics for avoiding and overcoming burnout depending on your type of work.

For employees

Make sure you use your full holiday entitlement! Plan it out through the year and don’t leave it all 'til December. The odd day off to relax (rather than go on adventurous trips) will do wonders for your wellness and mental health.

If you're feeling overwhelmed, talk about it. Talk to your boss, partner, career coach - anyone that might offer some helpful advice or just a sympathetic ear. Getting out of your own head is key to understanding what to do next.

You might end up realising what it is about work that’s running you ragged. The answer could be in a different role or department. Or it could be an adjustment to your working lifestyle, like moving to a new office or trying remote work. Perhaps even a four-day work week. Whatever it is, you can come back from your break refreshed and ready to ask your manager to help change things for the better.

For company owners and managers

Taking time off is just as important for your well-being as your employees’ – so lead by example.

You need to get used to handing over control of parts of your business when you're away, and trust your employees to make the right decisions. In the words of our founder, Gary Bury:

“Trust people to make decisions in your absence. When I go away I always say to the team, ‘The worst decision is no decision. Make a choice and go with it. I'll back you up even if I’d have chosen differently.’ The point is, I’m away, and I accept what happens in my absence.”

Leaving your work email alone for a full day might seem scary, but if you give one or two key contacts an emergency phone number to reach you on, they should know to leave you alone unless it's urgent.

You also need to make sure everyone on your team is taking sufficient time off. Check they're using all their holiday allowance; no one should be going months on end where they're working long hours with with no time off. People need work-life balance – they have to rest.

You can keep an eye on how your company’s doing using surveys like the Maslach Burnout Inventory, or even better, The Burnout Board from Timetastic.

For freelancers

Take time off more seriously. Track leave like you did when you were employed, and make sure you take at least 4 weeks a year off. The more rested you are, the better work you’ll do, which means clients are happier, and you’ll get more referrals. No matter what the LinkedIn gurus say, waking up at 5am every day to ‘get your hustle on’ just isn’t sustainable.

Preventing burnout is a shared responsibility

The responsibility for managing workplace burnout is shared between workers and the organisation they’re a part of.

If you’re a company leader, avoiding burnout is all about spotting the warning signs early, and building a healthy work environment for everyone. Set boundaries sensibly, check-in regularly, and don’t push people to their limits more than once in a while.

Employers need to help their employees thrive by giving them a sensible and varied workload, recognising achievements, and fostering social connections. Providing health care options and generous leave allowance is also important.

On the other hand, employees do need to take some responsibility for their own stress management to stop things getting out of hand. Eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, and keeping a healthy day-to-day routine will all contribute to staying on track.

For your own sanity, the importance of getting enough of the four types of rest (physical, mental, social and spiritual) can't be overstated.

If you’re really feeling the long-term stress and exhaustion, maybe it’s time to consider a longer break. A sabbatical might be the right option, giving you time and space to relax, recover and rethink where your career is headed.

Catching the signs of burnout early, and acting accordingly, will do you the world of good in your home life and professional life.