Job burnout is a pervasive condition that can be difficult to treat.
Most of us don’t have the luxury of quitting our jobs so that we can recover.
Fortunately, there are many other ways that job burnout can be mitigated and avoided, while restoring a healthier work–life balance.
In this post, we’ll explore the following:
- Strategies to achieve work–life balance
- Ways to protect against job burnout
- Strategies HR can use to protect employees from developing burnout
We’ll also look closely at compassion fatigue experienced by healthcare professionals, another form of burnout.
With the information in this post, you’ll be well armed in protecting yourself and your clients from burnout. So, make a cup of tea, whip out your notebook, and let’s get started.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free. These science-based exercises will equip you and those you work with, with tools to manage stress better and find a healthier balance in your life.
This Article Contains:
- 3 Warning Signs of Job Burnout
- 4 Tips for Dealing With Job Burnout
- 6 Ways to Foster a Healthier Work–Life Balance
- Best Ideas & Initiatives for HR Professionals
- Working From Home: 5 Self-Care Activities to Prevent Burnout
- Compassion Fatigue in Social Work & Helping Professions
- 8 Strategies & Ideas for University Students
- PositivePsychology.com’s Burnout Prevention Tools
- A Take-Home Message
3 Warning Signs of Job Burnout
Burnout is very common. Almost 8 out of every 10 people report that they have experienced burnout of varying severity (Gallup, 2020). The World Health Organization recognizes job burnout as a form of job-related stress that is characterized by the following three symptoms:
- Emotional exhaustion:
For example, your client might complain of feeling extremely tired, having a short temper or feeling irritable, being easily upset or moved to tears, and feeling anxious.
- Increased negative feelings about work:
For example, your client might report they don’t enjoy work anymore, they’re not motivated or excited about new work projects, dislike their work colleagues, and feel unwilling to help colleagues.
They might express feelings of cynicism about work (e.g., “What’s the point anyway?”) and become increasingly less involved and more distant from work and work-related activities.
- Feeling incompetent and inefficient:
For example, clients might question their ability to get work done, make decisions, and take responsibility. They might report feeling incompetent or unsuited for the job.
They might describe instances where projects cannot be delivered in the desired condition by a particular deadline and, as a result, describe themselves as incompetent.
These three symptoms should be present for an assessment of burnout. Additionally, since job burnout is linked to the workplace, the source of symptoms and the domain in which they’re experienced should be work related.
4 Tips for Dealing With Job Burnout
Some of the reasons why job burnout is difficult to treat are the following:
- Most people can’t afford to isolate and remove the source of the job burnout, since this would result in them leaving their work.
- It develops slowly and is often unnoticed until it’s too late.
When you suspect burnout, it’s important to take a critical look at your client’s workplace and their workplace behavior.
- Does your client continue working after hours?
- Are they overburdened with their work responsibilities?
- Is there clear communication at work?
- Does your client have time to recuperate after work?
Experts on job burnout recommend that small daily efforts are more effective than waiting for an annual vacation or even the weekend (Derks & Bakker, 2014; Oerlemans & Bakker, 2014).
Some examples of daily work recovery efforts include:
- Actively disengaging from work by not working after hours, not reading work messages, and turning off work smartphones and laptops.
- Participating in activities that promote physical and mental health, such as regular exercise, engaging in hobbies, and getting enough sleep.
- Enjoying low-resource activities, such as napping.
- Strengthening social relationships, such as seeing friends and family.
These activities protect your client from the negative effects of work-related stress and also help them recharge regularly so they are prepared for the typical challenges associated with work.
A good analogy is to think of work and work-related stress as a marathon. There is little point in sprinting from one mile to the next because you won’t be able to maintain that speed for the entire distance.
Instead, take regular breaks to recharge so that you can comfortably travel from one mile to the next, and finish the marathon feeling happy rather than completely exhausted. The recharge is a necessary part of training for the next marathon.
However, that being said, if your client’s job burnout is very severe and threatens their health, then it is worthwhile considering resignation or a leave of absence, and/or checking into a clinic.
6 Ways to Foster a Healthier Work–Life Balance
Regularly engaging in the activities like the ones listed above can prevent burnout (Derks & Bakker, 2014; Oerlemans & Bakker, 2014).
These activities contribute to a sense of having a work–life balance. But what does work–life balance mean? One accepted definition suggests that work–life balance is achieved when individuals have enough time, energy, and commitment to take part in home-life or family-life activities (Kalliath & Brough, 2008).
From this definition, there are three components needed for work–life balance:
It’s important to note that two of these three resources are finite: time and energy. In other words, if your client works overtime, even for only an hour, they will have one fewer hour and less energy available for their personal life. To make up the deficit, they will have to sacrifice time from somewhere else – maybe they can’t go for a run, have to sleep less, or are forced to cancel an appointment.
It’s easier to prioritize work–life balance once your client recognizes that time and energy are finite.
Other strategies your client can use include the following:
- Make the effort every day to disengage from work. At the end of the workday, log off and do not engage in any more work-related activities. This includes not checking work emails, work phone, or reading work messages.
- In the same vein, your client should avoid linking their work email and phone number to their smartwatches that display incoming messages. This will prevent your client from being tempted to read work-related messages after hours.
- Your client must make it clear to colleagues and managers that they are unavailable after hours. If your client is uncomfortable saying they’re unavailable, then it could be communicated indirectly. For example, add a postscript to your email signature stating that a response can be expected during normal working hours.
- Schedule downtime for low-resource activities. For example, put aside the time to nap or lie down on the couch.
- Use a calendar to schedule time for enjoyable activities, like physical activity, social events, and so forth. For example, if your client is an avid runner but complains that they never have time to run, encourage them to schedule running time in their calendar. If the activity is scheduled and planned for, then this can help your client stick to it.
- Track their mood and energy levels for a few days, and draw attention to how their thoughts and feelings might be linked to the number of hours slept. If your client realizes how much better they feel after a full night’s sleep, then they will prioritize this time.
Best Ideas & Initiatives for HR Professionals
So far, we’ve looked at how employees can buttress themselves against burnout. But how can HR practitioners contribute to a healthy work environment?
Gallup (2020) reports that the top five contributors to burnout are:
- Unfair treatment at work
- Poor communication
- Unsupportive managers
- Unrealistic time pressure
- Unmanageable workload
Knowing these are the primary causes of job burnout, here is a list of curated recommendations (Gallup, 2020):
- Use performance-based metrics to provide feedback to employees. These metrics should be linked to clear deadlines and deliverables, for example, completing professional development training or a prototype of a product by a particular date.
With concrete deadlines like these, employees know exactly what they need to do to satisfy the requirements of their job. For more on metrics, read this article about job satisfaction surveys.
- Promote physical activity at work. Arrange a free yoga or Pilates class once per week, create teams for a local sport, and incentivize physical health.
- Foster a workplace environment that encourages productivity. Employees need uninterrupted time and space to work to achieve a state of deep work (Nakamura & Csikszentmihalyi, 2014; Newport, 2016). A quiet work environment fosters this work state.
HR professionals should encourage managers to schedule meetings in a specific period, such as the morning, rather than spread out throughout the day or week.
- Other ergonomic changes can improve employee productivity. Examples include good lighting in the office, earphones with a microphone for calls, and a space for lunch so that employees do not eat at their desks.
- Give employees autonomy to choose which tasks to concentrate on and let them contribute to estimating the amount of time that a task will take.
- Promote activities that allow for collaboration and provide the space and time for these activities. An example would be a ‘brainstorm room’ where teams can meet to brainstorm new ideas in an informal, relaxed environment.
- Regularly track employees’ moods. For example, send a single-item questionnaire at the end of every week to each employee to monitor their mental health and mood. Use either a mood tracker or one of these burnout tests and questionnaires.
- Flexible hours and conditions that allow employees to attend to household responsibilities will help employees find suitable time to be productive. Allow employees to take a monthly personal day separate from annual leave. Personal days help employees run household errands that would normally eat into their weekends and allow them to get an extra recharge if needed.
Working From Home: 5 Self-Care Activities to Prevent Burnout
Working from home has its advantages because it provides more time and flexibility for household chores and childcare; however, on the flip side, it’s also very easy to spiral into a never-ending work cycle.
To guide your clients through the challenges of working from home, suggest the following tips:
1. Share responsibilities
The first tip to prevent job burnout while working from home is to share the responsibilities. Existing research has consistently shown that women experience more pressure to be responsible for household and childcare activities, even if both partners are employed (Hayes, Priestley, Ishmakhametov, & Ray, 2020). Clients must discuss their work responsibilities and decide how responsibilities will be shared evenly.
The second tip is to end the workday. When working at home, it’s easy to take so many breaks that the workday is lengthened. Alternatively, your client doesn’t take any breaks and never seems to stop working. Both situations are untenable.
Although working from home allows your client to work during non-office hours, they shouldn’t do so at the cost of other domains. To facilitate better work habits, clients should keep to a regular work schedule of a reasonable length, and then at the end of that schedule, end their workday and disengage.
If it helps, clients can put their work schedule in their calendars or diaries and communicate these hours to their colleagues.
The third tip is to move regularly. It’s easy to find that two, four, or six hours have passed and you haven’t moved from your computer. Exercise can negate the negative effect of work-related stress and is an easy measure to implement (Dyrbye, Satele, & Shanafelt, 2017; Wolf & Rosenstock, 2017).
Here are some simple ways to implement exercise when working from home:
- Make a point of stretching every hour or going for a walk around the block.
- Schedule regular exercise sessions; for example, go for a run three times a week or meet a friend at the gym.
- Complete this seven-minute exercise challenge every morning. You’ll be done before your coffee machine finishes percolating.
- Find a YouTube channel with fun exercises like this one.
The fourth tip is to get enough sleep. Screen time before bed can prevent good-quality sleep, so it’s best to avoid checking smartphones and emails before bedtime (Lanaj, Johnson, & Barnes, 2014). For more on this, our sleep hygiene article is a highly recommended read.
The final tip is to reach out to colleagues and friends regularly. Even though you might work from home, that doesn’t mean you can’t contact friends and colleagues regularly.
Social interactions help prevent burnout and improve job satisfaction by increasing motivation, stimulation, and relaxation (Eliacin et al., 2018). Even a quick 15-minute coffee break using Zoom or a regular accountability group is beneficial.
Compassion Fatigue in Social Work & Helping Professions
Professionals who work in health and caring industries are extremely vulnerable to a particular type of burnout called ‘compassion fatigue.’
This syndrome is characterized by a reduced experience of compassion and empathy for patients and results from continuous re-exposure to emotionally exhausting experiences, vivid imagery, and reliving of traumatic events through therapy with clients (Figley, 2002; Bride, Radey, & Figley, 2007).
Health professionals might experience symptoms akin to post-traumatic stress disorder; this is why compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress (Bride et al., 2007).
The prevalence of compassion fatigue among nurses is well documented (Figley, 1995; Joinson, 1992; Yoder, 2010). Although the first documented instance of burnout was noticed among clinicians in the 1970s, compassion fatigue was first described among nurses (Freudenberger, 1974; Joinson, 1992).
Furthermore, the term ‘secondary traumatic stress’ was first used to describe compassion fatigue among social workers (Bride et al., 2007).
Both concepts are similar, but some researchers argue that the primary difference is that burnout is characterized by a feeling of not meeting job demands and deadlines, whereas compassion fatigue is characterized by despair and guilt at not being able to prevent patients’ pain and distress (Yoder, 2010).
Treating compassion fatigue among health professionals is important because professional judgment and decision-making abilities are vulnerable to compassion fatigue. For example, social workers who are experiencing compassion fatigue are more likely to make poor professional decisions, including misdiagnosis, and in extreme cases might be at risk of abusing their client (Bride et al., 2007).
Recovering from compassion fatigue follows a similar strategy to more typical burnout (Pfifferling & Gilley, 2000), and the same strategies that have been described earlier can also be implemented.
One of the biggest challenges in healthcare, however, is making time for oneself, and the importance of self-care must be stressed. If your client is a healthcare worker, then you might find that they struggle to prioritize time for themselves (Pfifferling & Gilley, 2000).
Without adequate self-care, healthcare professionals cannot provide the quality of care needed to treat their patients effectively.
8 Strategies & Ideas for University Students
Burnout is very prevalent among college students and may persist even long after they have completed college (IsHak et al., 2013).
In some instances, structural changes to the program can help provide better support (Dunn, Iglewicz, & Moutier, 2008).
- Creating a mentoring program where students are paired with mentors
- Teaching coping strategies to help develop resilience in the workplace and problem solving
- Teaching time management strategies
- Promoting mental health and physical health programs and activities
Although most of these solutions are structural changes that are outside of students’ control, a variation of these can be implemented.
- Students can approach staff/faculty or graduate students to look for a mentor. If they can’t find an academic mentor, then a ‘life mentor,’ such as a friend at church, could also help.
- Students can form study groups for support with time management and workload.
- Activities that promote physical and mental health are extremely important. Getting enough sleep, doing regular exercise, and eating healthily are activities that students can control directly and should be promoted.
- Finally, making time to see friends and family will help protect students from burnout. It might seem counterintuitive to make time to socialize rather than study, but strengthening social relationships and developing social support networks goes a long way to preventing burnout.
PositivePsychology.com’s Burnout Prevention Tools
PositivePsychology.com provides several tools that can be used in a variety of situations, including preventing burnout. The list below gives you an idea of some of the available tools.
The Brief Needs Check-In tool is handy for clients to use as a ‘stress thermometer.’ Clients learn how to regularly assess their needs, thoughts, and feelings, and through reflection, determine which of their needs are neglected.
For a more in-depth examination of stress levels, consider using the Stress Diary. With this tool, clients record their daily stress levels and then document a stressful event that occurred and how they tackled it. Through regular reflection, clients learn to identify their stressors and coping mechanisms.
Healthy coping mechanisms are the best tools your clients can use to prevent burnout. With the Adaptive and Non-Adaptive Coping Thoughts tool, clients learn different coping techniques and reflect on how non-adaptive coping thoughts hindered rather than helped their situation.
17 Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises – If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others manage stress without spending hours on research and session prep, this collection contains 17 validated stress management tools for practitioners. Use them to help others identify signs of burnout and create more balance in their lives.
A Take-Home Message
Prevention is always better than seeking a cure, and recovering from burnout is a difficult, and sometimes continuous, balancing act.
In the process, your client will go through good patches and bad patches. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to prevent your client from ever experiencing work-related stress again – and to be honest, that’s not the point of this post.
If there is one thing you can do, it is to be vigilant for the signs and help your clients protect themselves from burnout by encouraging the following:
- Developing self-knowledge about how their behavior contributes to work-related stress
- Recognizing how small changes can make big differences
- Appreciating the importance of prioritizing their personal time and needs
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Stress & Burnout Prevention Exercises (PDF) for free.
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