How to prevent, beat, or retreat from professional burnout
Work is boring. It’s tedious, repetitive, energy-sapping. You drag your feet, clock in at 9:01, check your emails a few dozen times a day, and itch for the clock to move. Then go through the whole routine again the next day.
Are you nodding your head?
Ideally, work should be more than just a means to a paycheck — it should be satisfying, productive, fulfilling, fun. (Or at least most of the above, most of the time.) Being bored for eight hours a day can lead to low confidence and self-image, physical issues such as stomachaches, and even anxiety and depression.
For some people, work is their calling; for others it’s something they do for a living and more or less enjoy. Surprisingly, both types are susceptible to boredom, or its more intense and debilitating cousin, professional burnout.
Devora is a case in point. She was passionate about the organization she worked for, and that gave her drive and enthusiasm for the first few months she served as a fundraiser.
“I worked from home, calling potential donors and basically schnorrering,” she says with a rueful laugh. “The job didn’t suit me, I didn’t enjoy asking for money — but I really identified with the organization and how much the community needed its services.”
Devora tried to ease the stress of the job by asking for a salary per hour, instead of getting commission from each donation. Her employers understood and accommodated this, but even so, she soon felt burned out.
“I’d make calls for hours and get absolutely nothing,” she shares. “Or people would get nasty, slam down the phone, insult the organization — or me. In a group environment, maybe I could’ve laughed it off, but I was working from home, and after a while it was just too hard.”
Eventually, Devora switched jobs. But burnout doesn’t necessarily need to lead to that.
Burnout is a word we toss around a lot.
“Ugh, more grading, I’m soo burned out!” a teacher complains. But she’s not burned out; she loves her job, her students, and preparing lessons. She just hates grading finals.
Chronic workplace boredom or severe professional burnout is more all-encompassing. Some indicators are feelings of anxiety or depression while at work or while thinking about work, and a rise in complaints about all aspects of the job.
“Feelings of inadequacy or resentment, a chronic lack of enthusiasm, lack of concentration, or constantly leaving tasks half-finished all indicate that something’s not going well,” says Karen Barron, a psychotherapist who practices in Ramat Beit Shemesh.
In short, professional burnout is a constant negative feeling toward your job. It’s dreading going to work, and counting the hours until you get to leave.
“It got to the point that I hated the job,” Devora says. “I’d sit by the phone, calling potential donors, and dread hearing the busy signal — but even more than that, I dreaded that someone might actually pick up the phone.”
There are three factors involved in clinically defining the symptom of burnout, according to Michael Leiter, PhD, a professor of psychology and widely published author on work engagement and professional burnout. They are: 1) exhaustion, 2) cynicism or disconnect, and 3) low efficacy or feelings of ineffectiveness in one’s role.
“The opposite of these three feelings would be high energy, involvement, and efficacy,” he writes in his book Banishing Burnout, coauthored by Christina Malsach. According to Leiter and Malsach, these feelings exist on a spectrum. The more positive feelings one has in these areas, the more engaged they are with their workplace and job. And if an employee is at the negative end of all three spectrums, it’s a classic case of workplace burnout.
The Path to Burnout
Anyone, anytime, can fall prey to burnout, but studies have suggested that men suffer from professional burnout more than women — and that burnout occurs most commonly during the winter.
Leiter gives four common pathways to workplace burnout. At its essence, he says, burnout is primarily caused by “a mismatch of people and work” — when someone’s job doesn’t match his skill set or personality. Picture a lawyer who just doesn’t have what it takes to fight cases in court. He might be highly knowledgeable, but he’d do so much better as a mediator, working to help people compromise. Or a teacher who’s passionate about her subject, but struggles in the classroom — perhaps she’d be more suited to private tutoring, or research work, or teaching adults.
Leiter describes the second pathway as “hitting the wall.” “One frequent burnout scenario occurs when idealistic new employees encounter rigid realities that govern their work life,” he writes. Entering a job with expectations of grateful clients or easy-to-resolve issues, they quickly lose their enthusiasm when they find themselves in unclear situations, or working hard with little or no appreciation.
Miri, who taught in a school in Brooklyn for several years before getting married and moving out of town, hit burnout after approximately two years. “My first year was tough, but that’s typical for a new teacher,” she says. “After that, I had one really good year. I connected with my students and discovered the joy of teaching. But then I wanted more.”
As a language arts teacher, Miri felt limited in terms of how much she could actually achieve. “I felt like I was teaching a subject, and not life,” she shares. “The girls were encouraged to look to their kodesh teachers as role models, and I wasn’t really making a difference. I was teaching facts, big deal.”
In Miri’s case, the burnout was exacerbated by the ongoing stress of dating (or not dating), and a complicated family dynamic. She considered leaving her job, but in the end, decided not to risk leaving what was essentially a good position. “I decided to just make it work where I was,” she says. “When I got married a year later, I left my job in any case.”
A third path to burnout is described, in Leiter’s words, as “hitting the ceiling.” This is a typical cause for burnout in more senior employees. It’s natural to want to grow in your field, attain promotion, and advance your career — and painful when all this doesn’t happen. “Watching others achieve the few opportunities for advancement can engender cynicism and discouragement,” Leiter points out.
Sari, an ex-employee of a large clothing store in London, mentioned this factor as one of the causes of her work burnout, and her eventual decision to quit her job.
“I enjoyed the job at first,” she says. “But then time passed, and I realized that with all my experience and hard work, I wasn’t moving forward from my original position like others were. Without gratitude or acknowledgment from the boss, I lost all my job satisfaction. It felt like I was working for no reason.”
Last on Leiter’s list is an “energy-sapping environment” — when, although the job and career path might be excellent, the people around are difficult to communicate with, or worse, are outright disrespectful or even abusive. A challenging working environment can include managers and colleagues as well as clients or customers, and is a strong cause behind burnout.
“Incivility and disrespect from other people at work have serious emotional consequences for employees,” Leiter says. “Much of their scarce energy is dissipated in office politics and vendettas rather than the core mission.”
This was the case with Rikki, who worked in a nursery in Lakewood for many years before finally switching jobs due to feelings of being misunderstood and mistreated.
“First, I was moved without warning to a parallel class,” she says, traces of resentment still lingering in her voice. “In my original position, I was part of a close-knit team and knew my job well. After the switch, I was a third wheel. I didn’t have much to do, I couldn’t enjoy the camaraderie of working with people I’d known for a long time, and I ended up with the hard jobs that no one wanted, like taking recess duty every day. In the winter, that was tough.”
Sometimes, though, burnout is really about something deeper. “Someone presenting with work burnout is often not suffering in isolation,” Mrs. Barron says. “For example, a person who is being bullied in the workplace would often be able to stand up for themselves better if they had a healthy self-image. The fact they’re allowing themselves to be subject to the bullying indicates there are likely other factors at play.”
She recalls a client who complained bitterly about how unappreciated she was at work. She described how she was the “work victim,” the one who picked up everyone’s slack and was continuously taken advantage of at her workplace. But when they explored a little deeper, she realized that the tendency to take on everyone’s problems was actually present across the board in all her relationships — not just work. This wasn’t about burnout; it was about learning to set boundaries.
“In a classic case of burnout, a career coach can help,” Mrs. Barron says. “My clients are the ones who present with work problems, but the root of the burnout is really something much deeper.”
The ideal, of course, is to prevent burnout from happening in the first place. Leiter created a handy checklist to help identify problematic areas in your work life so you can deal with them before burnout hits.
Workload: A healthy workload should be manageable, interesting, and meaningful. If you’re finding yourself too bored, too overwhelmed, or disinterested in tasks — speak to your boss about adapting your workload accordingly.
Control: A key factor in job satisfaction is your participation in decisions regarding work. Having to manage a project where many factors are beyond your control, or dealing with tasks without taking part in the decision-making process, can lead to feelings of powerlessness and burnout. Pinpoint the issue and communicate with your supervisor to solve the problem.
Reward: Everyone feels good after a thank-you, and employees are no different. Feeling recognized, appreciated, and compensated appropriately for your work performance not only prevents burnout but energizes you to keep going. Additionally, positive feedback clues you in to what you’re doing right. If you’re not getting enough recognition or feedback from your boss, prompt a conversation. For instance, after you finish a project, you might ask, “What about this project worked well? What would you like to see replicated in future assignments?”
Community: Is your workplace a respectful, civil environment? Do you have team members and colleagues you can collaborate with? Teamwork and sense of community can make all the difference — even a tough job is bearable (or even fun!) with friends. Find a way to create friendships over lunch breaks or after work.
Fairness: Employers and administrators should conform to “open and honest processes for making consequential decisions,” says Leiter. Secrecy, unexplained decisions, or double standards with regard to policies all breed feelings of resentment and unfairness. Be open if your workplace doesn’t meet this expectation — you have a right to be treated fairly and honestly.
Values: Corporate values should be stated clearly and adhered to. When a company acts unfairly, unethically, or against their professed values, employees or clients can get hurt. Identify if feelings of burnout start with a conflict of values, because believing in what you’re doing is an essential ingredient of job satisfaction.
Pull Back from Burnout
What if it’s already too late, and you’re stuck in the throes of burnout? Is there any hope of rejuvenating your professional enthusiasm, or is the only choice to leave your job and seek fulfilment in another environment?
If you’re aware of the factors that brought on the burnout, you can confront them head-on by communicating with your supervisor or HR team to brainstorm solutions. Even if you’re feeling bored despite a nice job environment and fulfilling, well-suited work, you can still recapture positive feelings and find enthusiasm in work again.
There’s a wide range of options to try, maintains Rachel Montanez, a corporate coach. She offers five pointers:
- Get enough sleep. Yes, you read that correctly. Lack of sleep is very commonly a primary factor in workplace burnout. Getting the correct amount of sleep helps the decision-making process, and provides the emotional, mental, and physical strength needed to work accurately, efficiently, and productively. “Arianna Huffington [editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post] believes that we should be listing our sleep habits on our résumés,” she points out. “If you can’t seem to think outside of the box, it may be due to not consistently getting 7–9 hours of sleep each night.” (Well, maybe aim for six hours first.)
- Work on developing your EQ (emotional intelligence). Self-awareness and self-management can help a struggling employee not only pinpoint issues — but also improve them. “Thoughts like ‘this job is boring’ and ‘my director isn’t utilizing my skills’ are commonplace,” Montanez writes in one of her Forbes articles. “Depending on the cause of your boredom, developing your emotional awareness will help you be more assertive and motivated to implement changes so you’re not relying on senior leadership to fix things.”
- Set a 30-day challenge to inject new energy into your work life. Challenge yourself to do something concrete over 30 days, whether it’s to improve a workplace relationship, exceed your previous output in regular tasks, or research a way to develop your career further. Even a small change can pull you out of a boredom rut. For best results, share your challenge with a friend, and let yourself be cheered on.
- Make physical changes to your environment. Decorate the wall of your office space with pictures or mottos, bring in a couple of knickknacks, or play music through speakers or headphones. “Our environment can change our mood,” Montanez explains. “Try sprinkling colors like red, orange, yellow, or green in your office space as they evoke feelings of happiness.”
- Find meaning in what you do. Think about the impact of your work on other people. Do you bring benefit to customers, clients, or colleagues? “Engagement goes up when we spend time doing meaningful work,” Montanez says. Remember why you were excited to take this job, and try to tap into those feelings again.
Time to Move On
Sometimes, a letter of resignation is the only way to end burnout.
“If people aren’t working with you or even hearing you out, if the expectations are consistently too high, or if you’re feeling bullied in the workplace — then get out,” says Mrs. Barron. “Staying in a permanently toxic situation could have terrible long-term ramifications, and your health comes first.”
Even if the workplace environment isn’t unhealthy, the job itself might not be right for you, Mrs. Barron adds. “Self-awareness is so important. Learn about who you are and what you do well. Don’t drive yourself crazy in a position that’s not a good fit for you.”
She gives the example of a teacher who’s battling in the classroom for years, dreading each day, and finally comes to therapy because of severe stress and anxiety. “The workplace is toxic — but only for her,” Mrs. Barron says. “It could be a great school with fantastic administration. But the job is just not a great fit.”
When Rikki was at the Lakewood nursery, she got so burned out that she frequently arrived late and found excuses to skip work. Now, at her new job, she gets to work early. “That’s really saying something because I need to leave my house even earlier to get there on time,” she shares. “To me, that’s a sign that I made the right move.”
Dealing with professional burnout is difficult, but it can — and should — be a productive experience. Whether you take action to effect change within your current job, or choose to find a position that’s a better fit for you, the end results of burnout should be positive.
“Going through something like the loss of a job, career burnout, or career boredom can bring about opportunities for growth,” Montanez points out. Look at professional burnout as a signpost for change, and you’re well on your way to busting the boredom — and perhaps discovering how much more you can achieve.
Burnout & the Boss
While there’s plenty an employee can do to prevent burnout, there’s even more that an employer can do to create an environment that promotes positivity and productivity and maintains staff energy and enthusiasm. And without that top-down input, employees could struggle to put positive strategies of their own into place.
It’s in the best interests of the management team to prevent employees from becoming burned out at work. Leiter lists a range of physical, psychological, social, organizational, and performance-related consequences of professional burnout. They include hypertension, GI disorders, anxiety, depression, lowering of self-confidence, strained work relationships, increased absences, and stifled creativity. Clearly, burned-out employees don’t make for ideal productivity.
But even if a boss wants to avoid workplace boredom, he might miss the telltale signs, as an article in Forbes magazine highlights: Although employees surveyed were bored for over ten hours of their workweek, their managers estimated that they were only bored for six hours. This disconnect between an employee’s reality and his employer’s assumptions can create a fertile breeding ground for boredom and eventual burnout, says Montanez.
Leiter offers some strategies to design engaging workplaces. The first suggestion is to give employees tasks with clear, measurable outcomes, and to assess and give feedback on their performance, ensuring that feedback is mostly positive and encouraging, and negative feedback is only constructive (for example, to clarify what could be done better and explaining how). This empowers employees to improve their performance, and motivates them to achieve clearly defined outcomes.
Another pointer is to allow for shared control by developing participative decision-making processes such as a group vote regarding policies, or an open forum for making suggestions — and taking them seriously!
Raizel Borowski, director of Compuskills Training Center in Jerusalem, is passionate about this. “The days of employers acting as dictators are over,” she says. “Nowadays, an effective team leader will encourage employees to take initiative, make change, seek improvement. To use their brains, not just check off tasks like robots.”
With this approach, she asserts, there’s no room for boredom to develop. “My staff couldn’t get bored, because they’re thinking people,” she says. “They’ll look around, think of ideas to improve workflow, improve the organization, maximize efficiency. That’s the most important, because when the boring, repetitive tasks can be done by computer instead of manually, the employees are able to focus on the creative, empowering tasks that make them invested in their work — and don’t allow for burnout to creep in.”
Assuring meaningful and fair rewards for performance is another excellent way of making employees feel valued and appreciated.
Lastly, Leiter says, promote workplace respect, and ensure that HR policies are in line with management ideals and values.
“In my experience, it’s not the details of the job itself that make a difference to an employee’s enthusiasm, it’s the way they’re treated by their boss,” Sari says. “Now, I’m working under a supervisor who offers constant gratitude and recognition, as well as providing the opportunity to work toward promotion — and that makes all the difference.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 714)
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