Employee burnout has been a common problem in the workplace for decades; however, the coronavirus health crisis has deepened the burden. Even with most employees working remotely, burnout remains an ever-increasing challenge in the “new normal” of work. As a result, employee wellbeing has become a major concern for business owners in the wake of the global pandemic.

The World Health Organization in 2019 included workplace burnout in the International Classification of Diseases, defining it as a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. And the year 2020 has been described as one of the most stressful years for businesses, increasing the global burden of employee burnout.

According to Monster, a global employment platform, about 69 percent of remote workers said they experienced burnout symptoms in a survey conducted in July last year. This is up from 20 percent from a similar survey two months earlier. Another survey by Flexijobs revealed that employees are now over three times more likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic.

These statistics are not surprising, as many employees are now having to deal with pay cuts, furloughs, and increasing job demands by business owners who want to recover quickly from the financial devastation of the lockdown.

In addition to these concerns, remote workers find juggling work in the home office and the demands of their private lives a major source of stress. Employees who work on-site also experience the anxiety of contracting the infection in the workplace, in addition to dealing with pandemic stress.

Workplace burnout, while often overlooked, impairs the growth of any business. Poor employee wellbeing may lead to physical and mental health problems down the line, which places more strain on workplace productivity and costs. Therefore, the challenge for business owners and HR professionals is to pivot workplace wellness strategies to improve employee wellbeing and limit burnout. Some of these strategies include:

Workplace Burnout: Here’s What’s Causing It (And How To Avoid It)

Are you exhausted but unable to sleep at night? Do you wake up feeling cynical and unmotivated to start the day? Have you turned to food, or other substances to cope with how you feel?

If this sounds close to home, it is possible that you are experiencing burnout.

That feeling that you can’t keep moving forward, but don’t know what else to do or how to get out of it. All you want to do is sleep and wake up when things are better.

You aren’t alone in this. A Gallup study found that 23% of people in the workforce experience burnout very often or always, and an additional 44% feel burnt out sometimes. All this means that nearly two-thirds of employees are burnt out on the job.

With burnout on the rise, studies are beginning to pour in around the detrimental impact it has on a person in the long term. Burnout triggers a full physical response such as triggers high blood pressure, vulnerability to illness and insomnia as common symptoms. Nonetheless, the impact can remain even after someone recovers.

Burnout has been found to actually alter the neural circuits in your brain causing a vicious cycle of long term neurological dysfunction. This means that your brain physically changes after a burnout, and leaves you operating often from a completely different mind, one that can be less sharp, focused or innovative in the future. So when you’re up those late night hours, pushing through, ask yourself: are you okay with trading in today’s brain for tomorrow’s fogginess?

Why Burnout Is Hitting Women the Hardest

Here’s why the phenomenon is on the rise across industries and why women bear the brunt of it.

It’s the end of a long workday. You just got home, and right when you collapse onto the couch to unwind, you look around and see dirty dishes in the sink and the mess of kid's toys on the floor. You know you should do something about it, but the thought of lifting another finger sends you into a spiral.

If that sounds like you, you might be experiencing “burnout,” and you’re not the only one.

This phenomenon is spreading quickly, and it’s hitting women harder than anyone else.

Normalizing Burnout

The World Health Organization recently defined the term “burnout” as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

But beyond the unmanaged stress, there is the insidious problem of overwork, increasing employer expectations, and the rise of “hustle culture” that is making us all feel inferior.

All of these factors make it that much harder to deal with the everyday sprints of modern day life. Not only that, but burnout contributes to huge health risks in our society, and it costs the U.S. approximately $315 billion per year, according to the Harvard Business Review.

Burnout hurts families, employees, and companies, and it will only continue to get worse unless we take a hard look at why this is becoming an issue for so many of us.

While burnout is on the rise, the symptoms of the phenomenon are often hard to define in a concrete way. The Mayo Clinic says to look out for things like increased cynicism at work, disillusionment, overuse of substances, and changes in sleep habits.

Women Get the Brunt of It

Work-life “imbalance” is enough to cause anyone stress, but I argue the phenomenon of burnout is affecting women disproportionately for three reasons.

First, women are still fighting for equal treatment at work. Yes, we’ve come a long way in workplace equality, but there are still large disparities in opportunity and pay – factors that make it all the more difficult for a woman to say no to projects, for fear of being overlooked or undermined.

Feeling invisible presents another contributing factor to women’s burnout. Research has demonstrated that women get less credit for workplace ideas and contributions than men. And if that doesn’t make a person want to spit nails, what does? With many more women than men in low-authority roles, no wonder there’s cynicism and frustration — as a woman, your words and actions simply don’t matter.

Lastly, women are still saddled with much of the physical and emotional labor of running households. Make no mistake that this household effort, while often invisible and frustratingly hard to measure, is emotionally and physically taxing.

Suffice to say, burnout needs to be taken seriously, and preventing it from happening is key to long term health. Here are three of the top causes of burnout and methods to avoid them from impacting your life.

1. Lack of Control.

Do you have any control over what’s on deck with your work schedule, projects or the amount of work that you manage at a given time? If you are shaking your head no, chances are you are in an environment that doesn’t allow freedom at work, or is giving you so much work that your performance is being stifled. When you feel a constant inability to make decisions around your workload, burnout may loom in the distance.

Having little control over your job hinders your ability to manage work-related stress that. Moreover, a study from Indiana University found that people with high-stress jobs that had a lack of control over their workflow died younger and were less healthy than people who found freedom and flexibility in their careers. It sounds like common sense, but employers are not catching on. The data doesn’t lie: being overworked is literally killing you.

Solution: Focus on the things you can control. This starts with doing an evaluation of all the things you feel are out of your control (working hours, break times, projects) and then focus on the things you can, in fact, control. Do you actually have to check your email every minute? Question these sorts of work habits when considering how important it is to give your mind a rest. Do you have too many notifications buzzing on your phone? When you are in the middle of completing a task, it’s your decision whether you pick up the incoming phone call or reply to that never ending text group. If your boss hands you a new project, you have the right to ask your boss to help you prioritize your workload.

The conversation can sound like, “Can you help me prioritize these projects for a moment? Here’s what I’m currently working on, and here is what I have pending on deck. Here’s how long X will take me, here’s how long Y would take me. Should I make any workflow changes to honor your priorities?” Boom.

2. Dysfunctional workplace dynamics.

When you are surrounded by dysfunction, you are going to eventually feel pretty dysfunctional yourself. Toxicity eventually becomes contagious. In fact, half of employees have left their jobs to get away from a bad manager, and studies have found that a bad boss increases your risk for clinical depression. If your desk is right next to that office bully, or your boss is standing over your shoulder micromanaging every move you make, your stress levels are going to skyrocket.

In the event your work with a team that tends to vent about their issues, victimize themselves when things go wrong or whine and complain all day, it is much harder to stay positive and motivated yourself. A 1950’s study found that your decisions and beliefs are formed based on the thoughts of those around you. After all, you tend to buy into what the people around you perceive to be true. So, if you are surrounded by a group of negative Nancy’s, it’s going to be pretty tough not to fall into their trap.

In fact, their emotional negativity could be getting you physically sick. Research shows that negative brain activity leads to a weakened immune system, which can lead to serious illnesses, such as heart attack or stroke.

Solution: Take an inventory of the people in your life. Write down all the names of those you interact with most and then consider if they lift you up or drag you down. When you read their name on the list ask yourself: Do I get excited or anxious when their name pops up on my phone with a call or text? This will help you become aware of who feels unhealthy for you, allowing you to set limits.

When a complainer starts venting, try to transition the conversation from what is wrong, to how it can be fixed. Ask them if they need help coming up with solutions for the problem. If they continue to wallow in their negativity, set a time limit and then politely excuse yourself from the conversation. Consider adding more positive people into your life, like a mentor who can help direct you towards professional and personal growth.

3. Extremes of Imbalance.

When a job begins to feel chaotic, or on the flip side, monotonous, the ability to remain focused can also drain your energy levels. While people associate burnout with high stress and long hours, know that a monotonous job is just as dangerous. In fact, boredom at work has been found to result in disconnection, decreased productivity and higher stress.

Any extreme in job demands— too many or lack thereof— can also result in work-life imbalance. Your time in the office is impeding your personal connections, and reaping havoc on your health.

Solution: Bring balance back into your life.

Tackle the most important task of the day first. Whether the task is a workplace presentation, or getting a doctor’s appointment set up. The majority of the population’s productivity is highest in the mid-morning hours, so considering carving this time out for that top task.

Establish little goals and rewards. With both monotony and chaos, small rewards will help give you the motivation to keep going. Allow these sweet moments of joy to be a reminder of why you are working.

Keep a gratitude list. At the end of each workday jot down three things you are grateful for. Counting your blessings isn’t simply a “woo-woo” mindset shift, it actually helps improve cardiovascular health and makes you more resilient to stress. Take it seriously.

Accept that there is no such thing as “perfection” when it comes to balancing your life. You will teeter and totter, but it’s all about being aware and course-correcting efficiently. Accept that some days will be all about work, but then some days must be all about rest, family and fun.

Give yourself a time period to implement these shifts, and if things haven’t improved it might be time to look for a new job. But, until then, commit to taking responsibility for your happiness and your health.

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