The psychology of job burnout: Burnout symptoms & recovery

As a small business owner you’re responsible for ensuring that your employees don’t experience burnout at work.

You’re accountable for creating working conditions which do not place unnecessary stress on your staff and which help them feel motivated.

This is easier said than done. According to the Harvard Business Review, job burnout is reaching epidemic proportions in modern workplaces.

Causes of occupational burnout.

It’s a decades-old statistic, but still striking.

More heart attacks occur on Monday than any other day. Specifically, between the hours of 4:00 and 10:00 a.m.

The official medical reason given for the phenomenon is increased stress at the beginning of the work week. But if you ask me, that explanation is overly clinical. And dare I say, heartless.

Here’s a scenario/question for you.

Let’s say it’s Sunday evening. You’re approaching the end of a perfectly pleasant day, perhaps even an awesomely relaxing weekend.

Yet in a mere handful of hours, it’ll be another Monday. The start of another week.

How do you feel?

Recent research shows that many people feel like a kid at the end of summer break, longing for the time off to continue, unable to bear the thought of going back to work.

In a word…dread.

If this sounds familiar, you could be suffering from burnout. And you wouldn’t be alone.

Irene McConnell, Managing Director of Arielle Careers, a boutique personal branding consultancy, says that 30% of her clients cite burnout as the main reason for leaving their last employer.

Interestingly, McConnell also points out that job burnout hits SMB founders the hardest:

“My clients include SMB owners who seek a career change; they want a break from pressures of running their own business and crave a “normal” job. Over 80% of them report classic symptoms of job burnout.”

What exactly is job burnout?

David Ballard, head of the APA’s Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program, describes job burnout as:

“An extended period of time where the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors.”

According to Ballard, job burnout has three primary symptoms:

– Emotional Distance. You feel alienated from, and cynical toward, the people you interact with during your job: coworkers, clients, bosses…everyone. You’ve lost connection to what matters to you.

– Reduced personal accomplishment. You can’t perform and your confidence, sense of integrity and concentration are diminished. You complain versus taking positive action.

How does job burnout happen?

Some of the causes are obvious: long commutes, horrible bosses, unrealistic job expectations, and toxic corporate cultures.

Just to name a few.

But lest we sound like we’re complaining, another new study the University of Zurich revealed something far more intriguing.

Burnout happens when your job is mismatched with your personality.

I know what you’re thinking. What kind of a fool would take a job that doesn’t suit their personality?

Veronika Brandstätter, the Professor of Psychology who led the research, says it happens all the time:

“People can have perceived notions of themselves that don’t match up with their true, ‘unconscious needs’.”

In fact, the greater the mismatch, the more at risk we are of occupational burnout.

Picture an extrovert who winds up being a CPA, spending most of their working/waking hours in solitude.

Next, imagine an introvert who becomes a middle manager and spends most of their working/waking hours in a team dynamic. Both have chosen a career that is wildly out of tune with their inner desires.

Yet, the symptoms of job burnout manifest differently.

Evidently the CPA is at a higher risk of physical symptoms like headache, chest pain and shortness of breath, while the middle manager is more at risk of emotional exhaustion. Both of which can lead to serious long-term health issues.

Which brings us right back where we started: Monday morning heart attacks.

How then to avoid having one, and bounce back from burnout?

Choose a profession that is personally meaningful to you

Here’s proof.

A brand new study (our last one for today, I promise!) from Mount Sinai New York shows that finding purpose in life reduces death from all non-natural causes by 23%, and reduces a person’s risk of heart attack and stroke by 19%.

The lesson: take your passions seriously. Because if you don’t, your health will.

Yet if you’re mismatched for your profession, this doesn’t necessarily mean quitting your job tomorrow.

Executive coach and Forbes contributor, Kathy Caprino, offers not so much hope as practical realism:

“I’ve found that the only way to cure job burnout is not to run, but to stop in your tracks, breathe into the situation, and figure out new ways to improve your current situation now (before you leap)…

“Most of my clients don’t want to hear this, and resist it vehemently, but the reality is that if you don’t address what’s “broken down” in your current situation, your problems will follow you in the next job/role/career.”

Solve problems at their core.

Caprino calls the burnout victim’s knee-jerk pull to an opposite career the “Pendulum Effect”. So before you pack your bags for the next flight out to somewhere far away, remember one thing:

Even the most dramatic career move just for the sake of it can’t solve the root cause – a disconnection from true purpose.

Only you can crack that nut. But you have to do the work.

Here’s another question/scenario for you…

What would you do for a living if money were no object?

Amy Wrzesniewski from the Yale School of Management says that finding the real answer to this question creates a “calling mindset”.

When you are in this place of calling versus job (or even career), you feel powerful intrinsic motivation to do your job.

The process of doing your work is a positive and joyful experience in and of itself.

You feel that your work is making the world a better place. You’re willing to give more. And as a result, you receive more.

Quite a difference from the Sunday night angst we began with.

How to get it right?

The best news is, in her work, Amy has found that true callings are impartial to industry, job title or salary. So whether you’re the driver or the CEO, your work can be a calling.

All you have to do is listen to your heart versus putting undue stress on it.

In his first book The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda put it like this:

“A path is only a path, and there is no affront, to oneself or to others, in dropping it if that is what your heart tells you . . . Look at every path closely and deliberately. Try it as many times as you think necessary…

“Then ask yourself alone, one question . . . Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn’t it is of no use.”

Find your path.

Jonathan Sumner

Jon Sumner

Jonathan was the Director of Digital & Social Media at Bonhill Group plc until 2020 before moving on to become Chief Digital Officer at GRC World Forums.

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