Reports of people feeling burned out seem to be everywhere these days. One unexpected ingredient to this proliferation of burnout is how the malady may actually be contagious.
In other words, you are more likely to suffer from burnout if you’re around others who are burned out or are operating within circumstances that create the conditions for burnout. During the pandemic more people are struggling with both work and life circumstances, feeling burnout themselves, and sowing its symptoms in others.
But there is good news: There are ways to protect yourself against burnout. Moreover, it’s possible to reduce the likelihood you’ll face it while at the same time contributing to others’ well-being.
THE CONTAGIOUS NATURE OF BURNOUT
Burnout tends to start with feelings of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion that eventually progress to feelings of shame or doubt about your capabilities.
Moreover, burnout can develop into cynicism, when you feel a sense of negativity about circumstances as well as helplessness and a lack of motivation to solve problems or move forward. New research from City College of New York also finds that burnout aligns significantly with depression in terms of symptoms and effects. In the study of 1,386 people, 86% experienced an overlap between burnout and depression. This is especially true when stress is due to life events, job challenges, or a lack of support at the workplace.
And burnout isn’t just an individual experience; according to a study by Michigan State University, it can actually be something you catch from others. Researchers found that burnout is spread among close colleagues and when people work in a culture where there are greater conditions for burnout. In particular, when connections in people’s social networks are struggling, they are unable to provide support in the form of knowledge, time, resources, or emotional coaching. In short, when people are personally tapped out, they can’t help others and the whole network is affected. In terms of context, burnout is typical when people feel a loss of control, when they feel ineffective, when they believe they’ve been treated unfairly, or when they feel disconnected from others.
THE HIGH COST OF BURNOUT
The costs of burnout are heavy. For individuals, burnout is associated with cardiovascular disease, immune disorders, and insomnia. In addition, the American Institute of Stress finds that burnout—in the form of absenteeism, employee turnover, reduced productivity, and associated (such as legal, medical, insurance) expenses—costs U.S. industries $300 billion per year.
Burnout is so prevalent that researchers have come up with a wearable device designed to monitor it. The device senses cortisol levels in the blood. Cortisol is the chemical released by our bodies when we’re under conditions of stress, pressure, or challenge. The hope is that the device will help assess stress (and subsequent burnout) to manage its ill effects.
REDISCOVERING YOUR DRIVE
It should be a relief to know it is possible to guard against burnout. First, pay attention to your needs and the characteristics of your job. Research from the universities of Zurich and Leipzig finds that burnout is more prevalent when people don’t get their unique needs met through their work. Most important are needs for leadership (influencing others, making decisions, setting direction, etc.) and affiliation (feeling close and connected, sharing common goals with others, etc.). Find a role where you can express the leadership and influence that are important to you and where you can get the connection you desire from colleagues.
The key here is focusing on a “match,” since “more” is not necessarily better. So if you prefer not to take the lead or be in the spotlight (in other words, you have a low need for leadership), then find a role where you’re not pushed to the front of the decision-making process. On the other hand, if you crave the ability to guide, direct, assert, and manage at work, find a role where you can do more of those kinds of activities. If your needs for connection are lower, find a role where you can work with more autonomy. If you’re not in the perfect-fit role, express this to your boss in case there are ways to adjust your responsibilities. Also volunteer for projects that are a better match or consider seeking a new role that is more aligned with your preferences.
HOW TO FIGHT BURNOUT
You can also avoid burnout by focusing on personal characteristics associated with more resilience. Research published in the journal Current Psychology finds there are key ways to address burnout.
- Focus on solving problems. Rather than avoiding problems, find ways to address them. If you’re having a conflict with a coworker, sit down with them and talk through the issues. If you’re over your head with a project at work, let your boss know and ask for help. Overall, seek to take action rather than sidestepping or evading issues.
- Believe in your own abilities. Of course, you’re not perfect, but having confidence in your capabilities will go a long way toward your success. Burnout is characterized by shame or questioning your effectiveness. Remind yourself of all you’ve accomplished. Make a list of your skills and talents. Focus on what you want to learn and where you want to go from here—identify the class you want to take or the person you want to get to know and learn from.
- Identify the big picture. When people feel burned out, the world tends to appear smaller and solutions seem nonexistent. Focus on the bigger picture of your efforts. For example, you’re not just caring for your children; you’re contributing to their happiness and fulfillment. You’re not just working in the accounting department of a company; you’re ensuring the financial health of your organization. Focusing on how your role matters and how your work contributes to something greater can significantly reduce feelings of burnout or depression.
- Nurture your relationships. Burnout can be isolating, and people who report burnout tend to feel disconnected from others. Nurture a few close relationships: Reach out to friends and colleagues and invest time in staying connected. This step can work for two reasons. First, people can support you—offering coaching, input, a listening ear, or resources. Also, when you focus on others, you expand your view away from yourself and this tends to contribute to feelings of positivity. Realizing you’re not the only one with challenges and reminding yourself how much you can offer to others are great antidotes to feeling down or alone.
- Keep perspective. Give yourself some slack and don’t expect perfection. Maintain a sense of humor and remind yourself that you’re always learning, and you won’t always get it right. You may be down today, but you can pick yourself up and move forward with optimism.
Burnout doesn’t have to be a life sentence, and it is possible to manage it. Even if you’re feeling your brain is slightly fried, you can focus on the future and find a way through to happiness and fulfillment.
Tracy Brower, PhD, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, and a principal with the Applied Research + Consulting group at Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations and the upcoming Secrets to Happiness at Work: How to Choose and Create Purpose and Fulfillment in Your Work.