“Burning the candle at both ends”, “overworking”, “no longer effective in your job” - Most professionals will sooner or later come across the term “occupational burn-out”. This term is synonymous with the phrases above, meaning to be in a state of exhaustion, stress, and fatigue due to your work.
“In a survey of nearly 260 UK developers by software company Haystack, 83% of respondents reported feelings of burnout, 81% of which cited the COVID-19 pandemic as the cause. Of these, 32% said this was true to a ‘great’ extent, and 30% to a ‘moderate’ extent.” According to Zdnet.com
You might have experienced this yourself or known someone else who has. Some of us might have even tried to self-diagnose ourselves by searching online for relatable symptoms, but do we really know the difference between being tired from working hard and true burn-out? How similar is it to a general lack of motivation, fatigue or small bout of depression?
The term was brought to the research lexicon in 1974 by the article “Staff Burn-Out” written by the psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger. He defined it as “the depletion of motivation, a growing sense of emotional exhaustion and cynicism”. Freudenberger’s studies and observations were conducted with volunteers at a drug rehabilitation clinic in New York in 1974 wherein he coined the term “burn-out” and applied it to a wide range of issues. During the study, his subjects, formerly idealistic mental health workers, were finding themselves depleted and experiencing an ever-growing negative emotional response towards both their patients and the clinic.
Do any of these symptoms sound familiar to you? You will find a handy self-test at the bottom of this article.
The first mention
Traditionally, the word “burn-out” has been used as a colloquial description for a particular set of work-related symptoms such as being constantly stressed, overwhelmed, and not having enough energy to devote to a given task or even an entire career. In May 2019, the term “burn-out” was officially given a medical definition in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) and was recognized as a formal mental health problem. WHO announced that burn-out would be classified under “Factors influencing health status or contact with health services”. A spokesperson for the World Health Organization, Christian Lindmeier, described it as “not conceptualized as a medical condition, but rather as an occupational phenomenon”.
#Burnout is included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (#ICD11) as an occupational phenomenon.
It is NOT classified as a medical condition https://t.co/t9pjcv3ctX pic.twitter.com/FF6Zzfwoj7
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) May 28, 2019
What is burnout?
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been managed successfully. It is characterized by three dimensions:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job;
3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
It’s worth mentioning that the World Health Organization only recognizes burn-out as a type of non-medical life-management difficulty rather than an illness. Nonetheless, ICD-11 highlights burn-out as a real handicap to productivity and mental health and not just synonymous to being “stressed out”.
The mismatch between a desired state and reality
In February 2020, the anonymous tech networking platform, Blind, conducted the first of two surveys with 3.6M verified users IT professionals. They posed the question “How often do you feel burned out?” – The poll gathered 3,500 responses and the results were as follows:
- 36% Daily
- 32% Weekly
- 14% Monthly
- 13% Every few months
- 5% Never
The platform ran a second poll in May 2020 to compare the results from before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. The key results from 6,789 responses, stated:
- 61% of professionals felt burned out in February 2020, but this number rose to 73% in May 2020. Of these numbers, the subcategories and underlying reasons can be summarised as:
- During the COVID-19 outbreak, one in five professionals feel burned out due to job security fears (19%).
- 20.5% of professionals during COVID-19 feel they have an unmanageable workload.
- Over 10% of professionals feel as if they have no control over their work.
- All surveyed companies reported to have had at least 60% of their workforce burn-out in May 2020 whereas, pre-COVID-19 the minimum was 30%.
You can download the full report here.
Burn-out is the stress that has not been successfully managed
Creating digital products takes effort; both from development teams and their leaders. There are many aspects which could go wrong and prevent digital products from being released on time, or even from being built at all.
Burn-out tends to happen when the effort we put into work is bigger than the reward we gain from it. Some of the most common work-related factors of burn-out include:
- An unmanageable workload.
- An expectation to consistently perform perfectly.
- An evaluation of performance based on output.
- Toxic productivity-focused work environments.
- Poor management.
- A lack of support.
- No recognition or feedback.
- Financial instability.
- Long hours and consistently working overtime.
- A lack of common aims in the workplace.
- High effort, low reward work.
What we see as “rewarding” is entirely subjective. It is based on our background, personality, interest, values and mindset. Some people may find one job extremely rewarding while others may see it as strenuous and thoroughly unenjoyable. It’s different for everyone.
Nevertheless, the core values underlying our enjoyment and core motivation are all reasonably similar; earning a good salary, getting a promotion, improved social status, flexibility to work as you please and working in a mission-driven company. We always strive for financial stability, validation or recognition and the feeling of making a positive impact.
Symptoms of a burnout
Knowledge workers such as IT experts are expected to be consistently productive and creative in equal measurements. However, it’s almost impossible for the human brain to constantly generate new ideas without a rest.
It is vital that you have a chance to unwind or spend time on less cognitively-demanding tasks for your brain to recover and function properly. If you don’t, you might start seeing some of the symptoms associated with burn-out which could ultimately lead to a full blown case if you don’t catch it early enough.
Burnout symptoms are usually separated into three categories: physical (body), emotional (mind), behavior:
- Feeling drained most of the time.
- Frequent headaches or muscle pain.
- Lowered immune system.
- Change in appetite or sleep habits.
- Sense of failure or self-doubt.
- Feeling helpless, trapped, defeated.
- Detachment, feeling alone in the world.
- Loss of motivation.
- Increasingly cynical and negative outlook.
- Decreased job satisfaction.
- Feeling little or no sense of accomplishment at work.
- Withdrawal from responsibilities.
- Isolated from others.
- Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done.
- Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope.
- Taking out your frustration on others.
- Skipping work, coming in late all of the time, leaving early.
“If not addressed, burn-out can lead to additional health issues, including insomnia, depression, substance abuse, and coronary heart disease.”
Dr. Sharon Toker, Tel Aviv University.
How does it translate into your business?
Staff turnover rate increases: This is a strong signal that there are instances of burn-out. Your employees might be tired and looking for less demanding and more rewarding career opportunities.
Lower performance: If your team keeps failing to meet deadlines, lacks creativity or shows a negative attitude towards the job, you might want to consider counseling your employees and checking for possible burn-out symptoms. You should also watch out for decreasing code quality which will result in extended deadlines.
Increased absenteeism: Unhappy employees tend to take sick days to get away from work. Even though they’re not feeling ill, they take a sick day just to escape the feeling of being overwhelmed.
Low morale and poor internal relationships: Fatigued employees show a more negative and cynical attitude towards both the job and their team. A negative work environment is contagious and can quickly affect everyone on the team, resulting in a complete collapse.
Productivity is not an endurance sport.
Burn-out might occur because of either personal or work-related factors. This blogpost focuses only on the professional aspects of this phenomenon. We’ve gathered some of the most popular ways of minimizing tension in the workplace by encouraging natural human interactions and providing the necessary downtime without affecting your company’s daily performance.
Here are our top tips for avoiding burn-out in your workplace:
- Reasonable workloads: There’s a fine line between having a challenging yet achievable amount of work, and that which is overwhelming and detrimental to your health. To alleviate workloads, delegate jobs and assign tasks to your team in a reasonable way. Ensure that your team is not overloaded by their to-do lists.
- Achievable work hours: The amount of hours one can work differs from person-to-person. Some will be able to work 80 hours a week reasonably comfortably while others will seriously struggle with a 40-hour week. Allow for sick days, paid time off and vacation periods.
- Don’t be afraid of taking breaks: Encourage your team members to take 15-minute breaks throughout the day (everyone, not just the smokers), as well as making sure they have a proper lunch break as well. Regular breaks allow your employees to take a walk, have a chat with coworkers or do a little bit of exercise to get their blood flowing before the next session.
- Be flexible: Set realistic deadlines to avoid an unnecessarily stressful crunch time. Don’t be afraid to re-assign people to different jobs if they were not right for the task. If you feel that your team would work better with a restructuring of responsibility, don’t hesitate to make that change for the good of everyone.
- Clarify roles: Communication is key. Provide every team member with a specific job description and make sure everyone understands their role and are aware of your expectations, without exception.
- Develop a culture of being supportive: Reward employees who show a supportive attitude towards the team and encourage collaboration, provide assistance to others and promote inter-team bonding.
- Encourage socializing: Socialization is a must-have for forming bonds within the team. It allows people to share insight, share different perspectives and to unwind when it’s needed.
- Provide downtime: Provide your team with a reward to let them know that they are appreciated. It can be anything from food, gift cards, allowing them to leave early or having a party at work. A workplace where an employee is excited to come to work will most certainly experience less burn-out.
- Be Fair: Equal treatment is another core value to implement in every organization. Be sure that decisions are fair and ethical.
- Feedback: Provide and listen to feedback. It creates room for improvement, reduces frustration and prevents the tensions from escalating.
- Listen: When an employee expresses frustration or concern, address it immediately. Make sure that they know you are taking appropriate action or give an explanation as to why you can’t meet their needs.
- Educate employees on burn-out: Provide information about burn-out and ways of preventing it. Hold a seminar where employees can ask relevant questions about burn-out. Consider asking a mental health professional to mediate the discussion.
The burn-out questionnaire
To let you spot a possible issue, we’ve prepared a short test. I want to note that no inventory is absolutely accurate or foolproof. Your score on this test is merely a guide to your experience of burn-out.
Interpret these results only as an indicator of a possible issue, not a definite one. If your score is high, consider taking steps towards fixing the issues highlighted by consulting a mental health specialist or a personal advisor of choice.
To download, click here or on the button below.