By Joseph Tasosa, M.D.
Workplace stresses aren’t only the norm in the Washington Metro area. In May, the World Health Organization added burnout as a “syndrome” to its International Classification of Diseases, calling it an “occupational phenomenon.”
So, if you’re feeling run down by, disconnected from and increasingly less productive at work, you’re far from alone.
As a psychiatrist who focuses on addiction, I see many patients struggling emotionally at work and/or at home. Unfortunately, some choose maladaptive coping strategies, such as self-medicating with substances or engaging in unhealthy patterns of behavior—whether or not they realize burnout is a significant factor in their unhappiness. But by recognizing when burnout is at play, it is possible to address it.
What is burnout?
First, we need to define what burnout is. The way I explain it is it’s like a bad haircut or an ill-fitting suit: It’s tough to describe, but you know it when you see it. When it comes to experiencing burnout at work, I recommend keeping an eye out for some of the following symptoms: You become dissatisfied with your station in life; you question yourself or your purpose, asking if this is really what you signed up for; you dread going to work, and when you’re there, you find yourself watching the clock and waiting for the weekend; and you lose the initial drive that got you into your current position or field.
While we all have a few bad days, if you feel any or all those symptoms for a prolonged period, it’s probably time to take a step back and investigate what’s making you feel frazzled.
What causes burnout?
Oftentimes, it’s the workplace itself that’s the culprit—a toxic office, an unsupportive team, an ineffective manager, hazy job expectations, no control over your work, lack of social support (at work and at home). Perhaps you’ve shared ideas with your department, but they’ve always been shot down. Maybe you’ve raised the alarm about a tough coworker or client, but nothing was done. Much of the workplace stress my patients tell me about comes down to not feeling supported or listened to. On top of that, many people work in cubicles, which often aren’t what I consider healing environments.
Sometimes it’s the struggle with work-life balance—or lack thereof. Sure, our hours may be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but it can be tough to fit it all in 40 hours each week, so we might stay late to finish up. Tack on a commute to and from work, and you’re adding on even more time. This can lead to us missing out on commitments with family and friends, or we end up feeling too tired to make plans once we finally do get home.
And with advances in technology, we can feel like we’re on call 24/7, expected to return emails immediately and take conference calls at all hours. For many people, it’s a struggle to truly unplug.
Some professionals, especially those in “helping” fields like health care and social work, are more prone to burnout, perhaps because they are continually exposed to the more challenging sides of the people they are working to serve.
Ignoring signs of impending or current burnout will only make it worse. Left untreated, burnout can have dangerous side effects. Some of my patients experience problems with sleep and/or go through their days feeling constantly tired. Others wind up battling anxiety, depression or mood swings. Burnout can also lead to increased risk of high blood pressure, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. And as I mentioned earlier, some people will try to self-medicate, which carries the risk of substance abuse.
And don’t forget about the effects on your work and personal life—you won’t be at your best, meaning your work and relationships will likely suffer.
What can you do?
You can get a handle on this fried feeling. First, figure out your options at work. Try discussing your concerns with your manager, who may be able to help come up with achievable goals or find middle ground on a tough situation.
Then, consider asking for help, whether it’s support from colleagues, friends, family or professionals. Some employers offer employee assistance programs, which often provide short-term counseling, outside referrals and other services confidentially to employees who are going through a tough time personally or professionally.
Working with a counselor or therapist can help you get a handle on your stress, too. When I have patients who seem burned out at work, I first make sure to rule out medical reasons, including such simple conditions as vitamin deficiencies. If their feelings of burnout are not rooted in a medical cause, I recommend talk therapy to explore why they’re in the position they’re in and to gain insight into why they might be struggling: Do they hate their boss? Did they choose the wrong career? Are their relationship issues spilling over into work? Sometimes another perspective can be helpful. Effective therapy then provides a toolkit to address these stressors in a healthful manner.
Considering that we spend half of our waking lives at work, I counsel my patients that if they can’t make enough change for themselves in their current position, they should look for a job they can at least tolerate, if not enjoy. Sometimes it’s best to leave a toxic job or environment and start fresh.
Outside of work, try taking up a stress-reducing activity, like yoga or meditation. Practicing mindfulness, which involves being aware of the present moment while accepting and acknowledging your current thoughts and feelings, can be calming, too. Regular physical activity, even if it’s simply going for a brisk walk, can help you let off some steam and take your mind off of work. Finally, make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep. “The balm of hurt minds,” as Shakespeare wrote.
While burnout at work can feel insurmountable, keeping some healing tools in your arsenal can get your work—and home—life back on track.
For more resources on handling stress in the workplace, visit the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Joseph Tasosa, M.D., is board-certified in psychiatry and addiction psychiatry with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church Medical Center.
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