How to spot the signs of work burnout in yourself—and what to do next

The World Health Organization now recognizes the syndrome as a diagnosable condition. Here's how to recognize it and take action

By many accounts, we’re living in an era of widespread work “burnout,” in which feeling completely and utterly exhausted is seen as the cost of success or, worse, a badge of honor.

This month, the World Health Organization (WHO) even recognized burnout as an official diagnosable condition and occupational phenomenon, defining it as a syndrome resulting from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Contrary to the present-day “work-too-hard” culture, burnout isn’t something to which entrepreneurs should aspire. It can be damaging to your wellbeing and your work, and can develop into more severe mental-wellness concerns if not addressed.

WeWork Labs spoke with two experts, including a pioneer in the field of burnout research, about the warning signs, the common causes, and what to do if you feel like you’re on the path to burning out.

What causes burnout?

As a professor emerita of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach, Ph.D., has been studying burnout for decades, even developing the field’s most widely used burnout test. She has identified six key factors that contribute to the condition.

1. Workload. “When there’s a mismatch between the demands of the job and the time and resources you have to get them done,” she says, “that’s a problem.” The time you spend resting matters, too: You need to balance workload with recovery, and if you’re not doing that, it puts you at a higher risk.

2. Limited or no control. “In order to be happy, you need room to make decisions and bring your talents to bear,” she says. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you’re forced to do things you don’t have any choice in.” Having that autonomy moves you away from burnout and toward being much more engaged, where you could, theoretically, handle a bigger workload.

3. Lack of recognition. “It’s about positive reinforcement,” says Maslach. In a corporate setting, this usually takes the form of bonuses, promotions, and increases in responsibility. But in a startup, it may be more nebulous, having to do with a feeling that all the work you’re putting in is amounting to something that benefits you, or that your business’s stakeholders acknowledge your hard work.

4. Weak or nonexistent community. “Workplace social relationships are really critical for preventing burnout,” says Maslach. “If you have trust and support, you know who you can talk to when you need feedback or a shoulder to cry on.” Often the most subtle interactions—as seemingly negligible as a terse email—can be the most damaging.

5. A sense of unfairness. “That means that whatever the rules are, they’re fair, and that people who should be rewarded are getting rewarded,” says Maslach. “When people feel they’re being treated unfairly, or you feel you’re working in an environment that’s not recognizing your contributions, that can breed a lot of cynicism.”

6. A feeling of meaninglessness. There’s an area Maslach simply calls “values” —that the work you’re doing gives meaning to your life. She reports that the phrase “soul erosion” often comes up in her research. “They feel like what they’re doing now isn’t in line with the reason they started in the first place.”

Noticing burnout’s three key signs

In Maslach’s decades of research, she’s identified three fundamental symptoms—the first of which is exhaustion. (It’s important to note that you must experience all three symptoms to be considered “burned out” by clinical standards.)

“The demands of what you need to get done at work outweigh the resources available to you,” she explains. “It can show up as physical or emotional exhaustion, illnesses, or health problems.” We’re not talking about the typical end-of-day tired, though. “[It’s] being tired when the day begins,” says Michael Leiter, Ph.D., a psychology professor and burnout researcher at Deakin University in Australia.

Maslach also notes palpable negativity, or “a hostile cynicism about the work you’re doing and the people you’re doing it with.” The signs should be clear: “You’re irritable toward those around you, and that cynicism about the work leads you to shift from trying to do your very best to doing the bare minimum.”

People experiencing burnout also feel a sense of insecurity—that both they and their work just aren’t cutting it. “You start to question whether you’re good at what you do, and whether you’ve made a mistake by going down this path,” says Maslach. “You feel like a failure, and you question your own competency.”

How to get off the burnout path

With burnout, Maslach says that clinicians are focused on fixing the wrong problem. “They talk about it as though it’s a mental illness instead of what it really is, which is a stress experience in a specific environment,” she explains. “People will tell you that the problem is you, and you need to fix yourself—get more sleep, meditate, take a vacation, stop working on the weekends. Those are all good things to do, but the data says that burnout is more about the job conditions than the individual person.”

Once you understand that the underlying problem is your work, you can take a close look at your situation, identify which of the six common causes of burnout are affecting you, and begin to address them. “You start by taking a look at the areas where things are off,” says Maslach. “Then the question is, What can you do about it?”

If you’ve identified that the problem is demand vs. resources, for example, consider how you can more effectively delegate or get the support you need. Within startups, that often means hiring, if possible.

But if you feel like autonomy is the issue, with clients and investors calling all the shots, consider what you can do to put more control in your hands. Or, if you’re not being treated with respect by your work collaborators, lead by example—and consider having more serious conversations with them and/or your supervisors if the behavior persists.

No matter what issues are leading you down the burnout path, one of the strongest tools available to you is building a community that can help. Talk to your coworkers about what you’re feeling and how you’re trying to improve things. “With burnout, it has to be a ‘we’ approach instead of just focusing on what each person is doing for themselves,” says Maslach. “We need to create healthier environments where, instead of being beaten down, people can thrive and grow.”

This story has been adapted from exclusive content originally published on WeWork Labs’ members-only platform. Read more about effective ways that entrepreneurs can combat impostor syndrome, lower their anxiety levels, and manage their stress.

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