We often treat burnout syndrome as a diagnostic fad. In reality, overworking has become the norm, and its consequences are serious enough to urge us to identify the best strategies to prevent it.

If burnout syndrome were a person, what would its distinctive traits be? The Guardian sketches a brief vision of burnout syndrome, to which anyone who has suffered from burnout (or is heading there) can relate. If Burnout Syndrome appeared before us in flesh and blood, it would probably have stubble, deep, dark circles around its eyes, and a bored and tired demeanour, without any spark of joy or satisfaction in its eyes.

It might be overweight from stress eating, chained to its comfortable office chair, or wearing large clothes—a sign that it sleeps and eats only when its busy schedule allows. It would definitely have an irritable mood, and often complain about all kinds of pain, such as headaches, back pain, palpitations, dizziness or chest pain. It would refrain from expressing it, but would sometimes think about giving up its job and, every time it feels its stress level rising, it would play with the idea of a long, unpaid vacation or escaping from its workplace.

The psychological term  ‘burnout’ was first used by psychologist Herber Freudenberger in 1974.

A survey conducted in September 2020, at the request of British company The Office Group, showed that the average age at which employees are affected by burnout syndrome is 32 years old. The most frequent causes which subjects have associated with a feeling of exhaustion have been attempting to do too many things (52%), the pressure of always being “active” at the workplace (47%), an insufficient number of free days (39%), or the pressure they feel to constantly work overtime (37%). Almost half of the respondents had already given up a job due to exhaustion, and almost a third were considering the idea of unpaid leave in the near future.

According to data generated by The General Social Survey (a national survey monitoring attitudes and behaviours in America since 1972), 50% of Americans feel exhausted by their work tasks as opposed to only 18% two decades ago.

How do we identify the first signs of workplace exhaustion?

In 2019, the International Classification of Diseases group of the World Health Organization included “burnout syndrome” on its list of medical diseases for the first time. Described as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed”, the syndrome is characterized by three element—”feelings of exhaustion”, “feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job” and “reduced professional efficacy.”.

The first step in preventing workplace exhaustion is to recognise the warning signs. These are often ignored, either because they are mistaken for symptoms of depression, or (most probably) because overwork has become a fully-fledged lifestyle in modern society. The problem is that we haven’t been biologically built to remain in a state of hyperactivity and stress, says Emma Sepalla, director of the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

There are at least three major indicators of exhaustion in the workplace, according to Professor Christina Maslach, from the University of California: emotional exhaustion, distancing oneself from co-workers or superiors (the subject feels ostracized or insufficiently appreciated) and the annoying feeling of not being able to maintain the desired performance.

Some of the signs of physical and emotional exhaustion, according to psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, are insomnia, chronic fatigue, a weak immune system, an increased vulnerability to infections and colds, loss of appetite, anxiety, depression and irritability. The physical symptoms can include chest pain, cardiac palpitations, breathing difficulties, gastro-intestinal pains, dizziness, fainting and/or headaches.

Negative feelings associated with work are also present: the person loses their satisfaction in work, uses excuses to avoid tasks, becomes pessimistic, and they gradually isolate themselves from co-workers (and eventually from friends and family). All these elements contribute to the weakening of the professional performance. As the symptoms get worse, the subject has the feeling that nothing is going well and that remaining tasks keep multiplying.

The most common sources of stress

There are six domains of the professional life that can generate exhaustion: excessive tasks, lack of control, insufficient rewarding, disharmonious relations with co-workers/superiors, disloyal practices, and value conflicts, researchers Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter say.

No matter what the problem might be, if we manage to identify it it’s easier to find a solution or to ask for help in solving it.

Task overload represents the most frequent problem that leads to exhaustion, says Doctor Susan Biali Haas, who writes and holds conferences on themes related to the prevention of burnout syndrome. When she asks her patients whether they could give up one of their work tasks, the usual answer is that this is not possible, says Haas, underlining that more often than not this happens with perfectionists or people who are extremely conscientious who find it hard to say no and who often take over the work other people do not finish.

The feeling that you have no control over your professional life is truly overwhelming, says Leiter, noticing that people need autonomy to feel that their work has a purpose.

Autonomy does not mean that they have the freedom to do everything as they want, but rather that they have the feeling that they have a say in the way in which things go, Leiter explains. When what you do makes sense to you, exhaustion occurs less often and work stimulates you, the professor says.

Employees who do not enjoy any kind of freedom at the workplace should think of changing their job, believes Stuart Taylor, who worked with dozens of companies to develop resilience to stress.

The demand-control-support model is a very good strategy to combat professional exhaustion, says organizational psychologist Adam Grant, explaining that an employee has three options to prevent and cure burnout syndrome: reducing requirements at the workplace, getting support to be able to cope with them, or increasing control, either by gaining more freedom or by developing skills for the more efficient management of professional tasks.

The pressure of being the ideal employee

In general, organizations are all lacking time, and managers are used to overwhelming their subordinates with tasks, contacting them outside office hours and requesting overwork, Professors Erin Reid and Lakshmi Ramarajan show in a thorough analysis. In turn, employees try to present themselves as the ideal employee, being completely dedicated to their job and always on guard, even if this means starting work early, finishing late, working over the weekend or staying connected to their electronic devices regardless of the hour.

However, studies show that when employees are free to draw stricter borders between their personal and professional lives, companies may benefit from a greater degree of loyalty from their employees, an increased productivity and better relationships at the workplace, say Reid and Ramarajan, outlining a few changes that must occur at an organizational level.

First of all, managers should look beyond the paradigm of the ideal employee (in which they themselves try to fit), deliberately cultivating other identities besides the professional one. They can also make changes in the organizational rules, encouraging the employees’ extra-professional preoccupations, since these expose them to experiences and knowledge employees cannot acquire in the narrow space of the office.

Offering total, limitless freedom can turn out harmful because employees are afraid that their choices might be interpreted as a lack of commitment.

Last but not least, organizations should be concerned with protecting the employees’ time, establishing reasonable working hours and encouraging their employees to spend their leave away from professional responsibilities.

Managers should create functioning principles for the organization that resonate with an already verified truth: an organization’s success is built on a marathon rather than on a sprint, says Rebecca Zucker, founder of the company Next Step Partners.

Companies should also hire enough personnel so that each employee can take days off when they get sick, need to care for other family members or want to go away on holiday. No one should feel they are indispensable at the work place and that things would fall apart in their absence, Zucker insists.

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Avoiding professional exhaustion: a personal responsibility

There are 7 levels of stress, and prevention should occur at each level (the persons themselves, the contexts of private life, professional contacts, the circle of colleagues, the relationship with superiors, the institution, and the social framework conditions), says psychotherapist Jörg Fengler in his book, Burnout: Strategies for Preventing Professional Exhaustion.

Even if the preoccupation with combating professional exhaustion at an institutional level has increased in the last years, the main responsibility stays with the individual, says Fengler, mentioning a series of easily applicable prevention principles.

Organise your mornings efficiently

The early bird catches the worm, says the proverb and employees should know how to best manage the golden hours of the morning, which set the tone for the entire day. A new day must begin with calm. However, more often than not, this is only possible if we have put things in order the night before. We need to sleep a sufficient number of hours, go to bed at a reasonable time, solve in the evening the activates that would waste our short morning time, allocate time for accidents that frequently occur in the morning (an alarm clock we do not hear, tired children, a family member occupying the bathroom for a longer period of time, the removal of snow of the car when it has been snowing during the night, etc.), and delegate tasks among family members. Even if organising our morning does not seem like the pièce de résistance for preventing exhaustion, a day begun in chaos, especially if this becomes a dominating pattern, unnecessarily drains us of long-term resources.

Adopt a healthy lifestyle

The way in which you live when you are not at your workplace plays a big role in preventing professional exhaustion, says entrepreneur Elizabeth Grace Saunders, author of several books on time management. Food, sleep and physical exercise are the pillars of a healthy life.

Sleep regulates our mood, contributes to the elimination of waste in our brains and energizes our body’s cells. This is why we need 7-9 hours of quality sleep, writes Saunders, pointing out that rested people have a better mood which decreases the risk of developing negative feelings associated with work.

Food also influences our mood and level of energy, so we must pay attention to the regularity of meals, the amount of food we eat, the ingredients, and the way in which we combine foods so that what we eat represents the best fuel we can choose for our bodies.

A sedentary lifestyle is not only harmful, but is literally deadly. Studies conducted by researcher Keih Diaz have shown that an increase in sedentary time amplifies the risk in premature death due to any cause, regardless of age or body mass index, but also that replacing 30 minutes of sitting with a low or moderate intensity activity lowers the risk of premature death by 17% or 35% respectively (see the article “Generation ‘couch potatoes’”).

Use moderation in setting goals

To avoid overwork or boredom (both predisposing us to the risk of developing professional exhaustion) we must fix our objectives in a way that is adapted to our resources and limits, Fengler says. When we formulate our objective, we need to analyse how specific, measurable, realistic and achievable this is. We also need to analyse our financial and time budget, as well as our level of resilience and tolerance to frustration. Studies show that successful people manage to select the optimal level of difficulty when setting a goal.

Avoid multitasking

Multitasking seems like a good option to deal with a large volume of work but, in reality, it reduces the capacity to efficiently finalize each task and represents an important source of stress. Researchers at Stanford University discovered that people bombarded with information by their electronic devices cannot focus, do not remember information and are not able to easily go from one activity to another as well as those who do one task at a time. Researchers have also concluded that people who work in an office are (or let themselves be) interrupted every 11 minutes and need approximately a third of a day to catch up on what they lost due to these distractions.

Multitasking should be the exception, not the rule; first, because the time saved is negligible or even null, and second, because the risk of making a large number of errors is higher.

Building and maintaining harmonious relationships at a personal level, but especially at the workplace, is overwhelmingly important in preventing burnout, experts say. Lack of support and tensed relationships predispose one to burnout, concludes a series of studies. Positive relationships, on the other hand, not only prevent professional exhaustion but also represent a predictive factor of high performance, work satisfaction and organisational commitment.

Other strategies you can use to prevent professional exhaustion:

  • Be aware of the distinction between maximum and optimal (Perfectionists are likely victims of professional or educational exhaustion for an obvious reason: they operate within unrealistic standards, which attracts a high level of stress. Stress plays an important role in the emergence of exhaustion, psychologist Andrew Hill explains.);
  • Establish a good routine (repeatedly establishing certain activities at fixed times and performing them);
  • Respecting mini-breaks(short slowdowns, which do not burden the time budget but interrupt stress accumulation).

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Giving life to each day

The author of the novel The Book of Whispers, recounts how the old Armenians of his childhood experienced three types of events: those they expected, those they were trying to avoid and those that came unexpectedly. In the end, however, their lives became a chronical of unexpected things, so much so that those they were expecting never came about, and the ones they wished to avoid ended up happening.

The greatest drama of modern humans, caught up in the whirlwind of never-ending tasks, might be that the respite to open up to the small and great joys of life is always expected in a different time register than that of the present. We are used to turning the present into a means rather than a purpose, said Blaise Pascal in his Thoughts. And since the future becomes the sole purpose, “we never actually live, but hope to live”.

We count the days left until our holiday, we wait for the next deadline to pass, to end a busy month or year, to get a promotion or to reach the slow years of retirement, but in the meantime, life is slipping through our fingers.

We resemble more and more the Armenian character Harutiun Khântirian, who was determined to work at the Consulate of the Armenian Republic in troubled times, but who, the author says, lacked the basic quality of a consul: that of having a country to represent. While we let stress nullify us and rush us from one to-do list to another, we forget to ask where that “better life” for which we sacrifice everything is. We forget, above all, that every day is a miniature life, as writer John Ruskin says, and that happiness comes from the art of living each day as we would want our whole life to be lived.

Carmen Lăiu is a writer for ST Network and Semnele timpului.