April 2014, Joey Tocnang died of heart failure while he was staying at the dormitory of the casting company where he worked. He had a wife and daughter in the Philippines, who he was three months away from seeing. He was 27 years old.
How did this happen?
Tocnang died because of continued and unchecked work-related stress. In other words, his employer and his workplace culture gave him so many responsibilities, forced him to be at work for so many hours, and allowed him so little sleep that his heart gave out. This tragedy is an extreme version of job burnout, but what is more tragic is that it is not unusual.
In Japan, employers work their employees to death so often that there is a word for it: karoshi. These deaths mostly take the form of some kind of cardiovascular disorder or suicide. The Japanese Labour Ministry claim that 2,310 Japanese people died from karoshi in 2015 alone. Not everyone agrees with the government’s figures and some organisations put the figure as high as 10,000 per year.
Job burnout is the result of unresolved and long-term work-related stress
Job burnout, also known as occupational burnout, is the result of unresolved and long-term work-related stress. We all have difficult days at work, but job burnout refers to when that difficult day turns into a difficult month (or year or even decade).
In worst cases, job burnout can lead to death. Yet it can also lead to depression, bad diet, chronic fatigue, and a whole host of other ailments. People shouldn’t need to die before a society or a workplace recognises the dangers of job burnout.
Job burnout is not a formal mental disorder or illness. Rather, it is best understood as the result of ongoing and untreated stress at work which, in turn, is the cause of many serious health problems. In other words, we use the term “job burnout” because it’s something which everyone can understand, but it is much more complicated than one “illness”. Some people get depressed, others wind up with heart problems, and others find themselves chronically fatigued.
The cause of job burnout is not always the same, either. As a result, one study in Spain tried to categorise job burnout into different types. The study had many limitations, but it did a good job of giving us some ways to classify different types of job burnout.
“Frenetic” burnout: too many hours and too many responsibilities
This is the classic form of job burnout caused by too many hours and too many responsibilities. Not all people with this sort of burnout are unhappy with their jobs. Some people enjoy working hard. Yet, this sort of burnout is unhealthy nonetheless.
Attention-grabbing headlines have claimed that working over 40 hours a week makes you six times likely to suffer from frenetic burnout, but this is far too simplistic. The reality is that it depends on the person and their lifestyle in general. So long as you are getting enough sleep and exercise, have a healthy social life, and are eating well, then working a 40-hour week is unlikely to cause problems. The issue occurs when working these long hours causes you (either out of fear of losing your job or because you’re running on adrenaline caused by your love for the job) to ignore basic health needs.
“Underchallenged” burnout (AKA boreout): constantly feel bored at work
Boredom is not boring. It is a fascinating, potentially inspiring, but also potentially dangerous thing.
YouTuber Michael Stevens once performed an experiment on himself whereby he locked himself in isolation in a white room for 72 hours. There was only a bed, food (in generic white bottles), and a toilet. There were no books, there was no television, there were no phones, there were no mirrors, and there was nothing to write on. There was no form of entertainment or stimulus whatsoever.
Psychologists predicted that staying in a room like that for less than 72 hours would have caused brain damage. This did not happen. However, Michael’s brain activity slowed, he became confused, and at one point he was unable to tell the difference between six and nine.
Boredom can have many psychological and biological impacts on us, and sometimes we exploit this for its benefits. Like almost everything else, boredom can be a great thing in small doses. After all, this is essentially how Buddhism, meditation, and transcendentalism work. By clearing your surroundings of unnecessary stuff, and by limiting yourself to the task of thought, your mind is able to think independently, critically, and calmly about the world. In turn, this leads to a kind of happiness caused by a lack of desire, worry, or stress.
When we choose boredom, it can be a relaxing and powerful thing. By contrast, when boredom is inflicted upon us by our jobs or our lifestyle, it can feel like power is being taken away from you.
This is how Frenchman Frédéric Desnard felt when he sued the perfume company where he worked for €360,000. He claimed that the severe boredom caused by his job had led to an epileptic fit while driving. For some, this high-profile case is hard to take seriously. Those who worry about being burned out by having too much work to do will likely laugh at the idea of being burned out because you have nothing to do.
However, consider solitary confinement. This punishment is predicated on the idea that forced boredom is not a pleasant thing. As a result, it’s easy to see how someone stuck in a dead-end job where they are bored to their wit’s end can be a mentally and physically unhealthy thing.
“Worn-Out” burnout: feel worthless and lack acknowledgement within the company
The final form of burnout, according to this study, is characterised by a feeling of worthlessness and lack of acknowledgement within the company. The idea is that, for people who had been working for a company for over 16 years, the feeling of burnout is not related to stress (as they have nothing to fear from their employer). Nor is this form of burnout related to boredom (as they may enjoy their job at times).
The study’s data suggested that being educated, having a stable relationship, or having a life outside of work can reduce the risk of this kind of burnout. Yet, because this study is limited, it’s hard to find real life examples of this kind of burnout. However, anecdotal and fictional examples exist all around us. Jimmy McNulty from HBO’s The Wire springs to mind.14
Stuck on the same rung of career ladder year in and year out, McNulty’s passion and natural aptitude for good police work go continually unnoticed. In some cases, McNulty is punished for going above and beyond the call of duty because his work interferes with the chain of command and makes his superiors look bad.
In the rare cases where McNulty is praised, it’s never enough. The next day, after all, he’s back at his desk and he’s still deeply unhappy with his work. It doesn’t make a difference, it doesn’t make him happy, and no-one really cares about his efforts. There are no promotions for McNulty, there is no life waiting for him at home, and there is no other type of work he knows.
It’s easy to see how this kind of burnout could lead to depression and other mental disorders. For McNulty, it also leads to alcoholism, infidelity, and (the final season) convoluted and compulsive lying.
Stress is not the only cause of job burnout.
With three different kinds of job burnout, it’s hard to pin down just one cause. Workplace stress is a handy catch-all term, but here are some other things which can cause burnout:
- A lack of control or agency in your work, such as being forced to work unreasonable hours or do unpleasant jobs without any say on the matter.
- Unmet expectations, such as when reality of your clashes into your imagined idea of what your work would be like, what responsibilities you’d have, and how you’d be treated.
- A dysfunctional workplace, such as when bullying and lying are rewarded but hard work is ignored or when micromanaging causes you to feel undermined and powerless.
- Mismatched values, such as when what you believe is morally correct and what your employer believes is morally correct is radically different.
- Wrong job, such as when you are not suited for the work you are doing.
- Incorrect pace, such as when work is either too fast or too slow.
- A bad social life, such as when you are unable to make friends or build relationships at work and/or you have no time or energy for friendships or relationships outside of work.
If you lack the motivation to go to work, you’re probably suffering from job burnout.
This largely depends on the kind of job burnout which your experiencing. Nevertheless, the general symptoms of job burnout are relatively easy to spot:
- Increased cynicism or disillusionment about the job.
- Lack of motivation to go to work or to start work once you get there.
- Increased irritability with co-workers, managers, clients, and/or customers.
- Dependence on food, alcohol, or drugs (recreational or prescribed) in order to get through the week or to “unwind” at the weekend.
- Negative change in sleeping or eating habits.
- Otherwise unexplained physical pain such as headaches or backaches.
Job burnout can actually lead to a series of health problems, both physical and mental ones.
While medical studies of job burnout are patchy, one thing we know for certain are the health problems caused by job burnout. Some of these might be obvious, but others are less so. What is more, the health problems caused by job burnout aren’t just mental, they can be physical illnesses too:
- Chronic fatigue
- Trouble sleeping or insomnia
- Problems with personal relationships
- Panic attacks or anxiety
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Heart complications
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes (studies show that this is especially the case with women)
- A lower immune system (which can leave you more vulnerable to other illnesses)
What should you do to recover from job burnout?
In some ways, the answer to this question depends entirely on the person. After all, burnout is not the disorder itself but the cause of many other mental and physical disorders. It is for doctors and patients alike to diagnose the illnesses caused by burnout and to treat those.
In other ways, the answer to this question depends on the kind of burnout. If your burnout is caused by a frenetic pace, you should take on fewer hours and fewer responsibilities. If your burnout is caused by boredom, you should take on more hours and perhaps more responsibilities. Finally, if your burnout is caused by under-appreciation and a kind of weariness for the job, perhaps the best thing to do is to take a step back from it all.
With all that said, here are some things which everyone can do if they are worried about burnout.
Know your rights and be brave to take a stand
In the UK, and in many other countries, there are laws dictating the way employers can and can’t treat employees. While these laws usually refer to physical safety, such as correct safety equipment, they also refer to working hours and the amount of mental stress employers are allowed to force onto their employees. Don’t be afraid to take a stand.
Speak up and refuse to be exploited
It’s one thing to know what you should be entitled to; it’s another thing to actually have the courage to ask for it. Employees often worry that speaking out will lead to demotion or even dismissal. Though this is why labour unions and worker’s rights are so important. If employers feel that they can treat employees like dirt, then they will. So don’t let them.
Change your attitude and “fake it ’til you make it”
This perhaps easier said than done and, for people with mental health issues, it is terrible advice. After all, the whole reason that mental illness is so crippling is that it is caused by an inability to change your brain chemistry at will. For people suffering from mental health, a different approach is needed.
If burnout isn’t causing you mental health issues, and if you are able to do it, then there is a lot to be said about adopting a different attitude. There is a decent amount of science backing up the idea that “faking it ’til you make it” can really work. In other words, even if you feel terrible, just pretending that you feel great could actually improve your mood.
Seek medical help or professional counselling
As mentioned above, “faking it” isn’t an option for everyone. For people with mental health disorders, feeling better requires a lot more than pretending to smile. Counselling and therapy are great but, if you can’t afford that or aren’t ready to make that leap, a lot can be achieved by talking to friends or family about your mental health.
When talking doesn’t work, your doctors may also prescribe you with medication. “Self-medicating” (with alcohol or some other substance) is not the way forward. Doctors are trained in the art of neurochemistry; you are not. Using alcohol instead of prescribed medication to treat mental imbalance is a bit like trying to fix your laptop with a sledgehammer.
Exercise to improve both your physical and mental health
Almost all of the health complications related to job burnout can be treated by exercise. While the jury is still out on whether or not exercise can help people with mental illness, there’s no argument that regular exercise will improve your physical health. Even if exercise doesn’t solve the problem, the vast majority of us need more exercise anyway.
Get enough sleep to allow your body to fully recover after a long day
Just as with exercise, most of the problems above can also be attributed to a lack of sleep. Scientists still aren’t exactly sure why we sleep, but they are all agreed that we need it. Without sleep, our bodies suffer and become weaker.Different people need different amounts of sleep, but if you wake up feeling tired that’s a surefire sign that you haven’t had enough.
Take a short break from work to rest
If you’re reading all of this in agreement but feel that you simply don’t have the time to sleep, eat, exercise, or even particularly enjoy your life, then perhaps it’s time for a break. Mental health is just as important as physical health, so there’s no reason that you can’t take a sick day in order to avoid burnout. In fact, some employers are even beginning to experiment with so-called “duvet days”. These aren’t holidays or sick days, they are days when you are allowed to ring in and say, “No thanks. Not today. I need to sleep, relax, and take some time for myself.”
Should you quit or not? It depends but you should really get a job that makes you happy.
If all else fails, then perhaps it’s time to acknowledge the elephant in the room: your job is causing you burnout because it’s a bad job. Whether this is because it’s a bad company or because it’s not suited to you is immaterial. If don’t enjoy your job (or if your job is making you ill) and there’s no way to fix it then… well… then there’s no way to fix it.
It’s okay to hate your job. Even if everybody else tells you that your job is great, remember that not everyone is motivated by the same things. Deep down, we know this. Yet we often make huge decisions not based on what we want but on societal expectations. So it’s sometimes worth asking yourself very seriously what you want from life.
You might scoff at this notion, and maybe that’s because you’re in a job that you love or live a life that you love. However, if you find yourself working in a job that you hate and living a life that you are beginning to hate, ask yourself what really motivates you to work. If it isn’t money, ask what you would do if you if you didn’t have to worry about money.
If the answer to that question is some kind of dream job, then maybe it’s time that you pursued that job. You might not have any experience or be any good at it now, but the only way to get good at something is to practice. That might mean starting at the bottom, perhaps not making as much money, or doing harder work, but if you’re doing something that you love then that might not matter so much.
Whether you decide to leave your job or not, the important thing is that your job makes you happy. One size does not fit all in this content, so it’s something which you’ll have to figure out for yourself. However, when you do, you might just be able to live a life without job burnout.