The media often claims it’s caused by bad work environments; bad coworkers; bad bosses. This is partially true: Employees with large caseloads experience burnout more often. And individuals whose jobs revolve around people—such as social workers, customer service representatives, teachers, nurses and police officers—are particularly predisposed it.
Yet research also shows that some employees are more likely to burn out than others in identical work environments. Burnout is weakly correlated to stressful life events but closely linked to traits such as neuroticism and low self-esteem. The evidence for burnout’s internal risk factors is, indeed, well established: A study published in Work and Stress concluded that “Employee personality is consistently related to burnout.”
Common burnout prescriptions—like rest, medication and vacation—can temporarily relieve our symptoms. But until we permanently alter the behaviors exacerbating our exhaustion, we’ll remain rutted in perpetual recovery. Because, after all, what we do is inextricably linked to how we feel.
Below are five changeable behaviors that fuel burnout:
1. Lack of focus
Millennials are particularly vulnerable to existential distraction. Author Kelly Cutrone told Forbes, “They don’t know what they are striving for, which makes it really hard to move forward.” Or do anything, for that matter (I’d know!).
Or sometimes we know our calling at our core but don’t pursue it. One study found that incongruence between implicit and explicit motives decreases wellbeing. Translation: saying or doing stuff we don’t actually want is unhealthy. If you’re still parading as a will-be [insert parents’/prestigious profession here] but deep down know that’s not your passion, your burnout will call your bluff. Individuals who act on their internal motivations, in contrast, are less likely to suffer from job burnout.
Self-obsession materializes in several ways. The most obvious is narcissism, which is linked to burnout among students. In the workplace, narcissism can manifest as conviction of specialness, entitlement, poor teamwork or lack of compassion.
Another common but disguised symptom of self-obsession is rumination: neurotic self-attentiveness and/or heavily emotion-oriented coping. One example of ruminating is dwelling on personal injustices. Teachers who ruminate report higher stress levels and burn out more frequently.
How do we overcome self-obsession?
Help people. You don’t need to feed Africa to benefit from altruism—a trait overwhelmingly linked to higher wellbeing and lower stress. Instead of airing your grievances every time you’re out, listen to and support the people around you. Volunteer. Call your mom.
Be kind to yourself. Interestingly, self-compassion—“treating oneself warmly during times of hardship”—is negatively correlated with rumination; you can be kind to yourself without fixating on yourself. Instead of freaking out about something you did wrong at work for days, take responsibility, forgive yourself and move on. Simple but hard!
Unhealthy perfectionism—fixation on flawless performance, dread of failure and obsessive approval seeking—predicts burnout. Likewise, acting “Type A” is related to emotional exhaustion, higher burnout levels and reduced job satisfaction. It’s also, incidentally, an established risk factor for coronary heart disease.
Moreover, because perfectionism causes highly negative feelings when we don’t attain goals, it lowers individual initiative and decreases job passion over time. That is, though perfectionism is typically considered a professional attribute, it’s ultimately demotivating.
Is the anxiety-fraught emotional energy you’re spending on every one of your tasks worth the cost?
When we’re exhausted, it’s tempting to watch Netflix alone after work to “rejuvenate”—for months. Self-care is critical, especially when recovering from burnout. But, counterintuitively, one of the best ways to take care of ourselves (and prevent future burnout) is social interaction.
Workplace friendships increase individual innovation and weaken the relationshipbetween unhealthy perfectionism and job burnout. Teachers with higher perceived levels of coworker support report less stress.
By contrast, workers’ inability or unwillingness to be intimate with others—what some researchers call social pessimism—predicts poor subjective wellbeing at work.
Instead of adopting a sweeping, unrealistic resolution like “always say yes to invitations”, consider what kinds of people and social engagements energize you. Remember that hanging out with anxious people may, in turn, make you anxious. Cherry-pick who you’re around, and prioritize these relationships.
Of all the above traits, pessimism is the one most closely and frequently associated with burnout. Cynical employees are less likely to seek challenges, social support and feedback at work. The consequence is insufficient resources and impending burnout. Pessimism produces more stress hormones, while optimism is associated with less burnout and job exhaustion.
In one study, asthmatics inhaled basic saline solutions. Those told the solution didn’t do anything experienced no symptoms. Of those told they were instead inhaling allergens, 47.5% experienced attacks. What we believe about our environments directly affects our energy, health and wellbeing—regardless of the reality.
It’s not fair or accurate to say that burnout is all in our heads. But our attitude pertains more to how we feel about work than we might think.
Burnout doesn’t just reduce job satisfaction. Chronically burned out workers exhibit poor memory and difficulty concentrating. They’re also more likely to experience depression, anxiety, headaches, gastrointestinal infections, sleep disturbance and neck pain. They disproportionately suffer from alcoholism and cardiovascular disease. One ten-year study concluded that “burnout, especially work-related exhaustion, may be a risk for overall survival.”
But don’t take it from me or from science. Try eliminating even one of these behaviors for a week and see what happens. For this sapped nation’s sake, I hope you’ll share your success.
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