4 Unexpected Signs of Work Burnout and How to Combat It

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Health & Wellness

4 Unexpected Signs of Work Burnout and How to Combat It

5 min read November 04, 2020

Mental health is top of mind for many of us. From fear of contracting the virus to facing financial uncertainty, unemployment, home-schooling children, and lack of physical contact with others, employees are under an immense amount of stress.

As a result, workplace burnout might be taking on forms that are harder to identify than usual. According to MetLife’s recent report, “Mental Health: A Path to a Resilient Workforce and Business Recovery,” only 30 percent of employees admit to feeling burned out, yet 66 percent of them report experiencing symptoms that align with the World Health Organization's definition of burnout, described as "chronic workplace stress that hasn't been managed successfully," they write.

Recognizing when burnout is happening is the first step in helping yourself find relief. Below, we've listed symptoms of burnout that could be easy to miss, plus ideas to reach out for help.

1. You're not sleeping well

Getting restful sleep regularly may already feel like a struggle, which is one reason why you may end up ignoring this symptom. However, research shows a strong correlation between workplace burnout and sleep disturbances, like insomnia. In one study, participants with burnout were compared to healthy control participants to test for a number of factors, including insomnia and other sleep disorders. Results were measured using a questionnaire that included questions like, "Do you have difficulty falling asleep at night?" and "Do you wake up too early in the morning and have difficulty getting back to sleep?" Results found that the group with burnout suffered significantly higher insomnia troubles, sleep fragmentation, and non-restorative sleep than the control group.

2. Your personality has changed

Maybe you used to be more of an optimistic person—now, not so much. Or perhaps you used to love making people laugh, but you've been feeling more despondent and disinterested lately. If friends and family have also noted your change in demeanor—particularly a shift towards being more withdrawn and irritable—that could be a sign of burnout, one expert says. The state of your mental health at work can affect your relationships at home. So, getting feedback from those we love can help us realize things we're not seeing.

3. You’re more forgetful

Can’t remember where you put your keys last night? Or your sunglasses? Or what meetings you have on your calendar for the day? It’s normal to forget or misplace things from time to time, but if you’ve noticed that you’re constantly forgetful or feel disoriented, that could be a sign of burnout.

4. You're craving unhealthy foods

If the stash of caramel corn in your desk drawer is calling your name louder and more frequently than usual, or you're craving dessert throughout the day, it could be a sign of burnout. In fact, one study found that consuming sweet foods and beverages with added sugars was linked with depressive symptoms, which are also often a sign of workplace burnout.

How to Combat Burnout

Think you might be suffering from burnout? Try taking these steps to help mitigate the stress.

Define the root cause of your burnout

Now that you recognize you've been experiencing burnout, it's important to determine what brought you to that point. Ask yourself about the source of your stress: Is your workload too much to manage or outside of your control? Are you stressed about factors outside of work, like juggling family obligations? Do you feel frustrated or unchallenged by your day-to-day work? Knowing the answers can help you take the appropriate actions to find help.

Reset expectations

To the extent that it’s possible, it might be helpful to evaluate your workload, projects, and daily job expectations with your manager. If you’re dealing with an unrealistic level of responsibility, now is the time to speak up and discuss potential solutions, such as figuring out a more flexible work schedule, or asking for help from colleagues on projects or tasks that feel overwhelming. Once you've aligned with your manager, you may also want to communicate as much to your co-workers, so you're all on the same page.

Lean on additional resources and take time for yourself

If caring for an aging parent or monitoring your kids' virtual learning is too much, try asking relatives for support or looking into affordable resources, like home care aids or day-sitters. Also, check with your human resources department to find out what options are available to you, like the Family and Medical Leave Act, if you need to take extended time off, or employee assistance programs (EAPs) sponsored by your employer that can connect you to resources to help you manage stress.

Depending on the cause of your burnout, you might feel less stressed if you take one—or more!—mental health days to reset. Taking regular mental health days can do more than just improve your mood; it can also contribute to a culture among your coworkers that recognizes the need to take time off to rest and recharge. You might even spend that time away from work focusing on your own personal and professional development, by taking courses to learn new skills, or just picking up a hobby to flex your creative muscles.

Although burnout traditionally focuses on problems related to work, it's also similar to—and sometimes indicative of—other mental health issues, like depression. If you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms and your attempts to fix the issue don't seem to be working, reach out to a therapist or medical professional to find out what additional help is available.

For more on the state of employee mental health in 2020, download MetLife’s report, “Mental Health: A Path to a Resilient Workforce and Business Recovery” here.

Nothing in these materials is intended to be advice for a particular situation or individual. These materials are for general information purposes only.