Recognizing job burnout

Recognizing job burnout

By Audrey L. Canaff, Ph.D.

By Audrey L. Canaff, Ph.D.

The Counseling Corner from the American Counseling Association

Job burnout—it’s an increasingly common phenomenon in today’s stressful workplace. But while some job stress is a normal occurrence at least some of the time in most jobs, how can you tell when you’ve lost the ability to manage the sources of that stress and when they’re leading to a more serious reaction, the one we call job burnout?

Job burnout is a response to work stress that leaves you feeling powerless, hopeless, fatigued, drained and frustrated. But since job burnout is not an overnight occurrence, it’s important to recognize its early signs and to act before the problem becomes truly serious:

1. Do you find yourself dreading going to work in the morning?

2. Are you regularly experiencing fatigue and low energy levels at your job?

3. Are you easily bored with your job?

4. Do work activities you once found enjoyable now feel like drudgery?

5. Are you depressed on Sunday afternoons thinking about Monday and the coming week?

6. Have you become more cynical or bitter about your job, your boss or the company? Do you find yourself easily annoyed or irritated by your co-workers?

7. Are non-work relationships (marital, family, friendships) affected by your work feelings?

8. Do you find yourself envious of individuals who are happy in their work?

9. Do you now care less than you used to about doing a “good job” at work? If you answered yes to five or more of the above, you may be suffering from job burnout.

Unfortunately, for many who reach the burnout stage, the steps out of it can be difficult. Burned-out individuals often feel as if there is no hope. The fatigue and despair associated with burnout makes it hard to explore solutions. Burnout often leads to isolation, leaving someone feeling alone in their predicament.

The difficulty of dealing with full blown job burnout is why it is important to recognize early signs and take action before things become too serious.

One starting point is to recognize the stresses and factors that may be leading to job burnout. Theories about job burnout say tedious and boring jobs appear to be one source. Another is facing a job that’s beyond your ability to do it well. Lack of recognition for the work you do can be another serious source of job stress.

In today’s world of downsizing and mergers, feelings of hopelessness and anger often grow from the anxiety workers face about the future of their jobs. Changes in many corporations have left employees feeling powerless, frustrated and angry over their inability to control their careers. If an individual is experiencing burnout, the first step is to address the causes of work dissatisfaction. These can be seen as the “what,” “when” and “why” of burnout.

• What? Have you faced changes in the organization, the demands of the job, your supervisor or the industry?

• When? Was there a pivotal occurrence that changed the way you viewed your job–a new boss, coworkers, or responsibilities?

• Why? Have you changed? Are your interests or values pertaining to work now different than they were? Has the company’s mission changed? Are your abilities and skills not being utilized?

Identifying the what, when and why of burnout can help start you on the process of exploring options to change the sources of your stress. Sometimes simple things, such as talking to a supervisor about changing your job responsibilities, can make a difference. Sometimes more serious measures may be necessary, such as changing jobs or even changing your career field.

Most importantly, job burnout is a reaction to work stress. Methods of handling stress can be identified and encouraged. Career counselors specialize in helping people gain control over their work life. They can assist individuals in identifying their interests, values and skills in relation to work and can help in the career and life planning process.

You’ll find career counselors listed in the yellow pages, or call your local mental health center for a recommendation. The National Career Development Association’s online site,, offers helpful consumer guidelines for selecting a career counselor.

It is important to recognize the early signs of job burnout and address the sources immediately. Job burnout is a common problem, but one from which you can recover and, in the end, learn more about your needs in relation to work.

Dr. Audrey L. Canaff is a UC Foundation Assistant Professor in the Counseling Program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. She is also an adjunct faculty member at New York University’s School of Continuing Education at the Center for Career, Education and Life Planning.

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