RHITU CHATTERJEE, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Rhitu Chatterjee. I cover mental health for NPR. And today, we're talking about something many people might be experiencing right now - burnout.
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DIANE RAVAGO: It was an overwhelming set of feelings where I wasn't making the right decisions. It was like a set of days where I was beyond exhausted - physically, mentally, emotionally.
YEZENIA VELASCO: Everyday normal things that would just weigh on my shoulders. Like, I remember feeling so defeated, like, thinking, oh, I haven't given my dog a bath. It was definitely real.
ERAYNA SARGENT: Every single day felt like a Monday. And then over time, that became beyond just a matter of being tired, too tired to roll out of bed but literally getting a PTSD-like symptom when I heard my Outlook calendar go off. My body tensed, my stomach started to ache, and I felt nauseous.
CHATTERJEE: The World Health Organization defines burnout as a syndrome associated with chronic stress at work. The term has gained popularity in recent years as workplaces around the world now require people to do more and more, leading to more employees feeling burnt out. And right now, during the pandemic, people's work lives have become even more stressful. It's all the more reason for us to talk about it now.
When I first started to report on the topic a couple years ago, I thought I knew what the word meant based on how we use it colloquially, like I'm burnt out or exhausted because I've been working too hard.
JESSI GOLD: And it becomes this sort of acceptable American thing, where we work really hard. Work made me tired. It's just that - work, work, work.
CHATTERJEE: That's Dr. Jessi Gold. She's a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis.
GOLD: And so if work made you do it, it's acceptable, it's normal, and that's just the way it is.
CHATTERJEE: That kind of thinking keeps people from addressing burnout, from getting help. But studies show that burnout has serious consequences on people's mental health.
GOLD: Burnout is a risk factor for depression. It's a risk factor for substance use. It's a risk factor for suicidal ideations or suicidal thoughts. And so if you are burnt out, you should deal with it.
CHATTERJEE: So in today's episode of LIFE KIT, we'll unpack burnout for you, help you understand what it can look and feel like. And we'll have tips on how to catch the early signs and how individuals and workplaces can address burnout.
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CHATTERJEE: For Dr. Gold, this past year has been especially stressful.
GOLD: I see a lot of health care workers. I see a lot of college students. Both populations have been really having a hard time.
CHATTERJEE: And she's been seeing her patients virtually, which she doesn't enjoy as much as seeing patients in person.
GOLD: And over time, I think I was just getting really tired after work. And I was needing to fall asleep every day after work and not really understanding why at all.
CHATTERJEE: Gold had an appointment with her therapist.
GOLD: And my therapist was like - you mean to tell me that you see frontline workers as a frontline worker in the middle of a pandemic and you're tired? And all of a sudden, it sort of, like, clicked. And I was like, oh, I'm burnt out. And she's like, yes, you're burnt out.
CHATTERJEE: Gold had realized she'd been ignoring other signs of her burnout, like feeling emotionally spent and dreading work.
GOLD: I dread opening up my computer and starting the work day. Or I have a little bit more anger when I look at my inbox. Or I don't want to reply to emails, and I just kind of want them to not be dealt with at all.
CHATTERJEE: Even though we may think burnout is just exhaustion, these negative emotions that Gold was feeling are also part of the burnout experience because burnout is more than what you might think.
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CHATTERJEE: Christina Maslach is a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who's studied job-related burnout since the 1970s. She says the experience of burnout has three main components.
CHRISTINA MASLACH: One is the exhaustion.
CHATTERJEE: And that's your body's response to chronic stress. The second component, she says, is when you start to feel cynical about work.
MASLACH: A distancing from other people. You know, it's kind of take this job and shove it, you know, sort of thing. And you begin to switch from trying to do your very best all the time to do the bare minimum that you need to do to still get paid and do the job.
CHATTERJEE: And the third component is that you start to blame yourself.
MASLACH: Thinking, what has gone wrong with me? Why am I not good at this? Why can't I handle it?
CHATTERJEE: That sounds very familiar to Diane Ravago. She's an EMT in California and is going to school to get her paramedic's license.
RAVAGO: I work 24-hour shifts. Just the way that it falls, you know, I'll work anywhere between two to three 24-hour shifts in a seven-day period.
CHATTERJEE: Last fall, she hit a wall. She felt exhausted, overwhelmed. And then...
RAVAGO: I started to question myself. Like, man, like, can I do this? Can I do this for the rest of my life? Can I do this every day?
CHATTERJEE: Maslach says when people start to feel this way, they usually keep it to themselves because they worry that their colleagues will judge them. But studies show that burnout can be contagious. So if you're burnt out, chances are so are your co-workers, which is all the more reason to address it because it affects not just a few people here and there but entire workplaces.
RAVAGO: The environment around is a big deal. You can even just show up, and they're not even your partner. It's a different crew. And you could feel that they've been running all day. They're exhausted. And you can feel the negativity, but you kind of steer away from it 'cause, you know, it can easily overlap. And, you know, now you're feeling it and whatnot. Changes your mentality, for sure.
CHATTERJEE: That brings us to Takeaway No. 1. Burnout is really easy to miss, but it is bigger than you think. It includes physical and emotional exhaustion, feeling cynical about one's work, distancing oneself from it and feelings of shame and self-doubt. It's really important to address burnout because the stakes are high. It affects not just you but your colleagues, maybe your entire workplace. So how can you, as an individual, catch the early signs of burnout and begin to address it?
GOLD: One of the things that I tell people is trying to pause and take almost like an inventory of how you're doing.
CHATTERJEE: And when you ask the question, Dr. Gold says, answer honestly. If you're feeling exhausted, irritable, anxious about work or feeling shame and guilt that's part of the burnout experience, acknowledge those feelings and try to figure out what's causing them. Amber Harper is a former schoolteacher and now a burnout coach in Indiana. She says don't ignore the negative emotions and hope they will just go away, which is what a lot of people do.
AMBER HARPER: If I can just keep going, I'll just make it through these feelings, and then I'm going to be OK. That's what puts you in this state of complete breakdown and overwhelm because we're not stopping and stepping back and saying, what do I have control over?
CHATTERJEE: Not having a sense of control at work is a big risk factor for burnout. Harper herself experienced that lack of control back when she was a schoolteacher.
HARPER: They wanted things to be the same that they had been for years and years and years. They had one leader, and nobody else is going to come in there with all of these different ideas and threaten the hierarchy that had really honestly been put into place there. And it just - it didn't work for me.
CHATTERJEE: These days, as a burnout coach, she helps other teachers find things about their work that they can control. Dr. Jessi Gold says the exercise of checking in with yourself, your emotions can help you spot the early warning signs and help you take control of little things at work. She suggests making it a daily practice.
GOLD: It can even be helpful to sort of note your mood throughout the day and be like, well, every time I have a meeting with so-and-so, I feel horrible. And then every time I'm with this person or doing this thing, that's where I find most meaning.
CHATTERJEE: Knowing those things can help you make little changes that can give you a little bit of control.
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CHATTERJEE: Maybe you can get out of attending that meeting you hate so much. And if you can't, maybe you do something you really enjoy right after that meeting.
GOLD: I think sometimes we can rearrange our day to have some positives with some negatives so it's not a horrible day of just negative.
CHATTERJEE: It's not like we can change everything that's stressful at work. But Gold says this exercise can help you figure out what you can control.
GOLD: You know, the Serenity Prayer, sort of like accepting the things I can't change and dealing with what I can, is really helpful because the things you can change are, how do I react to things? How am I coping with things? What part of my workplace can I control? Which stressors are really the worst part of my day, and am I able to minimize any of that?
CHATTERJEE: For people working from home right now, Gold has another suggestion. She says have a structure to your workday with routines that you had back when you used to go to an office.
GOLD: Get up at the same time. Get dressed. I know it's really fun to just wear sweatpants and wear, like, pajamas all the time. But if you wear sweatpants and pajamas for a year, your brain thinks you're depressed because it's like - you know what depressed people do? Wear sweatpants and don't shower, you know? So it just convinces you that you are depressed. So I think, you know, getting up at the same time, showering, sometimes even, like, pretend commute. So, like, get up. Go for a walk like you would go for a commute.
CHATTERJEE: She says this helps put boundaries.
GOLD: This really allows your brain to think like, this is work. This is life. I can have both and distinguish between the two. And that can allow me to have, like, enjoyment in my day-to-day life as well.
CHATTERJEE: And through all of this, Gold says, try to be kinder towards yourself and give yourself credit for all that you are accomplishing, especially now during this pandemic, when we're dealing with so many more stresses in our work and personal lives.
That brings us to takeaway No. 2. Find ways to take control over your day. One way to do that is by checking in with yourself every day about how you're doing. And pay attention to your emotions. They can help you catch the early signs of burnout and help you deconstruct your workday, set some boundaries and assert some control. Christina Maslach says another big risk factor for burnout is a high workload.
MASLACH: You have way too much to do. You don't have enough resources to actually do the job well. You don't have enough time.
CHATTERJEE: Which is why some professions are more prone to burnout, for example, teaching. Here's Amber Harper again.
HARPER: This is what teachers do. They just work all hours, and they give them themselves until they have nothing left.
CHATTERJEE: So if you're feeling burnt out because of your workload, try to see if you can lessen it. Maslach suggests talking with your colleagues about ways to do that. Maybe you can get rid of tasks that are unnecessary, or you can streamline processes.
MASLACH: You can point out things that, you know, this is - I've just been wondering why we are doing intake here in this way because it seems to be adding a lot to the workload. And I'm not sure all of these files are ever going to be read by anybody. So could we redesign this, or is it just me, you know? And - or is there some other things that, you know, we could do? So trying to focus on - how could we make this a little bit better.
CHATTERJEE: Not just for you but for your colleagues as well. Just working together with your colleagues to solve a problem can help you address some of the drivers of burnout as well, for example, by giving you that sense of control that's so important. And whether you succeed in your efforts or not, it's really important to also take breaks. Dr. Gaurava Agarwal is a psychiatrist and a well-being coach at Northwestern Medicine, and he's the director of physician well-being there. He says a rest is key to preventing and addressing burnout.
GAURAVA AGARWAL: What you want to currently do is really focus in on those basic health needs that we all have around protecting yourself, making sure that we are resting and calming our brain down because our brains aren't designed to work this hard, this long, chronically. We really do have to make sure that when there are opportunities to rest that we take them instead of feeling guilty, which is a - kind of a major driver of our emotions is we feel guilty about taking that rest, which is why a lot of people don't take it.
CHATTERJEE: But he says research studies show clearly that not resting is bad for work. He says it's important to take regular breaks whenever possible.
AGARWAL: And so taking that five minutes in an hour or one day a week to your ability to recuperate is going to be a big part of dealing with that exhaustion. And once we have our tanks refilled a little bit more, we have the ability to face the ongoing stressors moving forward.
CHATTERJEE: It's also important to take a little time each day to do something that brings you joy, says Gold.
GOLD: It's hard to tell somebody that, and it's privileged to tell someone to do that because they have so many responsibilities. But if it's at all possible, it can make such a difference to, like, their whole emotional state.
CHATTERJEE: She says use those precious minutes to walk your dog, call a friend, meditate, listen to music, whatever helps you pause and recharge. Also, she says use your vacation days even if you don't go anywhere.
GOLD: It's not just the act of going somewhere that's a vacation. It's the not going to work part. It's the refreshing part. It's the taking time for yourself part.
CHATTERJEE: That's our takeaway No. 3. Know when you're working too much because too much work causes burnout, and make sure you prioritize rest. But if at any point of time you feel like you're having trouble functioning on a day-to-day basis, you're too exhausted, not enjoying things you used to enjoy, you may be depressed. It might have started as burnout. But as Gold puts it, burnout can be a step towards depression. So don't wait. Make an appointment with a psychiatrist or a therapist.
GOLD: If you wait to see someone like me, then it becomes much more of an issue 'cause a lot of our treatment takes time.
CHATTERJEE: The sooner you seek help, the easier it will be for you to recover. Now, so far, we've told you about two risk factors for burnout, but there are a few other key factors that influence your risk. And they have to do more with your workplace. Our last takeaway is about what leaders and senior managers can do to address those factors and address burnout in the long run. Another major driver of burnout is the absence of reward or recognition. If your boss and your colleagues tell you when you do a good job, let you know that your work is appreciated, then you have a lower risk of burnout. But if you don't, you're more likely to feel burnt out. Maslach says the absence of a sense of community at work is also a big risk factor.
MASLACH: Where you can't trust anybody. You don't dare say anything like, wow, I'm really stuck on this problem. I'm wondering if you could, you know, take a minute just to talk with me about it, maybe help me out. There's, you know, people throwing each other under the bus in order to get ahead of each other.
CHATTERJEE: Workplaces that are unfair, where there's bullying, discrimination, where opportunities aren't given fairly are workplaces where employees are more likely to burn out. That's why Maslach and other researchers say it's really important for employers and workplace leaders to take ownership over addressing burnout. So if you're a leader or a manager in your workplace and your senior employee's burning out, you can do something about it. Dr. Gaurava Agarwal of Northwestern Medicine says leaders should talk openly about burnout and talk about it with compassion.
AGARWAL: By being transparent, by being compassionate, by showing grief leadership, what you're doing is you're building the sense that we are in this together and we are going to get through this together and we have, frankly, gotten through difficult times before. And so what happens is people start leveraging those experiences. In some ways, that's the heart of resilience.
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CHATTERJEE: And that's the last idea we'll leave you with - workplace structures and culture are often the main drivers of burnout, so preventing burnout in the long run will need addressing these bigger workplace issues. And leaders in organizations need to play a big role in all of this.
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CHATTERJEE: To summarize our takeaways, Takeaway No. 1 - burnout is bigger than you think. It stems from chronic stress at work and involves physical and emotional exhaustion, feelings of dread and cynicism about your work and a sense of shame and guilt. It has serious consequences on individuals' mental health. It's also contagious and affects workplaces and society at large.
Takeaway No. 2 - take control of your workday. One way to do that is by developing a practice of checking in with yourself and how you're doing a few times during your workday. And pay attention to your negative emotions and what's causing them. It'll help you address the causes of those emotions and take some control over your work life because lack of control, lack of boundaries, is a big factor causing burnout.
Takeaway No. 3 - know when you're working too much, and find ways to make your workload more manageable, and prioritize rest - every day, every week - and use those vacation days you've been saving for a year.
Takeaway No. 4 - workplace structures and culture have a big impact on burnout risk, things like absence of social support at work or presence of bullying and discrimination, so workplace leaders have a very big role in both preventing and addressing burnout. Ultimately, it's more than individuals taking care of their own workload and mental health. As Christina Maslach puts it, in the long run, addressing burnout is really about creating workplaces where employees can thrive.
MASLACH: Ideally, we want a place to work where the conditions are good enough that we should be on a sort of common quest, you know, for - how can we adjust, tweak, get it a little bit better? Because things will change, and new stuff will come along, and what we did before isn't going to be the best. And how do we sort of continually improve it so that we're all at our best? Because this is a good environment to really support the kinds of things that we're trying to accomplish.
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CHATTERJEE: Thanks for all the listeners who spoke with us for this story - Roxanna Azimy, Amber Harper, Amanda Morley, Diane Ravago, Erayna Sargent and Yezenia Velasco.
For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We've got episodes about managing anxiety, another on mindfulness and lots more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. Also, LIFE KIT is here to help you get organized with our new LIFE KIT productivity planner. If you love LIFE KIT and you're feeling inspired to get moving on your goals, this daily planner is just the thing for you. Find it now at shop.npr.org.
And as always, here's a completely random tip.
LAUREN MIN: Hi. This is Lauren Min (ph) from Mandeville, La. I have three children, and they tend to leave stuff all over the house, and so I feel like I basically walk around all day picking up cups and socks, et cetera. And so one thing I've been working on with them is OHIO - only hold it once. If you are done with something, put it where it goes; don't just put it on a table or on the floor. And it's been really helpful even for me just to get things where they go, without having to walk around all the time. Hope that helps. Thanks.
CHATTERJEE: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at email@example.com.
This episode was produced by Andee Tagle, who also contributed to the reporting. Meghan Keane is the editor and managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Clare Lombardo. And our editorial assistant is Clare Marie Schneider. I'm Rhitu Chatterjee. Thanks for listening.
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