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Overworked? Here’s how to cope

Recognize the signs of burnout before it’s too late

overwork or burnout

Have you ever had one of those days when you get to work feeling exhausted, disengaged and even robotic?

While many of us occasionally experience these sensations, if you are having these feelings more often than not, you could be suffering from burnout.

Dr. Katy Kamkar, a clinical psychologist at the Work, Stress and Health Program at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, explains the symptoms of burnout include irritability, difficulty concentrating and making decisions, and a feeling that your efforts don’t matter.

“Burnout creeps up over a period of prolonged stress,” says Dr. Kamkar, adding that around 10 per cent of all Canadian workers are dealing with chronic stress, which can lead to burnout.

Burnout a barrier to success

While there are few studies on the effects of burnout, a survey in 2011 by global consulting firm Right Management found that 54 per cent of executives cited burnout as an obstacle to success in the workplace.

Job burnout is a result of physical and mental exhaustion and can lead to costly mistakes, absenteeism and even “coping behaviours” like substance abuse

According to Dr. Derek Puddester, director of the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine Wellness Program, job burnout is a result of physical and mental exhaustion and can lead to costly mistakes, absenteeism and even “coping behaviours” like substance abuse.

Stop overwork in its tracks

The good news is that burnout can be prevented; the first step is recognizing the symptoms. According to Dr. Puddester, burnout may be the natural consequence of what he describes as a “toxic work environment.” Dr. Puddester explains that burnout can happen when a person is overloaded with work, doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to do the job expected of them or feels out of control of daily tasks. “Burnout tends to happen when the demands made of us overwhelm our capacity to perform,” he says.

Lakeland Credit Union in Alberta has taken proactive steps to address early signs of burnout. Over the past three years, supervisors at the $521-million credit union have been meeting with employees to discuss their performance and career goals. Amber Hughes, manager of marketing and human resources, says; “[These meetings] are very casual. It’s a dialogue. We ask questions like, ‘How can I help you, as a supervisor, to do your work better?’”

For employees suffering from burnout, talking to a manager may seem like a career risk, but Hughes says this approach shows you are being proactive and want to improve. It is also the best way to spur positive change in the workplace.

Speak to a neutral third-party

Before scheduling a conversation with your manager, Dr. Kamkar recommends that you speak to a member of an employee assistance or occupational health program, who can provide advice and mediate the dialogue to ensure the employee’s interests are met.

Kamkar says that employee assistance programs involve confidential and neutral third-party meetings. She adds that while some employers offer these services, you can locate service providers by visiting the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety website.

Dr. Puddester adds that employees need to think hard about what they need out of their work and what their strengths and weaknesses are. He recommends following an approach designed by the people behind U.S.-based corporate training company vitalsmarts.com called Speak Up or Burn Out. “Crucial conversation and confrontation skills have been shown to improve team functioning, enhance patient safety and boost morale,” explains Dr. Puddester. “You share how you’re feeling, then you make an ask, then you let the other side talk.”

Be accountable for change

He says the conversation shouldn’t end there. “Both sides should schedule follow-up meetings and hold each other accountable for changes.” Dr. Puddester says addressing burnout forces you to ask yourself difficult but important questions such as, “Do I stay in this job but do it differently?” and “Do I need new skills to help me enjoy it more?” He encourages professionals to have an annual review with their family physician to ensure their health is in good condition and not contributing to burnout. He also suggests working with a certified executive coach. “Coaching can provide the critical fuel to bring a career to a higher level. Investing in yourself is important regardless of the scenario,” says Dr. Puddester. “In the management of burnout, it is essential.” ◊