The Cost of Career Burnout, and How to Handle It

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RelaxFew things are universal: death, hunger, maybe love. Also: stress. Who among us hasn’t felt stress? According to findings complied by the American Institute of Stress  (AIS), the workplace is a significant source of stress for Americans: 80 percent of workers report feeling stress on the job, and half say they need help dealing with it. A quarter of American workers view their jobs as the NO. 1 stressor in their life.

But there’s stress, and then there’s a far more insidious — though related — workforce affliction: career burnout. “We all have workplace stress,” says Romila Mushtaq, a neurologist and board-certified practitioner ofintegrative and holistic medicine known to the public as “Dr. Romie.” “There may be a demanding client, or a deadline … but what happens with that is that once the deadline passes, or the challenge passes, we go back to feeling normal, or if we go on a vacation for a few days, we feel rested and recharged and ready to go back to work.”

Employees suffering from career burnout cannot shake the problem so easily. “The difference with career burnout is, you could take a sabbatical, but the thought of going back will bring on stress-related symptoms again, like anxiety, insomnia, and feeling depressed,” Dr. Romie says.

This is because career burnout is a clinical symptom, characterized by a loss of passion for  your work, feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, disengagement from assignments and clients, and cynicism, among other signs. “No matter how much you’re accomplishing at work, you feel this lack of accomplishment,” Dr. Romie explains.

There is a very physical component to career burnout. It raises the level of inflammatory hormones — like cortisol — in our bodies. This will “wreak havoc on our immune system,” Dr. Romie says, and it can lead to chronic pain, frequent infection, and mood symptoms like poor memory, depression, and anxiety.

According to the AIS, survey results support Dr. Romie’s assertions about the very real effects of career burnout: 62 percent of employees “routinely find that they end the day with work-related neck pain”;  44 percent “reported stressed-out eyes,” while 38 percent report hand pain; and 34 percent “reported difficulty in sleeping because they were too stressed-out.”

Dr. Romie notes that career burnout is more than just a “funk,” and telling people to “get over” it is sort of like telling a clinically depressed person to “just cheer up already.” In fact, Dr. Romie knows firsthand how bad career burnout can be: after facing a life-threatening illness that was exacerbated by her own career burnout, Dr. Romie took off to travel the world and learn about mindfulness techniques — like meditation and yoga — that could help people overcome their own career burnout.

Why Do People Get Burnt Out, and What Can We Do About It?

Because everyone is susceptible to career burnout, no two cases look exactly the same, and Dr. Romie believes there are different levels and different types of career burnout. That being said, when Dr. Romie looks for a root cause for career burnout, she can trace it back to a loss of purpose.

In a world where only 13 percent of employees say they are engaged and happy in their work, many employees do not feel connected to their sense of life purpose. “The No. 1 psychological factor that drives people to work or live their life is a sense of purpose,” Dr. Romie says. “Whether your purpose is in the workplace or your sense of purpose is your role as a parent, without that sense of purpose, the risk of career burnout is made even greater.”

When we lose our sense of purpose, we no longer have an inherent reward system for clocking in every day, Dr. Romie says.

“We often think, to treat career burnout, we just need a higher paycheck, a different boss,  or a promotion,” Dr. Romie says. “But we don’t find happiness in validation from the external world.” This is because it’s an internal sense of purpose that we need when we’re suffering from career burnout — something the outside world cannot give us.

According to Dr. Romie, the first step toward treating career burnout is recognition. “Often, when a person is feeling burnt out, they may not even realize it, so it’s important as an employee, HR manager, or a boss, to understand and see these symptoms in your employees or your colleagues.”

If you recognize that you or someone close to you is suffering from career burnout, the next step is accessing a system of help. This can take the form of attending psychotherapy to deal with mood symptoms or seeing a physician for physical symptoms, such as ulcers or anxiety attacks.

The third step is reconnecting with our life purpose — which may not be our career. “We all need a paycheck to survive, but if we’re not connected to our life purpose, [our life purpose] may not necessarily be our career,” Dr. Romie says. “A lot of people will live their life purpose through their volunteer work, starting a nonprofit foundation, or donating time or money to that. Remember that our jobs — our nine-to-five jobs that give us our paychecks — don’t always have to be defined by our purpose. I mean, I think you’re really lucky when you can combine the two, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be that.”

Career Burnout Affects Employers, Too

When employees suffer career burnout, their employers can also feel the effects. According to the AIS, roughly 1 million workers are absent every day due to stress. Some studies estimate that up 60 percent of employee absences can be traced back to stress, and such absences cost American companies an average of $602 per employee per year.

It is in an employer’s best interest to help employees treat career burnout, and Dr. Romie says there are a few steps that companies can take to do just that. The first thing organizations can do is give employees “sincere validation.”

Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq, MD

Romila “Dr. Romie” Mushtaq, MD

“Myself included, and I can’t tell you how many clients I see, feel as if they have never been thanked for the job that they do at work, especially if they ‘took one for the team’ and maybe took on an extra project at work or put in extra hours without pay,” Dr. Romie says. “I think for managers and employers, there should never be an opportunity missed to show appreciation and gratitude, and that culture has to change. When people feel thanked and have a sense of gratitude coming in, it will help them connect to purpose and connect to motivation to come back to the job.”

The second thing employers can do is help burnt-out employees get the help they need — whether it’s in-house counseling or professional medical help. “If you notice an employee is struggling, find them professional help,” Dr. Romie says.

It is important that employees do not feel penalized when they receive help for career burnout. “No one is immune to the effects of career burnout,” Dr. Romie says. “It’s not a weakness in your character or your health that this is occurring.” Employers looking to aid burnt-out employees should act accordingly.

Ultimately, Dr. Romie hopes to raise awareness of career burnout so that employees and employers alike know what to do when it happens. “I really want people to realize there isn’t one stereotypical profile of an employee or an employer that fits career burnout,” she says. “If one of the symptoms resonates with someone: seek professional help.”


By Matthew Kosinski