Your Work Burnout Might Be Fueled By Loneliness. Two Psychologists Explain The Connection And How To Break Out Of The Cycle

Fortune Well October 17, 2023


Your Work Burnout Might Be Fueled By Loneliness. Two Psychologists Explain The Connection And How To Break Out Of The Cycle

Stressed, overwhelmed, dissatisfied, exhausted: These are just a few of the common emotions associated with burnout. But one feeling has been largely overlooked in the conversation surrounding fizzling out at work. Loneliness is on the rise in the American workforce and may be a major reason so many people feel dejected and uninspired at their desks.  

Many people use the word “burnout” synonymously with “stress,” but the two aren’t the same. The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” In other words, burnout doesn’t happen after one stressful day; it happens after an ongoing period of feeling like your daily work doesn’t align with your purpose and values. 

When burnout does creep in, your work friends can bail you out and bring a little reprieve to your nine-to-five, says Ashley Olivine, Ph.D. The trouble really arrives when we don’t feel satisfied with the work or those crucial work relationships. When this is the case, we may slip into a burnout-loneliness cycle. “If you’re not aligned with your job, and it’s feeding burnout, you need to be in an environment with people you resonate with,” says Olivine. 

If you feel stuck in this burnout-loneliness pattern, prioritizing connection and fulfillment at work is vital. Olivine and other experts offer their best tips for fighting burnout and loneliness at the office. 

1. Identify your purpose

Theoretically, when we put in the hours of hard work, we should feel fulfilled and accomplished in return. When that isn’t the case, it may be time to reassess your values. “It is important to always connect with your ‘why.’ Why did I take this job? Why did I get into this field? What do I hope to accomplish in this role?’ These questions can help connect to our purpose and therefore our motivation,” says Mary Ann Covey, Psy.D., a psychologist with Thriveworks.

Once you know your purpose, you may be able to make strategic moves to infuse your everyday labor with more of what you love. For example, if leadership is something that fills you up, you can offer to guide more meetings, inquire about training to help you close a skills gap, or look to take on more high-profile roles at company events. 

2. Talk to your boss about aligning your job with your purpose

Depending on where you are in your career, you may need to ask your boss to help you match your job description with your purpose. “If you thought that your job was going to be one thing and then the functions change or you are barely able to do what excites you about the job, you will find it hard to invest in it,” says Covey. A good manager will help you brainstorm ways to feel more connected with your to-do list and try their best to shape your role into something you’re proud to do every day. They may even be able to help you switch teams within your company if another specialty would be more on par with your goals. 

3. Create tiny, achievable goals at work 

Let’s face it: Not every manager will be willing (or able) to adjust your job title. If they can’t, Covey recommends creating daily micro-goals for yourself. “Often we wait until a year-end review to find out how we are doing, but that is too long for most people. Setting smaller, achievable goals can again contribute to purpose and motivation,” she says. 

4. Say no more often (if you feel like you can)

If you’re already feeling burned out and lonely, now is not the time to bury yourself in work. “Do not keep saying yes to everything asked, both in one’s personal life and work life,” says psychologist Brandy Smith, Ph.D. “Give yourself time to genuinely check in with yourself when a request is made as to whether it can be done or not and if the time frame requested is feasible or not.” 

If you tend to battle people-pleasing tendencies, she recommends saying something like, “I want to be able to make that happen, but I have to check my schedule before confirming anything.” Something like this can give you a moment to decide if that ask lines up with who you want to be at work or not. 

5. Assess what makes you feel calm and present

We live in a world that tells you that the only way to relax is to meditate, go for a run, get acupuncture, write in a journal—you get the picture. The truth is, only you know what will truly help you de-escalate from a hard day at work. “If you know that ‘fresh air is gonna be good for you’ and you’re stressing about getting your steps in, you’re adding more stress instead of lightening the load,” says Olivine. 

Choosing an activity that you truly love will be what actually gives you a brief respite from the burnout-loneliness cycle. So think about what brings you joy (not stress), and do that thing. 

6. Seek out connections at work, even if your job is fully remote

“Go out to lunch or grab a coffee with a colleague at least once a week. Friendships at work are key to help you through difficult times at work and they can also bring joy to a mundane work environment,” says Covey. Even if these friendships feel forced at first, give them a chance. Soon enough, you may be Slack messaging about why this meeting is so long.

7. Connect and celebrate with people when you’re not on the clock

When the hours of nine-to-five just aren’t working for you, non-work relationships are even more important. Covey recommends taking every opportunity to meet up and celebrate with others and make sure you arrive rested and ready to fully engage. 

“Invest time and energy into the people you feel you can more fully be yourself with, who know you more deeply and support you through thick and thin,” says Smith. If you do not have that person or those people yet, do not despair. “Even surface connectedness can help us, and some of those can turn deeper over time and with more shared experiences.” 

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