Would You Recognize the Signs of Burnout?

If you think back, it wasn’t always like this. There was a time when you felt excited about both your personal and professional life. You woke up in the morning rearing to go, ready to tackle the day ahead.

But lately, the alarm goes off and you lie in bed feeling exhausted despite a full night of sleep. You can’t bear the thought of getting up and going to work. Your productivity has plummeted; you feel overwhelmed by the mountain of responsibilities piled up on your desk; and your mental state is starting to negatively affect your social life and relationships. You remind yourself what day it is and count down to the weekend.

This state of physical, mental and emotional fatigue has become your constant partner. Feeling disillusioned and disengaged, you wonder, "What is wrong with me?"

If this sounds all too familiar, you are likely experiencing a bad case of burnout!

We typically think of burnout in terms of jobs and careers, but burnout can occur anytime we are spending an excessive amount of hours in our day devoted to a cause that we have determined essential and necessary.

The word burnout was first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger in his book, "Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement". In it, he refers to "a state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward, causing the extinction of motivation or incentive."

The American Psychological Association’s David Ballard, PsyD, describes job burnout as "an extended period where someone experiences exhaustion and a lack of interest in things, resulting in a decline in their job performance." In their International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization labels it an "occupational phenomenon."

And although burnout isn’t a diagnosable psychological or medical disorder, that does not mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously.

Know the Warning Signs

Individuals struggling with burnout experience many adverse effects that impact their career success. Burnout causes a decrease in productivity and job performance. The fatigue and hopelessness that accompany job burnout leads to calling in sick and missing days of work. At work, there is a lack of engagement. When significant, these issues can threaten job security.

Chronic energy depletion leads to exhaustion, a decrease in social interactions, and plummeting  self-esteem. Irritability, negativity and impatience with others can be detrimental to both professional and personal relationships. Withdrawing from family and friends can lead to social isolation.

Left unchecked, the increased stress that accompanies this state can lead to stress-induced physical problems, such as insomnia, anxiety disorder and depression. Those struggling with burnout are more vulnerable to substance or alcohol abuse or developing dysfunctional eating habits.

There are many factors that can contribute to burnout, and they vary by individual. Some factors—the culture of your company, overwhelming work load, an aggressive boss, long hours required at the office—are external, while others may be internally motivated. Individuals who are prone to Type-A behaviors, identify as perfectionists or lean in to workaholism, for example, are particularly vulnerable to burnout.

Those who recognize this mindset or the common signs should be aware of the potential for burnout. Often, people slip into burnout subtly and, when they finally start recognizing the symptoms, believe their feelings are caused by the demands of the job and are unaware of how many issues are self-inflicted.

Burnout may present varying signs and symptoms. Some might experience just a few, whereas others may exhibit many. Being self-aware, recognizing common warning signs and proactively seeking solutions, sooner rather than later, can prevent detrimental and long-lasting negative consequences.
  1. Having a negative and critical attitude at work.
  2. Dreading going to work and/or wanting to leave once you're there.
  3. Having low energy and little interest at work and at home.
  4. Missing many days of work or frequently calling in sick.
  5. Feeling easily irritated by team members or clients.
  6. Feeling like your work and contributions go unrecognized.
  7. Having thoughts that your work doesn't have meaning or make a difference.
  8. Difficulty falling asleep or insomnia.
  9. Feelings of emptiness and hopelessness.
  10. Increased use of alcohol, drugs and food to alleviate stress.
  11. Experiencing physical pains, such as headaches, stomachaches or backache, and greater frequency of illness.
  12. Pulling away emotionally from your colleagues, clients, family and friends.

Banishing Burnout

Once you recognize that you are dangerously close to burning out, it is time to take action. Although there are solutions which will decrease the symptoms of burnout in the short-term, they do not get to the core issues.

First, you must be brutally honest with yourself, or enlist a trusted friend to help you analyze your situation. Is burnout being caused by an unhealthy work situation or a stressful life circumstance that has been thrust upon you? Or, are you personally demanding unreasonable expectations of yourself?

It is not often easy to assess, but it is critical to know where to seek assistance. If you determine that you are in an unhealthy environment, it will be important to analyze your current work situation and ask for help adjusting it. Talk to your boss about prioritizing job assignments, delegating some work or finding more opportunities to use your personal strengths.

Setting boundaries around home and work is also key. Is your boss really expecting you to answer emails at 10 p.m., or is that your assumption? Unplugging from devices and creating firm boundaries that allow you to disconnect is crucial, so make an effort to turn off your phone after 8 p.m. and create a healthy sleep routine. Learn to communicate with your boss or HR through ongoing evaluations. Difficult, but crucial conversations, often clarify expectations and lead to changes for the better.

When you are experiencing the signs and symptoms of burnout, seek support. Reach out to family, friends and co-workers. Severe or long-term symptoms may require the help of a mental health professional. If your company offers EAP (Employee Assistance Programs), inquire about what services are available.

Luckily, the same techniques that help maintain a healthy lifestyle, and harmonious life-work integration, work for burnout prevention. Cultivate a rich non-work related life. Engage in a hobby or passion project, volunteer, find a gym you love, reconnect with friends, listen to music—making time for these moments of self-care make a big different.  

When in the throes of burnout, a way out may feel unattainable, and in some cases, switching jobs or making a career change may be in your best interest. However, before jumping ship, remember that despite demanding and stressful situations, many individuals thrive and can remain passionate about their careers and life.

These highly successful individuals prioritize self-care, ask for assistance when needed, and work to find meaning, challenge and excitement in the work they do. Gone is the perfectionist attitude, replaced by comfort in knowing they are striving to do their personal best, and that is good enough.

Heed the warning signs above, take action when you recognize symptoms and seek support. Very soon, you will return to the days when you awoke with energy and enthusiasm for the day ahead—no matter what that day may bring.