Work Burnout: Why Does It Happen and How Can You Prevent It?

There was a time when you loved your job. Okay, so maybe you liked it—or at least didn’t mind it. But lately, maybe there’s been a shift. The weekends feel far shorter, and the standard Monday morning blues seem to last a lot longer—like, the whole week. You might find yourself complaining about work to anyone who will listen or venting your frustrations in more unhealthy ways. Maybe you fantasize about quitting, a lot. You feel overwhelmed, underappreciated and unfulfilled.

In other words, you’re burned out.

Symptoms of work burnout can vary from person to person, ranging from mild to severe. When Victoria Bogner, CEO and co-founder of Affinity Financial Advisors, was overwhelmed with work stress, the symptoms were physical, mental and relational. "Panic attacks started happening more frequently. I felt dizzy and sick to my stomach most days, and I had brain fog," she recalls. "I went to my doctor, who told me I either needed a vacation or anxiety meds, which was a wake-up call."

Some common physical signs of burnout include headaches, fatigue, trouble sleeping, upset stomach, skin disturbances and getting sick more often. It can also manifest in mental and emotional ways, such as irritability, trouble connecting with others, inability to focus on tasks, an increase in errors, a constant dread of going to work and a general feeling of negativity.

What Causes Work Burnout?

If you’re on the brink of burnout—or already immersed in it—you’re far from alone. A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23 percent feel burned out at work "very often or always," while an additional 44 percent sometimes feel burned out.

Psychotherapist Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW confirms that feeling overwhelmed at work is common and understandable. "Work burnout happens most often when demands of the job are not balanced by a feeling of appreciation, either verbally, in compensation or in realistic expectations of time," she explains.

Stuart Hearn, CEO and founder of corporate consulting firm Clear Review, notes that lack of guidance from management can play a role. "According to Gallup, roughly half of employees don’t actually know what’s required of them at work," he points out. "When employees are eager to perform well and accomplish goals but they aren’t clear about what these goals actually are, that’s a recipe for burnout."

And, of course, being overburdened with too much work or unrealistic goals can create a lopsided work/life balance. "Simply having too much on your plate at all times, being constantly pulled in many directions, having multiple roles or being in environments that are always reactive or in ‘putting-out-fire mode,’ can quickly lead to burnout," says Sarah Deane, creator of EMQ. "When work is taking up too much of your physical time or mental space, you have less time to spend with family and friends to practice self-care and be present."

Lack of appreciation is another major contributor to burnout. When you don’t feel that your work is adding value to the organization, it’s easy to start feeling apathetic and disengaged.

How to Prevent Burnout

Work burnout might be common, but you’re not powerless to prevent it. Experts share some tips on how you can stay energized and engaged on the job, and how to spend your off hours relaxing and recharging instead of worrying about work.

Find something you’re passionate about.

We’ve all heard the old adage, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life." Mike Tinney, CEO of the health and wellness startup FIX Health, agrees that if you’re not passionate about what you're doing, it’s much more likely that you’ll suffer from burnout at some point. "If you're in a career that is unfulfilling, I recommend taking a page from Steve Job's playbook," he says. "Ask yourself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?' If the answer has been 'no' for too many days in a row, it’s time to make a change."

Plan for tomorrow.

Holly Smith, corporate mental health advocate for Maxwell-Scott, recommends spending the last five minutes of each day in the office planning out the next day’s tasks—and then leaving it there, literally and figuratively. "This way, there is a very clear definition between work and home life. You can leave work at work and relax in the evenings," Smith says.

Start the day with meditation.

Smith suggests beginning each day with a meditation session. This can be as short as three minutes, but she recommends working your way up to 10 minutes to ensure a consistent practice.

Deane echoes the need to create some space for silence in each day, even if it’s just five minutes tacked onto your shower. "The first few moments, your mind may be racing with thoughts, but soon, especially if you focus on something (like the feeling of the water), your mind will relax," she says. "From this place, you will experience greater clarity, better ideas and increased energy."

Set expectations and boundaries upfront.

It's tempting to say "yes" to every opportunity or feel obligated to help with every project, but you will eventually hit your limit, warns Bogner. "It's better to gracefully say 'no' now than to crash and burn later," she says. "The phrase I like to use is, ‘I currently have a list of other priorities I'm helping with and I really don't want to fracture my focus. But once I have a few of those wrapped up, I'd be happy to pitch in.’"

Set expectations with family and friends.

If you're going through a rough season where work needs to take center stage, Bogner says it’s important to keep your partner or loved ones in the loop so they feel connected and involved. "Don't simply say you're working late that night—fill them in on the project, how long it might take and what you'll do when it's over to get back to center," she recommends. "Let them know this is temporary, you appreciate their support and your intention is to regain the balance ASAP."

Suggest team-building activities.

Too much work and not enough play is a recipe for burnout, notes Monica Carol, HR Manager at Team Bonding NYC. "In recent years, more companies are investing in team building to add a little fun back into the workday," she says. "These activities give employees a chance to bond and create new friendships, which has statistically proven benefits for improving job satisfaction, productivity and employee retention."

Talk to your supervisor about introducing some team-building sessions, which can range from classic activities include trust falls, icebreakers and scavenger hunts to more creative options like guacamole-making competitions and cupcake-decorating classes.

Practice mindfulness.

To prevent work burnout, counselor Mabel Yiu stresses the importance of slowing down, paying attention to your surroundings and embracing the act of mindfulness. "It is so easy to get burned out when we are going full speed ahead all the time," she says. "Taking time to stop and smell the roses, as the saying goes, can help us be more productive and happier in the long run. We need time to enjoy the lives we have built for ourselves and to appreciate all the beauty around us."

Take detachment breaks.

Start implementing 10-minute breaks every 90 minutes to two hours, suggests Deane. In this time, stretch, take a quick walk, have some water or switch tasks. "Our bodies work in cycles of energy, and this time allows your mind to refresh, allowing you to return to tasks with better focus and energy," she says.

Live for today, but plan for tomorrow.

For your overall well-being, it's important to focus on living for today, while also looking ahead to tomorrow, Newman notes. Living for today might mean taking a deep breath, going for a quick walk outside or just savoring your coffee as a way of centering yourself amid the tasks at hand.

Looking ahead for tomorrow is the cornerstone of true self-care. "Ask yourself what you can do today that will make your life even just 5 percent more manageable tomorrow," Newman suggests. "Even though you feel strapped for time, look for opportunities to invest a small amount of time that will result in a large return."

Implement focused "worry" time.

If you find that you can’t get anxious thoughts out of your head, Deane suggests adding some focused "worry time" to your day. "Consider this a period of time in which you are giving yourself permission and space to think about your worries before moving on to your next task," she says.

Focus on acts of self-care.

Being overwhelmed at work often spills over into our personal lives. If you're on the brink of burnout, Newman suggests focusing on simple acts of self-care, like sleeping, showering, eating nutritiously, taking your medications and drinking water. "Then, when you have a handle on the basics, try adding some indulgent self-care: take a bath, read a good book, light a nice candle, nourish your skin, cook a favorite meal or reach out to a friend as a way to gain momentum back to your usual functioning," she recommends.

Reach out for help.

If you're already in the midst of burnout, start by acknowledging that you are burned out and ask for help. "Reach out to those close to you at work and tell them what's going on," Newman suggests. "Ask for them to pick up some of the slack where they can, or to help you through things that are tough. Try to work your way back up to fuller functioning by adding back tasks one at a time so you don't quickly become oversaturated again."