Recognizing and Addressing Burnout: Signs, Symptoms, and Recovery

April 18, 2024   •  Posted in: 

Burnout is so pervasive in American society today that it’s almost normalized. Three in 5 U.S. employees report burnout, which is even higher in certain professions[1].

Stress and burnout are often dismissed as natural parts of working life, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Although burnout is very common, life doesn’t have to be this way, and there are strategies that can help.

Here, we’ll discuss burnout, how to recognize the signs, and what you can do to find your spark again.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a form of exhaustion that affects physical, mental, and emotional health. It usually results from being swamped—from having too much on one’s plate.

The term “burnout” was first used in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He coined it to describe the severe stress people in helping professions—like doctors, nurses, and social workers—feel due to their jobs[2]. Today, we use the term burnout to describe the experience of being exhausted by—and therefore disconnected from—our lives.

The World Health Organization has included burnout in the latest edition of the International Classification of Disorders (ICD-11), defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.[3]

According to the ICD-11, burnout specifically occurs in the workplace and can’t be used to describe mental and physical exhaustion that occurs in other areas of life. However, some experts believe we can get burnt out in any area of life; for example, research has been conducted on the burnout experienced by informal family caregivers[4].

Symptoms of burnout

According to the ICD-11, burnout is defined by three core symptoms:

  1. Feeling depleted of energy and exhausted: You feel like you’re working yourself into the ground. Getting out of bed in the morning is challenging, and you’re completely drained when you get home.
  2. Feeling mentally distant or cynical about your job: You dread going to work; if you don’t, it’s because you don’t care enough to. You feel like you’re going through the motions of your job description, but you’re no longer invested. You may feel bitter or resentful.
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment: You can’t help but feel your job is meaningless. You feel like you can’t succeed, no matter how hard you try. So why bother?

In addition to these officially recognized symptoms, burnout may cause other physical, emotional, and behavioral changes.

Physical signs of burnout

  • Frequent tension headaches
  • Getting sick more often than usual
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Fatigue or daytime sleepiness
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • High blood pressure

Mental and emotional signs of burnout

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of interest in life or job
  • Feelings of worthlessness or helplessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of motivation
  • Decreased creativity and passion

Behavioral signs of burnout

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased drug or alcohol use
  • Reduced performance and productivity
  • Social isolation
  • Procrastination or avoidance of work responsibilities

Causes of burnout

A personal weakness or failure, experts agree, doesn’t cause burnout. It doesn’t have a genetic component like mental health disorders. Instead, the causes of burnout can usually be found in the workplace, not the individual[5].

Some workplace issues that can cause burnout for employees include:

  • Lack of control and autonomy over workload
  • Lack of recognition
  • Monotonous tasks, or “busy work”
  • An unchallenging job
  • An overly demanding or high-pressure job
  • Toxic work environment, including workplace bullying and harassment
  • A disorganized, chaotic work environment
  • Insufficient compensation (low pay)
  • Long working hours
  • Poor interpersonal relationships at work
  • Being in a career that regularly exposes you to trauma, like social work, teaching, healthcare, or firefighting

Although toxic workplace environments are the number one cause of burnout, some individual personality traits can heighten your risk as well. These include:

  • Lack of effective stress management skills
  • Perfectionism
  • Lack of work-life boundaries
  • Not having a strong social support system

This doesn’t mean burnout is your fault. It just means there may be some underlying causes that may put you at higher risk.

Signs you could be facing burnout

The following are some common signs of burnout. If you can relate to most or all of them, then you may be facing burnout.

  • Your job used to be meaningful to you, but now it’s just a chore.
  • You’re constantly exhausted, no matter how much you sleep.
  • You feel disconnected from your organization’s mission.
  • You feel like you lack purpose.
  • You’re having unexplained physical symptoms like frequent headaches or stomach aches.
  • You get easily annoyed with people and snap at them.
  • You feel like you’re just going through the motions of life.
  • You’ve been using more drugs and alcohol just to get through the days.
  • You find yourself procrastinating more than usual.
  • You don’t get as much done, but you don’t really care.
  • You don’t get the “point” of doing anything.
  • You feel like you can’t succeed no matter what – so why bother?

How do you overcome burnout?

Luckily, burnout doesn’t have to be permanent—there are steps you can take to heal and regain your passion.

Notice the signs of burnout

You can’t take action to heal if you don’t come face-to-face because you are burnt out. However, many of us continue to go through the motions of life; it’s as if the feelings that come along with burnout just get normalized. We don’t notice the signs. But without intervention, burnout tends to get worse. It’s best not to wait for a crisis to take action.

Educate yourself on the signs of burnout. Be mindful of your physical and emotional health, and pay close attention to your feelings. Are you getting sick more often than usual? Have the “Sunday Blues” been hitting you harder than before? Has one happy hour drink turned into four or five?

It’s normal to experience these things now and then, but if the symptoms last, you could be facing burnout. The earlier you notice these signs, the faster you can take action—you may even be able to prevent burnout altogether.

Create distance

When you notice signs of burnout, the next step is to create some distance between yourself and whatever you are feeling burnt out about—whether that’s work, a relationship, a passion project, or anything else. Take some time away if you can. Engage in other areas of your life that still interest you.

Of course, it’s tricky for most people to create total distance – we typically can’t take weeks away from a job we’re burnt out on or abandon our caregiving responsibilities. But it doesn’t have to be a complete break; creating even small boundaries can help. For example, resolve not to talk about work on your days off. Try to get a few moments to yourself every evening to do something that excites you.

These little moments of distance can provide the space you need to start healing.

Make changes

The characteristics of specific jobs or situations often lead to burnout—it’s not you. So, it may be necessary to take action and change your situation where you can. For example, for a job, you might consider talking to a supervisor about reducing your workload or moving to a more flexible schedule.

If that’s not possible—it isn’t for many—then focus on the areas of your job you can control. For example, could you improve your work friendships? Could you work on other projects that are more interesting to you?

If your toxic workplace contributes to stress and burnout and there’s no way things will change, then it could be time to start planning your exit. Leaving your job may not be feasible immediately, but planning for it can give you hope in an otherwise bleak situation.

Get professional help

Lastly, many people get professional mental health support for burnout. Burnout is different from mental health conditions like depression or anxiety, but it’s still serious. Over time, the feelings of burnout may have started to feel “normal” to you – but you deserve to feel better.

Mental health therapy can provide a place for you to talk about what’s going on, what the experience of burnout has been like for you, and how you’d like things to be different. With a therapist, you can explore options to change your situation so you can cope and learn new tools to become more resilient. A therapist can also help you figure out if you’re dealing with burnout or something else, like depression.

Mental health support for professionals in Washington

If you’re facing burnout, the clinical team at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. We have specialized treatment programs, including a highly confidential and exclusive program for executives and high-net-worth individuals needing more privacy and security. These high-performing jobs come with an incredible amount of stress and burnout. We understand and are ready to help.

Don’t let burnout become your “normal.” Life can be full of passion and energy again. Contact us for more information about our programs or to request treatment.

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Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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