6 Signs You’re Burning Out—and What to Do About It
Health experts reveal how to identify whether workplace burnout and what to do about it to feel both mentally and physically healthier.
Signs of burnout
Paulette Gareri recalls when she reached the end of her rope at work. "I was dealing with the ever-changing demands of being a high-school teacher," she says. From large class sizes with multiple education levels within each class to prepping for lesson observations, Gareri says she was "constantly reinventing the wheel" and found it "frustrating and upsetting." She remembers feeling that all the extra work she put in took away time from her own child. Gareri says she would get frequent headaches, gain weight, and develop feelings of anxiety, depression, and even anger. She was experiencing burnout.
In 2019, burnout became a recognized syndrome in the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11). However, the term was first identified by psychologists in the 1970s. The WHO defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn't been successfully managed.
"Generally speaking, burnout is defined as a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that results from excessive and prolonged stress," says Deborah Serani, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. "In the medical world, burnout is a physical diagnosis, considered exhaustion, and no more. In the mental health world, burnout is considered a stress-related disorder." If you're a caregiver, here are 7 tips to avoid burnout.
Some researchers disagree on certain aspects of burnout, such as whether and how it overlaps with depression, if it's a problem to be solved by individuals or employers, and how effective treatments are, according to a 2016 paper published in World Psychiatry. But there's no doubt it exists: In a March 2020 Gallup poll, 76 percent of employees surveyed said they experience burnout at least sometimes, with 28 percent dealing with it very often or always. Here's how to know if you may be one of them.
You're under a lot of stress
"Stress is the main reason burnout occurs," Serani says. "But more importantly, it's the kind of stress that worsens burnout. Burnout is at its worst when it's chronic stress, meaning long term situations are experienced." Stress activates the body's physical, physiological, and psychological systems, says Dee O'Neill, a licensed professional counselor and head of executive and corporate solutions at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. "Eventually, the human body and brain reach a breaking point: burnout," she says. An overwhelming workload, demanding managers, toxic culture, or a boss who is a psychopath can all contribute to chronic workplace stress.
You're losing interest in your job
Stress isn't the only factor. According to the World Psychiatry paper, if you're still highly engaged in and fulfilled by your job, even if it's high-stress, it might not lead to burnout. After all, there's bad stress and good stress. The WHO includes a couple of other identifying factors that push employees over the tipping point for burnout, from an increase in mental distance from the job to reduced professional efficacy. So if you're so over your job and, as a result, aren't putting your all into it anymore, you've likely burnt out. Burnout-related job factors include not enough reward or recognition for your work, as well as a sense that things are unfair or unequal.
You have feelings of exhaustion, irritability, and can't sleep
In terms of physical symptoms, burnout probably won't come suddenly. It will happen little by little, possibly without you realizing until you're in the thick of it. Burnout can become one of the surprising things that drains your energy. "Burnout often begins in a slow, undetectable way," Serani says. "First gaining traction with intermittent irritability and fatigue—changes in sleeping and eating, and mild physical complaints like aches and pains. Then it gradually builds over time." You might also experience stomach upset and headaches. O'Neill agrees that the negative stress that causes burnout is characterized by anxiety, irritability, and fatigue as well.
You have trouble concentrating
"Burnout raises the stress hormone, cortisol, which negatively impacts your mind and body," Serani says. In addition to physical symptoms, the surge of cortisol can also cause mental issues like inattention and difficulty concentrating, she says. This can make it even more difficult to perform at work. "Because stress levels dampen your ability to concentrate and problem solve, burnout can feel like it hits you like a ton of bricks," she says. Here's how you can boost your concentration with food.
This is because with a stress response, a different part of your brain takes over. "In our brain, the frontal lobes, right behind our forehead, is where higher-order thinking is facilitated—things like complex problem-solving, decision-making, and emotional regulation," says O'Neill. "In contrast, two small structures deep in the brain called the amygdala have the job of constantly scanning your environment for threats and reacting for survival. Under stressful situations, there's an 'either/or' phenomenon. Either the reasoning/logical thinking part of your brain is online, or your reactive/survival part of your brain is in charge. Both cannot be fully firing at the same time." So when you're in survival mode, your higher-order thinking suffers.
You need to lift the pressure
If this sounds like you, there are basically two ways to address burnout. You can try to reduce your stress response to the job, or you can try to change the job itself. For the latter, O'Neill identifies two ways to manage your response to stress: reframing and recharging. "Reframing is a simple technique to refocus your mindset and emotions," O'Neill says. "When we can shift from automatic negative thinking and emotions to consider more options, we change our biochemistry. Brain imaging studies show increased activation in reasoning parts of the brain, and decreased activation in the emotional parts of the brain." If you're mindful of every time you think "I'm so stressed" or "I hate my job," you can change your thinking to "I'm being challenged" or "I can do this."
You can also try recharging. "The way to quickly and effectively recharge our brain and body is surprisingly simple: Focus on mindful breathing," O'Neill says. "Our breath is the bridge between our body and brain: It controls how the longest nerve in our body, the vagus nerve, is activated. Practice making your breathing pattern slower and deeper, bringing your attention to both your inhalation and your exhalation. This is the 'on' switch for the relaxation response." Serani adds that this type of "recharging" self-care also requires healthy foods, good sleep, and exercise. Consider these simple tweaks to make your workspace healthier, as well.
Stress is a hard-wired response, but once you are aware of it, you can practice ways to rewire that response, O'Neill says. "This is the best way to strengthen our resilience and avoid burnout," she says.
You're thinking about changing—or quitting—your job
There's only so much an individual can do. As previous research suggests, it's ultimately up to employers and organizations to change the workplace culture and environment that lead to burnout. You can help take charge of your destiny at work by talking to your manager, says Serani. "Ask for different work responsibilities, devise a way to deal with burnout via flex time, working from home full or part-time, take scheduled breaks away from work, delegate, and learn to say no," she says. Realizing your value as an employee can help you regain control at your job, and keep work from making you sick.
If possible, you could also consider a more drastic measure and leave your current position. That's what former teacher Gareri did. "I started working for my family business, a pastry shop, to give me the flexibility to be there for my daughter," she says. But, "while I am much happier being around for my daughter, the financial end has been stressful." After a period of soul-searching to figure out what her next career move was, she's now a realtor. "It is in addition to the bakery, and I am very excited," she says. "I love the home-buying process, seeing the potential in any home that's on the market, and helping and interacting with people." It can be scary to change your job or even your career. But the decision to end burnout could lead you down another path that's healthier both mentally and physically.
- Paulette Gareri, realtor and former teacher
- WHO: "Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases"
- Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist and professor at Adelphi University, Garden City, New York
- Clinical Psychology Review: "Burnout–depression overlap: A review"
- World Psychiatry: "Understanding the burnout experience: recent research and its implications for psychiatry"
- Gallup: "Employee Burnout: The Biggest Myth"
- Dee O'Neill, MS, LPC, BCN, head of executive and corporate solutions, the Center for BrainHealth, the University of Texas at Dallas