I’d been sitting at my desk staring slack-jawed at that menacing blinking text cursor for the past 15 minutes. I was trying to muster up the motivation to actually get some real, productive work done—and, my attempts had so far been unsuccessful.
“I just can’t seem to focus,” I lamented to my husband, who was seated at his own desk across the room likely wondering if I was trying to type my next article by sheer mind power alone.
“Well, maybe you just need a break,” he responded, always one to be supportive and give me the benefit of the doubt, “You’ve been working really hard. You’re probably just burnt out.”
Burnt out. I cringed at just the mention of the phrase. Those two little words are scary, aren’t they? They immediately inspire mental images of a flame quite literally being extinguished—like you weren’t quite productive, successful, or tough enough to accomplish the work that was required of you. You simply just ran out of steam.
Me? Well, unfortunately, I’m never one to admit defeat—even when I desperately need to. I just continue to pile things on my plate like I’m at an all-you-can-eat buffet and figure I’ll worry about how I’ll make the necessary space for it all later.
I’ve probably been burnt out more times than I can count. But, rather than ever owning that, waving the white flag, and giving in to the fact that I need to press pause, I often pass it off as something else entirely—just like I did with my response to my husband that evening.
“No, I’m not burnt out,” I told him, while rolling my eyes for dramatic effect, “It’s just been a pretty chaotic week.”
What Does It Mean to Be Burnt Out?
There’s no denying that having an off week and being quite literally burnt out have some definite similarities. Both will inspire an exhausted, unmotivated, unfocused, negative, and just general “blegh” feeling—to use a super technical term.
However, you don’t want to rest on the assumption that these two emotions are the exact same thing. You can typically bounce back from the emotional funk a few bad days inspire relatively quickly.
But, recovering from burnout? That often requires measures a little more drastic than a pint of ice cream, a bottle of wine, and a good old-fashioned vent session.
So, when the two are so closely related, how can you tell which one you’re going through? Are you actually burnt out, or just having a few unfortunate days?
Ask yourself the following three questions to gain some clarity, and then determine how to move forward from there. But, in any case, the ice cream and wine can’t really hurt, can they?
1. How Long Have You Felt This Way?
Everybody has a few bad days at work here and there—that’s completely normal. But, burnout is more persistent than that. While the warning signs can be remarkably similar, a true burnout will nag at you much longer than a rough day in the office will.
Think about the last time you had a less-than-awesome week. Sure, maybe you screwed up during your presentation or had a disagreement with a co-worker. It was undoubtedly discouraging, but it likely wasn’t anything that a good night’s sleep or even a relaxing weekend couldn’t fix. You were able to bounce back into the office on Monday morning feeling ready to tackle your work.
But, things aren’t that simple if you’re feeling burnt out. The mere thought of sitting at your desk will inspire an immense feeling of dread. So, if you’ve been feeling completely miserable and drained for quite some time, that’s a pretty strong indicator that you might be dealing with a true breakdown—rather than a couple of tough days.
When thinking about this, you’ll also want to take some time to reflect on the last time you felt truly excited and inspired by what you do. Does a recent project or task instantly spring to mind that made you feel fulfilled and enthusiastic? Or, has trudging into the office been an exercise in frustration and exhaustion for as long as you can seem to remember?
If it’s been ages since your work actually inspired some passion and excitement, that’s yet another flashing sign that you should probably take a serious step back.
2. What Inspired This Feeling?
Here’s the thing about a bad day or week: You can typically pinpoint a very particular instance that led to you feeling so irritated.
Maybe your boss completely tore apart a report you had poured your blood, sweat, and tears into. Perhaps you got lost on your way to an important meeting, which forced you to be late, park illegally, and then get a pricey parking ticket. Or, maybe that obnoxious co-worker stole your leftover enchiladas out of the fridge. Whatever it is—you can usually identify a specific thing that’s causing you to feel upset.
But, if you’re having a tougher time zoning in on why you feel so disheartened and discouraged? Well, that might mean you’re just plain ol’ burnt out.
Burnout is normally caused by larger, more ambiguous issues—think an overwhelming workload, unrealistic expectations from your superiors, long hours, or just a general dislike of what you’ve been working on. And, while these things might seem obvious in writing, when you’re in the thick of it all, they aren’t quite as easy to recognize.
So, if you’re having a tough time diagnosing a precise cause for your current state, it usually means there’s a much bigger issue in play.
3. Have You Felt This Way Before?
Finally, it’s helpful to look back and determine whether or not you’ve ever felt like this previously. If you can’t recall ever feeling this tired or unmotivated, you could very likely be experiencing more than just the bad day blues. After all, I’m willing to bet that you’ve already had your fair share of horrible days in the office—and, if those didn’t inspire this sort of emotional funk, there might be something more serious going on.
If you have felt this way before, take some time to consider how you ended up pulling yourself out of this state previously. Were you able to move through it with a little bit of determination (and, ahem, the ice cream mentioned earlier)? Or, did you need to do something more drastic—like take a week off to relax and recharge or have a serious conversation with your boss about your responsibilities?
The past can be a great indicator of your future. So, don’t forget to reflect back on your previous experiences—they can reveal a lot about whether or not you’re truly burnt out or just having a few rocky workdays.
It’s not always easy to tell the difference between a true burnout and just an off week. Believe me, I get it. But, determining which you’re dealing with is essential for figuring out what to do next. So, use these three questions to gain some clarity and make forward steps from there.
And, when in doubt, never hesitate to cut yourself some slack, step away from the computer, and take a little (and likely well-deserved!) break. After all, a candle that’s constantly lit at both ends will only burn out sooner—as a matter of fact, it’s inevitable.
Photo of stressed person courtesy of Milton Brown/Getty Images.
Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life. In addition to The Muse, she's a contributor all over the web and dishes out research-backed advice for places like Atlassian, Trello, Toggl, Wrike, The Everygirl, FlexJobs, and more. She's also an Employment Advisor at a local college, and loves helping students prepare to thrive in careers (and lives!) they love. When she manages to escape from behind her computer screen, she's usually babying her two rescue mutts or continuing her search for the perfect taco. Say hi on Twitter @kat_boogaard or check out her website.More from this Author