Your Guide to Work Burnout: Signs, Causes, and Steps to Take
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Are you tired? Of course, you are. Most of us feel like we have too much to do, and day after day of juggling work and personal responsibilities can leave us feeling stressed and exhausted. So let’s rephrase: Are you tired and stressed and the feelings seem insurmountable? If so, you might be burnt out.
Americans have long been overworked, but the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated these problems. Navigating a massive global health crisis, the blurred boundaries of remote work, childcare and virtual school, and so much more all at once was a recipe for burnout. An August 2021 Talkspace survey of 1,000 workers revealed that a staggering 52% were experiencing burnout. That burnout was affecting their sleep, increasing stress levels, causing physical health problems, and making them short-tempered.
Feeling stress at work isn’t new, of course. However, COVID-19 changed workers’ relationships with their jobs. “Whether it was recognizing that the demands of the workplace were too strenuous or priorities changed,” says Alison LaSov, a licensed marriage and family therapist and CEO of the mental health platform Advekit, “people were exhausted from what was previously expected from them and what they had to sacrifice physically, emotionally, or mentally.”
Burnout, in turn, is one of the factors fueling the “Great Resignation,” which has seen millions of workers quit their jobs and pursue new opportunities. Workers who often feel stressed and tense at work—both of which can lead to burnout—are more than three times as likely to look for new jobs, according to the American Psychological Association’s (APA) 2021 Work and Wellbeing Survey.
But what exactly is burnout—and how do you know if you have it? Here’s a detailed look at the causes and symptoms of burnout, and steps you can take to try to overcome and prevent it.
- What is burnout?
- What are the causes of burnout?
- What are the signs of burnout?
- How can I overcome burnout?
- How can I avoid burnout?
What is burnout?
Everyone has a bad day from time to time or experiences extra stress over a looming deadline. But you usually feel better once the deadline passes or after binge-watching Netflix or taking a day off. Burnout, however, doesn’t go away that easily.
“Burnout feels like you’re drowning in responsibilities,” LaSov says. “Like you can’t cope or surmount these feelings.” With burnout, these feelings are chronic. It’s a persistent state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion resulting from prolonged periods of stress.
Burnout also doesn’t happen overnight. It usually develops over a period of time, says Meghan Marcum, PsyD, chief psychologist at AMFM Healthcare, a behavioral health services treatment facility in San Juan Capistrano, CA. The feelings are so overwhelming that it interferes with your ability to function at work and bleeds over into your home life, affecting your relationships and enjoyment of downtime.
The World Health Organization (WHO)—which designated burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019—says it’s characterized by:
- A sense of exhaustion or depletion
- Mental distance from or negativity or cynicism about work
- Decreased effectiveness at work
The WHO officially defines burnout as a phenomenon or “syndrome” (as opposed to classifying it as a medical condition) that results from work-related stress that isn’t well-managed—and notes that it’s strictly work-related and the term shouldn’t be used to describe other areas of life. However, LaSov and Marcum say burnout can be triggered by a combo of an overwhelming amount of work and home responsibilities and stress. And colloquially, the term “burnout” has been used in other contexts.
What are the causes of burnout?
No single factor causes burnout, but it generally follows a prolonged period of stress, disenchantment with your job, or anything else that can leave you feeling exhausted and disengaged. This exhaustion can be triggered by many things and varies from person to person. For example, according to the APA’s survey, work-related stress was most influenced by low salaries, long hours, and not enough opportunity for advancement in jobs.
You may also eventually feel burnt out if:
- Your workload is too big. Having too much on your plate is exhausting and overwhelming, which increases your risk for burnout. “The stress may stem from not only working longer hours but the fear of saying no to projects and coming off as someone who doesn’t want to take initiative or step up,” LaSov says.
- You have poor work relationships. Having a demanding boss or a supervisor who’s overly critical can heighten stress and frustration levels, Marcum says. LaSov adds that an uncomfortable workplace leads to isolation and can make it difficult to get your work done (which may lead to even more stress in the long run).
- Your values don’t align with your company’s. “When someone’s goals and values no longer align with the company’s, it may result in lower job satisfaction, unhappiness, and unproductivity,” which may result in burnout, LaSov says.
- Your work doesn’t seem meaningful. Workers who see that their role has a positive impact on their organization or the world at large tend to have higher job satisfaction. On the other end, not having a sense of purpose or not believing that your work matters can lead to burnout.
- You don’t have (or take) enough time off. A day off or vacation won’t necessarily cure burnout, but time away from work is good for you: It helps you relax, recharge, and spend some time on the things that matter outside of work. Half of workers said not having enough paid time off or sick days led to higher stress levels, according to the APA. And while just about every salaried worker has at least some PTO, not everyone actually takes even their allotted time off for a variety of reasons.
- You’re not recognized for your work. Feel like the effort and hours you’re putting in or even the extra tasks you’re taking on go unnoticed or underappreciated? This can diminish your positive feelings and satisfaction with your job, LaSov says.
- You feel like you don’t have control. Nearly 50% of workers say not being involved in decisions at work contributes to stress, according to the APA. And when you don’t have any say in what happens at work or you lack the resources you need to perform your job effectively, it can cause burnout, Marcum says.
- You don’t have work-life balance. “Our culture mistakenly overvalues excessive work, so you get a pat on the back if you stay extra late and burn the candle at both ends,” Marcum says. But candles aren’t designed to be burned at both ends—and neither are you. Everyone needs downtime. When you’re working during hours when you should be relaxing, burnout could creep in.
What are the signs of burnout?
If working long hours and taking on too much are things you do on a regular basis, pay attention to how you’re feeling. Are you always exhausted? Do you feel stressed out just thinking about work? These feelings could mean you have burnout and shouldn’t be ignored.
Burnout can show up in many different ways. You may experience physical symptoms, mental health effects, or emotional distress. Here are some of the most common signs of burnout.
1. You can’t get excited about work anymore.
Not feeling the same level of excitement, enthusiasm, or satisfaction about your job that you used to, or feeling cynical or negative about work are both telltale signs of burnout. People with burnout often feel numb about their work, or they may emotionally distance themselves from their jobs and related activities and alienate themselves from their coworkers, LaSov says. Sometimes this indifference can bleed over into your personal life and cause you to stop enjoying your favorite activities.
2. Your performance is suffering.
Disinterest and lack of excitement about work—as well as a negative or apathetic attitude—can lead to poorer performance. “If there’s low motivation at work and you’re not really enjoying being there, you’ll notice decreased productivity,” Marcum says. “You’re not able to accomplish the same amount that you used to.” And your boss and coworkers might notice, especially if these behaviors differ from your usual approach to work.
You may also struggle with attention, concentration, and a lack of creativity, Marcum adds, which will further affect your performance.
3. You’re totally exhausted.
Fatigue and exhaustion—both emotional and physical—are hallmarks of burnout. People dealing with burnout often have trouble sleeping and struggle to get out of bed in the morning, Marcum says. LaSov adds that along with a lack of energy, you may feel emotionally drained or depleted just thinking about work or while doing daily work tasks.
4. You just dread going to work.
The Sunday scaries creep in on everyone sometimes. But “if you feel anxious or depressed the day before your work week begins, that’s potentially a sign of burnout,” Marcum says. And feeling the Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday scaries could mean something deeper is going on.
The dread may just be linked to certain aspects of the job, too. Maybe you get anxious during your weekly staff meeting, feel highly annoyed when dealing with a specific coworker, or feel stress every time you have to compile a monthly report, for example.
5. You’re dealing with physical ailments.
Often, the things that affect your mental and emotional state can also manifest in physical symptoms—“sometimes even before there is recognition of what’s really going on,” LaSov says.
Some of the common physical ailments that come with burnout include:
- Muscle tension, pain, or tightness
- Digestive issues
- Weight variations
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- An influx of colds
- Appetite changes
How can I overcome burnout?
Once you recognize the signs of work burnout in yourself, you may wonder, “Now what?” First, it’s crucial to acknowledge that burnout isn’t your fault alone. Many factors beyond your control can contribute to your burnout, including your work environment and our culture, which often praises overwork.
Recovering from burnout can take time and effort. Here are some steps to help you navigate the situation.
1. Talk to your supervisor.
Addressing burnout starts with identifying which aspects of your job are triggering these feelings, LaSov says. “Discussing your concerns with your supervisor can help both of you figure out an efficient way to reach a solution or compromise,” she adds.
Brainstorm, either alone or with your supervisor, some options for improving your situation, such as shifting your job duties, changing your work hours, or requesting more PTO. Then, discuss them with your supervisor or HR rep.
People are often hesitant to speak up when they need help, Marcum says, but if you don’t speak up and there’s not a clear signal to your boss that you need help, nothing will get resolved.
2. Seek professional help.
When your burnout-related feelings become too much to handle alone or interfere with your ability to function daily, it’s time to talk to a mental health professional, LaSov says. Seeking mental health treatment can and should be done at any time while you’re dealing with burnout, she adds, and in conjunction with other strategies to combat burnout.
“Having the opportunity to vent, strategize, and gain an understanding of your situation can give you productive next steps not only for what you should do at work but for your mental health as well,” she says.
It’s especially essential to talk to a professional if you’re turning to alcohol or other substances to cope, Marcum adds.
3. Schedule regular leisure time.
Whether it’s taking a walk, doing yoga, reading, meditating, or binge-watching TV, you need an outlet for relieving stress. Finding time to enjoy activities or hobbies that aren’t work-related is crucial for dealing with burnout. Schedule these activities if they don’t happen organically or often enough. “It may sound silly, but it’s really important that we actually do that to help create some balance,” Marcum says.
Take care of yourself, too. Eat healthier, exercise regularly, and get plenty of sleep. Not sleeping can lead to excess levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body, Marcum says.
4. Establish (and maintain) a work-life balance.
Boundaries for keeping work from creeping into your personal life are crucial for overcoming burnout. This can be especially tough when you’re working from home and the lines between professional and personal are more likely to blur—which can lead to work-from-home burnout. Setting boundaries “can look like refraining from answering work emails and calls after a certain hour,” LaSov says. “The key is to communicate these boundaries with your employer so both sides can work together efficiently.”
5. Take some time off.
“If you’re dealing with burnout, one of the best things you can do is remove yourself from the situation,” Marcum says. “That’s what PTO is for.” Seventy-four percent of employees said more PTO for mental health would be helpful in dealing with stress and burnout, Talkspace’s survey revealed. Whatever kind or amount of PTO you have, you should actually take it, Marcum emphasizes. Too often, Americans don’t take the PTO that they’re given.
How much time you should take off for burnout is an individual decision, Marcum says. For some people, a couple of days or a week may help. Others may need to take extended leave of several weeks to focus on their mental health.
Read More: Your Guide to Mental Health Leave—Because Sometimes You Need a Real Break
6. Think about changing jobs.
Workplaces that reward employees who work long hours or say “yes” to every project, or organizations that regularly lay off workers and expect their coworkers to pick up the slack foster a culture of burnout. If this describes your situation, it might be time to consider a job change.
Looking for a new job may also be a good idea if you lack support from your boss or HR rep, especially if talking to them about changing your work setup doesn’t improve things. “We all know people who have supervisors who are not very supportive or HR departments who don't really make any changes,” Marcum says.
In Talkspace’s survey, 41% of employees considered changing jobs to relieve stress, so you’d be in good company. Just keep in mind that the grass isn’t always greener. Doing your research is a must for finding a new employer that better meets your needs. Look for organizations that offer perks and benefits like PTO for mental health, open-door policies with managers, mental health training, and counseling and therapy.
Read More: 6 Job Search Tips to Help You Find a Role (and Company) That Won’t Lead to Burnout
How can I avoid burnout?
It’s easy to run on autopilot. You go from one busy day to the next and never properly deal with your stress or feeling of overwhelm. Before you know it, you’re burnt out. But there are some ways to prevent stress from reaching that point.
“If you’re already noticing that you have some signs of burnout, it’s important to make changes—and not just [keep] doing things the same way,” Marcum emphasizes.
Here are some ways to avoid burnout:
- Acknowledge what your days are really like. Each day, monitor how you’re feeling about your work, Marcum suggests. Are you enjoying it mostly? Do you feel fulfilled? Is the workload manageable? If the answer is consistently “no,” think about what you can change.
- Develop stress-management tools. Some stress happens at most jobs. LaSov suggests learning skills, like meditation and deep-breathing exercises, or taking a break, to properly manage these situations to “shorten the period of time you feel stress which can eventually lead to burnout.”
- Check in with your mental health frequently. People often wait until a crisis to talk to a mental health expert, LaSov says, but that shouldn’t be the case. Keep tabs on your mental health and speak to someone before you get too overwhelmed.
Work is a necessity, but it should also be a mostly positive, rewarding experience. Sure, you might be assigned an especially taxing project here and there or have to take on extra work to cover for a coworker. But when these instances happen so often that you’re chronically exhausted, can’t seem to be productive, and feel down on your job, you’re burnt out.
It’s critical that you recognize the signs of burnout and take steps to manage your stress. “Sometimes it’s the establishment of a meaningful daily routine, boundaries, and communication with supervisors—other times, a change in environment can be what’s needed,” LaSov says. When you find the solution that’s right for you, it will help you overcome negative feelings and exhaustion—and find joy in your work again.
Kat Boogaard contributed writing, reporting, and/or advice to this article.