I can recall one specific time in my career when things became really—I mean really—difficult.
Trudging to my desk each morning felt like a feat of superhuman strength. Once I actually made it there, I’d stare at my laptop screen for minutes on end, just willing myself to get something accomplished. Even if I managed to make a decent dent in my to-do list for the day, I still felt hopeless—like I was stuck on this hamster wheel I’d never hop off of.
I vented to numerous loved ones about my workday woes, and they all had the same response: It sounds like you’re burnt out.
“Nah, that’s not true,” I’d respond nonchalantly. “Things have just been busy lately and I’m in a funk about it. I’ll bounce back.”
As I’m sure so many other people have, I brushed aside these red flags as normal work stress. A little bit of exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety was a standard part of working life, right? That’s why it came with a paycheck.
Spoiler alert: What I was feeling wasn’t actually justifiable stress. I really was teetering on the edge of full-fledged burnout, and (ironically) it took a lot of hard work and habit changes to bring myself back.
The experience itself was brutal, but it also made me realize that it’s incredibly difficult to identify the signs of burnout at work when they’re actually happening.
Despite the fact that “burnout” has become a bit of a buzzword, it’s still a tough concept to wrap our arms around—where’s the dividing line between normal stress and a larger problem? Read on for a guide to exactly what burnout is, the signs it’s happening, and what you can do when you realize you’re sliding down that slippery slope.
What Is Burnout…Really?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t always been one centralized definition of burnout to point to.
However, in May 2019, the World Health Organization announced the 11th revision of its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11), which includes an updated and much more detailed entry on burnout. Previously defined only as a “state of vital exhaustion,” it’s now classified as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
The WHO emphasizes that burnout is specifically work-related—it “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”—and is characterized by:
- A sense of exhaustion or depletion
- Mental distance from or negativity or cynicism about work
- Decreased effectiveness at work
This new description echoes some common themes that most researchers and experts tend to agree on.
“Burnout is when somebody just feels depleted from doing the task at hand,” says Alice Domar, PhD, Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. “It happens when the demands being put upon you exceed the resources you have. The tank is empty.”
Domar points out that burnout is more than a bad day or a tough week—after all, every job has those. “Burnout tends to be when you just don’t have any good days, and it goes on for a long period of time,” she says.
What Are the Signs of Burnout?
Sure, you get the overall idea and understand that it’s something that persists for longer than a week or two. But it can still be challenging to turn the magnifying glass on yourself and recognize when you might be veering straight toward feeling burnt out at work.
Take it from someone who’s been there before: I totally get it. So let’s try to make things as black and white as possible by looking at a few of the most common and prevalent symptoms of burnout.
1. You Can’t Get Excited About Work Anymore
Domar explains that one of the telltale signs of burnout is a lack of interest or enthusiasm about what you’re doing.
Even the projects that used to make you feel fulfilled now leave you feeling completely depleted. “They don’t get the same level of satisfaction,” says Domar of people who are experiencing burnout. “They don’t get the same thrill if it goes well.”
In the worst case scenario, this attitude of indifference can extend beyond your work and negatively impact your interest in various aspects of your life outside of the office.
Put simply, if you’re struggling to muster up even a shred of enthusiasm for things that used to energize you, that’s a giant, waving red flag not just for burnout, but for depression. (If you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.)
2. You’ve Stopped Putting in the Effort
That lack of excitement often leads directly to a negative and even apathetic attitude.
“A lot of it is just not caring anymore,” Domar explains. “You think, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to work and I’m going to complete the tasks that are set in front of me. But I’m not going to put myself into it and I’m not going to go out of my way to improve it. I’m just going to do the bare minimum to get by.”
She adds that people who struggle with burnout are often those who have reputations as high achievers, so these signs of burnout on the job are typically a stark contrast when compared with their normal approach to their work.
3. Your Performance Is Suffering
As you might expect, this disinterest in daily tasks often leads to poorer performance—because people who are burnt out simply don’t care enough to do things well.
Personally, this was one of the biggest warning signs that I was majorly struggling. I’m normally compulsive about double-checking my work and meeting deadlines.
When my editors kept pointing out errors and I was letting submission dates slide by without a single care, I knew I had a far more significant issue on my hands.
4. You’re Totally Exhausted
Fatigue and an overall feeling of exhaustion are commonly-cited indicators of burnout, Domar explains.
You’ll not only deal with a lack of energy physically, but you can also feel emotionally depleted and drained.
So if getting yourself out of bed and to the office each day is a more demanding challenge than normal, you could be tiptoeing into burnout territory.
5. You’re Dealing With Physical Ailments
Burnout doesn’t have a consistent physical manifestation for everyone. However, there are numerous physical complaints that have been reported with burnout, including:
- Chest pain
- Increased illness
- Heart palpitations
- Shortness of breath
- Dizziness or fainting
- Gastrointestinal pain
Of course, there could be a slew of other explanations for these sorts of aches, pains, and issues as well. But particularly if you’re experiencing them along with the emotional changes discussed above, they might serve as a physical indicator of your burnt out state.
You’re Burnt Out...What Now?
Okay, so you recognize several (or even all) of these signs of burnout from work in yourself.
Uhh...now what? What can you do to stop this train from speeding down the tracks—and eventually off the rails entirely?
Oft-repeated advice would tell you to take some time off, and it’s true that a break can at least give you a bit of breathing room. But Domar explains that if a vacation is all you do, it’s really just a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.
“If you take a day or even a week off, you’re still coming back,” she says. “You’re still the same person and the job is the same job.”
Instead of merely pressing pause and removing yourself from your situation for the time being, you need to do something to actively change it. Domar says that really boils down to two things:
- Changing your attitude
- Changing your workload
To change your attitude, you’ll want to learn to recognize negative habits and thought patterns and work to stop them when they happen. “For example, thinking, ‘I have to do this perfectly or I’ll be a failure.’ You challenge some of these thoughts and get away from that all-or-nothing thinking,” Domar says.
Research suggests that perfectionism is closely linked with burnout. So recognizing and then removing some of these self-imposed pressures can help you breathe a little easier at work (and hopefully feel a little less stressed on a daily basis).
The second change is to decrease your volume of work. Burnout can happen when you simply have too much on your plate, and in those cases what you really need to do is lighten your load.
Approach your boss to have a conversation about the fact that you feel overworked (here’s a guide to handling that discussion professionally) and identify ways that you can manage a more reasonable workload moving forward.
In my own situation, I finally (after a lot of convincing and cajoling from my loved ones) ended up dropping some of my clients to free up a little more time for myself. That action alone helped to decrease my anxiety, increase my energy levels, and help me feel at least a little bit like my old self again.
Finally, to tie this all back to the “changing your attitude” aspect, it’s important that you also recognize those moments when you find yourself saying “yes” to an obligation—when you know you should really turn it down. Catch your tendency to overload yourself, and you’ll (hopefully) kick that bad habit to the curb and prevent this same situation in the future.
Here’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way: Burnout is hard to recognize, and it doesn’t go away on its own. Nope, it doesn’t get better because you finally reached a new week or checked off another item on your to-do list.
Identifying and then addressing burnout requires some conscious thought and effort (which, I know, is pretty much the last thing you want to think about when you’re already feeling worn down).
However, one final thing I realized is that I was ultimately the only one who could do something about my situation—I needed to settle into my spot in the driver’s seat and take control over what wasn’t working for me in my career.
I’m happy to report that I did that. I beat burnout and came out on the other side. And with the help of the above advice, I’m confident that you can too.