Between altered work environments, balancing work-from-home expectations and juggling the COVID-19 pandemic, many Americans are becoming mentally and physically exhausted with their jobs. This prolonged period of fatigue known as burnout isn’t just a state of mind, it’s a real syndrome that affects tireless workers across the country.
Burnout plays out in stages as demands and work stressors pile on. Knowing about each stage can help you recognize signs of burnout before it becomes problematic. We’ll help you identify these symptoms and provide tips for how to recover and learn to love your job again.
What is burnout?
For the last several decades, the concept of burnout has been debated among industry professionals. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) provided clarification by classifying burnout as a syndrome that stems from an occupational phenomenon.
This condition is a syndrome — not a medical diagnosis — caused by “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” according to the WHO. In this context, external factors, such as those from workplace dysfunction, are primarily to blame for burnout.
Burnout can affect your mental, physical and emotional state. The feelings of burnout typically occur when you’re overwhelmed at work and feel as if you can no longer keep up with the rigors of your job.
Burnout syndrome originated in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. It was first used to describe medical professionals, such as doctors and nurses, who felt “burned out” from their tireless work. The term later evolved to include any working professional experiencing exhaustion and an inability to cope with daily tasks.
Of course, COVID-19 has magnified burnout, especially among healthcare workers. Indeed, a job website that helps people find employment, surveyed 1,500 workers across various industries last March and found burnout increased by nearly 10 percent (52 percent in 2021 compared to 43 percent before the pandemic) during COVID-19.
Stress vs. burnout
Don’t confuse burnout with stress, though. Stress is having too much on your plate — too much work to handle, too many responsibilities, too many hours spent working. Burnout is the opposite. You typically feel like you don’t have enough — not enough motivation, not enough energy, not enough care.
The same can be said for misinterpreting depression for burnout. Certain depression-related symptoms, such as exhaustion and difficulty performing tasks, can masquerade as burnout. In most cases, burnout is work-related and doesn’t affect your day-to-day life. Depression, on the other hand, impacts every aspect of your life with persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness or helplessness.
You may be at a higher risk of burnout if you have poor self-esteem, unrealistic expectations in the workplace or aren’t comfortable coping with stressors. You may also experience burnout at a higher rate if your job requires a heavy workload, is understaffed, has conflicts in the workplace or doesn’t reward work when there is a job well done.
Burnout isn’t a sudden onset of feelings. Instead, your thoughts, feelings and actions progress through a series of stages. The initial stages may not feel like much, but they can eventually lead to a habitual phase that makes it hard to carry out your occupational duties.
Like a honeymoon phase in a marriage, this stage comes with energy and optimism. Whether it is starting a new job or tackling a new task, it’s common to experience satisfaction that leads to periods of productivity and the ability to tap into your creative side.
Onset of stress phase
Eventually, the honeymoon phase dwindles, and you begin to experience stress. Not every second of your day is stressful, but there are more frequent times when stress takes over. As this stage begins, take notice of any physical or mental signs. You may start to lose focus more easily or be less productive when completing tasks. Physically, fatigue can start to set in, making it more difficult to sleep or enjoy activities outside of work.
Chronic stress phase
You’ll reach a point where the stress becomes more persistent, or chronic. As the pressure mounts, the stress is likely to consistently affect your work. Examples include feelings of apathy, not completing work on time, being late for work or procrastinating during tasks. Socially, you may withdraw from normal work-related conversations. In other cases, you may become angry and lash out at coworkers. Sometimes, these feelings follow you home and can affect relationships with friends and family.
This phase is when you reach your limit and can no longer function as you normally would. Problems at work begin to consume you to the point where you obsess over them. At times, you may also feel numb and experience extreme self-doubt. Physical symptoms will become intense, leading to chronic headaches, stomach issues and gastrointestinal problems. Friends and family members may also notice behavioral changes.
Habitual burnout phase
If left untreated, burnout can become a part of your everyday life and eventually lead to anxiety or depression. You can also begin to experience chronic mental and physical fatigue that prevents you from working. Your job status may be put in jeopardy if you continue on this path.
Burnout symptoms vary depending on which phase of burnout you’re in. In general, there are three symptoms to be aware of: exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment.
Exhaustion: This fatigue presents itself both mentally and physically. The energy you typically have is zapped by persistent exhaustion.
Depersonalization: This is a feeling of indifference. In other words, you start to feel numb. For example, you may become more cynical in your inner workings or lack the ability to communicate effectively with people.
Reduced personal accomplishment/performance: This tends to manifest when you feel your work is insufficient and you’re incapable of performing your work. For example, you may lose pleasure in work you previously received joy from. Your usual creativity may wane, and it can become harder to concentrate.
Symptoms may also present as physical, emotional or behavioral.
Physical symptoms include:
- Feeling tired
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Experiencing a change in appetite
- Dealing with headaches or muscle pain
Emotional symptoms include:
- Lacking motivation
- Experiencing feelings of self-doubt
- Failure or loneliness
- An overall feeling of dissatisfaction
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Social isolation
- Not performing your responsibilities
- Work-related anger outbursts
How to recover from burnout
At this point, burnout probably sounds stressful enough to wonder if you can ever recover from it. The good news is there are ways to bounce back and learn to enjoy your work again.
For starters, you need to be honest with yourself and recognize the burnout. It will be difficult to move forward if you can’t see the problem yourself.
Talk to your boss and let them know what your current struggles are. They may suggest you take some time off to recharge. If this isn’t offered, request a personal day or two to take a step back and reassess your situation. Consider taking a vacation to truly unwind.
Before you return, find new ways to cope with your job and find a work-life balance. It’s important to prioritize self-care and schedule time for yourself. This can be as simple as taking breaks throughout the day or going on a walk during lunchtime. In stressful moments, it may also help to practice breathing techniques to lower your stress.
While at work, know your limitations. People in new jobs tend to say “yes” to everything, as they feel it’s necessary to showcase their value to their boss. This can be dangerous. Sooner or later, you may find yourself drowning in too many tasks. To solve this problem, don’t be afraid to say “no”.
Knowing your limitations also includes a set work schedule. In today’s work-from-home environment, it’s easy to be flexible and work longer hours or respond to emails or texts after working hours. While answering a call at night may seem harmless, it can lead to bad habits.
If you’re struggling from burnout and are unsure of where to turn, ask your primary care physician to refer you to a mental health provider. They can help you develop coping strategies to find a happy medium with your work.