If constant workplace or life stress makes you feel exhausted, unable to cope, or disillusioned, you may be experiencing symptoms of burnout.
Unfortunately, burnout is far from a rare occurrence in the workplace these days. Many people in all different roles and industries face chronic workplace stress levels that result in burnout — from overworked entry-level employees to career-driven C-level executives. A recent Gallup study reports that roughly two-thirds of all full-time employees encounter burnout. Healthcare professionals and teacher burnout are the most common; Many teachers report being “always” or “very often” burned out.
Burnout is also becoming more and more common outside of work. Research shows just how many parents experience burnout today. The numbers are rising and show no signs of slowing down any time soon.
You might think, “but everyone has a bad day at work from time to time,” or ”life is just really stressful for parents today,” and you’re right. However, burnout isn’t just a tough day or a challenging week. It’s much more than that.
So, what’s the difference between regular stress, exhaustion, depression, and burnout? Keep reading to learn more about burnout symptoms and to find out how you can identify the signs of burnout as they develop. Then, you’ll be able to address them and feel better, stronger, and more resilient.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a condition that describes feelings of anxiety and a lack of motivation resulting from prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress — often at the workplace.
Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger is credited with coining the term “burnout” to describe the effects that high stress levels can have on people who work in helping professions, like doctors and nurses. People who work in healthcare regularly go above and beyond in their profession, sometimes putting even their own needs aside.
Although burnout was originally used to describe healthcare workers, the phrase is now applied to anyone who becomes emotionally drained due to prolonged stress. Of course, everyone — especially those in high-demand jobs — feels stress occasionally but that persistent, unrelenting pressure can lead to burnout.
Burnout has been linked to several mental and physical health issues, including:
In addition, people with burnout might start or increase their use of alcohol and drugs to cope with their stress. Burnout can drain your energy and reduce productivity, leaving you feeling hopeless and irritable. After a period of burnout, you may feel like you have nothing left to give.
Recognizing burnout symptoms is imperative in preventing adverse long-term physical and mental effects. Once you identify what’s causing your symptoms, you can work with a professional to treat them.
Signs and Symptoms
Burnout symptoms can cause exhaustion and anxiety. You may start feeling or acting more irritable, short-tempered, or downright angry. Physical symptoms are common as well. You might have gastrointestinal issues, headaches, and others may notice and comment on changes in your behavior.
One of the more prominent symptoms of burnout is emotional, cognitive, and physical fatigue. This kind of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion can cause an inability to work effectively. It’s not surprising that so many people feel exhausted by the demands of today’s culture, which involves constant access to email, news, and pressure to respond immediately. It’s almost as if we’re all on 24 hours a day.
Feeling like you have a never-ending to-do list or impossible-to-meet deadlines can lead to feeling totally drained and hopeless. Thus, the spiral begins, and as burnout worsens, even minor tasks can start to seem arduous, increasing feelings of incapability, helplessness, and stress.
The following signs and symptoms can help you catch burnout before its worsening, so you can stop the vicious cycle.
As already noted, being drained of energy or fatigued past the point of normal tiredness or just feeling like you have nothing left to give, can be a tell-tale sign that burnout is at play.
Burnout can affect everyday tasks at work or home. People with burnout may become pessimistic about their responsibilities, lose their creativity and drive, and find it hard to concentrate.
When you aren’t optimism about what you have to do, you’re more likely not to function well, resulting in subpar or decreased performance.
Irritable or impatient
Burnout might be the culprit if you suddenly become irritable with your co-workers, customers, clients, or others. It can also lead to outright anger. In general, anger’s rarely a productive way to deal with others.
Frequent headaches have long been cited as a physical manifestation of burnout. However, symptoms of burnout can include other physical manifestations including nausea and stomach aches. If headaches or other physical symptoms interfere with your daily life, it might be time to see a doctor.
Changed sleeping/eating habits
Chronic stress can affect both appetite and the ability to sleep. Sleep and diet are critical parts of your energy levels, so you may be slipping into a state that feels impossible to get out of when they’re negatively affected.
Eating more (or less) than usual or sleeping more (or less) due to stress and anxiety over your job and duties might mean you’re at risk of burnout.
“Silence or avoidance can also be signs of burnout. If you or someone you know is more quiet than usual, absent, or procrastinating, burnout may be the cause.”
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC
Causes of Burnout
So how does chronic stress get to the level of burnout? High achievers frequently deal with burnout related to self-imposed heavy workloads and an overwhelming desire to excel. Burnout can happen to anyone who faces prolonged stress without support.
The most common signs of burnout stem from unclear job expectations, work-life imbalance, and a lack of support.
“Burnout doesn’t always manifest itself gradually or in the same ways for everyone. You can be aware of some changes and think they may be a result of depression or anxiety. However, burnout is more a response to environmental issues or specific situations. If you’re experiencing signs of burnout, you can absolutely work with a therapist on this to help you find solutions that work for you.”
Talkspace therapist Cynthia Catchings, LCSW-S, LCSWC
Extremes of activity
Whether a job is tedious or chaotic, you need continued energy to remain focused. Constant extremes in expectations, activity or difficult deadlines will often lead to fatigue and burnout.
Unclear job expectations
You’re unlikely to feel comfortable if you don’t have clear job expectations. Without a firm understanding of what’s expected from you, it’s difficult to know if you’re doing a good job or falling behind. Most people tend to assume the latter, which can contribute to a state of burnout.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from a work-life imbalance, where their job takes up so much time that they don’t have the energy to do anything for themselves. Taking important me-time to be with friends or family, or to do the things they love, becomes a rare if ever-occurring thing. Work-life imbalance is one of the top signs of burnout. If you’re finding that your job takes up much of your personal time, learn how to achieve work-life balance.
Lack of communication and support
If you feel isolated in your responsibilities and like you lack a support system, it’s expected to experience stress in the workplace. Feeling alone in your problems can thwart healthy outlets like asking for help or comparing feelings with others. This isolation and lack of support can lead to burnout symptoms.
Conversely, if you know you have someone there to support you, you’re much more likely to share negative feelings and ask for help and less likely to experience workplace burnout.
Unreasonable time pressure
People who work in high-pressure environments, like firefighters, paramedics, ER physicians, or police officers, experience burnout more often than in other professions. This burnout is caused by excessive pressure, whether unattainable time constraints, unachievable goals, or high-stakes outcomes. Setting boundaries in this type of environment is one way to prevent burnout.
If you relate to any of the above scenarios, it’s important to address the cause of burnout and seek a path to recovery.
Seeking Treatment for Burnout
If stress in the workplace or at home becomes overwhelming and you feel emotionally drained, get help from a healthcare professional now. There’s never a wrong time to seek professional help if you’re concerned that your emotional exhaustion or irritability might be burnout, and you don’t need a mental health diagnosis to get help. Stress, exhaustion, stressful job demands, or burnout — it doesn’t matter. If something is affecting your life negatively, you can always seek help.
If you feel that you’re experiencing burnout symptoms and they’re beginning to spiral out of control, it’s time to take the next step. Ask for help, find an online therapist, or set firm boundaries that can restore balance, mental well-being, and peace in your life. We can help you with coping strategies so you can learn how to recover from burnout. You deserve it.
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