How do you spot the signs of work burnout and what steps should you take if you think your job is wearing you down to a point of exhaustion? 

We are all used to the idea of stress; it is now a recognised fact of life in many jobs. But burnout is different and more serious. If you see the signs in yourself then it’s time to take urgent action. If you don’t, the risks to your health increase. The longer you leave it the harder it will be to restore your normal levels of vitality and motivation.

Work burnout is associated with a variety of physical and mental health symptoms. This post tells you how to respond if you notice these indicators in yourself. It also gives pointers for supporting a colleague who you think could be the victim of work burnout.

Constant pressure

If you are experiencing constant high demand and you are feeling pressure in your job you can begin to suffer from chronic stress. This happens when there is no let-up or opportunity to do the things in life which help combat the effects of high demand. 

If you ignore tell-tale signs of chronic stress, the effects can accumulate and lead to burnout. 

Burnout is a reaction to prolonged and unremitting stress. It results in physical, emotional and mental exhaustion. Typically, this is accompanied by feelings of cynicism, a loss of interest in the job, self-doubt and doubts about the value of your work, loss of confidence, and feelings of overwhelm and helplessness.

It’s not all about work. Increased pressure from circumstances at home – like caring for someone who is elderly or ill, for example – can contribute because it depletes your energies and makes you less able to cope with the demands of your regular job (burnout was first identified as an area of academic research in healthcare workers in the 1970s). Here is an article about work burnout in ‘human services’.

Stress and burnout – the difference

Stress is an adaptive response to the pressure and demand arising from challenging circumstances. Whereas work-related stress can make you feel dissatisfied and frustrated with your job, burnout will be accompanied by physical and emotional fatigue, hopelessness, cynicism and even loss of compassion for others.

Stress can be debilitating but can usually be remedied by awareness of the problem and self-management techniques (stress management). Once you are away from the stressful situation the symptoms generally dissipate fairly quickly.

Burnout requires a more radical response. It results in you feeling emotionally depleted, and resourceless. You should seek support for your mental and emotional wellbeing as a matter of urgency. Ignoring the signs of burnout can put you at greater risk from more serious illness.

The signs of burnout

Burnout leaves you feeling worn-out and exhausted. If you are unfortunate enough to experience it, burnout is a clear sign that you have been under too much pressure for too long. 

There should be no sense of failure or insufficiency on your part; the symptoms are caused by overload. This is usually due to circumstances which are beyond the sufferer’s control. As you’ll see, you can control your responses but it is not always possible to change the circumstances. 

For example, if your job means you have to deal with constant, high-demand, you might feel that you are unable or unwilling to balance it with restorative breaks and leisure time. You may be highly committed to your job, but unless you take steps to combat the resulting stress, it can accumulate until you are overwhelmed. Chronic stress and burnout also distort your thinking, so you fail to recognise the problem for what it is and get the support and help that you need, to break the cycle of stress

Stress affects each of us differently. No two people react the same way. Consequently, while one person can fall prey to burnout, a colleague in the same situation may not. There are behavioural and psychological reasons for this, so lifestyle, outlook, and personal coping styles all play a part.

The indicators of burnout can seem subtle at first. You might also notice symptoms like:

  • No enthusiasm for things you once enjoyed
  • Lack of motivation at work, avoiding things, taking time off
  • Frequents minor ailments of recurrent illness
  • Headaches and other aches and pains
  • Poor sleep and still feeling tired on waking
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and worthlessness
  • Lack of empathy or compassion for others…

Burnout is indicated when these symptoms and others combine. You might begin to feel helpless, hopeless, cynical about work… even desperate and unable do your job properly. If you feel like this, get help and support immediately. Ignoring the symptoms can eventually lead to a complete physical and emotional breakdown, depression, and other mental health problems. 

Whether or not the stress is entirely due to your job, you should tell your employer (some people can feel ashamed, or that suffering with stress means they will be judged negatively). Still, you have a responsibility to tell your employer so that they can support you to prevent further harm. People suffering from burnout put themselves and others at risk.

A word of caution

The symptoms of burnout should be taken seriously and acted upon to relieve the pressure and support the sufferer. However, don’t be tempted to ‘over-diagnose’. Anyone can experience some of these symptoms some of the time, without suffering from either chronic stress or burnout. 

Burnout occurs when most of the symptoms are experienced most of the time. That means feeling mentally exhausted, depleted, unable to care and hopeless. 

With stress, you are aware of excessive pressure and demand, but you know it can be relieved (even if you are unable to do anything about it immediately). By contrast, you may not be aware of burnout in the same way. It leaves you beyond caring because you are both mentally and physically exhausted. 

What causes burnout

Burnout results from a combination of factors. These are usually the accumulated effects of pressure combined with insufficient opportunities for the restorative breaks needed to keep mind and body functioning optimally.

The phenomenon of occupational burnout syndrome was first noted as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by professional demands, coupled with prolonged stress. It was first noted among front-line medical staff in the 1970s. 

It is now recognised that burnout is a risk factor in any job where unremitting pressure and constant demand are factors. However, it is not simply the job which causes the problem. Burnout is seen primarily as a psychological syndrome of chronic exhaustion. This is generally brought about when one has been unable to ‘switch off’ due to the mounting effects of stress, and unwilling or unable to find the necessary respite in the form of breaks, lifestyle, and social support.

When considering how to avoid burnout, therefore, we must also consider factors like an individual’s personality traits, and their mindset and attitudes, in addition to circumstances such as working conditions.

The significance of personal aspects explains why, in a given situation, not everyone succumbs to burnout.

How to respond to burnout

If you are recognising the signs of burnout in yourself, you must also accept that the way you have been doing things, though normally effective, is not serving you well now. Burnout is nobody’s ‘fault’, nor is it a sign of weakness or inadequacy. The opposite is true; work burnout is more likely to arise in people who are highly committed, have a strong work ethic, and are driven to do the best they can. Burnout means overload. It occurs when someone is reaching the limits of their emotional and physical resources, so take action to reduce the load immediately.

Recognise the signs

This is the first step. If you think you are suffering from work burnout you may well feel fatigued, but while tiredness is easily remedied by getting enough rest, burnout is not so easily remedied. You know you are approaching burnout because of emotional exhaustion accompanied by feelings of cynicism about your job, and loss of confidence in your effectiveness, or your abilities:

Exhaustion is mainly related to your experience of stress and a resulting decline in your physical and emotional resources. You feel less motivated, about your job and also less likely do the things which help combat stress (exercise and pastimes, for example).

Cynicism results from overload. It leads to indifference and loss of enthusiasm for your work. Since victims of burnout are often highly committed to their work, such cynicism will be seen as ‘out of character’.

Loss of confidence refers to the feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of achievement and productivity at work. When the workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic person can feel hopeless.

How to respond proactively

Burnout is reversible. ‘Early is better’ so the sooner you respond the easier it will be to recover. Don’t wait for someone else to fix it for you. Start by making your HR department aware (they should be told if working conditions are contributing to ill-health among employees).

Stress management

Next, engage in some effective stress management strategies (link to Stress short read). Get plenty of exercise, improve your diet, eat and sleep regularly, and re-engage with your social life (but don’t over-indulge).

Have a plan

Think strategically about your work. Take regular breaks and, even if you don’t think you need to, find ways to de-stress throughout the day (e.g. a short walk at lunchtime and/or a few minutes’ meditation or Yoga at intervals). You can create balance by taking short ‘thinking breaks’ to re-appraise your progress, plan your next steps, and breathe. All of which help you to refresh and keep a healthy perspective.

Get professional help

Speak to an occupational health professional, a psychologist or counsellor, and you can turn the experience of stress and burnout into an opportunity to learn about your coping mechanisms and how to strengthen them. Think of recovery as a positive way of improving yourself and becoming more resilient.

Take a break from work

If someone suffers from chronic stress or burnout then the immediate and simplest step may be for them to take a break away from work. However, this should be accompanied by the other ideas included here. A break can provide respite, but it should also be accompanied by learning how to manage workload and stress to avoid a further breakdown.

Learn from the experience

Stress distorts your thinking so you can miss the warning signs. Learning from experience will help you to avoid pushing yourself beyond healthy limits. The more you can do this the better you will become at stress management. Paradoxically, this will make you more productive. 

Aim for ‘good enough’ 

While aiming to deliver the best results you can is laudable, it is impractical to expect to get everything right all the time. Measuring yourself against unreasonably high standards may help you achieve initially, but eventually can mean that you are setting yourself up for failure. Accepting that, sometimes, ‘good enough’ will get the job done even if it doesn’t meet your exacting standards.

Build your resilience

Resilience refers to a person’s ability to function well in the face of high demand, unwanted change, challenge, or adversity. It is built of a set of characteristics which can be learned and developed.

When you understand what these characteristics are, you can begin to foster attitudes and habits in yourself which will boost your resilience and reduce the impact of stressful events. This is the process of developing personal resilience. (Link to short read Keys to Personal Resilience).

Supporting a colleague with burnout

If you think that a colleague is suffering from work burnout, encourage them to get professional help and/or follow the steps above. There is a fuller list of signs and symptoms below.

You may feel unsure about approaching a colleague when you are concerned about them. However, if they seem to have changed and the signs indicate chronic stress or burnout, they may either not recognise it or feel unable to speak up for themselves. Approach them supportively and with due sensitivity, and tell them of your concerns. 

The main indicators of work burnout

Physical signs and symptoms of burnout

  • Feeling tired and drained most of the time
  • Lowered immunity, frequent illnesses
  • Frequent headaches or muscle pain
  • Change in appetite or sleep habits

Emotional signs and symptoms of burnout

  • A sense of failure and self-doubt
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
  • Detachment, feeling alone in the world
  • Loss of motivation
  • An increasingly cynical and negative outlook
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment

Behavioural indicators of burnout

  • Withdrawing from responsibilities
  • Isolating yourself from others
  • Procrastinating, taking longer to get things done
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope
  • Taking out your frustrations on others
  • Skipping work or coming in late and leaving early.