Signs of Burnout and What To Do About It

I want to talk about a hot topic. Burnout (you see what I did there?). If you’ve heard the term burnout but aren’t sure what it is or think you might be experiencing some of the symptoms, I encourage you to read on. 

Hustle Culture Might be Bad for Your Health

“It’s important that you don’t lie to yourself. If you lie to yourself, you end up with burnout.” – Patrick Pichette, former Chief Financial Officer of Google.

12-to-14-hour long workdays. Wake up and go to bed with work on your mind. You’ve always been a hard worker and high achiever. Always put in the extra effort and raise your hand to help even when you really don’t have the time. 

The problem is burnout can be stealthy. It’s often a slow build and can feel like it snuck up on you and knocked you down in dramatic form when you’re not expecting it. Burnout can even happen if you love your job. 

Burnout will force you to come face-to-face with the consequences of ignoring your mental health and wellness in your career.  Hustle culture might seem like the only way to get ahead but is it though? Don’t lie to yourself that everything is fine, and you can handle it when you can’t. You just might be setting yourself up for failure in the form of burnout.

What is burnout?

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined workplace burnout as a syndrome that results from chronic workplace stresses that haven’t successfully been managed. Burnout is not a medical condition but as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ – meaning it’s a workplace-related cause related to stressors.

According to the WHO, the three key features of burnout include:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job (detachment), feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • Reduced professional efficacy (feeling as if you are not good at your job/ineffective and not good enough).

On a personal note, I didn’t understand what burnout was until I experienced it first-hand a few years ago. I was hit with, what felt like a sudden, intense, onslaught of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion and a host of other symptoms. Burnout negatively impacted how I showed up at work and my physical and mental health. It was an incredibly scary time for me and a wake-up call to slow down and re-evaluate my work situation.

What are the signs of burnout to watch out for?

In a recent workplace burnout survey of 1000 employees in the US, 77% of respondents said they experienced employee burnout at their jobs. While people in the helping professions (e.g., nurses, physicians, teachers, in the US are said to be at the highest risk of burnout. Burnout is also impacting remote workers. 

When it comes to the signs of burnout, I felt like I experienced all the red flags and yet managed to ignore them until I couldn’t any longer. Some of the more noticeable physical signs of burnout can include:

  • Physical pain
  • More vulnerable to illness
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Inability to concentrate or forgetfulness
  • Moodiness (anger and irritability)
  • Insomnia 
  • Risk of heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure
  • Substance abuse

Some other signs of burnout related to emotional and mental wellbeing include:

  • Negative expectations about your work performance. You begin to lose self-confidence and start to question your ability to do your job.
  • Feeling underappreciated. You feel like you’re not valued at work. This can lead to feelings of anger and resentment, which in turn impacts your performance and how you feel about work.
  • Detachment from work. This is a big one. This happens when you feel disconnected from others and your work environment. The work you do doesn’t seem to matter to you anymore – you ‘check out’ emotionally and sometimes physically by calling in sick or turning up late and not caring. 
  • You experience apathy. You start to ask yourself, what’s the point? It all seems meaningless.
  • You become increasingly impatient/angry often. You have very little tolerance for things that didn’t bother you before. It feels like everything annoys you, including people.
  • Anxiety. A chronic state of feeling on edge, worried, feelings of dread, or even experiencing heart palpations or having panic attacks if it gets severe enough.
  • Depression. This is like a culmination of the apathy, irritability, fatigue or low energy etc. that leaves you feeling sad, stuck and sometimes wanting to stay in bed and not deal with the world.  

When you don’t talk about it

I know talking about your mental health to your manager can be difficult and, in some cases, some people have crappy managers and are working in environments that are not that supportive. I get it. 

The problem is that if your mental health is impacted by burnout to the point where your work suffers then eventually, they’ll know something’s up, especially if the workload isn’t going to get lighter or your attitude has changed. 

Arguably, burnout is not necessarily a problem of the individual employee but more to do with the workplace itself – unhealthy workplace – and is about job conditions that create the chronic stressors. Dr. Christina Maslach, PhD., one of the world’s leading experts on burnout, talks about this issue more in-depth here.

However, the organizational changes that may need to happen to address workplace burnout are out of your control and may take some time. You may also not be able to change your job right away if it comes to that. If this is the case, let’s look at the things you can control and some practical steps you can take to support yourself through burnout.

Practical Steps to Help with Burnout

Listen to your body

In the Cure for Burnout Ted interview, Amelia Nagoski and Emily Nagoski say that “one of the primary barriers to listening to your body is a fear of the uncomfortable feelings that are happening in your body.” They say to come out of the dark tunnel that is stress you have got to go through the stress cycle and deal with uncomfortable feelings.

As I’ve noted earlier, don’t lie to yourself. It’s ok to say to yourself, “I’m feeling stressed right now”, or “I’m really angry.” Listen to your body and don’t run from what you’re feeling. 

Talk to someone and ask for help

Speak with a healthcare practitioner to let them know what’s going on – the physical, emotional, and mental symptoms you are experiencing – all of it. It’s important to make sure that it is burnout and not some other health issue that’s the cause and also discuss your options.

You might also investigate whether there are any available workplace resources like employee assistance programs that offer counselling services covered by your employer. 

Practice self-compassion and kindness

I know being a rock star at work is your default and not being able to bring you’re A-game because you’re burned out, or worse, having to admit you’re burned out, can leave you feeling like a failure. I’m here to tell you, that’s just a load of crapola! It’s negative self-talk that’s driving that thinking. Trust me. Be kind to yourself and have self-compassion.

Don’t be ashamed to admit it

There is a stigma around mental health, no matter what the issue is. I made a conscious decision to speak openly about being burned out to anyone who asked about my absence from work. Burnout is nothing to be ashamed of. It happens to a lot of people.  

Burnout was new to me and like with my migraines, I would not wish that on anyone. 

Some people asked me what burnout was and others applauded my decision to take time off for my mental health. It felt good to have those conversations and if I can share my experience to help even one person then I’m here for it! 

Try to connect with others, share your story and find that network of support.

Take time off to rest if possible

To help recover from burnout, I needed to step away from my desk, literally. didn’t really have a choice. I was a hot mess! Both my family doctor and therapist recommended it. That’s how serious it was. 

Find a way to take a break (talk to your medical practitioner or therapist). Burnout doesn’t just go away if you ignore it. In fact, it can get worse.

Change your perspective

It was hard for me to accept that this was serious and that I had to listen to my body and take steps to make changes to get better. I also had to recognize that burnout was happening over the years and healing would not happen overnight. 

But I often find it helpful to try to find the positive from a negative situation. I’m suggesting that maybe if we shift our perspective and look at burnout, not as something completely awful – although it is – but rather it can also be viewed as an opportunity for us to reflect and decide on what changes we need to make in our lives. 

Final Thoughts

Recovering from burnout can be an opportunity for self-reflection and commitment to prioritizing self-care and personal growth. It is a chance for you to focus on your mental and physical wellness more mindfully. 

There’s no quick fix for this. I’m still in burnout recovery what with the pandemic, the challenges of remote working and the perpetual state of change over the last few years. It’s a journey of healing, that, if you continue to make it a priority, will pay long-term dividends for your health, and mental wellbeing and improve overall happiness.

This post first appeared on the Swell Life Blog by Swell Made Co.

About cassandra mcd.

World's coolest aunt (so I've been told). I'm all about personal growth and living a healthy lifestyle that prioritizes self-care and mental wellness. I want to embrace aging with swagger (and less gray hair), living life more mindfully and filled with an abundance of gratitude.
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