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Are You Really Burned Out or Just Exhausted?

Four tiny well-being nudges to help restore your energy at work.

If you’ve been feeling exhausted when it comes to your work lately, you’re not alone. New research we recently gathered from more than 1,000 randomly selected Australian workers found that almost two-thirds (63.6%) self-identified as feeling burned out and that most of them (89.9%) had felt this way for some time.

“Unlike an on/off button, we can be experiencing burnout, without being burned out” explained psychologist Danielle Jacobs, co-founder of The Wellbeing Lab. “Both matter, but understanding the difference between the two I find really helps workers and workplaces do something impactful about what they are experiencing.”

For example, the World Health Organization notes that the symptoms of burnout are experienced persistently over a prolonged period and are assessed by our levels of:

  • Exhaustion – Feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally drained. Eventually, chronic exhaustion leads us to disconnect or distance ourselves emotionally and cognitively from our work to cope with the overload.
  • Cynicism – Distancing ourselves from others at work. We start to become overly irritated by other people and see them as problems, rather than as people we may be able to help.
  • Inefficacy – Feeling we are accomplishing nothing. We struggle to identify the resources available to support our work, and as it becomes harder to deliver results, we increasingly feel that our efforts are meaningless.

When assessed for the presence of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy over a prolonged period, 21.2% of the Australian workers surveyed would be diagnosed as having burned out.

Why might this distinction matter?

“Any worker who identifies as feeling burned out should be offered support by their workplace,” said Danielle. “However, the type of support someone who is feeling a bit exhausted needs compared to someone who is medically burned out varies greatly.”

For example, burnout is caused by an ongoing imbalance between the demands of our job (the sustained effort and energy it takes to get the work done) and the resources available to us (the motivation, energy, freedom, learning, and support). It can be triggered by a variety of factors, including an unreasonable workload, lack of control over one’s work, lack of supervisor and colleague support, poor change management, unfair treatment at work, and poor work-life balance.

Workplaces are responsible for addressing these job imbalances. New international codes (e.g., ISO 45003) and in some places local legislation provide detailed guidance for how workplaces and leaders must do everything reasonably practical to minimize these workplace hazards.

While these hazards should also be assessed and addressed for workers who are feeling a bit exhausted but are not medically burned out, our research suggests it can also be helpful to provide evidence-based training, tools, and support to:

  • Replace self-criticism with self-compassion – Workers who reported high levels of exhaustion were more likely to be extremely critical and judgemental of themselves at work. Studies have found that replacing these approaches with the practices of self-compassion (talking to ourselves like a wise and kind friend or coach) and growth mindsets (focusing on learning and effort, and not just outcomes) can lower stress and improve wellbeing.
  • Set healthy boundaries around work – Workers who reported high levels of exhaustion were also more likely to find the work they were doing to be so important, it was difficult for them to switch off. When we have an “obsessive passion” for work, studies have found we tend to take on more projects, work more overtime, and put off vacations. Setting clear boundaries around work and non-work hours and encouraging meaningful pursuits outside of work can help to rebalance people’s abilities to switch off.
  • Prioritize physical rest and recovery – Workers who reported high levels of exhaustion were also more likely to report lower levels of physical health. A meta-analysis of more than 80 studies has found that micro-breaks throughout our work day can improve both our wellbeing and performance. For example, short breaks in the morning and long breaks in the afternoon that get us moving for a short time outdoors have been found to be particularly effective.
  • Cultivate opportunities for positive emotions – Workers who reported high levels of exhaustion were also more likely to report lower levels of positive emotion. Studies suggest that experiences of positive emotions – like joy, hope, love, interest, pride, amusement, serenity, gratitude, inspiration, and awe – are more likely when we intentionally select or create situations to generate these feelings. For example, planning coffee catch-ups with valued colleagues, learning a small new thing each day, taking the time to thank someone, and savoring what’s working well can help to build our physical, psychological, intellectual, and social resources.

How are you supporting burnout and exhaustion in your workplace?

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