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Running on Empty? How to Recognize When You're on the Road to Burnout

Warning Signals You Can't Afford to Ignore

Let's face it. I have a pretty cool job. I'm a psychologist who works with high-achieving women, women who are highly ambitious, extraordinarily talented, and amazingly creative, women who inevitably teach me as much as I teach them. And when I'm not working with high octane women, I'm writing about them. What's not to love?

But if I had to say the one thing that is the most challenging about working with high octane women is that they're often traveling along the road of life at such a high speed, they don't always see the big curve up ahead (even when I'm standing there waving a huge caution flag). Of course, the curve might be close or it might be far off in the distance. But inevitably it's there, and unless they anticipate it, unless they're prepared for it, it can send them spinning out of control. I'm, of course, talking about burnout.

The lives that high octane women lead are ripe for burnout. Why? Because high-achieving women gravitate toward jobs that are extreme. Their work hours tend to be exceptionally long, their work loads exceedingly heavy, and the pressure to excel enormously high. The technology we all use to stay connected? It makes their work day practically endless. They often work in positions or fields that were created by men for men, making it more likely that they'll be exposed to double standards and gender biases that make it harder to do what they were hired to do. And because their ambition, strength, and confidence go beyond socially prescribed gender expectations, society often punishes them for their success.

Over time, this kind of stress takes a heavy toll on the body and mind, but high octane women are so passionate about what they do that they're often reluctant to acknowledge that burnout (for them) is possible--until, of course, they hit the proverbial embankment and start spinning out of control.

But notice I said that the curves are inevitable, not the crash. And to keep the crash from happening, it's important to know the signs to look for, the warning lights that signal burnout.

  • Physical signs, such as chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, stomach pain, sleep problems, frequent headaches, chronic fatigue, gynecological problems, and/or increased illness
  • Psychological signs, such as loss of enjoyment for activities once enjoyed; sadness; excessive anxiety or worry; panic attacks; feeling trapped without options for relief or escape; loss of motivation; loss of concentration; emotional hypersensitivity at seemingly inconsequential things; feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, or pessimism; and/or increasing feelings of irritability, frustration, or anger
  • Behavioral signs, such as skipping meals; little or no appetite or overeating; increase in alcohol or drug use; increased absenteeism; drop in productivity; many uncompleted projects despite long work hours; and/or isolative behaviors, such as wanting to be alone, closing doors to prevent others from access, being generally inaccessible, eating lunch alone, or being a poor team player

If you're not experiencing any of these problems, that's great news! But keep these warning signs in the back of your mind. Burnout is an insidious creature that creeps up on you when you're busy living your life.

If you're experiencing some of these symptoms, you may be on the road to burnout. You should take a step back, do an honest assessment of the main causes of stress in your life, and consider ways to reduce those stressors. Burnout isn't like a bad cold that goes away on its own after a few weeks. Unless you make some changes in your life, the situation will only get worse.

If you have many of the symptoms described, you may already be burned out. If you're not sure, test yourself. Leave work on a Friday and commit to treating yourself to a relaxing, stress-free weekend. Don't bring any work home, sleep in on Saturday and Sunday morning, eat right, and occupy your time with activities that you rarely allow yourself to enjoy (yes, I know you're busy, but trust me--make the time).1

If you wake up on Monday morning feeling exactly the same as you did before your time off, you're probably going to have to make some pretty significant changes in your lifestyle to turn things around. But there's good news. Burnout isn't a terminal condition. There are many things you can do to overcome it and get back on the right track.

In my next post, I'll talk about some strategies that have turned things around for the high octane women I have worked with over the years. You can also find some helpful hints to combat burnout on my website,

In the meantime, remember this: Life is your story to write. Unless you think your last words are going to be, "I wish I would have spent more time at the office," make sure that you carve some time out of your hectic schedule to make it a good one.

("Part II" has now been posted. Check out: Refueling Your Engine: Strategies to Reduce Stress and Avoid Burnout)

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

Dr. Bourg Carter is the author of the newly released book, High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).


1 Ahnna Lake, "Professional Burnout: Do You Have It?" Vermont Bar Journal 21 no. 1 (1995).

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