Burnout has become such a familiar term that it's common to hear people casually say, "Oh, I'm so burned out," when they're merely referring to a bad day or a bad week. But for those who truly are burned out, it is much more than a bad day or a bad week. It's a problem that significantly interferes with one's health, happiness, and overall quality of life.
Unfortunately, few burnout victims see it coming until it's too late. The good news is that it doesn't have to get to that point. If you identify signs of burnout early enough, you can reverse the downward spiral. So the question is ...
Where do you fall on the burnout continuum?
Signs of burnout
Burnout is defined as a state of chronic stress and frustration that leads to:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion
- Feelings of cynicism and detachment
- A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
Together, these symptoms lead to an inability to successfully function on a personal and professional level.
Although some of the symptoms within these three areas overlap, each has characteristic signs and symptoms. As you'll see, many are the same or similar to those associated with stress. This is because the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree, so the best way to prevent burnout is to identify the symptoms as close as possible to the less severe end of these continuums, because the less severe the symptoms, the easier they are to relieve.
Signs associated with physical and emotional exhaustion
In the early stages of burnout, you may find yourself lacking energy and feeling tired often. You may go to bed early but still wake up tired. You may move more slowly and find you need extra time to get ready and get out the door.
At its worse, the fatigue becomes a physical and psychological state of exhaustion. You feel drained. Everything takes a concerted effort. You have no energy, so you do as little as possible to make it through the day. You find it difficult to get out of bed and may even call in sick on the days you feel like you simply can't get out of bed. This type of extreme fatigue also often results in a sense of dread for what lies ahead of you on any given day.
In the early stages of burnout, insomnia may be a problem only one or a few nights each week. Although you feel tired, it may be difficult to fall asleep; or if you do fall asleep, it may be disturbed sleep; or you may wake up in the middle of the night or earlier than you have to. Often, this trouble sleeping relates to persistent thoughts about the insurmountable amount of work that you have to do and whether you'll be able to get it done. In the later stages, insomnia may become a nightly ordeal. As exhausted as you feel, there may be nights that you can't sleep at all.
Impaired Concentration and Attention
Physical and mental exhaustion can lead to a host of cognitive problems, but the most common are concentration, attention difficulties, and forgetfulness. You may find yourself having to re-read things or asking colleagues to repeat themselves. Because you can't focus, it takes longer to get your work done, so things begin to pile up, causing more stress. At its worse, these symptoms prevent you from getting anything done, and you simply can't keep up.
All serious physical symptoms, especially chest pains or difficulty breathing, should first be evaluated by a physician to rule out any medical explanations. But it's not uncommon to find that most of the physical symptoms experienced by burnout victims are caused by stress. These symptoms can include chest pains, heart palpitations, dizziness, fainting, tension headaches, migraine headaches, shortness of breath, and stomach pain, which may interfere in your day-to-day functioning, making it difficult to go to work or get work done when you're there.
Because chronic stress depletes and weakens one's body, burnout victims are more vulnerable to infections, colds, the flu, and other immune system disorders. The worse the burnout is, the more vulnerable you're likely to be, and the longer it's likely to take you to recover from simple infections, like a common cold.
Loss of Appetite
In the early stages of burnout, you may not feel hungry some of the time and may skip meals as a result. In the later stages, this may worsen to a complete loss of appetite and significant weight loss.
Chronic anxiety is common to cases of burnout. Early on, the anxiety may be experienced as nagging feelings of tension, worry, and edginess, which may interfere with your ability to attend and concentrate. Physically, your heart may pound, and your muscles may feel tight.
Over time, the anxiety may become so severe that it interferes in your ability to go to work or take care of your responsibilities at home. Feelings of apprehension and dread are common. In some cases, the anxiety may become so severe that it results in panic attacks.
Although feeling sad from time to time is normal, in cases of burnout, depression is more than just temporary sadness. In the early stages of burnout, you may notice that you're having more bad than good days. You also may feel like you have no energy, or you may feel irritable and restless. Guilt and feelings of worthlessness are common, and you may have trouble focusing and concentrating. In its most severe form, you may feel trapped or think the world would be better off without you. At times, you may become preoccupied with death or dying, or have thoughts of suicide. Obviously, if the depression gets to the point where you're thinking of harming yourself, you should seek immediate professional help.
Because burnout victims often feel like a failure and experience a lot of guilt, it's not uncommon for these feelings to turn into anger and resentment as the stress continues, and you feel as if you have no control over it. At first, the anger may take the form of interpersonal tension with colleagues, family, or friends. As burnout becomes more severe, the anger may intensify and result in angry outbursts and serious arguments at home and in the workplace. You may have thoughts of violence toward coworkers or family, and at its most extreme, this may cross the line into actual violence.
When the anger gets to the point where you start thinking of hurting someone else, or you cross the line and actually get into a physical altercation, seek professional assistance immediately to prevent anyone from getting hurt, including you.
Signs associated with feelings of detachment and cynicism
Loss of Enjoyment
In the early stages of burnout, the loss of enjoyment you feel may be only for work. You don't enjoy going, and when you get there, you can't wait to leave. As stress increases, the loss of enjoyment may extend to all areas of your life, including the time you spend with family and friends. At work, you may become preoccupied with thoughts of how you can avoid projects or how you can escape work altogether.
Burnout makes you feel like nothing is going to turn out well. While at one time, you may have been a person who sees the "glass half full," burnout may cause you to feel as if the "glass is half empty," or in some cases, completely empty. This type of negativity is likely to result in negative "self-talk," such as feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness. It also may carry over to others, feeling as if no one cares or that everyone is out for themselves. This may lead to a lack of trust toward coworkers, family, and friends, increasing tension at home and in the workplace and separating you from social support sources that may once have served as a buffer to your stress.
Isolation may start out as a mild resistance to socializing, such as not wanting to go to lunch with a co-worker or friend. As burnout worsens, you may begin to feel more and more like being alone. Colleagues dropping by to say hello may become an annoyance, and you may find yourself closing your door to keep people out. You make excuses not to go out to lunch, or you search for ways to get out of meetings.
In the most severe cases, you may get angry at people who approach you. You may even lock your door to keep people away, or come in early or leave late to avoid interactions with colleagues and possibly even family members.
In burnout, detachment is a general sense of feeling disconnected to people and your environment. This can take the form of the isolative behaviors described above. In some situations, it may come across as anger toward others. But it also can take the form of detaching yourself emotionally and physically from your job and your responsibilities. For example, you may start calling in sick more often, missing appointments, being chronically late, or not returning calls or emails.
Signs associated with a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
Feelings of Apathy, Helplessness, and Hopelessness
In the beginning, feelings of apathy, helplessness, and hopelessness may seem like nothing is going right or give a sense of "What's the use?" As time goes on, these feelings may become immobilizing, making it seem as if nothing is worth doing, as if there is no point in even getting out of bed.
In cases of burnout, irritability is often the result of frustration over feeling ineffective and useless, and disappointment over decreased productivity, worsening performance, and a general sense that you're not able to do things like you used to do them. You may snap at people and overreact to minor things. In the early stages, irritability may create a rift in professional and personal relationships. In later stages, it may destroy a career as well as marriages and partnerships.
Lack of Productivity and Poor Performance
Despite long work hours, the symptoms of burnout prevent you from being able to produce the way you used to, which results in incomplete projects and a stack of work that just keeps piling up. It often seems like the harder you work, the more ground you lose. And try as you might, you just can't climb out from underneath the pile.
In short, burnout can take away life as you know it or once knew it. It can cause you to lose your job, your family, your friends, your sense of worth, and your identity. So if you're on that path, it's important that you recognize it so you can do something about it.
Am I burned out?
By now, you should have a pretty good sense if you're burned out or not, and if you are, how severe it is. However, if you're not sure, there are some "tests" you can do.
The first is to commit to treating yourself to a relaxing, stress-free weekend (it doesn't have to be a weekend if you work a job where you have two other consecutive days off). You can't do any work. You can't take any work-related calls or respond to any work-related emails or texts. If your family is a source of stress, try to get away from them for the weekend. Basically, your job is to remove as many sources of stress from your life as possible and infuse as many stress-reducing elements (mostly in the form of rest) into your life for two and a half days.
Try to sleep in both days. Eat right. Occupy your time with relaxing activities that you rarely allow yourself to enjoy. If you like to read, read. If you like to cook, cook. If you like to write, write. If you don't like to do anything, don't do anything. Just don't expose yourself to any stress for two and a half days.
If on Monday morning, you wake up tired and dreading your day, you are likely suffering from burnout. If you want to determine its severity, you can take a second "test." But take a deep breath, because it's going to involve taking some of that vacation time you've probably resisted taking or convinced yourself that you don't have time to take all these years.
Here's the test: Take two weeks off. The same rules apply as for the first test. Remove stressors. Add stress reducers. Don't do anything too physically or emotionally exhausting. Try to get at least eight hours of sleep each night and eat at least three meals a day, preferably healthy ones.
After two weeks, if you don't feel like you've recovered very much of your strength and vitality, your problems are very likely severe, and you should consider making some significant changes in your lifestyle to give yourself a chance to recover. If you don't, your body and mind will eventually do it for you, and you'll have no choice in the matter. No one can run on empty forever.
If the tests didn't turn out the way you were hoping, it's normal to feel upset. No one likes to hear that they're burned out. But the good news is that burnout isn't a terminal illness. Yes, you will have to make changes to how you live and work, and yes, those changes, at first, may be quite difficult to get used to. The important thing to keep in mind is that you are still the same person you were when you first started out, maybe a little wiser to the ways of the world, maybe a little older. But at your core, you are one and the same.
Your drive, your enthusiasm, your passion, and your energy may have gotten buried under the weight of the stress you've been carrying around, but those qualities and all the other good ones are still inside you. You just need to find ways to reach inside and find the sparks that first ignited your interests and passion so that you can rediscover yourself, only this time with new insight into ways to better control your stress levels so that burnout does not make its way into your life again.
Much of this article is an excerpt from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).
© 2012 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved