Burnout: What It Is and How To Cope

Many of us know someone who has had to take a break from work due to burnout. But what exactly is this set of symptoms? And whats the difference between burnout, “normal” exhaustion and depression?

The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. He used it to describe the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions. Doctors and nurses, for example, who sacrifice themselves for others, would often end up being “burned out” – exhausted, listless, and unable to cope. Nowadays, the term is not only used for these helping professions, or for the dark side of self-sacrifice. It can affect anyone, from stressed-out career-driven people and celebrities to overworked employees and homemakers.

Surprisingly, experts dont always agree on what burnout actually is. This has consequences: Because it’s not exactly clear what burnout is and how it can be diagnosed, its also not possible to say how common it is.

A stressful lifestyle can put people under extreme pressure, to the point that they feel exhausted, empty, burned out, and unable to cope. Stress at work can also cause physical and mental symptoms. Possible causes include feeling either permanently overworked or under-challenged, being under time pressure, or having conflicts with colleagues. Extreme commitment that results in people neglecting their own needs may also be at the root of it. Problems caused by stress at work are a common reason for taking sick leave. If someone has problems at their workplace, changes in their working environment can already make a positive difference. For people who can no longer cope with the stress of caring for ill relatives, more concrete support can help to improve their situation.

Exhaustion is a normal reaction to stress, and not necessarily a sign of disease. So does burnout describe a set of symptoms that is more than a “normal” reaction to stress? And how is it different from other mental health problems?

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It’s a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s incessant demands.

Burnout: Symptoms & Strategies

Risk factors for burnout

Burnout is possible in almost every career field and depends on the level of stress involved in your job and your personal circumstances. Knowing potential risk factors for burnout can help you anticipate it and take preemptive steps to avoid or manage it. Here are some potential burnout risk factors:

External pressure

Facing pressure from external forces such as the workplace can be a risk factor for burnout. Certain career fields, such as emergency services, may be more stressful by nature and might contribute more easily to burnout in some people. Unhealthy workplace relationships can also contribute to external pressures that may cause burnout for some individuals. Tight deadlines, emergency situations and unforeseen and long-lasting circumstances can all apply physical, mental and emotional pressure that may lead to fatigue.

One specific type of external pressure that might lead to burnout is a stressful interpersonal dynamic at work. If a work environment doesnt align with your beliefs or values, it can cause stress that leads to burnout. If coworkers interact in ways that are troubling to you, this can contribute to burnout as well.

Internal pressure

Sometimes, internal pressures can also cause symptoms of burnout. Self-administered deadlines and performance standards can sometimes feel unattainable and necessary at the same time. You might feel compelled to work in a way that leads to burnout due to internal factors such as pride, ambition and other intrinsic motivators. These risk factors can be complicated, and knowing your own motivations and circumstances can sometimes be the best way to identify them.

What is burnout?

Burnout is the common term for a combination of stress-related symptoms including extreme fatigue, trouble sleeping, restlessness and emotional cynicism or resentment. Symptoms of burnout can also include physical symptoms such as muscle pains, stomach aches and headaches. If you feel like you may be experiencing burnout, its important to try different methods or explore various ways of reducing your stress levels.

16 ways to prevent and manage burnout

Reach out

Feelings of isolation can sometimes contribute to the overwhelmed sensation that sometimes accompanies burnout. For example, if you are the only individual in your office who is tasked with a certain high-stress job, it can contribute to feelings of excessive stress and exhaustion. Consider contacting a friend, family member or other connection to share your thoughts and perspectives if you are experiencing burnout.

Take time to recover

Time away from the circumstances associated with your experience of burnout might help alleviate the physical, mental and emotional effects you feel. Consider taking time off in the form of a vacation, leave of absence or sabbatical if possible. If your situation is such that you cant take extended time off, you may wish to consider building extra time for rest into your daily activities if you can.

Seek balance

If your burnout is a result of an imbalance between the work and personal elements of your life, consider looking for ways to return some of your energy to things that bring you joy. For example, if you work regular overtime, you might consider a lighter schedule to allow time for family and friends. Try brainstorming ideas using pen and paper or a digital tool to think of more ways to attain a healthy balance between work and your personal life.

Unplug

Many peoples jobs are “plugged in,” or connected to technology to perform the required work duties. When combined with the significant use of screens outside of work, this heavy technological presence can make it feel like its difficult to disconnect from work. Consider establishing a time limit for your online activities. You can use an alarm clock to help remind you of when it is time to disengage, and most devices have a “downtime” function that you can find in the device settings.

Enforce boundaries

Whether they are between yourself and others, yourself and work or even yourself and behavioral patterns, setting boundaries can be a powerful way to prevent and address burnout.

For example, if you know that a certain kind of interaction in the workplace drains your emotional energy, try sending a preemptive email instead. If you find it challenging to stop thinking about work even when you are at home, consider posting physical notes around your home to remind you of what youd rather focus on. If you check work email late into the night, try removing the email app from your phone so you can only check messages from a computer.

Delegate

In many professional positions, it is often possible to allocate tasks to other individuals. If you feel your workload is too much to handle, ask your coworkers or managers for help. Think of common duties that you share with team members and ask if they can complete them to help make your workload more manageable.

Sleep

Adequate rest can help support the function of the mind-body relationship and improve well-being at work and home. If sleeplessness is contributing to your burnout, try to build additional rest into your routine. Consider developing a bedtime routine that is calm and predictable, such as a warm shower, a hot cup of tea and a book an hour before bed. Avoiding electronic devices in the time leading up to sleep can help with the quality of your rest, as well.

Exercise

Physical activity can also help with mental, physical and emotional wellness if you are facing burnout. Some people find that exercise at the beginning of the day helps support their energy levels and general life satisfaction. Others might use a mid-afternoon walk to add variety to the day and release exercise-related endorphins, a hormone that enhances feelings of well-being. Try scheduling a block of time each day for physical activity to address some of the effects of burnout.

Eat well

Diet can contribute to overall wellness, including the ability to cope with extended stress. Eating healthful foods might improve physical, mental and emotional endurance and provide an enjoyable ritual throughout the day. Consider researching healthful eating practices that might work well for you to potentially prevent burnout.

Consider your options

If a work or personal situation is contributing to burnout and that situation is negotiable, think about creative ways you might be able to modify that situation to better suit your needs. For example, if you volunteer on the weekends and your employer has also requested that employees work voluntary overtime, you might consider choosing only one of those activities to make time for rest. If your job description has changed significantly and encompasses duties that cause you excessive stress, consider ways you might be able to adjust your work accordingly.

Practice mindfulness

Mindfulness, or the practice of being aware of your internal and external state in the present moment, can have positive effects in preventing and counteracting burnout. For example, if you notice that you are particularly stressed during a certain time each day at work, you might set a timer to remind you to check in on how you feel and what you are experiencing. Try researching mindfulness meditation tools online to find lessons, tools and recordings that might help.

Take notes

If you are experiencing burnout, it can be challenging to keep track of the symptoms and causes, especially if your circumstances are complex. Consider writing down your experience with burnout and using your notes to find patterns of feelings and behaviors. This exercise might help you notice habits you werent previously aware of and give you ideas for how to de-stress while working.

Practice positive self-talk

Positive self-talk or affirmations can be another useful tool for preventing and coping with burnout. Try using times when you are experiencing negative emotions or sensations to stop and redirect your thinking in an empowered direction. Physical and digital reminders can help. For example, if you find that you experience the strongest symptoms of burnout at your desk, you might post a note with a reminder of something you are proud to have achieved.

Trust yourself

Sometimes people who experience burnout find that the process of seeking solutions or performing research contributes to their burnout, especially if their schedule is already very full. If you are in this situation, consider taking a break from the solution-oriented mindset and focusing on your successes. Trusting yourself to make good decisions can, in itself, provide at least temporary relief from the effects of burnout.

Get creative

If you have a creative hobby, such as painting or knitting, you might find that burnout interferes with your motivation to engage with these tasks. Consider setting an alarm for 10 minutes and participating in your hobby for only that long. By the time the alarm goes off, you might find that you are engaged in a creative activity that could inspire motivation and feelings of well-being in other areas of your life.

Prioritize

Burnout can sometimes feel like a multitude of pressing tasks, and sometimes it can be hard to tell which of these tasks should be completed first. If you are feeling overwhelmed as a result of chronic stress, it might help to write down a list of tasks and then prioritize that list based on urgency and importance. This exercise might also reveal tasks that can be delegated or discarded altogether, leaving more time for rest and recuperation.

FAQ

What are the 5 stages of burn out?

Ignored or unaddressed job burnout can have significant consequences, including:
  • Excessive stress.
  • Fatigue.
  • Insomnia.
  • Sadness, anger or irritability.
  • Alcohol or substance misuse.
  • Heart disease.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Type 2 diabetes.

How do you treat burnout?

Signs of burnout
  • Fatigue is a major symptom of burnout and can affect all areas of your life. You might feel like sleeping all the time, or find that even simple tasks take longer to complete. …
  • Tension headaches are a common burnout side effect, Dr. …
  • Seeing a therapist is often a good first step to tackling burnout.

What is burn out in mental health?

Boost your ability to stay on task
  1. Learn how to reduce stress in the moment.
  2. Manage troublesome thoughts and feelings.
  3. Motivate yourself to take the steps that can relieve stress and burnout.
  4. Improve your relationships at work and home.
  5. Rediscover joy and meaning that make work and life worthwhile.

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