Burnout is a state of mental and physical exhaustion that can zap the joy out of your career, friendships, and family interactions. Continual exposure to stressful situations, like caring for an ill family member, working long hours, or witnessing upsetting news related to politics and school safety can lead to this stress condition.
Burnout, however, isn’t always easy to spot. With that in mind, we’ve put together a guide to help you identify the signs of burnout, as well as ways to prevent it.
What is burnout?
Coined by the psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, burnout describes a severe stress condition that leads to severe physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion.
Much worse than ordinary fatigue, burnout makes it challenging for people to cope with stress and handle day-to-day responsibilities.
People experiencing burnout often feel like they have nothing left to give and may dread getting out of bed each morning. They may even adopt a pessimistic outlook toward life and feel hopeless.
Burnout doesn’t go away on its own and, if left untreated, it can lead to serious physical and psychological illnesses like depression, heart disease, and diabetes.
Who gets burnout?
Anyone who’s continually exposed to high levels of stress can experience burnout. Helping professionals, such as first responders, doctors, and nurses are especially vulnerable to this health condition.
Along with career-induced burnout, people caring for children can also have this type of extreme exhaustion. A recent study found that, just like doctors and business executives, mothers and fathers can also burn out.
Personality characteristics like needing to be in control, perfectionism, and being “Type A” can also increase your risk of burnout.
What are signs of burnout?
While burnout isn’t a diagnosable psychological disorder, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously. Burnout symptoms can affect you both physically and mentally.
Physical Burnout Symptoms
When you experience burnout, your body will often display certain signs. Research indicates that some of the most common physical burnout symptoms include:
- Gastrointestinal problems
- High blood pressure
- Poor immune function (getting sick more often)
- Reoccurring headaches
- Sleep issues
Because burnout is caused by chronic stress, it’s helpful to also be aware of how this stress, in general, affects the body. Chronic stress may be felt physically in terms of having more aches and pains, low energy levels, and changes in appetite. All of these physical signs suggest that you may be experiencing burnout.
Mental Burnout Symptoms
Burnout also impacts you mentally and emotionally. Here are some of the most common mental symptoms of burnout:
- Concentration issues
- Depressed mood
- Feeling worthless
- Loss of interest or pleasure
- Suicidal ideation
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
Burnout vs. Depression
Burnout shares symptoms with some mental health conditions, such as depression. Depression symptoms also include a loss of interest in things, feelings of hopelessness, cognitive and physical symptoms, as well as thoughts of suicide. How can you tell if it is burnout versus depression?
Individuals with depression experience negative feelings and thoughts about all aspects of life, not just at work. If this is how you feel, a mental health professional can help. Seeking help is important because individuals experiencing burnout may be at a higher risk of developing depression.
Risk Factors for Burnout Symptoms
Having a high-stress job doesn’t always lead to burnout. If your stress is managed well, you may not experience these ill effects. But some individuals (and those in certain occupations) are at a higher risk of having burnout symptoms than others.
For instance, a 2019 National Physician Burnout, Depression, and Suicide Report found that 44% of physicians experience burnout. Of course, it’s not just physicians who are burning out. Workers in every industry at every level are at potential risk.
According to a 2018 Gallup report, there are five job factors that can contribute to employee burnout:
- Unreasonable time pressures.Employees who say they have enough time to do their work are 70% less likely to experience high burnout, while individuals who are not able to gain more time (such as paramedics and firefighters) are at a higher risk of burnout.
- Lack of communication and support from management.Manager support offers a psychological buffer against stress. Employees who feel strongly supported by their manager are 70% less likely to experience burnout symptoms on a regular basis.
- Lack of role clarity.Only 60% of workers know what is expected of them. When expectations are like moving targets, employees may become exhausted simply by trying to figure out what they are supposed to be doing.
- Unmanageable workload.When the workload feels unmanageable, even the most optimistic employees will feel hopeless. Feeling overwhelmed can quickly lead to burnout symptoms.
- Unfair treatment.Employees who feel they are treated unfairly at work are 2.3 times more likely to experience a high level of burnout. Unfair treatment may include things such as favoritism, unfair compensation, and mistreatment from a co-worker.
The stress that contributes to burnout can come mainly from your job, but stressors from other areas of life can add to these levels as well. Personality traits and thought patterns such as perfectionism and pessimism, for instance, can contribute to the stress you feel.
How to prevent burnout
Stress may be unavoidable, but burnout is preventable. Following these steps may help you thwart stress from getting the best of you:
Not only is exercise good for our physical health, but it can also give us an emotional boost.
Stretched for time? You don’t need to spend hours at the gym to reap these benefits. Mini-workouts and short walks are convenient ways to make exercise a daily habit.
Eat a balanced diet
Eating a healthy diet filled with omega-3 fatty acids can be a natural antidepressant. Adding foods rich in omega-3s like flaxseed oil, walnuts, and fish may help give your mood a boost.
Practice good sleep habits
Our bodies need time to rest and reset, which is why healthy sleep habits are essential for our well-being.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, avoiding caffeine before bedtime, establishing a relaxing bedtime ritual, and banning smartphones from the bedroom can help promote sound sleep hygiene.
Ask for help
During stressful times, it’s important to reach out for help. If asking for assistance feels difficult, consider developing a self-care “check-in” with close friends and family members so that you can take care of each other during trying times.
How to help friends or family members
How can you help someone experiencing burnout? While you can’t take away someone’s stress, offering support can help lighten their emotional load.
Before jumping into “fixing” mode, offer to listen to your friend or family member’s difficulties.
Having someone to talk to can make a world of difference. Often people need someone to witness their stress and suffering, and listening can go a long way.
Validate feelings and concerns
When friends and family members are feeling the effects of burnout, saying It doesn’t sound that bad or I’m sure things will get better — while meant to offer reassurance — can feel invalidating if someone is really feeling low and hopeless.
Instead, offer validation by saying, “You’ve been working so hard, I can understand why you feel depleted.”
Offer specific types of help
Individuals who are burnt out are often too tired to think of ways that others can help them. Instead of asking, “How can I help?” offer to drop off a meal, pick up dry cleaning, or do a load of laundry.
Sending flowers, a thoughtful text message, or a written card can remind friends and family members that they’re not alone.
Because they’re often working long hours, people with burnout can feel lonely and underappreciated. But small gestures of kindness can be nurturing.
If friends or family members need additional support, like childcare, a house cleaner, or a psychotherapist, offer to research and crowdsource for specific resources to help ease the stress.
Being exposed to continual stress can cause us to burnout. Feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, and isolating from friends and family members can be some of the signs. However, eating a balanced diet, regular exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep may prevent this stressed state.
Worried about friends and family members who may be burnt out? Listening to their concerns, validating their emotions, and offering specific types of support can help lighten the load.
Burnout can be avoided by making self-care part of your daily routine. Even if you’re working long hours, studying for exams, or taking care of young children, remember to sprinkle some joy into each day.
Try going for a walk, talking to a friend, or watching an enjoyable program on television. Small self-care gestures like these can stop stress from turning into something more serious, like burnout
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