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Signs of Burnout & How to Prevent It

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Burnout - Dr. Axe

Employee burnout is now said to be at “frighteningly high levels,” affecting more than one-third of working adults on a regular basis and 77 percent at least occasionally, including those from various age groups, experience levels and industries.

According to 2021 article published in Time Magazine, recent surveys and reports suggest that women may be even more likely to experience burnout compared to men. The annual Women in the Workplace report found that the amount of women who say they are burned out in 2021 nearly doubled from the prior year.

In 2021, 42% of women and 35% of men reported symptoms like feelings of overwhelm and fatigue, mostly in regard to work-life balance, while 67% also say burnout has worsened due to or during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many ways, you can help treat burnout in the same way that you’d treat adrenal fatigue — which typically involves resting more, working less,  and eating and exercising in a balanced, nourishing way. Addressing issues related to your job, such as your workload and the need to be available nearly 24/7, are other crucial steps in protecting your mental health.

What Is Burnout? (Plus Types)

Since it isn’t considered a real medical diagnosis, what does “burnout” mean? Several definitions exist, but most include aspects of prolonged stress, fatigue/exhaustion, and reduced motivation and productivity, especially related to one’s job.

Forbes defines burnout as “a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that is brought upon by long periods of constant unrelenting stress.”

The most common types of burnout, and the one studied most extensively, is “job burnout.” The Mayo Clinic considers job burnout to be “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

The term “burnout” was first introduced in the 1970s by an author named Herbert Freudenberger, who wrote “Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.” He stated that burned-out workers “looked, acted and seemed depressed.”

Since this time, researchers have been studying what leads to burnout most often. One report published by Gallup identified several main components of burnout, including:

  • Unreasonable time pressure/not having enough time to complete all work
  • Lack of communication and support from managers
  • Lack of role clarity/employees not knowing what is expected of them
  • Unfair treatment/unfair compensation

Aside from job burnout, people may also experience exhaustion and lack of motivation if they feel burnout from dating, keeping up with social media, taking care of their children/families or some combination of all of these.

Signs and Symptoms

Burnout basically comes down to experiencing a combination of stress and exhaustion. This is obviously not very healthy or sustainable, and it can manifest in different ways depending on the person.

What is an example of burnout?

Someone who is burnt out might be a middle-age adult who has young children at home, has a relatively long commute to work, then works long hours at his job, only to come home to a loud house that demands his attention. He might not enjoy his job much, may feel unclear about his responsibilities and may not have a lot of down time outside of work.

He may also struggle to sleep through the night and lack opportunities to relax, exercise or hang out with friends.

Millennials also seem susceptible to burnout due to factors like rising costs of living, trouble finding reliable work, debt and social media pressure that adds to everyday anxiety.

Common signs of burnout can include:

  • Always feeling tired, which can lead to low motivation to work, exercise, socialize, etc.
  • Being more irritable, impatient, cynical and critical than usual
  • Feeling like you can’t concentrate or be productive
  • Not feeling excited or satisfied by things that usually make you happy
  • Feeling anxious, like you lack control over important aspects of your life (such as your job/schedule)
  • Struggling to get restful sleep
  • Using food, drugs or alcohol to cope and lift your mood
  • Dealing with symptoms tied to stress, such as tension headaches, stomachaches or muscle tension
  • In some cases, developing more serious health concerns tied to chronic stress if it isn’t addressed, such as insomnia, alcohol or substance misuse, high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, and poor immune function

Risk Factors/Causes

Certain risk factors and personality traits seem to put people at greater risk of developing burnout, including:

  • A history of depression and/or anxiety
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Working a difficult job that lacks work-life balance
  • Feeling overwhelmed at work, such as due to demanding schedule, confrontational boss or co-workers, or unrealistic expectations about your workload
  • Personality traits like perfectionism and pessimism
  • Lack of social support and feeling isolated
  • Lack of childcare (which is usually most stressful for mothers)
  • Not having enough time or energy to spend time with your family and friends or on hobbies and relaxation
  • Being sedentary/lack of exercise
  • Having a long commute and working long hours
  • Working a job that involves taking care of others, such as being a physician or health care worker, police officer, first responder, etc.
  • Difficult family life that increases stress
  • Dealing with illnesses
  • Financial worries that make job stress even worse

How to Prevent/Treat

Does burnout go away eventually?

It’s only likely to go away if you address the causes and make changes to your lifestyle and responsibilities. If you keep working the same job that you don’t like, don’t speak up about your needs and boundaries, and don’t reach out for help and support, then you’re unlikely to feel better about your situation.

How do you fix burnout? Here are tips for preventing and treating burnout symptoms:

1. Address Concerns at Work

Experts recommend that people feeling burnt out first focus on making positive changes to their work schedules and environments. Here are some things to consider doing to help make your job more manageable and enjoyable:

  • Make a list of exactly what’s bothering you, and then consider bringing up these topics to your boss or supervisor in a respectful way. You might choose to focus on your schedule, demands, work environment, days off, time traveling, etc.
  • Gain clarity on any your roles and responsibilities that you’re not clear about — this way you feel more self-assured. Also discuss which times you’re expected to respond to work-related tasks and which you can unplug.
  • Discuss compensation if you haven’t in a while, such as more than one to two years. Earning more may help ease some of your worries if it helps you achieve more balance, such as by hiring help for certain responsibilities at home.
  • Consider if gaining more flexibility by working from home or adjusting your hours is a possibility. Research shows that this can be crucial for some parents remaining in the workforce, especially women. However, some people also struggle with balancing life when working from home, so consider which set up is best for you.

2. Prioritize Sleep and Relaxation

It can be hard to sleep well when you feel stressed or work long hours, but sleep deprivation only makes your mood and productivity worse. Try to prioritize sleep by heading to bed around the same time each night, aiming for seven to nine hours of sleep to feel your best.

As part of a nighttime routine to feel calm and help you relax in general, incorporate stress-relieving activities into your day like meditation, exercise, reading, journaling, yoga and spending time outdoors.

Getting regular exercise is both a stress buster and a way to enhance your sleep, since it naturally lifts your mood and makes you more tired close to bedtime. Try squeezing in a walk during a break at work, getting some fresh air and sunlight, or even taking your lunch break to go to the gym.

Practicing mindfulness and meditation are other suggestions for people feeling stressed. By quieting your mind, paying attention to the present moment, and sensing and feeling your body, you can learn to approach things with a healthier perspective.

3. Seek Support From Family, Friends and Co-workers

Feeling isolated and lonely is of the most stress-inducing feelings people face. Make an effort to reach out to friends, co-workers, mentors and family for advice, help and support.

At work specifically, seek out any available employee assistance programs that may be helpful or options that help with childcare if this is a concern. In your community, try finding a local parent group, book club, spiritual group, exercise or sports team, or another supportive group to bond and unwind with.

If you feel that you may be depressed or have a higher level of anxiety than is healthy, then it’s best to seek professional help from a therapist or counselor. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be very helpful for dealing with negativity, low self-esteem, anxiety symptoms and other mental health issues that are tied to burnout.

4. Unplug, Do “Digital Detoxes” and Stop Comparing

Employees who don’t get paid time off or regularly scheduled breaks from work are more likely to feel resentful and stressed. Try sticking to a schedule at work so you know when you’ll have down time and so others know what to expect of you.

When you’re not required to be working, stay offline, disconnect, and distract yourself with other things that are fun and relaxing. Avoid answering emails while at home or on vacation, since this is the time to take a break and restore your energy.

Make an effort to go outside to absorb sunlight and fresh air, whether you’re at home or working.

Another thing that may add to your stress is constantly staying on social media and comparing yourself to other people, such as those who work less and/or make more money than you. Try to stop comparing yourself, and focus on bettering your own career or work-life balance however possible.

Conclusion

  • What is burnout? While it’s not a medical diagnosis, it’s a problem that mimics depression and anxiety in some ways, since it usually involves feeling exhausted, cynical, lacking motivation and overwhelmed.
  • Someone who is feeling burned out may dislike her job and dread going to work, feel anxious about her busy schedule, lack motivation, and not have time for things like sleep, hobbies and exercise.
  • Chronic stress tied to this condition can contribute to many different mental and physical symptoms, like insomnia, headaches, digestive issues, lack of focus, irritability and muscle pains.
  • Self-care strategies for preventing and beating this problem include making any possible changes to your work routine, exercising, maintaining healthy sleep habits, taking time off from work, unplugging digitally and getting social support.

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