What Is Burnout?

If you’re feeling exhausted and sluggish, and even simple tasks feel overwhelming to complete — or you find yourself so stressed out that you’re quick to get angry or frustrated — you might be experiencing burnout.

“We’re living in an incredibly stressful time, and burnout is incredibly prevalent,” says psychologist Adam Borland, PsyD. “I am seeing a lot of people who are very tired. Physically, emotionally tired.”

While frequently associated with a stressful job, burnout can affect many areas of your life and even cause health problems. Thankfully, there are ways you can cope with and even overcome this often-debilitating state of being.

Dr. Borland shares burnout’s major symptoms and provides some tips on how to recover.

Index

    What is burnout?

    Burnout can be difficult to describe. However, it’s not a medical condition. According to the APA Dictionary of Psychology, burnout is defined as “physical, emotional or mental exhaustion, accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.”

    You may not realize you’ve hit burnout until it’s too late when you’ve crossed the line between “really tired” and “too exhausted to function.” Alternatively, you might be the type of personality who likes to stay busy, and might not recognize when you’re doing too much.

    “If you’re used to going 100 miles an hour, and then suddenly take your foot off the accelerator, you’re now still going at 85,” says Dr. Borland. “However, you may feel that that’s somehow not good enough because you’re so used to going at 100 miles an hour. There will be times where you have to go a little faster, but we can’t sustain that 100 miles an hour all the time.”

    Burnout also happens when your work-life balance gets out of sync. This has been a common occurrence in the last few years, with the rise in remote work and technology permeating our daily lives.

    “I’m seeing people that are having a very difficult time finding the necessary boundaries in order to manage their personal life and work demands,” Dr. Borland says. “Finding that balance has proven to be extremely difficult. Throw in the uncertainty regarding COVID-19, and it is really depleting the physical and emotional reserves that we usually hold onto.”

    Signs of burnout

    Burnout looks different for everyone, although it can affect you physically, mentally and emotionally.

    Fatigue

    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. Dr. Borland says the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified these feelings. “People are really having a hard time trying to balance work and parenting responsibilities — for instance, trying to deal with children and virtual schooling and navigating situations where, frankly, there’s no blueprint,” he says.

    Feeling apathetic or dissatisfied with your work

    Everyone has days when they don’t want to get out of bed and go to work. When these feelings persist, it becomes a problem. “With many people I work with, there’s this question of, ‘What’s the point? The work that I’m doing, is it really making a difference? Do I even really enjoy what I’m doing anymore? Or am I just kind of going through the motions?’ This indicates a lack of satisfaction in the work you’re doing.”

    These can be workers at all stages of their careers, Dr. Borland adds. “I see people that are new to their field, maybe right out of college,” he says. “But also people who have maybe been in their field for 30-plus years, and all of a sudden they’re questioning, ‘I don’t know how much longer I can do this, or I want to do this.’”

    Headaches

    Tension headaches are a common burnout side effect, Dr. Borland says. “A lot of my patients deal with pretty significant headaches.”

    Changes to your diet or sleep patterns

    Humans are creatures of habit, and when we experience changes to these habits, it’s often the sign something is amiss. That’s certainly the case with burnout. “We’re always going to look for changes to sleep patterns,” he says. “And are there any significant changes in diet?” This could mean you’re eating more (or less) than usual, or not sticking to a healthy diet. Sleeping at different times of day, or feeling the need to get more (or fewer) ZZZs than usual, might be another sign.

    Is burnout the same thing as depression?

    The symptoms of burnout can often resemble the symptoms of more serious medical conditions. These can include mental health-related mood disorders.

    “Oftentimes, burnout and depression can mirror each other,” explains Dr. Borland. “However, depression is a diagnosable mental health condition, whereas burnout is not.”

    That’s not the only difference. In contrast to depression, burnout tends to be a response to a specific environment or situation — say, working more hours than usual, or dealing with something specific going on in your life. “Depression doesn’t have to be in response to one specific trigger,” Dr. Borland says. “Are you feeling a sense of worthlessness, a feeling of helplessness, in terms of changing aspects of your life? Causes of depression tend to be broader in general, whereas with burnout, we can really pinpoint what is causing these types of symptoms.”

    Depression’s symptoms also tend to be more general, he adds. “Imagine you’re experiencing depression and visit a villa in the South of France,” Dr. Borland says. “The reality is, those depressive symptoms are going to accompany you on that trip.”

    If you’re dealing with burnout, however, you’ll have a different experience visiting that same villa. “Once you detach from work or whatever it is that’s causing the burnout, you’re going to be able to enjoy that vacation and relax,” he explains. “If you’re feeling depressed, you most likely will not.”

    What to do if you have burnout

    Recognizing that you have burnout is often the first step to making a plan for recovery. “You might not necessarily recognize burnout at its early stages,” says Dr. Borland. “It’s usually once burnout has really taken hold, that’s when you might say, ‘Something is really off here.’ That’s because we’re so used to going at that 100-mile-an-hour clip.” But there are tangible steps you can take to get back on a better path.

    Care for your mental health

    Seeing a therapist is often a good first step to tackling burnout. “We often talk about the idea of our gas tanks being on empty,” says Dr. Borland. “And what we do in therapy is really try and focus on how to refill that tank. Having that safe place to talk with someone who is not a family member, or a friend, or a coworker, or a neighbor — but someone who is impartial and is trained to give clinical feedback — can be life-changing, especially during these stressful times we’re living in.”

    One of the first things a therapist might want to know is what you’re dealing with on a day-to-day basis. For example, Dr. Borland says if you say you’re not sleeping, eating or concentrating properly because you’re so worried about a work presentation, that’s a big clue something is going on.

    Build breaks — and personal check-ins — into your schedule

    Dr. Borland always recommends taking breaks as a good solution to start tackling burnout. “We have to be able to step away from the computer, or step away from whatever that source of stress is, to attend to our health and well-being,” Dr. Borland says. “It’s important that we all do a daily, maybe even hourly, check-in with ourselves, to see, ‘How am I doing emotionally? How am I doing physically?’”

    Exercise

    Finding the energy to work out provides an abundance of health benefits, including helping you deal with burnout. “Regardless of how much energy you may have on a given day, if you can get some sort of physical exercise, that’s always going to be a helpful coping tool,” Dr. Borland explains, and adds that the exercise doesn’t have to mean a trip to the gym. “We can get exercise in all sorts of different ways at home. It can really be just taking a few minutes every day to get some physical exercise.”

    Practice mindfulness

    The concept of mindfulness revolves around the idea of trying to be as emotionally present as possible. One way to do this is deep breathing. “The great thing about doing deep breathing is it forces us to focus on one inhale and that one exhale,” says Dr. Borland. “In doing that, we’re focusing on this very moment.” This is something else that you can do anywhere at any time. “It’s easy to do, and it doesn’t require any equipment,” he adds. “People don’t even necessarily know that you’re doing deep breathing. But the positive effects can be wonderful.”

    Establish a daily routine

    With work-life boundaries blurred, it can be difficult to put up strict divisions between your job and personal life. But Dr. Borland says establishing a healthy daily routine for sleep, diet,and non-work time is crucial. “It’s important to say, ‘Okay, I’ve put in a hard day’s work. Now I need to press stop, and I need to attend to social aspects of my life, things that are just fun and relaxing,’” he explains.

    Creating and maintaining boundaries does take work, however. Setting an alarm to signal when it’s time to stop working is one helpful technique. Writing down your to-do list is another technique that can help make what you need to get done clearer. “When you write things down, you break them down into small, achievable goals,” says Dr. Borland. “That’s a wonderful way to approach things. You can cross those things off during the day.”

    Start to build — and enforce — work-life boundaries

    Dr. Borland notes that job burnout is so common because we often have a difficult time saying no. “We have a difficult time maintaining necessary boundaries, especially because technology plays a significant part in the work field today,” he says. “We are accessible 24 hours a day. And especially now with all the virtual platforms, it takes our ability to disconnect from work and makes it all the more difficult. I see people across all stages of their career who are saying, ‘I need to do a better job finding this balance in order to preserve my physical and emotional health.’”

    Of course, job burnout can be complicated. You likely aren’t in a position to quit a job, so you have to make the best of things. “If you have the opportunity to communicate with your boss, with their manager, with someone higher up in the organization, and explain to them some of the difficulties that you’re dealing with, that’s ideal,” Dr. Borland says. “Hopefully [they can] find some sort of schedule or some change in responsibilities [or] change in daily routine that could help.

    “But not everyone has that opportunity,” he adds. “So you have to try and remember that your health and well-being matters. If things are really out of whack, I have to figure out how to do something for myself.”

    Explore a hobby

    If you don’t necessarily feel satisfied at work, looking for something outside of work — for example, starting a hobby, volunteering or joining a club or organization — can often help.

    How to avoid burnout in the future

    Although it can feel overwhelming in the moment, Dr. Borland reassures that you can recover from burnout. “It takes work,” he says. “It comes down to establishing a meaningful daily routine, and creating and maintaining boundaries so you can attend to your health and wellbeing while also attending to the responsibilities of your job or your personal life.”

    Once you recognize your burnout symptoms, you’re better able to take a break and recalibrate your actions if you do feel your life becoming out of sync. “You can say, ‘You know what, I know how bad this felt last time I dealt with this. I need to do a better job of maintaining that balance and attending to my self-care and those boundaries. I don’t want to get to the point I did last time.’”

    Keeping the lines of communication open with your support systems can also help ward off burnout. “That’s another aspect of therapy — you often learn how to communicate,” Dr. Borland notes. “You’re not internalizing these emotions perhaps like you once did.”

    At the end of the day, it all comes down to balance. “We often misconstrue the idea of attending to our self-care as somehow being selfish,” Dr. Borland says. “And it’s really not. I often remind my patients that in order to be the best friend, spouse, parent or child, you have to attend to your self-care. If your tank is empty, you can’t be the type of person you want to be to these others in your life.”

    To learn more from Dr. Borland about how to identify and recover from burnout, listen to our Health Essentials podcast episode, “How to Deal with Burnout.” New episodes of the Health Essentials podcast publish every Wednesday.

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