BURNOUT – symptoms, causes, and solutions

Do you feel physically exhausted and mentally overwhelmed? Does it seem like you can’t get anything done or do a good job? Are you feeling stressed, frustrated, disengaged, and ready to give up? These are common signs of burnout.

Burnout is a mental state characterised by feeling overwhelmed because you’re expected to accomplish more than you feel capable of. It can be caused by your job, personality traits, or responsibilities in your private life.

Burnout has the capacity to impact all areas of your life. It can make what used to be simple tasks seem impossible and activities you enjoyed become chores. You can feel incapable of doing your job, think you’re incompetent, and lose confidence in abilities you previously considered strengths, all while believing that you don’t have the power to improve your situation.

Because burnout sends you such painful and damaging messages, it’s important to know what burnout is, be able to recognise the symptoms, and have strategies for how you can improve your mental health.

Burnout doesn’t go away on its own, but if you take measures to address what’s causing it, doing what you can to protect your mental health, and save stress and energy wherever possible, you can recover.

Burnout symptoms. Burnout takes your energy and leaves you feeling drained A man is slumped forward thinking about the image of a battery with very little energy left

Burnout takes your energy and leaves you feeling drained

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of mental exhaustion, detachment and poor performance that typically results from expectations that are higher than you can comfortably meet.

The World Health Organisation defines burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

  1. Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  2. Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job, and
  3. Reduced professional efficacy.”

Although burnout is reserved for describing feeling incapable of preforming at work, the workplace isn’t the only reason that people develop burnout. Usually it’s a combination of: the nature of your job and the environment, your personality, and non-work related factors and responsibilities.

Anyone can develop burnout. It used to be believed that burnout was a sign of weakness and could be avoided by being mentally stronger. Today most people understand that this isn’t true, yet there are still some organisations that maintain this perspective and blame people for struggling with their mental health.

When someone is experiencing burnout, it’s not just their job that suffers. Burnout can impact every area of your life – it can start with feeling like you’re never caught up at work and lead to believing you’re incapable of doing anything right and are powerless to improve your situation. This is because burnout makes you believe that your struggles to do well or manage your responsibilities are evidence that you’re inadequate and leaves you with little energy to take care of your personal responsibilities or your health.

Despite how impactful burnout can be, the symptoms are often subtle and easily overlooked. Feeling tired and overworked can sneak up on you, so it’s useful to know what to notice so you can give yourself a break before you get too overwhelmed and potentially burn out.

Burnout can present itself differently from person to person, but the most common symptoms include:

  • Self-doubt and pessimism
  • Hopelessness and helplessness
  • A lack of motivation
  • Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment
  • Having little interest in things you usually enjoy
  • Struggling to stick to your usual routine
  • A reduced tolerance for things that bother you or go wrong
  • Getting easily frustrated with yourself and others
  • Avoiding responsibilities and procrastination
  • Isolating yourself
  • Giving yourself permission to do things you know you shouldn’t, like skipping a workout or smoking to relax

There are physical symptoms as well. These include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • More frequent sicknesses due to a suppressed immune system
  • Reoccurring headaches, back pain, or muscle aches
  • Difficulty concentrating and poor memory

Burnout is often compared to stress and vice versa, but they aren’t the same. Stress does lead to burnout, and burnout involves stress. They’re distinct because stress is the feeling that you have too much to manage – burnout is feeling like you don’t have the resources to meet your expectations and responsibilities.

The longer you feel burnt-out, the less you’re able to meet demands, which makes you feel more incapable and you become more burnt-out, quickly becoming a cycle.

Burnout can become a serious mental health condition, but understanding what it is and how it feels can help you recognise when you’re nearing burnout and do what you need to take care of yourself.

What causes burnout?

Do you have a job that places excessive demands on you? Are you critical of yourself and commonly push yourself to accomplish more and more? Is your life typically hectic and stressful?

Researchers are divided on the origins of burnout – some believe that workplace conditions are primarily responsible, rather than anything the individual is in control of. While there is evidence that certain environments increase the likelihood of employees experiencing burnout, the workplace isn’t solely to blame; if this were true then there wouldn’t be some people who become burnt-out in their roles while their colleagues don’t. Therefore, a number of experts believe that burnout is caused by a combination of the work environment, personality traits, and general factors in people’s lives.

Below is a list of the most common causes of or contributors to burnout. Although one can be primarily responsible for burnout, it’s more common to have a variety of factors that play a role. Some are work-related and therefore potentially beyond your control, while others are personal and you do have the power to address them.

The most common workplace contributors include:

1) Too high of a workload can cause burnout

This is the most common reason people develop burnout, although there is often much more to experiencing burnout than too much to do. There’s no set number of hours of work that will make people feel burnt out, and it can be difficult to know when you’ve been working too much if you’ve been pushing yourself. Additionally, how much work is too much depends on a number of other factors in your life, including your stress levels.

Decreasing your workload can help prevent and reverse burnout, although it’s more effective as part of a wider-reaching strategy that takes different causes into consideration.

2) A company culture of overwork

A number of organisations have cultures where long hours and blurred work-life boundaries are expected. Employees can be sent the message – directly or indirectly – that if they don’t feel overworked and exhausted, they aren’t working hard enough. Those who don’t can be labelled as unmotivated, lazy, or uncommitted. In these environments, you can never comfortably manage your workload because feeling comfortable with the amount you have to do and not taking on more is considered laziness.

Although individuals can make the decision to work hard to prove themselves, company cultures play a critical role in what people feel is expected of them. They set the tone for how long and hard people are expected to work. In some workplaces, this attitude traps employees since they’re expected to push themselves to burnout, but when their mental health begins to suffer, they can be blamed for not managing their mental health.

3) A lack of clarity and communication

Communication between management and workers is essential for a healthy company culture. Employees need to receive clear instructions on how to do their jobs, feedback on their performances, and what types of behaviours are acceptable or won’t be tolerated.

If you aren’t told how to meet expectations, you can have the added stress of hoping you’ve done well enough but not being sure how your work will be received. You can wonder if you’re working harder than you need to and risk thinking you’ve done what is expected of you only to be told that it’s wrong or incomplete.

The types of behaviours that are expected also need to be communicated for a workplace to be  healthy. Organisations can promote themselves as caring, ethical, or responsible. But workers – especially management – aren’t encouraged to uphold these values and there aren’t consequences when they act in ways that go against them. Employees could be told that the company values their mental health, but then penalises workers who ask for things like fewer responsibilities or not being contacted after hours when they’re starting to experience burnout.

This can create a confusing environment as there are two sets of rules – those the company claims to have, and the ones workers are actually expected to follow. Having unclear and inconsistent rules prevents people from trusting the organisation and their managers since they can’t be sure which ones will be enforced.

When managers aren’t approachable or clear, they create problems for their employees and these problems often become worse.

4) Lack of control can contribute to burnout at work

A lack of control causes stress, so when employees aren’t given opportunities to make their own decisions and feel highly monitored at work, there is an increased risk that they will develop burnout.

A certain degree of control in the workplace is inevitable, but some organisations are more controlling and invasive than necessary. A tightly controlled environment where you have very little freedom can be frustrating and unfulfilling. It also implies that your employer doesn’t trust you to make good decisions so you can feel incapable of doing well or growing in your role.

5) Being expected to do things you don’t think should be your responsibility or that are made unnecessarily difficult

Tasks that would meet these criteria are subjective, but feeling that you’ve been given responsibility for things you shouldn’t have to take care of or that management or the organisational structure at your job is making some of your tasks more challenging to complete than they should be can contribute to burnout.

These workplace drivers of burnout are all different types of a toxic work environment. A toxic company culture has incredible potential to seriously harm your mental health if you don’t do anything to protect yourself.

But the workplace isn’t the only contributor to burnout. The most impactful factors that are non-work-related include:

1) Neuroticism and burnout

Neuroticism is someone’s tendency to have a negative mindset. It’s associated with feeling distressed and dissatisfied, as well as frequently experiencing anxiety, depression, anger and guilt. Neurotic people must try to get things done with less internal resources than others.

People who have higher levels of neuroticism are more likely to experience burnout since they’re already prone to feeling the emotions that are associated with burnout. But being neurotic isn’t a life sentence. If you have this trait, you can improve your mindset through challenging it on your own, or by working with a professional.  

2) A poor work-life balance can contribute to burnout

Most people who struggle to balance their work and private lives spend long hours working and don’t have a clear distinction between work and what is meant to be their free time. This can prevent them from mentally detaching from work and relaxing so they run out of energy, their performance starts to suffer, and they begin to doubt themselves.

When the boundaries between work and your personal time are blurred, you become more prone for burnout, depression, and anxiety due to feeling over-worked and struggling to relax. You can feel guilty and believe you’re not doing your job properly if you aren’t responsive at home or overworking.

3) Personal burnout causes: Perfectionism

Perfectionists believe that if they work hard enough, they can produce results that are too perfect to criticise. Perfectionism can cause burnout because you spend a very long time working on things trying to reach an impossible standard, only to inevitably fall short of your expectations for yourself.

Ambition and wanting to produce results you’re proud of are excellent qualities, as long as you can recognise when you’ve done a good enough job and don’t spend more time than you have trying to make something that will please everyone as this is exhausting and makes you vulnerable to burnout.

4) Unmanaged stress over what you can control

Stress is a nearly universal experience, especially among people with many different responsibilities. Some people have healthy approaches and take measures to be stressed as little as possible. But others do very little to cope with their stress in healthy ways, which harms their mental and physical wellbeing.

Sources of stress are those you have the ability to prevent, and those that have to be accepted because you can’t avoid them. By eliminating stress wherever possible, you will have more energy and tolerance for the stress you can’t prevent.

When you’re stressed, even if it’s not about anything work-related, you can become burnt-out much more quickly because you don’t have as many internal resources as you normally would. Patience and the willpower that’s needed to react reasonably to annoyances – such as asking your partner to turn down their music rather than snapping at them – are limited. So if you’re already dedicating a great deal to staying calm and focused on your job, you’ll be more quickly affected by what would normally be minor stressors in all areas of your life.

5) Too many responsibilities

Part of managing stress is assessing how much you’re responsible for and how much you expect yourself to do each day. This includes your job and in your personal life.

Ask yourself what you truly enjoy. If you’re a member of a club or social group that feels like a chore, you’re adding to your workload unnecessarily. Challenging yourself to step outside of your comfort zone is important to feeling fulfilled, but when you’re getting burnt out you need to spend more time relaxing and on activities that energise you. Preventing burnout may involve giving up some of your hobbies (at least temporarily) so you have enough time to take care of yourself.

6) A lack of support systems

Not having someone you can turn to when you’re overwhelmed with work and personal responsibilities can keep you from dealing with your feelings and lead to burnout because these emotions stay inside you, instead of being recognised and dealt with.

You might have someone you can ask for help, but even having someone who knows what you’re going through and understands that you’re struggling can be very meaningful. This could be a colleague who agrees that your boss is terrible, a friend who knows that you don’t feel supported, or confiding in your partner about how stressed you’re feeling.

Telling someone why you’re nearing burnout could give you more perspective into your feelings. You might think of new solutions while talking through your problems. Or you could gain perspective – the amount of pressure you’re putting on yourself could sound silly when you share your feelings with someone, or you realise that you’ve set unrealistic standards for yourself and you’re stressing yourself out trying to achieve them.

Healing from burnout

How you can improve your mental health depends on your situation and your personality. It can be a lengthy and non-linear process. Some days you may feel better only to have more bad days where you feel like you haven’t improved at all. To heal from burnout, you need to check in with yourself to find out what you need and how you can get it.

Recognising that your mental health is suffering and that you need to do something about it is an important first step to improving how you feel. Burnout makes you believe negative things about yourself, such as thinking you’re incompetent, unqualified, or you don’t deserve some of the roles you have. These thoughts can make you believe that you don’t deserve to feel better. But realising that they’re symptoms condition can make them much less powerful.

Although you might feel like you don’t have the strength to work towards improving your mental health, it’s important to take measures to improve, even if it’s just deciding to do nothing instead of thinking about everything you need to do and still being unproductive.

One of the most important ways to stat improving is identifying what’s making you feel burnt-out. Are you being asked to take on too much or not receiving enough support? Are you experiencing perfectionism or imposter syndrome and trying to compensate? Have you been taking care of yourself and relaxing?

Then ask yourself what you can do to remove the source of these stressors or how you can take more control of them, even if taking control means admitting it’s just something you can’t control and have to tolerate.

For work-related stressors, consider asking for changes you think would help you feel less overworked and more supported. Or you may need to make changes in your personal life – if you’re too hard on yourself you can reframe how you talk to yourself and your expectations.

Try not to dwell on things that stress you. Not thinking about something is often challenging and can add to your stress. Rather than trying to stop thinking about stress, you can encourage yourself to be realistic. Think about when and how you’ll take care of things so they become accomplishable tasks instead of intimidating ideas, and be positive in how you speak to yourself when thinking about them. Rather than tearing yourself down and making yourself feel incompetent, remind yourself of your strengths and how you’ve dealt with similar challenges in the past.

If your mindset, rather than your workload, is driving your burnout, you can improve, but this is often more challenging than addressing your workload or managing stress. You can adopt a healthier mindset that helps prevent burnout. You may be able to challenge the thoughts that fuel these mindsets on your own, but working with a professional is often more effective.

If you struggle with separating your job and free time, you can challenge the beliefs that drive this behaviour and enforce boundaries to protect your personal life. Do you really need to respond to that email or can it wait until the end of your break or the next day? What are the consequences for not immediately answering? Do you feel better knowing that when you’re at home you aren’t going to spend any time working?

Some people benefit greatly from giving themselves permission to relax at work. You can take a break without taking time off by deciding to do only what is required of you or just what you’re comfortable with for a period of time. This is called coasting. Coasting can be an effective short-term solution to combatting burnout and exhaustion. You may need a break from the pace and standard you’ve set yourself, be under additional pressure, or are short on metal energy.

However, feeling unable to meet expectations in the workplace (management’s or your own) is a sign that too much is being required of you. If you find yourself coasting long term, you may need to find a more sustainable solution. Coasting can give you the chance to recover if taking time off isn’t practical, but it shouldn’t be thought of as a solution to feeling overwhelmed or disengaged from in your job.

Burnout is very common and doesn’t reflect badly on you as a person; in some situations it says more about your organisation than about you.

Workplace burnout is a very common experience, especially in certain industries. But not all companies have an environment that responds positively when their workers admit they’re struggling. This is often because the drivers of burnout come from deep within the company’s culture, so acknowledging there’s a problem would be recognising that widespread change at many levels is required.

Changing a culture is very difficult, even if it’s harmful, so many leaders prefer to keep things the same. However, their intentions are rarely communicated this way. Instead, they can give individuals the impression that they’re to blame for not being able to succeed in a challenging but fair environment, which can further impact their mental health and drive the cultural problems deeper underground.

Creating a company culture that helps prevent burnout is challenging and many leaders in this situation are unable or unwilling to address the problems and begin making the necessary changes.

Burnout can put immense pressure on you, but you can improve your situation

Burnout can put immense pressure on you, but you can improve your situation

Addressing burnout can be complex, and resolving some of the causes may not be within your control. But acknowledging that your struggling while practicing self-compassion (*) can greatly help you improve your mental health.

Sometimes you need to make changes to your life and lifestyle to heal from burnout, and sometimes you just need a break to get your energy back so you have the energy to manage everything like you used to. Either way, it’s important to take care of yourself when you feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

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