Feeling so worn out that answering another work email, supporting a grieving friend, or cleaning your house feels like pushing a boulder uphill? Unfortunately, that isn’t a rare experience. But if you take time away and come back to the situation feeling exactly the same — as if you hadn’t gotten any rest at all — there’s probably something more going on.
When emotionally burdensome circumstances or events don’t change, it can be exhausting to have to experience them again and again. This exhaustion may also follow some symptoms, such as anxiety or decreased work performance, leaving you in a rut you just can’t get out of, no matter how much self-care you do. This experience is known as burnout. And though burnout feels like a modern buzzword, it’s a stress syndrome first identified by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s.
Read on to learn types of burnouts, symptoms, causes, and prevention tips.
Is burnout a medical diagnosis?
In recent decades, burnout syndrome has become so widespread that in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially recognized it as an occupational phenomenon brought on by workplace stress. With the ongoing pandemic, a 2021 study found that over 50 percent of healthcare workers suffered from burnout. Another revealed that 1 in 3 physicians had hit a breaking point.
So, what exactly is burnout?
Burnout can feel like a thick, emotional fog that won’t lift, making it challenging to problem-solve, garner motivation, and be engaged in work and relationships. In today’s “go-go-go” culture, it’s pretty common to feel repeatedly zapped before the weekend and slowly opt out of socializing because you’d rather hole up in bed and watch Netflix.
But burnout is more than needing downtime, explains psychologist Jelena Kecmanovic, Ph.D. “Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, disengagement from work, and extreme cynicism,” she says.
According to Christina Maslach, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of California, burnout has 3 core components:
- Physical and emotional exhaustion: Feeling like you have nothing left to give and there’s no way of recovering, which happens when you’ve been too stressed for too long.
- Feelings of cynicism about work: Feeling and adopting a “who cares?” attitude about your work, not because you really don’t care but because exhaustion has pushed you to the breaking point.
- Self-blame: Blaming yourself for your struggles and having thoughts like, “What’s wrong with me?” and “Why can’t I snap out of it?”
However, burnout doesn't have to be strictly occupational. It can also be an experience in your personal life. For instance, a 2021 study found that nearly 8% of American parents wrestled with symptoms of sheer exhaustion. This, according to the researchers, may be due to factors like social isolation, perfectionism, and financial stress. In fact, anyone who works and cares for others can suffer.
Symptoms of burnout
To navigate and stop burnout before it becomes too much, you have to learn the various ways it shows up. Like depression and anxiety, the emotional and physical symptoms may start slow before they start to feel inescapable. As stress builds, a carousel of behaviors follows. Here are some common symptoms:
Emotional signs and symptoms:
- Lack of motivation
Physical signs and symptoms:
- Muscle tension
- Appetite changes
- Difficulty meeting work deadlines
- Pulling away from colleagues and friends
- Decreased performance at work
- Reduced commitment to work
- Waking in the night and struggling to fall back asleep
- Feeling unrested, even after getting enough sleep
- Waking up too early
What causes burnout?
1. Repetitive stress and distress
While there’s no single cause, the WHO says burnout is often the result of repetitive stress, which can include continuously caring for others, not having enough social and emotional support, working for little pay, and constantly witnessing suffering.
The sleep factor: Not getting enough sleep or struggling to fall asleep are two additional stressors that can make burnout worse. Sleep helps with your emotional regulation, making stress easier to manage or let go.
2. Feeling out of control
Along with these stressors, psychologists have found that burnout sufferers often feel out of control. Whether it's the inability to step back at work or set boundaries with a loved one, constantly feeling like you’re not in charge can chip away at your wellbeing.
The sleep factor: Not feeling in control of your schedule can extend to your sleep hygiene as well. Going to bed every night at the same time is a good step forward towards practicing control in your daily life.
3. Culture pressure and lack of boundaries
In addition, cultural norms like “hustle culture,” which applauds overachieving, seeing it as a lifestyle, can lead to burnout and normalize putting off self-care. In other words, you’re always “on” for someone or something else, and it feels like success depends on it. As a result, sleep and socializing may feel like hassles because they interfere with work productivity.
Research shows grind culture cuts across myriad professions like the performing arts, healthcare, and education. In one study, researchers found that grind culture can make students feel inadequate, which only disrupts academic achievement.
The sleep factor: Lack of boundaries with sleep can interfere with your body’s relaxation and restoration process. This is why removing screens before bedtime remains one of the top tips for good sleep hygiene.
Types of burnout and their risk factors
A 2014 study uncovered three types of burnout, each with unique symptoms and characteristics. For each type of burnout, there is a sense of overload, stagnation, and neglect, but what causes the feeling of overload, stagnation, and neglect often differ.
1. Frenetic burnout
With frenetic burnout, you often feel overwhelmed and overworked but unable to break the cycle of working harder and harder. Even when you’re exhausted, you sacrifice things like sleep and exercise to reach your goals. In the study, researchers discovered that 15% of the survey respondents suffered from overload burnout.
How it shows up
At work and in personal relationships, you continually remain involved and ambitious to the point of work or socialization overload. When you’re emotionally fried, you may cope by venting to colleagues and loved ones.
- The normalization of hustle culture, which equates non-stop work and busyness with one’s identity, happiness, and success.
- High ambition and feeling responsible for solving everyone’s problems.
- Feeling helpless.
2. Under-challenged burnout
With under-challenged burnout, you may feel bored and undervalued by your boss, colleagues, and loved ones. In the 2014 study, approximately 9% of employees reported symptoms of under-appreciated burnout.
How it shows up
You may feel like your job lacks meaning or monotonous and feel stuck in a role that doesn’t fuel personal development. Sufferers of this type of burnout may veer towards avoidance and pull away from work and personal relationships when stress rises.
- Avoiding stressful situations like workplace conflict.
- Escapist coping strategies like continually turning to social media or food for comfort.
- Difficulty acknowledging challenging relationships and situations at work and home.
3. Worn-out burnout
If you’re struggling with worn-out burnout, you may feel helpless and frequently opt towards giving up when facing challenges, especially when appreciation from colleagues and your boss wanes. Approximately 21% of employees who participated in the 2014 study reported symptoms of neglect burnout.
How it shows up
At work, you may feel under-appreciated and out of control when it comes to tasks at hand. When this happens, you may cope by disengaging from your team and personal relationships.
- Trouble asserting your needs and setting boundaries.
- When stress swells, you rely on coping strategies like isolation.
- Feeling like your problem solving-strategies won’t make a difference at work.
Risk and stages for burnout
A 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time employees revealed that 23% of workers felt burnt out often and 44% felt burnt out some of the time. According to the poll, there are five risk factors:
- Unreasonable time pressure. Time constraints can cause stress to snowball, the poll showed.
- Lack of support from your manager. Unclear communication from a boss or manager can cause you to feel unseen, insecure, and defensive.
- Role confusion. When your role is diffuse, interpersonal exhaustion can follow.
- Workload. An unmanageable workload can lead to feelings of hopelessness and overwhelm.
- Unfair treatment. Bias, favoritism, and uneven compensation doubles your risk of burnout because it erodes trust.
Having these factors in your workplace increase your risk for burnout, but burnout is not an immediate experience. In fact, there are three stages of burnout before chronic exhaustion starts to settle in.
Stages of burnout and how to prevent them
Knowing what to look for can help prevent burnout symptoms from becoming burnout syndrome.
Stage 1: Physiological/Stress arousal
Physiological and psychological symptoms like fatigue, muscle tension, headaches, irritability, and anxiety.
- Try to opt-out by taking a mental health day, suggests Kecmanovic. If work is overwhelming, speak with your manager about reducing your responsibilities.
- To temper stress, try to get extra sleep and focus on enjoyable activities like watching movies or listening to music.
- Before bed, try a relaxation activity like mindfulness or journaling.
Stage 2: Energy Conservation
Feeling more exhausted, you try to compensate for stress by withdrawing from loved ones or procrastinating. You start feeling overly tired and cynical.
- “Give yourself permission to be selective about saying ‘yes’ to social invites,” recommends psychologist Joel Minden, Ph.D.
- Unplug by designating email/social media-free times, Kecmanovic suggests.
- Practice good sleep hygiene by going to bed at the same time each night and switching off sleep disruptors like electronics and lights.
Stage 3: Exhaustion
You’re more than maxed out and chronically tired, sad, and depleted. Health problems like constant headaches and stomachaches are also common.
- “Set boundaries. For example, talk with your manager about taking PTO or a real vacation," says Kecmanovic.
- Make a list of “value-based” activities like talking with a friend, suggests psychologist Patricia Zurita Ona, Psy.D. Then, to re-set, Zurita Ona suggests choosing one of these nurturing activities each day.
- Make space for intentional relaxation by scheduling walks, tea breaks, spending time with your pet, or talking with a friend.
If you're curious about where you fall on the burnout spectrum, here’s a quick quiz.
Burnout treatment: Asking for help and recovery
1. Seek outside support
Kecmanovic says if burnout interferes with relationships, as well as life at work and home, it might be time to seek help. Along with work modifications, it can be helpful to speak with a therapist. Many organizations offer employee assistance (EAP) counseling, or our family doctor can also provide referrals. In addition, online therapy directories like Psychology Today can help you find support.
2. Learn your burnout symptoms
Burnout can feel like a marathon, but recovery is possible. For example, after getting sick with COVID, psychotherapist Johanna Bond struggled with burnout and compassion fatigue. “I was tired and irritable, and the fatigue was worse on workdays than on weekends,” she says. To step back, Bond set boundaries at work, which meant seeing fewer clients.
Burnout symptoms are also very personal. It’s important to distinguish between your feelings of burnout vs. general stress and fatigue.
3. Set boundaries
Another takeaway for Bond was boundary setting. "Saying "yes" to myself, my family, and my clients, means saying "no" to anyone outside my inner circle who asks for my help."
Another burnout survivor, Helena Plater-Zyberk, CEO and co-founder of Supportiv, suggests exercising your selfish muscles. "For me, being selfish meant designating my own time outs by going to bed early or listening to music, even if it meant answering work emails the next day."
4. Acknowledge your feelings of burnout
In addition to boundary setting and therapy, psychologist Zurita Ona suggests acknowledging your feelings. It can be tempting to bury feelings like sadness, anger, and irritability but ignoring distress only makes feelings louder, she shares.
Bond now knows that if another person’s bid for her care annoys her, she needs to check in with herself. “Sometimes I need to physically move my body or spend time with loved ones,” she adds.
Burnout vs. stress vs. depression: how to tell
While burnout can mimic depression and fatigue, and even lead to sleep problems like insomnia, there are distinct differences. This is important as they all have unique solutions. Think about it this way: everyday nuances like a flight delay or friend conflict can be unpleasant and taxing, but you are able to plan out for the end of a tunnel. Burnout, however, is distress on steroids because looking forward to the end is impossible.
According to Kecmanovic, depression is also characterized by persistent sadness, feelings of hopelessness, and an inability to enjoy life. With burnout, hobbies and social activities might feel like a chore, but with depression, a person’s capacity to seek joy is numbed out.
Burnout vs. exhaustion
And while fatigue and burnout can be frenemies, research points out distinct differences. For starters, when exhaustion is short-lived, energy levels bounce back with extra rest, but prolonged fatigue (which coincides with burnout) often lingers. In other words, when you’re burnt out, no amount of rest or relaxation seems to make much of a difference. When you return to the situation that’s causing burnout, you’ll immediately feel the symptoms again.
Take a quiz: If you still have difficulty distinguishing between burnout and other stressors, take this brief quiz that psychiatrists developed to help determine the difference.
Burnout bottom line: Break the cycle
While the best way to prevent burnout is often to take a step back and make changes in your routine, there are times when things remain out of your control. If you still find yourself exhausted and non-energetic after taking some time off, it might be time to evaluate options. This may like look like reaching out to your support group or enlisting the help of a therapist. You may want to consider taking a break from work, which might mean a vacation, or using sick time.
If you’re still bone tired, speak with your boss or HR manager about the possibility of an extended leave. An extended mental health leave can give you time to practice boundaries so that you can come back to work with more confidence. Each workplace differs with the criteria but familiarize yourself with your company's policy so you're aware of your choices.
If you are thinking about quitting, either a professional or personal relationship, come up with a game plan first. In this situation, it can be easy for anxiety to get in the way of assertiveness because you’re worried about being judged, says Minden. And when anxiety flares, "all-or-nothing" thinking can follow, leading us to believe that speaking up is unwise.
To navigate this maze, Minden suggests evaluating the "pros" and "cons" of your choice. For instance, consider any upsides to staying in your role and weigh those against the hazards.
Finally, try shifting your perception of anxiety. Kecmanovic says, "Anxiety can be a sign that you're standing up for yourself," and turning bad anxiety into something positive can help you advocate for yourself.