Feeling overworked? Overwhelmed? Overtired?
Welcome to what mental health and workplace experts now dub “the burnout epidemic,” a kind of chronic stress that makes us feel depleted and diminished and that’s only grown worse since COVID-19 burst on the scene.
In one survey from 2021, more than half of respondents said they felt burnt out. Another two-thirds said their feelings of burnout have increased over the course of the pandemic. And women seem particularly hard hit. In a 2022 survey looking only at female employees, 46% reported feeling burnt out while 53% said their stress levels were higher now than a year ago.
But burnout can have other causes besides work. A 2022 report from Ohio State found that 66% of parents reported feeling burnt out, while a Blue Cross Blue Shield survey found that caregivers were more likely than others to suffer from anxiety and depression, two things often associated with burnout.
Burnout doesn’t just affect your mental health, though. It can also have a profound effect on your physical health, especially your sleep. A study published in Plos One found that those with burnout had higher levels of insomnia, fragmented sleep, and nonrestorative sleep than those who weren’t burnt out.
How can you give burnout the boot and reclaim your sleep? Here are some expert tips.
What exactly is burnout?
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout in its International Classification of Diseases as an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from chronic workplace stress and characterized by feelings of depletion, negativism, and reduced performance at work. WHO fell short of calling burnout a medical condition, but the organization did acknowledge it can lead people to seek medical care.
The American Psychological Association (APA) offers a broader definition. It defines burnout as “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others.” The APA also said that burnout has its origins from “performing at a high level until stress and tension, especially from extreme and prolonged physical or mental exertion or an overburdening workload, take their toll.”
“There is not clear agreement on what exactly burnout is, but generally mental health professionals use it to describe a state of physical, mental, or emotional exhaustion from persistent stress or even trauma,” says Jade Wu, Ph.D., a behavioral sleep medicine specialist and author of “Hello Sleep.” “People who are burnt out also usually feel distant or numb from the activity causing them stress, even though that activity might have once been fulfilling, meaningful, or exciting.”
Do you have burnout?
Burnout — whether it’s from your job or something else — has both physical and mental symptoms. Some common ones, according to the National Institutes of Health, include:
- Exhaustion: “It’s not just tiredness,” explains Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine program at University of Utah Health. “It’s a pervasive feeling that’s hard to shake.”
- Alienation: You may start to distance yourself from people and activities.
- Feelings of dread
- Lack of emotion: You may increasingly feel numb or listless.
- Cynicism: You may think people are insincere and are only out for themselves.
- Reduced performance: You may find it hard to take care of your responsibilities, either at work or at home.
- A loss of self-confidence and lack of motivation
- Physical ailments: You might experience health issues, such as stomach pain or bowel problems.
How do you know what you’re experiencing is burnout and not something closely related, such as depression?
“It's hard to untangle depression and burnout, though the latter usually has a clear source (for instance, caregiving or a stressful job) whereas depression may not have an obvious source,” says Wu.
How does burnout impact sleep?
You would think that when you’re physically and mentally exhausted — major components of burnout — you’d melt into sleep at night. But that often isn’t the case.
In one study from 2022, researchers looked at health care workers, teachers, social workers, and first responders during the pandemic. Using a definition of burnout that included exhaustion, mental distance, cognitive impairment (for example, trouble remembering things) and emotional impairment (problems with interpersonal relationships, for instance), they examined how each impacted the workers’ sleep. They found that work exhaustion and emotional impairment were the greatest predictors of “sleep reactivity,” a condition where stress makes it harder to fall and stay asleep. In another study of white-collar workers conducted pre-pandemic, those with burnout had higher levels of insomnia, fragmented sleep, and nonrestorative sleep than those who did not have burnout.
How does chronic stress, like the kind seen in burnout, impact sleep? It’s a complex issue, but one explanation is that stress increases levels of hormones such as cortisol, a steroid hormone responsible for our fight-or-flight response in the face of something dangerous or stressful.
“When any animal feels stressed and isolated, it’s in fight-or-flight mode all the time, because it feels unsafe,” explains Wu. “And when we feel unsafe, of course we’ll have a problem with sleep, since sleep is such a vulnerable state.”
How does sleep impact burnout?
Not getting enough sleep can also contribute to feeling burnout. In a 2023 cross-sectional analysis researchers looked at the relationship between poor sleep and burnout among health care workers. What they found was that poor sleep quality and insomnia were both associated with a 2.5 times greater chance of experiencing depersonalization (the feeling that you're seeing yourself from outside your body) and emotional exhaustion, two symptoms of burnout.
How to beat burnout and get the sleep you need
Jobs and families create stress; there’s no getting around that. But how you cope with the stress during the day can make a difference in how you sleep at night.
- Take a break. When you’re feeling overwhelmed, step away from the thing that’s causing you stress, be it your work, child, or whatever. Take some deep breaths and clear your mind so you can return to the task at hand with a clearer, more energized mind.
- Ask for help. Burnout is often a byproduct of having an unmanageable workload coupled with a lack of support in getting that work done. To remedy the situation, ask for help — from your coworkers, boss, spouse, friends, or others.
- Be compassionate. Research out of Washington University in St. Louis found that compassionate acts — some directed at yourself, some directed at others — can diminish feelings of burnout. The researchers found that when burnout is making you feel exhausted, doing nice things for yourself, such as cooking yourself a meal or taking a few minutes to meditate, can be re-energizing. They also saw that when burnout produced feelings of cynicism, doing good deeds for others helped participants feel more connected to their community.
- Exercise. You know all that cortisol that burnout unloads into your bloodstream? Well, exercise counteracts it. And experts say almost any type of exercise, even a short, leisurely stroll, will help.
- Set boundaries. Thanks to technology, we’re now accessible to our employers 24/7. And that can be unhealthy. Have a discussion with your employer about realistic work expectations and try to create a work/life balance.
- Wind down at night. “Get out of ‘doing’ mode and get into ‘being’ mode,” advises Wu. “Don't multitask or overstimulate yourself. Put away distractions so that you and your body have a chance to simply be with each other.”
- Seek medical help if you need it. “If you’re having difficulty sleeping three or more times a week for three months or longer, consider seeking help for the sleep problem directly,” says Baron. “For example, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, is a highly effective non-drug treatment for chronic insomnia.”