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What Is Burnout: Understanding the Signs of Burnout

Mary Lucas, RN

Reviewed by Mary Lucas, RN

Written by Nicholas Gibson

Published 02/12/2022

Updated 02/13/2022

It’s normal to feel tired, stressed or simply overwhelmed by life every now and then. However, when these feelings become a constant presence in your life, they can reduce your interest in certain activities and contribute to burnout.

When you’re burned out, you may feel less interested in working, spending time with others or just doing anything at all. Things that were once simple, such as maintaining relationships and feeling emotionally attached to life, might suddenly feel foreign and difficult.

The good news is that burnout is both treatable and preventable, often with nothing more than simple changes to your habits and lifestyle. 

Below, we’ve explained what burnout is, as well as the common signs you may notice if you’re starting to become burned out. 

We’ve also shared techniques that you can use to deal with burnout, as well as steps you can take to prevent it from coming back in the future. 

The term “burnout” refers to the consequences of a stressful, overwhelming lifestyle. It affects people of all ages, backgrounds and occupations, from individuals in stressful, difficult careers to overworked people who spend their time caring for family members, according to an article published by the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care.

Burnout was first described by German-born American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s, who viewed it as a mental consequence of high-stress, high-ideal professions that involve significant amounts of self-sacrifice, such as medicine.

Today, the term burnout is used more broadly to describe the consequences of spending your time in a stressful, demanding or overwhelming environment, such as a high-pressure job.

You may be at risk of becoming burned out if you:

  • Work long hours on a regular basis. Many jobs require you to spend a large amount of your time at work, taking time away from other activities. Spending large amounts of time under pressure may increase your risk of becoming burned out.

  • Spend time in a stressful environment. Even if your work hours are limited, being in an environment that produces chronic stress — such as one in which you have conflicts with colleagues — might play a role in the development of burnout.

  • Feel under-challenged in your career. Sometimes, the boredom and lack of challenge of a repetitive, simple job can affect your mental health. If you work in a job that doesn’t challenge you enough, you might start to feel stressed and burned out.

  • Spend your time caring for other people. Burnout doesn’t just occur at work — it also develops at home. If you spend your time caring for others at your own expense, you’re also at risk of developing burnout.

  • Have limited control over your work. Research published in the journal, World Psychiatry,  shows a link between low amounts of control over your work and burnout.

    You might be more likely to feel burned out if you’re unable to exercise autonomy and influence decisions that affect your work.

  • Feel unrewarded in your career. Burnout can often develop when you feel insufficiently rewarded or recognized for your contributions at work. This can include financial rewards and professional or social recognition.

  • Spend your time on work you don’t enjoy. If your work simply isn’t enjoyable, or if it’s in conflict with your personal values, you may be more likely to feel burned out and as if you “have” to do your work simply because it’s there.

For many people, burnout is caused by a combination of factors, such as a professionally and financially unrewarding career that involves long hours and lots of stress. For others, it may be caused by a single factor, such as lack of personal challenges or limited control.

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It’s normal to occasionally feel exhausted after work or have a day in which you just don’t feel motivated to get things done. We all have those, and going through them every now and then doesn’t mean that you’re burned out.

However, when most of your days are like this, it could be a sign that you’re starting to develop burnout. Try to look for the signs below to see if you’re on the road to burnout and need to take action. 

Feeling Physically and Emotionally Exhausted

One of the most common signs of burnout is feeling drained and exhausted, both physically and emotionally.

When you’re burned out, you might feel like you don’t have enough energy to spend time on the things you enjoy in life. Because your work or other commitments are so demanding, you might spend your free time doing things that require little effort or energy. 

Sometimes, burnout can cause obvious physical symptoms. Some people with burnout develop pain and digestive issues, often without a clear physical cause. Ibuprofen for depression may be part of a plan to help manage physical pain.

The exhaustion caused by burnout can also affect your sleep patterns, contribute to headaches, muscle tension and cold/flu episodes, and worsen health conditions such as hypertension (high blood pressure). 

Lacking Interest in Your Work

When burnout is related to a demanding job or stressful work environment, it might cause you to feel less interested in your work. 

Instead of making you feel intellectually challenged or fulfilled, your work might cause you to feel bored, apathetic and cynical. You might feel like you’re going through the motions each day you go to work and have a general feeling of numbness about your professional life.

In general, you may begin to feel alienated from your work, with a job that feels increasingly like a source of stress, frustration and annoyance rather than a fulfilling and important aspect of your life.

Finding It Difficult to Concentrate

Burnout doesn’t just affect the way you feel about work — it can also affect your performance at work by reducing your ability to focus on specific tasks.

When you’re burned out, you may find it difficult to concentrate on your work. Even if you can easily comprehend the work you need to do, you might feel like it’s not worth your time, or as if it’s just more and more of the same thing.

Because you’re less able to concentrate, simple things such as reading, writing and responding to other people might become more difficult and time consuming.

Reduced Creativity and Mental Performance

In addition to affecting your ability to concentrate on specific tasks, burnout may also cause you to feel less creative and capable.

If you’re suffering from burnout, you might feel like you’re no longer able to mentally perform at your best. You may notice that you’re slower on tasks that require creativity, such as coming up with new concepts or solving complex problems.

This combination of difficulty focusing and reduced performance can make work even more of a frustrating, stressful experience. 

Feeling Impatient with Other People

Burnout doesn’t just affect your feelings and mental function — it can also cause you to become irritable and impatient with other people.

When you’re feeling burned out, you may feel cynical about your colleagues. You might notice that you become irritated easily and have a shorter fuse that causes you to lose your patience in certain situations.

This may affect your relationships with colleagues, coworkers, family members and other people you spend your time with. Because of its potential effects on interpersonal relationships, burnout can be a “contagious” problem that spreads through social interactions at work.

Unlike clinical depression and many anxiety disorders, there’s no generally accepted definition of burnout or standardized diagnostic criteria that’s used by mental health professionals.

Because of this, it’s not uncommon for burnout to be misdiagnosed as mental health disorders such as depression. You can read about the differences of burnout vs depression in this article.

Burnout can feel overwhelming, but the good news is that it’s treatable. By identifying the signs of burnout and taking action as early as possible, you can change the way you feel and prevent burnout from affecting your mental health and quality of life.

Try the following techniques to overcome burnout and get your professional and personal lives back on the right track. 

Talk to Your Employer

If you’re feeling burned out because of a stressful work environment or excessive workload, you may want to consider talking to your supervisor or employer.

Burnout can often develop when you feel overwhelmed by unrealistic targets or too many things to do at once. If you have specific concerns at work, consider bringing them up during a meeting with your supervisor.

If your employer offers therapy or mental health services for employees, consider talking to your HR department about making use of these services.

Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is a form of meditation that emphasizes training your mind to focus only on the present, then accepting your thoughts, feelings and sensations without judgment. It’s a simple form of meditation that you can practice at home in just a few minutes a day.

Research suggests that mindfulness meditation programs help to reduce the severity of anxiety and depression. 

A study published in the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine in 2012 also found that healthcare professionals suffering from workplace burnout displayed improvements after taking part in a mindfulness-based stress reduction course.

To get started with mindfulness meditation, try setting aside 10 to 15 minutes per day. Sit down and close your eyes, then bring your attention to the present moment. Focus on your breath as you breathe in and out, then let thoughts and judgments roll by as they enter your mind. 

If you prefer to meditate with others, try taking part in a mindfulness meditation class regularly, for example, one day a week. Many clinics, yoga centers and other businesses offer mindfulness meditation services.

Maintain Healthy Sleep Habits

Sleep is essential for optimal mental and physical health. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed as a result of your career, it’s easy to let your sleep habits suffer by going to bed later than normal, waking up too early and generally sleeping too little.

The physical and mental effects of burnout can make this worse. In fact, research published in the journal, PLOS One, suggests that people with burnout are more likely to report sleep disorders than their peers.

Try to get at least seven hours of sleep per night — which is the minimum amount suggested by the CDC for adults. 

To make sleeping easier, try to maintain a consistent bedtime. Take simple steps such as getting plenty of exercise, keeping your bedroom dark and quiet, avoiding caffeine after lunch and using over-the-counter sleep aids to help you fall asleep as soon as possible after you get into bed. 

Seek Support from Other People

Reaching out to other people for help is a great way to cope with many common forms of mental illness, including depression and anxiety.

Support can also help you deal with burnout caused by your professional or personal life. Try talking to a friend or family member to let them know about how you’re feeling, even if it’s just to let out your stress and frustration about your current situation.

Not only can friends and family members provide emotional support — they can also help you break out from a negative mindset and enjoy life. 

If you’re feeling burned out and socially isolated, try setting aside at least one day each week to enjoy your social life by spending time with your friends and family.

If You Have Vacation Time, Use It

Taking a vacation is a great way to clear your mind of worries, spend time with loved ones and enjoy life outside the workplace. 

It’s also an effective, science-based way to deal with burnout. In a study published in the journal, Psychology & Health, in 2001, researchers found that industrial employees reported lower levels of job stress and burnout a few weeks after returning from vacation than before taking time off.

If you’re feeling burned out and have vacation time, consider using it. Even a few days out of the office can help you to clear your mind, get rid of work-related stress and come back to your work feeling happier and more energized than before. 

Exercise Regularly

Exercise is often promoted as a natural way to deal with stress and depression, and for plenty of good reasons.

Not only is exercise good for your physical wellbeing, but it also has mental benefits. Exercising helps trigger the release of chemicals called endorphins, which can enhance your mood. Exercise also promotes healthy sleep, which is important for optimal work-life balance.

Research suggests that regular exercise results in the release of neurotrophic factors, which are biomolecules that improve brain function.

These effects may help to reduce the mental and physical exhaustion that often comes with job burnout, all while improving the way your body functions.

The best news about exercise is that you don’t need to do much of it to benefit. According to the CDC, as little as 150 minutes of moderate-activity aerobic activity per week (such as bike riding or brisk walking) plus two or more resistance workouts is enough to produce real results. 

Talk to a Licensed Therapist

Finally, don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help. Burnout is a common issue that affects people of all ages and backgrounds, and many mental health providers have lots of experience in helping people overcome it.

Although research on therapy and burnout is limited, studies published in the journal, GMS Health Technology Assessment, show that certain types of therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can offer real benefits. 

Seeking help from a mental health professional is especially important if you’re concerned that your burnout could lead to an issue such as major depressive disorder (MDD) or anxiety.

You can get professional help for burnout by asking your primary care provider for a referral to a mental health specialist or by using our online counseling service.

The best way to treat burnout is to prevent it from developing in the first place. Use the following techniques to stop chronic workplace stress, a heavy workload or other issues from causing you to feel burned out and unhappy:

  • Identify the symptoms of burnout early. Try to spot the mental and physical signs of burnout as soon as they begin to develop. The sooner you notice you’re feeling burned out, the earlier you’ll be able to take action to treat the problem.

  • When you feel you’re at risk of burnout, take action. This could mean scheduling a short vacation when you’re feeling overwhelmed by work, or using techniques such as mindfulness meditation when you feel stress building up.

  • Try to eliminate sources of stress for the future. Instead of treating burnout after it develops, take a proactive approach by eliminating sources of stress or changing your habits so that they have less of an impact on your wellbeing.

It’s normal to go through periods of apathy, mental exhaustion or boredom at work. When these issues don’t improve with time, or when they continue to get worse, it’s best to view them as an early warning sign that you might be becoming burned out. 

Like other mental health issues, burnout is treatable. You can treat burnout using the techniques above or by reaching out to a licensed provider using our online mental health services.

Need help dealing with burnout, stress or other mental health problems? Our free online mental health resources share proven, evidence-based strategies that you can use to get more control over your mental health and improve your quality of life.

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Hims & Hers has strict sourcing guidelines to ensure our content is accurate and current. We rely on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We strive to use primary sources and refrain from using tertiary references. See a mistake? Let us know at [email protected]!

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.

Mary Lucas, RN

Mary is an accomplished emergency and trauma RN with more than 10 years of healthcare experience. 

As a data scientist with a Masters degree in Health Informatics and Data Analytics from Boston University, Mary uses healthcare data to inform individual and public health efforts.

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