How To Recognize Burnout And What To Do About It

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson
Updated January 18, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

As society, in general, becomes more interested in the concept of healthy work-life balance, the term “burnout” comes up with increasing frequency. In general, it refers to a state of exhaustion that people can feel after being spread too thin at their job. Burnout in the workplace is a common issue that can lead to decreased productivity and job satisfaction. Here’s how to recognize burnout, and what to do if you’re experiencing it.

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Facing Burnout At Work Or At Home?

What Is Burnout?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines burnout as “the physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes toward oneself and others. It results 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."

Burnout is especially common in high-stress jobs, or those that make it harder to balance work and life in a healthy way.

These may include nurses, emergency responders, social workers, teachers, lawyers, etc. However, burnout can occur in all different types of roles and to workers of all ages and job levels. In addition, although this term is usually applied to those in the paid workforce, parents and other caregivers may also experience it.

Symptoms Of Burnout

There are several signs that may indicate the experience of burnout. Becoming familiar with them can help you identify it in yourself or those around you, which is usually the first step toward recovering from it.

Exhaustion

Those who routinely feel exhausted from their work may be at risk for burnout. Exhaustion can take many different forms:

  • Physical exhaustion could result from someone with a job or role that involves demanding or constant physical activity like preschool teachers, nurses, laborers, or parents of small children.
  • Mental exhaustion could result from doing a high volume of detailed or complex work for long periods, like someone in data entry, engineering, or law might.
  • Emotional exhaustion can come from jobs where people have to consistently give of themselves and provide high levels of compassion or empathy, like healthcare workers, mental health professionals, substance use counselors, or case workers. In such roles, exhaustion can also escalate into the more serious condition of compassion fatigue
  • Creative exhaustion could happen when someone in a creative field has to complete too many projects or has too much creative energy demanded of them within a time frame, like designers, artists, journalists, and educators.

Other Physical Symptoms

Burnout is the result of a heavy workload or high stress taking its toll on the body. For this reason, a person experiencing burnout may also notice physical symptoms. According to an article in the New York Times, these symptoms may include insomnia, fatigue, changes in eating habits, headaches, and stomachaches. Those who develop mental health conditions as a result of burnout—such as anxiety or depression—may also experience some physical and/or mental symptoms commonly associated with these. A therapist can help you identify and manage these symptoms if you believe you may be experiencing a mental health condition.

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Utilizing Unhealthy Coping Mechanisms

Burnout is often a draining experience. Some people may start to feel cynical or hopeless, which can lead to their adoption of unhealthy coping mechanisms. A person experiencing burnout may withdraw socially due to a lack of energy to engage with friends, family, and hobbies and activities they used to enjoy. They may begin using alcohol, substances, or food in an effort to try and relax or numb themselves. They may also end up taking their work frustrations out on others in their lives due to a lack of healthy options for expressing their emotions. 

A Loss Of Motivation Or Confidence At Work

The feeling of burnout can be crushing. When people experiencing burnout face a new day or a new week at work, they can feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to get through it. This can lead to a loss of motivation to do their job and possibly a temptation to avoid responsibilities. It may also lead some people to lose confidence in their skills or abilities in the workplace (or outside the workplace, such as a parent) and feel like a failure or not good enough.

How To Cope With Burnout

If you suspect you may be experiencing burnout, some of these strategies below might help you move through this difficult situation.

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Facing Burnout At Work Or At Home?

Evaluate Your Options 

The causes of burnout are typically situational. So if your job is consistently overwhelming and causing you distress in this way, the first order of business may be to consider your other options. Can you speak to your manager or supervisor about adjusting your workload? Are there tools or strategies you could use to make your work more manageable? Is there another job function, or position, into which you could move that would decrease the pressure you feel? In some cases, you may even consider completely moving out of your role or industry for a while, or possibly even permanently. If your job is making you miserable, you'll likely need to make some adjustments to get relief.

Prioritize Activities You Enjoy

Outside of work, it may be helpful to fill your life with activities that are relaxing or bring you joy in some way. This strategy can help you remind yourself that there’s life outside of your job. Depending on the activity, it may also help you relieve stress, improve your physical health, help you form new social connections, or offer other benefits. Something involving physical activity could be a way to reap benefits like these, such as joining a gym, or a sports team, or taking up a hobby like cycling or rock climbing. It may also be worthwhile to consider a hobby that’s art-related. A 2020 study found that participation in the arts is associated with lower levels of mental distress, higher levels of life satisfaction, and better mental health functioning overall.

Seek Support

Burnout may cause mental and physical tension as well as difficult feelings like frustration, being overwhelmed, or fear. To recover from this experience, it may be useful to find someone with whom you can express, and work through, these emotions. Trusted family and friends may provide a listening ear and compassionate advice. Or, you might consider seeking the guidance of a trained therapist. They can help you identify, interpret, and manage your feelings, as well as develop skills for opportunities like self-care, or standing up for yourself at work. 

If you’re interested in connecting with a therapist from the comfort of your own home, you may try online therapy. Since research suggests that it offers similar benefits to in-person sessions, some people choose it for its convenience and cost-effectiveness. If you’re interested in this format, a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp can match you with a licensed therapist who can help you address the challenges you may be facing.

Takeaway

Burnout is a relatively common experience among those who work or hold other roles such as parent or caregiver. Recognizing the signs can help you see when you may need to take action to combat it. Taking steps to improve your work situation and seeking the support of a therapist are some options that may help.

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