Burnout is, unfortunately, a very real thing, and so common nowadays. It is such a hot topic that in May 2019 the World Health Organization classified job burnout as an "occupational phenomenon." WHO defined burnout as "a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." The organization sees it as split up into three "dimensions," which it says are: feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and reduced professional efficacy.
Burnout in this particular sense refers to the workplace, but a lot of us know that feeling chronically stressed at work can spill over to your personal life, too, making you too exhausted or unmotivated to do deal with things outside of work, or even enjoy your time not at the office.
But you might be wondering, I'm stressed at work sometimes. Does that mean I'm burned out? Erica Zellner, MS, a health coach at Parsley Health, says you can't have burnout without stress, but you can have stress without burnout.
"Both burnout and stress feel the same in the moment, however, burnout is the result of stress that has built up over time," adds Amy Cirbus, PhD, LMHC, LPC and manager of clinical quality at Talkspace. "It's chronic stress that hasn't been managed effectively. Stress can come and go depending on the day. Burnout is constant. Someone experiencing burnout doesn't have days of productivity and joy in between tough days. It's a constant feeling of numbness and frustration."
Knowing you are experiencing burnout takes some introspection, and, in some cases, a consultation with a healthcare professional. "To recognize burnout, it is helpful to check in with yourself in regards to your mood state and physical symptoms periodically throughout each month," Madeleine DiLeonardo, MEd, LPC, NCC, a licensed professional counselor and founder of Mind Body and Soul by DiLeonardo Wellness. "Sometimes, high achievers are so focused on achieving and do not take this important step, and in this case, burnout can sneak up on you."
It's so important to be able to recognize it before it leads to health problems and before you feel too powerless or helpless.
Health Effects of Burnout
Burnout has a profound effect on you mentally and physically—and when left untreated, it can cause symptoms to worsen or exacerbate. Here are some common symptoms or effects of burnout.
Zellner says that as a result of burnout, many people will feel exhausted, either physically or emotionally. "They're feeling drained, or even in some people, they'll feel a sense of dread, like 'Oh my god, I still have a lot to do that I can't even get started,'" she adds. When you feel so fatigued, this could lead to decreased performance at work, and also you may feel too tired to do things in your personal life.
Feelings of exhaustion or fatigue can also impact your eating habits—you might also experience a loss of appetite.
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"Mentally, if you notice that you are feeling down or frustrated, as well as have a shorter fuse or less bandwidth to deal with challenging situations, this is often a sign that you are experiencing burnout," DiLeonardo says. "Burnout can also lead to feelings of anger, depression, and anxiety. When this occurs, you can experience detachment, pessimism, or irritability, all of which can impact performance."
"We also see a lot of insomnia, and that can lead to a feeling of being tired but wired," Zellner says. "So you feel super exhausted, but you can't sleep, and it can be incredibly frustrating. This might snowball because if you get frustrated, you get stressed out that you can't sleep and then you get frustrated so you can't eat. It really compounds."
Stress causes high cortisol levels. Cortisol is the stress hormone that triggers our fight-or-flight response, or survival mechanisms to deal with situations; it also partially regulates inflammation. So, when the levels go haywire, that can worsen your body's inflammation. "Long-term, chronic inflammation can lead to diseases like cancer, diabetes, metabolic syndromes," Zellner says. It doesn't necessarily cause these diseases, but they may worsen the condition or up your risk.
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"Burnout can be debilitating. In addition to anger, frustration, and exhaustion, there's a sense of cynicism and an overall consistent negative mood or numbness," Cirbus says. "Detachment and apathy are also telltale signs."
How to Manage Burnout
So now that you know what burnout can do to you physically, you might be wondering how you can manage or treat burnout. It's not one-size-fits-all, but the experts gave us some starting points below.
"The first step is to identify where the stressors are stemming from," Cirbus advises. "This understanding helps to zero in on what factors you can control." Zellner asks her patients to create a list of all the situations (at work and at home) that make them feel stressful or anxious. Then, once they have the list, they can look at them individually and try to make at least one change to make the situation a little better. "The big thing about burnout is feeling like you have no control, feeling completely powerless, so by starting small changes, you're taking back the control and you are going to start building toward being back on top of your stressors," Zellner says.
"A key factor in understanding burnout is understanding your relationship to work," Cirbus says. "It's what's occurring on the job, for sure, but also one's reaction to it. A key to managing burnout overall is to establish clear boundaries between work and home. Create a defined stop and start time."
DiLeonardo says this is term used in therapy to mean taking care of yourself and replenishing your energy and resources. "The idea is that you can't pour from an empty cup, so you have to be doing things that are restorative to offset the stress you are experiencing. I find that small but sustainable changes are typically most effective when it comes to addressing burnout. Yes, a vacation or extended period of time away from work is great; however, if you are not fundamentally changing the way you approach your days or weeks, when you return to work you can quickly begin to experience the same symptoms."
Cirbus also suggests practicing being mindful outside and during work. "Instead of thinking about the day ahead, tasks that need to be accomplished on the way to work, be as present as possible," she says. "Likewise, taking a three-minute break during the workday to have a cup of tea or coffee while meditating or simply giving your brain 'off time,' can create a much-needed emotional and mental buffer."
Make sure you're eating a healthy diet and staying hydrated. "There are types of food and herbs called adaptogens; these help your body deal with stressors and adapt to stress," Zellner says. "Things like lion's mane mushrooms, ashwagandha, reishi mushrooms. These do not take the place of stress reduction techniques, but they can be a beneficial part of the healing process."
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Trying the above suggestions and other methods may help, but sometimes you might need extra help. "If you find that you're unable to feel any better, or if the symptoms of work stress are impacting your relationships and time at home, it's a good idea to seek professional support," Cirbus recommends. "A professional will help untangle everything that may be going on in your life, offer additional strategies, and provide in-depth investigating, healing, and clarity."