Supercharged stress and exhaustion, uninspired ambivalence and not a drop of motivation— if your workdays look like this, a.k.a. are all around blah, you might be experiencing burnout. “
Stress is difficult and many people struggle to cope with it, but burnout is another whole level; it’s the feeling of being out of gas, feeling helpless, diminished motivation and it’s emotionally tolling,” says Rachel Goldman, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and clinical assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at NYU Grossman School of Medicine. “It’s something that a weekend or mental health day can’t cure.”
Being burned out can feel like an isolating situation if you’re not in an environment where you and your coworkers openly chat about it, but the reality is that you’re far from alone —burnout is rearing its unproductive head like never before, thanks to a combo of pandemic, political, economic and everything-in-between stressors that we’ve all been dealing with for the past few years. More than 70% of U.S. adult workers report feeling “tense or stressed out” at work, and about 3 in 5 say this stress negatively impacts their workday, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2021 Work and Wellbeing Survey.
And while burnout is most typically associated with the workplace, it can also be related to other situations and often appears in parents and caregivers, too. In fact, 87% of working mothers say they feel like they never have enough time to get everything done at home and 84% say they feel like expectations of parents today is higher than it was for their parents, found a study by TrueveLab in academic collaboration with The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Industrial and Organizational Psychology graduate program and Good Housekeeping.
No matter what area of life you’re feeling burned out in, there are steps you can take to feel better and prevent it from happening again (too soon or ever!). We asked mental health experts to share some of the most common burnout symptoms and how to beat them.
Table of Contents
What is burnout?
Burnout is a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress coupled with inadequate resources to cope, Dr. Goldman says, and it commonly trickles down to negatively impact your work, home life and health if it’s not addressed.
To help you distinguish between burnout, ordinary day-to-day stress and mental health conditions like depression and anxiety, it’s helpful to talk about the three dimensions of burnout, which all apply specifically to experiences in the workplace, says Judy Ho, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist and author of Stop Self-Sabotage: Six Steps to Unlock Your True Motivation.
- Emotional exhaustion: No matter how many hours you sleep or how much time you take off, you feel endlessly tired, all the time.
- Depersonalization: You distance yourself from your work and aren’t as engaged, which can lead to a lack of care toward projects or tasks.
- Feeling of ineffectiveness: You don’t feel effective or like you’re doing your best, despite working hard and receiving good feedback.
“Someone doesn’t have to meet all three criteria to be burned out, but those are the three areas we look at when talking about burnout versus something like clinical depression,” explains Dr. Ho.
And while burnout and depression or anxiety aren’t the same, one can lead to the other, and vice versa. “There’s a big overlap with people who are burned out and also clinically depressed at the same time; being chronically burned out puts you at higher risk for clinical depression and anxiety, and the opposite can also be true,” says Dr. Ho. “The good news is that if you can address one of those areas, then the other gets better. So address depression directly and burnout could be alleviated, and vice versa.”
Signs that you’re burned out can pop up at work and also manifest as physical or lifestyle changes.
Common workplace burnout symptoms include:
- Diminished or poor performance
- Calling out of work or showing up late
- Loss of motivation and reduced interest and engagement
- Feeling unappreciated
- Loss of meaning aka you just don’t care as much
- Withdrawal from social situations and coworkers
- Difficulty concentrating and brain fog
You may also notice these symptoms when you’re not at the office:
- Physical and mental exhaustion
- Irritability/short fuse
- Inability to cope with minor issues
- Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, such as a hobby or time with friends
- Sleep difficulties
- GI issues
- Changes to appetite and eating habits
How to prevent burnout:
There are many strategies that can help you cope with burnout and prevent it from being an all-the-time thing. Talking about burnout with friends, family or trusted coworkers is one that can be hugely beneficial. “When you don’t talk about burnout, you feel like it’s all on you and like you have no support. Sometimes burnout can be mitigated if you simply feel like you have more support,” Dr. Ho explains. “And sometimes burnout can incite feelings of guilt and shame.”
Guilt can be productive when used sparingly because it helps you want to make things right, Dr. Ho says. But shame is different; “it’s more like you feel as if the essence of who you are is a bad person, and this can be a mentally distressing emotion.” Besides talking about those feelings, you can also work through them yourself through exercises like the loving-kindness meditation or making daily gratitude lists. “You may not feel it’s making a big difference at first, but if you build these into your daily routine it will make an impact,” Dr. Ho adds.
Another way to help prevent burnout is to practice saying “no.” “A big part of burnout is to learn how to prioritize — essentially, what to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to without feeling bad about it,” says Dr. Ho. “Saying ‘yes’ to too many things can cause you to take on too much, and that then becomes overwhelming.” Rremember that “no is a complete sentence,” says Dr. Ho, you don’t have to explain further. But everyone and everyone’s workplace is different, so if you really don’t feel you can stop there without it reflecting poorly on you (or causing you to replay the conversation over and over again in your head), practice framing your “no” with an alternative that’s within your bandwidth. For instance, say “I don’t think I have time to tackle this right now, but ask me again in a month.” Or, “That sounds like a great idea but I don’t think it can be a priority right now; what do you think about putting it on the agenda later?” You can also try, “I don’t think I can do this myself, but if you get me some help then I can.”
“It may feel weird the first couple times you do this, but it’s about normalizing this for ourselves and the people around us,” Dr. Ho says. “And if people push back in the beginning, it doesn’t mean you’re doing the wrong thing, it’s just not always the norm.”
Making it a point to find little moments of joy is another favorite trick to treat and prevent burnout, says Zakia S. Williams, M.B.A., M.A., co-founder and chief operating officer of Black Men Heal, a mental health organization striving to make mental health changes in marginalized communities. “One of the things that I talk about to my clients, friends, colleagues, and family is to be intentional about finding joy! For some people, it may be easy to experience joy, but others have to look for it—when you have a very demanding job and a lot of other responsibilities, it can become hard to find things that genuinely make you experience lightness,” Williams says. “The activities don’t have to be ‘clinical’ or ‘mental health’-approved. Take a walk, read for pleasure, binge-watch a TV show, journal, meditate, buy a plant or start a garden. Doing ‘childlike’ things can also bring joy, such as coloring, painting (with or without some sips!), or singing.”
More burnout prevention tips that Dr. Goldman has seen to be helpful:
When to get help for burnout:
There is absolutely nothing wrong with needing a little help to get back on track and back to you. “I like to remind my clients that your health is a priority. If you are not healthy, you can’t be healthy for others, for your job, or anything else,” says Dr. Goldman.
If you feel like you’ve tried everything and nothing has changed, or if burnout starts to seriously impact your daily life and other aspects of your lifestyle such as interpersonal relationships or your mental health beyond the workplace, it might be time to seek out a therapist or ask for help in other areas of your life that are affected. “If you have a community or a supportive network, ask them for some assistance. Don’t try to do everything by yourself. Don’t set your expectations so high. You are only one person, and you cannot do everything. Make realistic goals, try to accomplish them, and don’t beat yourself up when they all don’t get done. Give yourself grace,” says Williams.
Alyssa is a senior editor for the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she has written research-backed health content for Prevention, Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day since 2017. She has more than 13 years of reporting and editing experience and previously worked as research chief at Reader’s Digest, where she was responsible for the website’s health vertical as well as editing health content for the print magazine. She has also written for Chowhound, HealthiNation.com, Huffington Post and more.