What Does Burnout Look Like? Signs, Symptoms, and Causes
We’re living in increasingly stressful times so burnout is becoming more and more common. Though burnout is typically associated with a stressful job, it can happen in any area of our lives.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a psychological phenomenon that results from chronic stress that is not properly managed. It results in mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion mostly associated with work problems. But burnout can occur in different areas of our lives, like parenting, caretaking, or romantic relationships. The resulting burnout in these areas of our lives occurs with prolonged, unmanaged stress.
Burnout usually results in decreased motivation and negative attitudes toward oneself and others.
Burnout vs. Stress
Stress is a normal response to everyday stressors. Stress is defined by the World Health Organization as a state of worry or tension caused by a difficult situation. It is a natural human response and everyone experiences stress to some degree at various times in his or her life.
Chronic stress occurs when there are persistent stressors, especially if the stress is not being managed from the beginning. Burnout is considered a prolonged form of distress that is caused by chronic stress. It appears that burnout is not exactly separate from chronic stress, but farther on the far end of the continuum.
Since burnout is an extreme form of negative stress, it shares many similar signs and symptoms. These shared symptoms include
- Changes in sleep patterns
- Heart palpitations
- Muscle tension
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Shortness of breath
- Weakened immune system
Mental or Emotional Effects
- Lack of motivation
- Irritability or agitation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty learning
While chronic stress and burnout share many similarities, because burnout is on the end of the stress continuum, it can lead to more severe symptoms. The main difference between stress and burnout is the high levels of physical and mental exhaustion associated with burnout.
In addition to experiencing physical and mental symptoms similar to those of chronic stress, the symptoms associated with just burnout are:
- Overwhelming exhaustion
- Feeling cynical or detached from the job or tasks
- Lack of self-esteem
- A sense of not being productive, accomplished, or effective
- Feelings of worthlessness
- Suicidal ideation
- Loss of interest or pleasure
Burnout can often look similar to depression as well. But while depression is a diagnosable mental health condition, burnout is not. Also unlike depression, burnout tends to be a response to a specific environment or situation. Depression tends to be more general.
So while you may experience depression during a period of burnout, those symptoms tend to resolve once the burnout is addressed.
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Burnout occurs when stress becomes chronic and prolonged without properly addressing it. Three common causes of burnout are:
- Lack of adequate social support. Having a good social support network is important when feeling stressed and overwhelmed. Supportive people can provide an outlet for stress and burnout. On the reverse side, burnout can be contagious. So if you surround yourself with other people who are also burnt out, you may be more likely to experience it as well.
- Taking on more than you can handle at work, school, or in your personal life. This is an obvious one. If you are taking on more work than you can handle, you will quickly experience burnout. This not only applies to your job, but other aspects of life like parenting, school, and relationships.
- Poor self-care. Not taking the time to care for yourself and address your chronic stress will cause burnout. When we don’t take care of our minds and bodies, they are more likely to break down.
Overall if you do not feel you are connected to a community or have support, you have an extremely stressful workload, and you are not taking care of yourself, you are likely to get burned out.
Some other factors involved in causing burnout include
- A perceived lack of control. Feeling like you have no control in life or at your job will likely result in burnout.
- If the reward does not match your time and effort. You are likely to feel like your time and energy are not paying off if you’re not feeling either internally or externally rewarded by those efforts.
- If you feel you are not being treated fairly. Receiving poor treatment at home or work will contribute to that high stress.
- Your values do not match. This is especially true in the workplace. If your values do not align with those of your company then your motivation to work hard and do a good job will significantly drop.
The length of time that burnout lasts will depend on the factors mentioned above and how you deal with the burnout symptoms. If you address the burnout quickly, it is less likely to take longer to resolve. Overall, burnout can last on average between three months to a year.
How Does Burnout Affect the Mind and Body?
Burnout can harm the brain and body. If not properly addressed, you can experience physical and mental health consequences. It has been associated with:
- Cognitive impairments
- Problems with memory
- Issues with sustained attention
- Problems controlling the body’s stress response
- Higher risk of coronary heart disease
- Increase in physical pain
- Lowered immune response resulting in more frequent illnesses
- Increased risk of weight issues
- High blood pressure
- Increased risk of depression and anxiety
- Higher instances of insomnia and other sleep issues
Not only can burnout negatively affect your physical and mental health, it also has consequences on your occupation. Those who experience it are more likely to need to use sick days and are unable to get tasks done on time. Potentially putting your job at risk.
Though burnout is difficult and can take a while to recover from, it is a reversible condition. If you are experiencing burnout, you may need to make some changes to your environment. Because the length of time it takes to recover from burnout can vary, it is important to recognize signs immediately and make some changes. Steps to take to recover include:
- Identify your stressors
The first step to recovering from burnout is to identify your stressors. You can’t change what you aren’t aware of. Once you understand what stress areas are contributing to your burnout, you can work on making changes to control them.
- Create boundaries
Many times burnout is a result of allowing people to cross our boundaries. Whether it’s at work or home, we may be taking on too much because we’re afraid to speak out or say “no”.
- Focus on self-care
Finding the time to do enjoyable and relaxing activities is essential for burnout recovery. Make time for the things you find enjoyable, work on relaxation techniques, get proper sleep, eat well, and find time for physical activity.
- Find support
Reach out to family, friends, or co-workers for support. No matter the reason for your burnout, it’s important to seek support from trusted individuals. Talking to a trusted person is a great way to share how you are feeling.
- Seek professional help
It may be important to seek professional help before the issues become too overwhelming. Seeking therapy may be a great way to learn how to set boundaries and take care of yourself.
- Make changes
This may mean changing jobs or admitting you need help. Whatever the reason for burnout, if you are unable to resolve it then you may need to make changes. If the burnout is job related, you may need to change jobs. If it’s parenting related, you may need to talk to family or friends for support. Or if it’s relationship related, you may need to take a break.
Burnout is a serious issue that can lead to physical and mental health problems. It is important to address and learn how to cope with stress before burnout occurs. But if you are experiencing chronic stress, assess and make some changes to combat the symptoms of burnout.
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