Everyone deals with stress in their lives and has a different stress tolerance — however, if an individual is facing immense amounts of stress for long periods, it will often result in burnout. Burnout occurs when the effects of a stressful lifestyle are compounded over time and a person reaches the point of not being able to cope with that level of stress anymore.
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes burnout as an "occupational phenomenon." It is not classified as a medical condition but rather as a syndrome stemming from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
In reality, though, burnout can affect anyone, from highly stressed professionals to overworked and worn out employees to homemakers. Professionals such as doctors and teachers, or those in high-empathy positions such as therapists may be especially prone to burnout.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes burnout as the exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.
Stress vs. Burnout
Having a high-stress job doesn't necessarily mean you will experience burnout. Burnout occurs when the person has an inability to cope with the level of stress they are experiencing, usually over an extended period of time. It has additional effects on a person's overall health, especially emotionally.
A highly stressed person could still feel positive and in control. They may feel like they are thriving on the level of stress in their life. However, it's important to realize that high levels of ongoing stress could potentially be an early warning sign of burnout. Coupled with a major life event or illness, the combination could be enough to trigger burnout.
Burnout is likely to occur from a combination of factors, which can include the following:
- A high workload, or doing too much in general. This aspect could be primarily workplace-specific or extend to the home and other areas of life
- High levels of job stress, or stress in other areas of life, likely on an ongoing basis
- Lifestyle factors such as poor sleep quality, and insufficient time for rest, rejuvenation, and relaxation
- Certain personality traits, which may characterize a tendency towards burnout. For example:
- Someone with a "Type A" personality who is constantly striving for high levels of achievement
- "People pleasers" who take on too much and say "yes" too often
Signs and Symptoms of Burnout
It's crucial to recognize that the signs and symptoms of burnout could also be caused by other illnesses. For example, many of the symptoms are similar to those of depression.
Therefore, it's important to discuss symptoms with a health professional before concluding that burnout is the cause. This is essential for the implementation of an appropriate and specific treatment plan.
Signs and symptoms of burnout may include:
1. Chronic exhaustion and energy depletion
A person experiencing burnout will be tired and low on energy pretty much all of the time. They may feel like they've got to "drag" themselves to work and are unlikely to feel rejuvenated after a good night's sleep or a restful weekend.
More than just physical exhaustion, burnout is characterized by mental, physical, and emotional depletion. Someone with burnout will feel like they don't have any more to "give."
2. Decreased performance and productivity
People with burnout will experience difficulty with focus and concentration and may be forgetful. In general, they'll feel like they don't have enough energy to get work done. The result is likely to be a decrease in overall performance and productivity.
Other burnout warning signs that can result in reduced performance include:
- Procrastinating on tasks, or not carrying out work duties in full
- Feeling disengaged from one's work. This is a defining difference between stress and burnout. A stressed-out person who is not suffering from burnout will be more likely to be highly engaged in their work
- Lacking motivation, inspiration, and creativity
3. Negative mental patterns
A person experiencing burnout will regularly feel frustrated and irritable. They may have repeated negative thoughts and feelings about their work in general, tasks at hand, or other people. It's very possible that they will feel unsupported or unappreciated by managers, colleagues, or family and friends.
Burnout occurs when a person becomes stressed to the point of being unable to cope. The general feeling is that there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. As a result, the person will feel like they have lost control of everything.
5. Physical symptoms
Stomach pains, ongoing tension headaches, or chronic pain in other areas of the body are some of the potential physical symptoms of burnout. In a highly stressed ("fight or flight") state, blood is sent away from the digestive system, so bodily functions such as optimal digestion may be impaired.
A person with burnout may report feeling generally "run down." Immunity may be lowered and this brings a tendency to get sick more often. A decrease in appetite and/or problems sleeping could also be experienced.
6. Feeling down emotionally
The emotional component of burnout is a big one and is one of the areas that differentiate it from stress alone.
A person experiencing burnout is likely to feel:
- Emotionally distanced, and generally detached from work, social, and family life
- Little to no satisfaction from work or life in general
- A constant lack of accomplishment
- Like there is no point to anything; they will often have the sense of wanting to give up
- Down in general, with similar feelings to depression
- Alone, helpless, powerless, and emotionally "spent"
7. Neglecting other areas of life
A burnt-out person is likely to have neglected their own needs as a result of extreme stress and overwhelm in certain areas of their life.
Self-care often falls by the wayside because they don't feel like they have enough time to properly look after their own needs. There is a loss of desire to hang out with friends or maintain a social life. A person experiencing burnout may not have the energy or inclination to take care of necessary everyday tasks or duties.
With 130 currently-known signs of burnout, the above list is not exhaustive.
Steps To Take To Prevent Burnout — Or Recover From It
The good news is that burnout happens over a period of time. There will be warning signs along the way, which offer a chance to take action before burnout is in full force.
The other good news is that it's very possible to recover from burnout. Treatment will likely include short term interventions such as a break away from work. Ongoing work and lifestyle adjustments will also need to be implemented for complete recovery and to help avoid a relapse.
Employers can take steps to create a workplace culture that may help employees avoid burnout. Find out more in "How Investing in Mental Health Can Make For a Better Workplace" and "13 Impactful Workplace Health and Wellness Initiatives."