“Burnout” is the worst nightmare of everyone from nurses to copywriters to pastors. The unrelenting, breakneck pace of modern American life—in some ways a necessary evil—specifically applied to the high demands of a job means that burnout is a potential threat for everyone with a full-time job.
But what can a person do? You have to go to work to provide for your family. You have to meet the demands of your supervisors, as well as take care of all the things that happen at home and with friends.
It can feel like you’re stuck, like you have no other options. But take heart. If you know what burnout is and how to treat it, you can move toward a more healthy lifestyle.
This article will define burnout, help you know how to look for it, how to recover from it and more.
WHAT IS BURNOUT?
Burnout is the result of ongoing stress and demands that creates an unstable, lethargic and exhausted frame of mind. People with burnout are usually over-achieving, hard workers that take on unreasonable amounts of responsibility (whether at work, at home or both), overcommit and give all of themselves to the point that they are frazzled, angry, tired, extremely tense, passionless, depressed and unable to function normally due to sheer exhaustion.
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion. It tends to create a cynical attitude and a deep sense of detachment from life. It can also lead to a profound sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Burnout is stress that builds up over time and has not been relieved, which creates profound emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.
WHAT ARE THE PHYSICAL SIGNS OF BURNOUT?
It’s important to recognize that most of these symptoms lie on a continuum; they will be less severe the earlier you are in the burnout mode and will worsen the longer the burnout goes untreated. Some of the symptoms include:
- Chronic fatigue. Because the body and mind have been under stress nonstop, the person with burnout will feel a constant, clinging sense of tiredness—with a distinct sense of foreboding and dread of the smallest things in latter stages.
- Insomnia. Stress keeps your body awake because of various chemicals that keep your brain from “shutting down.” While this might affect you only a few nights a week in the early stages, it becomes chronic in the latter ones, where you cannot sleep at all despite being exhausted.
- Various physical problems. These include chest pain, heart palpitations, headaches, dizziness, shortness of breath and gastrointestinal pain.
- Frequent illness. Your immune system is shot, so expect to have more colds, flus and infections.
- Anxiety and depression. What begins as initial worry and preoccupation and mild sadness or ennui will blossom into obsessive, uncontrolled anxiety that prevents you from doing normal work and relationships, and to a deep, immobilizing depression and hopelessness.
- Regular forgetfulness and inability to concentrate. While these symptoms may be mild in the early stages of burnout, they only increase as time goes on. You’ll eventually find yourself unable to focus and unable to get much done. Lethargy is your primary experience.
- Diminished appetite. You may begin to lose weight due to skipping meals. Your interest in food wanes and you care less and less about eating.
- Anger. Everyone experiences anger from time to time, but with burnout it is more present than normal. It may start as little tiffs or minor irritations, but over time it grows until it becomes uncontrollable.
- Inability to enjoy life. With depression and exhaustion comes an inability to enjoy life. The hobbies that once held your attention seem bland and boring. You have difficulty knowing what to do with yourself and don’t feel interested in much at all.
Obviously, because you had a cold once six months ago or felt a little tired this morning should not be taken as a sign of burnout. However, if these things and other common symptoms are chronic and only getting worse, that is a good sign you are suffering from burnout.
It’s imperative to involve your primary care physician during this process, as he or she can be of invaluable help with diagnosis, evaluation and treatment.
HOW CAN BURNOUT BE TREATED?
Because burnout is a stress-related disorder, the only way for it to be solved is to dramatically reduce the amounts of stress in your life. This is why lots of people succumb to burnout in the first place: They have no idea how to end the vicious cycle of self-sacrifice to which they have become accustomed.
Worse, sometimes people need to continue the unhealthy pace because of financial debt or other needs that make the excessive over-commitment virtually essential.
But burnout can be solved! You can shine and have joy once again.
The simplest way to start is to take an inventory of your life and circumstances (ask for help from a friend or relative if you have trouble doing this). Look at every part of your life and write down all of the things that are causing you stress. Too many deadlines at work? Too much volunteering? A difficult romantic relationship? And so forth. Leave nothing out!
Then, try to think of one thing you can do in each area to reduce the stress. Sometimes this one thing will remove the stress entirely in that area. Other times, it will merely remove just enough so you can make another decision that will reduce it further, and then further and so on. But the important thing is you must think of something (1) doable and (2) effective. Even if it’s small, a bunch of little choices will accumulate to have a big difference, if they are done consistently—and this is exactly how you got burnout in the first place!
You see, burnout is the result of ongoing, constant, increasing stress. It didn’t start all at once. It accumulated because of circumstances, choices and consequences. The beautiful thing is you can start to make different choices that, over time, will alleviate the stress and make you whole again.
It is even possible, though sometimes difficult, to recover from burnout while remaining in your current job. (Hopefully, you have an understanding boss and ideally a good counseling plan covered by your insurance.)
However, it is very important to underscore that no job is worth your mental and physical health. While quitting should not be your first choice—especially because it isn’t wise to make big decisions during seasons of severe emotional stress—it should be considered if it is impossible to do your job without burnout continuing.
Additionally, connecting with a wise and experienced counselor who can monitor your health, connect you with a psychologist if medication is needed and be a safe place to talk about what causes you stress and how to move forward is one of the best things you can do.
Kathy Caprino, a career coach, says that she counsels burnout sufferers to not leave their current job for a new one right away, but to do the hard work of looking at themselves and their situations to figure out the sources of stress and how they can be alleviated.
The reasoning for this is because “if you don’t address what’s ‘broken down’ in your current situation, your problems will follow you in the next job/role/career.” (
Finally, a break from the rat race is imperative for your health. And really, ideally, this should be done first, before the inventory, counseling and anything else. The amount of time you can take off from work will vary depending on your job, benefits, etc., but you must take some time off. If you can take an extended vacation or sabbatical, even a medical leave of absence, do it. The hard part, of course, will be focusing on you, not work, during this time. But you need to get away from the source of stress and the distractions, and you need to be still. Simple rest and nourishment can go a long way to finding yourself after burnout.
HOW CAN I PREVENT BURNOUT FROM HAPPENING TO ME AGAIN?
The simplest answer: Learn how to deal with stress healthily, and make lots of room for good in your life. Some of us are in the unenviable position of having our job be our entire life. Sometimes this has become almost a necessity, whether due to sheer workload or because we’ve become dependent on the extra income.
But once you have done the hard work of beginning to recover from burnout, the simplest way to prevent it from happening is to keep making these better choices. You got into burnout in part because of choices you made (and how you responded to your circumstances and the consequences of your choices). You can get out of burnout by learning to make different, better choices. And you can stay out of burnout by continuing to make those choices and growing in them.
Anything we keep choosing over time becomes a habit, a reflex and a lifestyle. Often, we feel a sense of victimhood (and we are victims, of a sort) when we really have just become aware of the consequences of our choices. Taking responsibility for the unhealthy choices you have made and taking responsibility to consistently make better choices going forward is the first step to becoming and living free from burnout!
RESOURCES TO AVOID BURNOUT
At PGS, we want our students to feel successful inside and outside the classroom, which is why we provide several academic support resources to help you thrive in your program. With opportunities to reach out to staff and faculty, grow your writing skills and engage in meaningful discussion, you can avoid the burnout.