Burnout used to be like an old wild and disruptive friend who would show up in my life at the most unlikely times. One summer in particular when I was on a vacation with my family, I was a wreck. I couldn’t enjoy my time with my husband and daughter who were soaking up the sun, swimming, and enjoying their free time. I, however, could only see life through a very negative lens and spent more time brooding than playing. In the weeks and months leading up to that vacation, I had worked myself to the bone, was feeling under pressure on some personal family matters, and hit the proverbial wall. I had nothing left in my engine for myself or anyone else.
Burnout is a regular visitor to my life as I always step in to help others
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the first time burnout showed up. A hard worker and high achiever dating back to elementary school, my primary focus was on achieving at all costs. I am also a caregiver by nature feeling the need to step in and help when others need help. Through law school and then working in the nonprofit sector, I would work and work and work ignoring my building stress until I flamed out.
On that particular vacation though, I finally grew tired of burning out. Because after I came home, I decided to do something different. I decided I was tired of hitting the burnout wall and instead wanted to figure out how to avoid it the next time around.
In time, I came to learn the early warning signs of burn out and how to face it off before it took over. And here is what I learned.
The fine line between “stressed” and “burned out”
Burnout happens when you are under excessive and prolonged stress. People are often able to respond to short bursts of pressure and demand without much trouble. But when that pressure continues day after day without a break, the stress can mound and potentially become burnout.
Importantly, you can be stressed but not burned out.
When you are stressed you are facing a lot of different pressures both mentally and physically but even still you can imagine getting things under control. On the other hand, if you have burnout, you are feeling empty, a lack of motivation, and don’t see a hope of positive change. Burnout is when you begin to detach and feel cynical or ineffective.
You may not recognize burnout when it’s right in front of you
We often think “burnout” looks like someone who is so incapacitated they are unable to work. Burnout doesn’t have to look so extreme. You can continue to work when you have burnout but instead feel every day at work is a bad day. You could be feeling disinterested in your work or maybe even depressed by it. You could feel overwhelmed by responsibilities and turn to distracting activities like drinking or social media.
The most common sign of burnout is when your stress is so high you start to see diminishing returns at work and you are lacking interest in work or life.
Some of the other warning signs:
Lack of energy
Lack of sleep
Lack of appetite
Inability to focus
Physically and emotionally exhausted
Drained and depleted
Low or no motivation
Physical stress (e.g. chest pain)
Getting chronically sick
To be clear, there is not an official diagnosis of burnout – unlike depression which is a widely studied condition. And sometimes burnout may start to look more like depression which is why it can be important to seek professional attention. What is most insidious about burnout is that it creeps up on you over time. All of the indicators may be there but you may fail to recognize it when it is right in front of you.
Types of people who are more prone to burnout
The best place to start is to identify what is causing excessive and prolonged stress in your life. This can come from the workplace, home, or both.
So while there isn’t any one type of person that is prone to burnout, there are some common themes of the types of people who are more likely to face burnout:
People who face heavy workloads or high stress positions.
Caregivers including healthcare professionals at the front line of care
Burnout may not simply come because of excessive work
Keep in mind that burnout doesn’t just happen because of significant demands on people lives. It can happen if our mindset shifts.
In my coaching work, I have clients that exhibit signs of burnout but it may not come necessarily simply because of excessive work. Take, for example, Jennifer (name changed to protect confidentiality). She has an intensive job that has her working many evenings and most weekends. This is something she has been doing for years. But recently she has realized how exhausted she is from work. She is getting more upset with demands made on her than she has in the past. She is beginning to hate her job and can’t understand why all of a sudden she can’t “deal” with work. For Jennifer, the cause of the emerging burnout wasn’t the demands of the job itself. It began when she felt unappreciated and ignored. Therefore, burnout can manifest when we become disappointed by dashed expectations.
Create ‘margin’ in your reschedule
We tend to over schedule our lives. So our days can be jam packed with work, appointments, and other obligations. This has us running from place to place without a moment to breathe. Look at how you can start to schedule breathing room in your day. Avoid scheduling meetings back to back in your day. Schedule out time on your schedule to do some important catch up.
Adopt resilience tools at work
While work itself can be stressful, there are ways to build in strategies that allow us to de-stress during the day. This includes doing some deep breathing, meditation, or just taking a walk outdoors. Productivity hacks suggest dedicating specific chunks of uninterrupted time (read: no email or social media) and then taking solid breaks around 10 or 15 minutes to clear your mind.
Adopt the strategy of “no”
People feeling burnout are often feel they must “do it all.” Stepping back from burnout means finding ways to lessen the stress which means saying the powerful two letter word NO. It may be hard at first but look for opportunities to delegate demands to others, shift priorities off your plate, or delay obligations.
Find regular times to unplug yourself
Don’t be under the illusion you always need to be moving to make progress. Sometimes, doing nothing is exactly what your body and mind are looking for. Find time to recharge by unplugging from it all. Taking real breaks – to eat, sleep, decompress – can give us the energy we need to remain productive.
To be sure, taking a real break can be difficult in today’s world when we are all expected to remain in constant communication though messaging and email. Consider giving yourself an electronics-free time so you can remove yourself from the noise of work, social media, and email.
There was a time I was convinced that I was on a regular cycle of burnout and that my old familiar friend would re-enter my life maybe once a year or every couple of years. I thought I was just a person who faced burnout and that was just part of who I was. But that trip to the beach woke me up and forced me to finally face down how I was the cause of my own burnout.
I now have a personal program to manage my stress and avoid burnout. Sure, I can still get pretty stressed at times but I am much quicker to see the signs and take immediate action. You too can be empowered to tackle and stop burnout in its tracks.