Burnout Symptoms and Risk Factors

The work culture is changing for the better. Many companies are beginning to recognize that it’s impossible to be productive all the time and that shorter hours and more flexible or remote work arrangements may translate into better overall performance. However, there’s still a long way to go; results from a recent survey show that up to 52% of people suffer from burnout, which not only affects their ability to work but might also cause problems in other areas of their lives. [1] Burnout is a disease of the modern world; we’re all constantly pressured to achieve faster and more, forgetting that our health should be the top priority. If you feel like you don’t have enough energy and motivation to enjoy your job anymore, you might be experiencing burnout. In this article, you’ll find out what the signs of burnout are and what makes you more at risk.Burnout Symptoms and the Risk Factors What is a Burnout?

Burnout is a state characterized by mental and physical exhaustion. To put it simply, you know you’re burnt out when you no longer feel like working because you don’t have enough energy to fulfill your duties. Additionally, burnout symptoms include feeling hopeless and overwhelmed no matter what kind of tasks you do or how difficult they are.
Burnout isn’t something to ignore hoping it will go away on its own. Since 2019, it’s been recognized as a medical condition called a ‘burnout syndrome’ by The World Health Organization, although only in the occupational context. [2]

The Difference Between a Burnout and Stress

Burnout symptoms and stress symptoms overlap but they aren’t the same conditions. While stress involves feeling on edge and struggling to cope with the demands of your work, burnout is more often characterized by a sense of hopelessness and feeling emotionally numb. With work stress, once the stressors are removed, a person is able to see the light at the end of the tunnel and may become motivated again. However, overcoming burnout requires more internal work. Burnout may be a harder hole to dig out of than relieving work stress.

The Difference Between a Burnout and Depression

It's difficult to differentiate between the two because one often leads to another; a prolonged period of burnout may cause your symptoms to worsen, and feeling depressed is likely to result in a lack of meaning and poor job performance. However, while burnout is typically caused by chronic stress, depression tends to be a combination of factors.

What Causes Burnout?

When we talk about burnout, it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific cause but there are some risk factors that make it more likely you’ll suffer from this condition:

1. Heavy workload

When you’re expected to do more than you’re capable of doing at work, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and eventually burn out.

2. Unfair treatment

Being appreciated and feeling comfortable at your workplace are important parts of job satisfaction. If you feel like you aren’t compensated enough for your effort or if you notice that your co-workers receive better treatment, you might soon start feeling hopeless.

3. Working long hours

Even if your job isn’t too demanding, working long hours mean that you aren’t able to maintain a healthy work-life balance, which can negatively affect your mental well-being. When it feels like there isn’t more to your life than your job, it can lead to a loss of purpose.

4. Time pressure

According to studies, increased time pressure predicts burnout and loss of productivity. [3]

The right amount of pressure can serve as a motivation but if you struggle to complete your work because of unreasonable demands, you might start feeling that no matter what you do, it’s not good enough.

5. Unclear job expectations

When you don’t know what’s required of you at work, you might feel uneasy and uncomfortable. Additionally, unclear expectations will most likely lead to poor performance which can affect your self-esteem and increase your lack of purpose.

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6. Monotonous work

If all you do at work is engage in repetitive tasks, you might struggle to find meaning in your job and eventually feel burnt out. This is even more likely when your duties aren’t clearly outlined.

7. Intense work

Similarly, if you work in a highly stressful work environment, for example, as a paramedic or a caregiver, being forced to constantly remain focused can drain your energy and make you feel exhausted.

8. Anything else that contributes to stress

This could be a strained relationship with your co-worker, problems at home, bullying or chronic pain that affects your ability to work. Anything that makes you overly stressed can be overwhelming enough to cause burnout.

Why is it Important to Overcome Burnout?

When you have a look at the signs of burnout, you’ll realize that there’s a lot at stake here; the longer you wait, the more likely it is that all symptoms you’re experiencing will become more and more noticeable and eventually affect every area of your life. If you neglect your health, having a break from your job and the stressful environment might not be enough to feel better.

Burnout Symptoms

The signs of burnout might vary a bit from person to person but will typically look like:

1. Reduced performance and productivity

We all have bad days from time to time and taking a step back can sometimes help you return to work with a fresher outlook and more energy. However, if bad days stretch into weeks and then months, it’s a sign that you’re burnt out and might have to revaluate your current routine and aspirations. Sometimes burnout happens because you aren’t a good fit for your role. A lot of people might like the idea of being in a certain profession but find out they find it too stressful. Other times, burnout is caused by being too harsh on yourself and wanting to progress every single day, which isn’t realistic. But whatever the reason behind your burnout is, until you’ve resolved it, you’ll notice that you struggle with reduced performance and productivity. You might find that your mind often feels blank even if you work on something you previously enjoyed doing and you need more time than usual to complete tasks. Knowing that you don’t perform as well as you used to can also add to the stress and make you doubt your abilities. This can be a bit of a downward spiral.

2. Loss of purpose

Since decreased productivity makes you feel like you aren’t a good fit for your job, your doubts might escalate.  You might also start asking yourself this question, “what is my purpose?” A purpose is an important aspect of both professional and personal life as it determines our decisions and level of happiness. When it comes to burnout, lack of purpose might not only contribute to it but might be also caused by it. This makes it tricky to deal with if it’s something you’ve been experiencing for a while. When you believe that there’s no point in working and when it seems like it doesn’t serve you, you might have little motivation to do something about it. This might make you feel like you’ve failed at life.

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3. Alienation

As a result, you’re more likely to become isolated. You might no longer interact with your co-workers because it doesn’t feel like you’re good enough to stay in their social circle when you fail at work, and you might be too exhausted to see your friends. A burnout itself is alienating enough but if you deprive yourself of social life on top of that, you’re more likely to end up feeling depressed, which can be even more difficult to treat.

4. Frustration

Burnout feels like you gradually change and then suddenly turn into a completely different person; your mind no longer cooperates, and you’re confused about your direction in life. This alone can be frustrating enough but add other potential consequences of burnout like a job loss or worsened personal relationships, and you’ll have a recipe for anxiety and depression. When you’re still in the first stage of burnout and experience frustration, it’s challenging to cope with it but much easier than when it turns into a more serious mental health issue, which is why it’s so important to learn to recognize the signs early and act fast.

5. Lack of energy

When you’re burnt out, even taking a trip from your home to your workplace may seem like too much effort and every little thing you must do at work drains you, from talking to your co-workers to making a to-do list. This kind of mental exhaustion might trap you in a cycle in which you spend all your energy on work because you’re too tired to do anything else. Additionally, work doesn’t feel fulfilling because of a loss of productivity, so it makes you even more drained. Eventually, you might refuse to engage in social interaction and start stop participating in the leisurely activities.

6. Sleep problems 

At the same time, you may be unable to rest.  If you’ve ever felt too tired to sleep, this is what burnout does to you daily. You might find yourself wide awake even after an exhausting day of work, often because worrying thoughts keep you up at night. You might struggle with self-deprecation and wonder if you’re competent enough to do your job. Then you may catastrophize and wonder what you’re going to do when you get fired, although this kind of anxiety is more common in the first stages of burnout. Unfortunately, lack of sleep not only affects your work performance and makes you exhausted, but it’s also linked to numerous health problems such as heart disease, diabetes and hypertension.

7. You begin to hate your job

No job is perfect and even if you do something you’re passionate about, there will always be some aspects of it that you don’t enjoy. However, when you’re burnout, you might notice that your attitude has changed and that you’re becoming more and more resentful. You might fixate on your pay or focus on that one co-worker you don’t get on well with, and eventually wake up feeling a sense of dread at the thought of going to work.

8. Physical symptoms

Just like chronic stress, prolonged emotional exhaustion caused by burnout can manifest itself as various physical symptoms. For example, you might start experiencing persistent stomach-aches or headaches. You might also find that you feel under the weather more frequently than you used to and may have to call in sick as a result.

9. Your emotions become extreme

When you’re burnt out, you might notice that every little thing gets under your skin. You might react to criticism more strongly than usual and see it as proof of your incompetence and a seemingly innocent joke might bring you to tears. You might also become a lot more irritable, snap at people and even outwardly express your anger. On the other hand, you might struggle with emotional numbness; while lack of productivity at work previously filled you with dread, you might start approaching it with indifference. Naturally, whichever stage you’re in right now, this will be accompanied by a lack of joy – you might no longer enjoy your job and hobbies.

10. You might develop unhealthy coping skills

What used to be just a glass of wine to take the edge off might turn into binge drinking every day after work. If you’re a smoker, you might start smoking more than usual or develop a new habit, such as prolonged social media scrolling or overeating.

Is It Possible to Recover from a Burnout?

Yes! There’s always hope, and burnout symptoms can be improved just like in the case of any other mental health condition. It’s not an easy battle to win but it boils down to developing healthier coping skills, learning relaxation techniques, and taking better care of your well-being in general. The main thing to remember is that if you suspect that you’re burnt out, don’t postpone making a change in your schedule, job, or career, or even talking to a mental health professional before things get out of control. In no circumstance should you ever prioritize your career over your own mental health, so the time to act is now, not later. In future blog posts, we will be discussing ways to avoid and recover from burnout. 


[1] https://everyonesocial.com/blog/employee-burnout-statistics/#:~:text=A%20recent%20report%20from%20Indeed,fatigue%2C%20and%20mental%20health%20challenges
[2] https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases#:~:text=%E2%80%9CBurn%2Dout%20is%20a%20syndrome,related%20to%20one's%20job%3B%20and
[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8112546/


Learn more about contributor, Joanna Cakala

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