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What is Burnout? Signs, Tips and Prevention

We’re likely all familiar with the term burnout, but what does it really mean? Healthcaresocial care professionals, educators and those working in recovery and criminal justice are among the most prone to burnout.

In this article, we’ll look at what it is, how to identify it, and what can be done about it. First, then, what is burnout?

What is Burnout?

First coined in the 1970s, burnout is a physical, emotional and mental state characterised by extreme fatigue, disinterest and apathy, feelings of detachment and often irritability and frustration.

It’s most often used in a work context; however, it can be in response to many different stressors – caring for a loved one, for example, can also lead to burnout-like symptoms.  

Left unchecked, burnout only worsens and can interfere with daily functioning, making it vital that it’s tackled as soon as possible. Burnout doesn’t have a purpose or function per se but rather serves as a warning sign to take our foot off the gas, telling us that we need to take a break to rest, replenish and recharge.  

Numerous different factors can affect a person’s feeling of burnout, including working from home, a lack of professional boundaries, having too much (or too little) to do, a lack of support, ambiguity around a role and more (note, this is by no means an exhaustive selection).

A burning match

Common Burnout Symptoms

There are both mental and physical symptoms of burnout; the mental symptoms include:  

  • Lack of focus. When people experience burnout, their ability to focus drops off, often quite dramatically.  
  • Loss of interest and enjoyment (known as anhedonia). Burnout can bring with it an apathy and disinterest that’s uncharacteristic of the person in question.  
  • Lowered/depressed mood. Burnout can often be mistaken for depression because the presenting symptoms are similar in many ways.  
  • Growing self-doubt. Burnout can make people question their abilities, chipping away at their self-esteem until they no longer believe they can do the job.  
  • Increased anxiety and panic. Whilst some people tend towards depression, others go the other way and experience heightened anxiety and panic as a result of their burnout.

The physical symptoms can include:

  • Fatigue. Fatigue is undoubtedly one of the most significant signs of burnout. This goes beyond tiredness and can edge over into feeling exhausted. People with burnout fatigue rarely feel rested (even when they sleep well) and may experience other tiredness-related symptoms like blurry vision or dizziness.  
  • Gastrointestinal problems. Our guts are highly tuned organic instruments, significantly impacted by the stress we experience. Unsurprisingly, when we experience burnout, we experience GI issues, too.  
  • Chest pain. When we’re in the fight-or-flight response, we can experience chest pains as our muscles tighten.  
  • High blood pressure (hypertension). Increased stress can cause elevated blood pressure, which, in turn, if left untreated, can lead to a cardiac event like a heart attack or stroke.  
  • Disrupted sleep. When we’re stressed or burned out, it can impact our sleep cycle. Your sleep may be rocky when burned out because your body is near-constantly flooded with stress hormones like cortisol due to being in fight-or-flight mode. This can prevent you from falling asleep as quickly, wake you up during the night or lead to more acute insomnia.

There are also some crucial behavioural symptoms, and these include:

  • Reduced performance/efficacy at work. When people are burned out, their professional effectiveness declines. No matter how hard they try, their work and productivity end up on the slide.  
  • Cynicism. When engaged with a task, people experiencing burnout often think, “What’s the point?”. They don’t have the mental, physical or emotional bandwidth to deal with the task, so they ask, why bother? This is one of the three core components that someone must be experiencing to be classed as having burnout (the other two are reduced performance and emotional exhaustion).  
  • Withdrawing into oneself. Burnout can cause people to retreat into their shells, becoming more detached and isolated.  
  • Procrastination. Procrastinating is another prominent behavioural symptom of burnout. People suffering from burnout don’t have the mental reserves or the motivation to tackle the tasks they need, so they resort to putting those tasks off, kicking the can down the road.

The Burnout Timeline

Stage 1

There are several stages to a burnout episode; we can think of it as a timeline. The first stage, or point on our timeline, is the productivity stage. This is also often referred to as the honeymoon phase.  

This typically coincides with a fresh or new beginning, whether that be a new job, moving to a new team, being given a new project to work on, etc. At the outset, the individual is full of zeal and vigour, tackling their task with creativity and motivation.

Stage 2

Invariably, this whirlwind of productivity must end, and stress begins to seep in at the seams. The bar you set during that first phase is impossible to meet all the time, so work begins to bleed out of office hours and into your personal life.  

Overall, there’s still satisfaction with the job; however, that initial optimism might take a dent or two as the stresses of the role begin to nip at your heels. This stage of the timeline is the introduction of stress and is where you’ll start to see some of the symptoms we listed earlier (e.g. fatigue).

Stage 3

In this stage of the timeline, the stress becomes more chronic. That’s to say, the stress has reached the point of being persistent every day. Work will continue to occupy more of your time, and even when you’re not working, the chances are you’ll be thinking about it.  

At this point, you start to experience more anxiety, anger and irritability, headaches, heart palpitations, social withdrawal, and persistent tiredness/fatigue, to name just a few.

This stage precedes full-on burnout, so if you can nip the issue in the bud here, you mitigate the risk of those symptoms worsening.

Stage 4

Burnout – the fourth of the five stages. By this time, cynicism, emotional exhaustion and reduced efficacy have all combined to create the perfect conditions for a burned-out state. It’s challenging to cope when it reaches this point without some intervening help.  

The symptoms which may have already developed, like gut problems and headaches, become chronic. People often develop a need to ‘escape’ by this point, wanting to withdraw from work, family, friends and society more generally.  

No rest seems to reverse the fatigue at this point, and people might need therapeutic interventions (like CBT therapy) to get back on top of things. This point on the timeline stands for more acute, episodic burnout. The fifth and final stage, by contrast, represents chronic burnout.

Stage 5

Chronic or habitual burnout is when feelings of burnout become completely pervasive for an ongoing, indefinite period.

It’s characterised by all the symptoms we’ve listed so far, as well as chronic exhaustion (both mental and physical) and chronic sadness/depression.

A man with his hand over his face, tired.

Tips on Managing Burnout

Whilst prevention is better than cure, there may be times when you’ve found yourself having slipped into a burned-out state, and rather than stopping yourself from falling into a hole, what you need is a ladder to help you climb back out.

That’s what the following tips are – the rungs on that ladder.

Tip 1 – Take Rest

The first tip is to listen to your body; burnout is a call for help from your body and mind and the sooner you pick up that phone, the better.

By contrast, the longer you let it ring, the worse your burnout symptoms will become. So, if you need to take some time off work, as hard as that might be to do, then that’s what’s required.

Tip 2 – Exercise Regularly

Regular exercise can also help alleviate symptoms of burnout. When we exercise, whether that’s something strenuous like going for a run or something gentler like a stroll through the woods, our body releases endorphins.  

Endorphins are chemicals called hormones which make us feel good, and although exercise is the last thing people want to do when they’re burned out, it can genuinely make a difference.

So, if you can claw past that first inertia and get the ball rolling, your body will thank you for it in the long run.  

Exercise can also have a meditative quality, enabling you to get into a repetitive flow state of sorts. Pounding the pavement one foot at a time or peddling the wheels of your bike, spin after spin, can help get you out of your own head and reengaging with the wider world.  

When we’re in that negative headspace, where everything is poured from a half-empty glass, changes as seemingly minor as adding a short walk to your day can have a more significant impact than you might imagine.

Tip 3 – Practise Mindfulness

Practising mindfulness is one of the best things you can do to alleviate burnout symptoms. It’s useful in a whole host of different contexts, and helping with burnout is one.

Mindfulness refers to the practice of recognising your own thoughts and observing them in a non-judgmental manner. To be mindful is to become the watcher of your thoughts.  

Why does this help in the case of burnout, we hear you ask? Well, mindfulness is known to be beneficial in combating stress, anxiety and depression, all of which are typical parts of burnout.   

There are many ways you can practise mindfulness, from breathing exercises to yoga and meditation, and there are many short activities which only take a minute or two, so there’s something for even the most time-pressed individuals.

Tip 4 – Consider Therapy

If you’re able to access it through your healthcare provider or can afford to pay for it privately, then therapy is a great option to help fight burnout’s more severe symptoms. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a technique commonly used by therapists.  

It aims to get the individual looking at their thinking patterns and to challenge their less helpful ways of thinking. It looks at how our thoughts and feelings (the cognitive part) influence our actions (the behavioural part) and teaches coping skills for the various problems that life can throw at us.

How Do You Prevent Burnout in the First Place?

Have a Self-Care Plan in Place

When it comes to preventing burnout, the importance of self-care for professionals in helping roles cannot be overstated. Having a weekly regimen that brings you relaxation, comfort and some joy is essential in ensuring you don’t burn out or develop compassion fatigue.  

Self-care looks different to different people, but some examples include the following:

  • Scheduling in regular exercise. We’ve already talked about exercise in a remedial capacity, but it’s also great at staving off burnout and working preventatively, too!  
  • Sitting down to eat a meal. When we’re pulled from pillar to post because of work, it can be tempting to wolf something down on the go. This denies us the opportunity to enjoy our food and prioritises work over a fundamental part of our day.  
  • Enjoyable activities like watching TV or listening to music. This is perhaps what we most traditionally think of when we think of self-care. Like the others on our list, these activities can recharge our batteries and healthily process whatever we’ve been through at work.  
  • Setting boundaries. Setting clear boundaries is one of the most potent self-care acts. Those boundaries are among the first things to go when burnout starts to set in. That extra time spent out-of-hours on a project, working on weekends (when you’re only meant to work Monday through Friday) and taking on more than you can because you don’t want to say no are all examples of where boundaries can begin to slip.  

Take Regular Time Off

Booking annual leave, especially doing so little and often, is a great way to help stave off symptoms of burnout; think of it as a saucepan on a hot hob. If you regularly take it off and let it cool before putting it back on, then it isn’t going to boil over.  

Alternatively, if you just leave it on there continuously, everything will boil over and cause one big mess. We know which we’d rather choose. You needn’t book big holidays or prolonged periods off; the odd day here or there to replenish your energy reserves is often enough.

Don’t Bottle it Up

The worst thing you can do with feelings of burnout – or any feelings for that matter – is bottle them up. So, talk to friends, family and, importantly, your employer to get your emotions off your chest.   

Hopefully, in the latter’s case, they’ll help put a plan in place to reduce workload/responsibility, clarify role expectations, and give you some time off to recover from your burnout. You can talk to either your HR department or your line manager.  

Final Thoughts

Burnout is a serious problem, affecting over half of workers (according to a survey by Indeed), and one which should be prevented, wherever possible – for both the sake of the employee and the employer alike.  

The last resort with burnout is to look for a new job or an entirely new career. If you need to do that, why not check out the positions we offer in various sectors? 

Carry on reading