How are things? How have you been? “Oh, you know, busy!”
I can’t remember the last time I heard a different answer from a friend or loved one I haven’t seen in awhile. ‘Busy’ has become our default state. It’s replaced ‘good’ as our go-to answer to how our lives are going.
But while we steadfastly champion our busy lives, there is a dark side to cramming more and more into our days. The more we work, the more mental weight, stress, and responsibilities we pile on ourselves until we simply can’t bear it anymore.
Burnout: The rockbottom consequence of our busy lives.
More than the daily stress we feel from work, burnout can have serious consequences to both our physical and mental health. Over time, it can even lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems.
But burnout doesn’t have to be a given in our lives. While there is no easy answer for dealing with it, there are clear triggers we can watch out for, and techniques we can use to help circumvent, alleviate, or recover from burnout.
Before we get started: Burnout is a deeply personal, complex issue without a one-size-fits all answer. We’ll be updating this page as we learn more about its causes, effects, and potential solutions.
- What is burnout syndrome?
- Are you suffering from personal or professional burnout?
- Burnout signs and symptoms
- Is your workplace the cause of your burnout?
- 7 strategies for protecting yourself from burnout
- How to recover from burnout
What is burnout?
There’s a difference between the kind of exhaustion you feel after a long day of meaningful work and the perpetual fatigue of burnout.
According to Christina Maslach, psychology professor at UC Berkley and developer of the first widely used instrument for assessing burnout—the Maslach Burnout Inventory:
“Burnout is a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job, [which results is] an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Burnout isn’t just increased stress. More than being simply irritated or tired from the workload, a person suffering from burnout will feel constantly exhausted, like their work doesn’t matter, and have skewed and often pessimistic conceptions of both themselves and others.
According to recent research, 28% of working Americans are currently dealing with burnout, with that rate jumping to over 54% for people in high-pressure careers such as surgeons and physicians.
If we include those who don’t identify as being burnt out, but show symptoms such as high levels of stress, loss of control, and extreme fatigue, the number could be as high as 62%.
Whichever statistic you believe, it’s clear that burnout is a widespread issue in our society.
Or, as Dr. Sharmila Dissanaike, puts it:
“Stress is the person who looks a little crazy when they turn up for an after-work get together at the end of the week, strung out and frazzled; the burned out person is the one who didn’t even bother to show up.”
Understanding where burnout comes from: Are you suffering from personal or professional burnout?
The first step in understanding burnout is to look at what causes it. In her paper The Future of Burnout, Dr. Maslach and her colleagues defined three separate types of burnout:
- Individual burnout is regarded as the outcome of factors associated with excessive negative self-talk
- Interpersonal burnout is seen as the result of difficult relationships with others at work such as a boss or coworker
- Organizational burnout is viewed as a mismatch between the person and the job
While these classifications won’t change the effects of burnout, they are the first clue in understanding where the biggest stressors are in our lives.
Neuroticism, perfectionism, and suffering from an especially self-critical nature can lead to individual burnout, while dealing with an aggressive or unfair boss can cause interpersonal or organizational burnout.
The more we understand about where burnout comes from, the better chance we have of disarming it.
Signs and symptoms of burnout
With how commonplace busyness and stress is, it’s hard to differentiate feeling temporarily bogged down with a much larger issue. But no one can run on empty forever.
“Quite honestly in America we glorify stress,” Dr. Maslach said in a recent New York Times article. “And that’s another thing that leads people to be quiet and shut up about some of the stressors they’re facing because they don’t want to be viewed as not doing their best.”
If you think you might be suffering from burnout or on the verge of being burnt out, here are a few of the telltale signs Dr. Maslack identified in her Burnout Inventory:
Chronic fatigue and physical and emotional exhaustion
Burnout and depression share many of the same symptoms. In fact, if left unchecked, burnout can quickly develop into chronic depression and start to infiltrate all aspects of your life.
One of the main signs of early stage burnout (and depression) is a sense of exhaustion, with no relief in sight. While we all get tired, the constant fatigue associated with burnout is a different beast altogether.
Ask yourself these questions:
- Do I wake up tired even if I go to bed early?
- Am I moving more slowly than usual and taking longer to get ready and leave the house?
- Do even small tasks feel like they take more energy than I can afford?
- Am I dreading what lies ahead today and tomorrow?
This sort of mental exhaustion can also manifest itself physically, with increased vulnerability to colds and flus, nausea, and headaches.
Of course, you should always visit a doctor if these sorts of physical symptoms are persistent, but be aware that they could be due to something other than just germs or infections.
Cynicism and detachment
It’s only natural to go through periods of feeling less enjoyment about the work you do. But if this feeling won’t leave, persists even during time with friends and family, or you become preoccupied with thoughts of how you can escape work and projects altogether, it’s a major red flag that you might be suffering from burnout.
Additionally, burnout can lead to increased pessimism, being less trustworthy of coworkers, friends, and family, isolation and antisocial behavior, as well as a general sense of being disconnected from people and your environment.
Here are some signs to watch out for:
- You’re more quick to anger and have less patience with those you work with
- You’re calling in sick to work on a regular basis
- You’re ditching parties or events you were once looking forward to
A sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment
Once your burnout reaches a certain level, it’s sure to affect your work and how you perceive your own value in the workplace.
You might start to feel apathy, helplessness, and even hopelessness, and continually ask yourself ‘What’s the point?’
This can lead to feeling ineffective and useless and even frustrated and angry over your lack of productivity. If you feel like you’re paddling as hard as you can and still drifting away from shore, you’re most likely facing a serious bout of burnout.
Is your workplace causing burnout?
While the workload itself can be a major cause of burnout, you might be facing symptoms of organizational burnout. As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal ask:
“Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?”
Many of the signs and symptoms we just spoke about can be linked to workplace-induced stress:
- Rude and inconsiderate teammates or leaders can lead to increased cynicism and pessimism about your workplace
- Unfair processes, such as seeing those who are undeserving being publically rewarded, can cause detachment and apathy
It’s a complex issue, but the main point is that we shouldn’t shoulder all the blame for being burnt out.
In many cases, we need to look beyond just the individual and hold our environment equally responsible for our mental state and identifying and speaking up about these issues can help alleviate our stress.
7 Strategies for protecting yourself from burnout
Burnout can be an incredible force of destruction in our lives. So what can we do to alleviate, stop, reverse or even come back from its terrible symptoms?
Luckily, occupational stress and burnout have been hot topics of research for the past few decades with many strategies and techniques proven to help protect us from their deadly effects.
Here are a few that we’ve found to be especially powerful:
1. Reduce the stressors in your life
When our daily stresses become commonplace, we’re at the risk of becoming burnt out.
“Biologically, we are not meant to be in that high-stress mode all the time,” explains Emma Seppala, the science director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “We got lost in this idea that the only way to be productive is to be on the go-go-go mode.”
To start, look for some common work stressors that could lead to more serious burnout. Here’s a few examples you might be facing:
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Frequent scheduling conflicts or interruptions
- Unpredictable schedules that don’t allow you to plan for proper rest
- Overcoming challenges associated with new software, processes, or changing environments
- Added responsibilities that go beyond your initial job scope while not being equally compensated
- Interpersonal demands such as dealing with difficult customers or co-workers
Try to identify these early on and make changes to rid them from your daily life. For example, if you’re constantly chasing deadlines, you might need to scale back the amount of work you’re doing or ask for more time.
If you’re faced with scheduling conflicts and uncertainties, try creating a daily template on your calendar with space for meaningful, productive work to make sure you’re doing work you have an attachment to.
2. Get rid of the digital clutter
With so much time spent on screens, we’re replaced the cluttered desktop filled with leaning stacks of papers and notes to call colleagues with virtual disarray. Browser windows with hundreds of open tabs. Desktop’s completely covered in files. Overflowing inboxes. This digital hoarding can make it feel impossible to catch up.
To help solve this issue, author Cal Newport suggests practicing ‘digital minimalism’—the idea that we can remove the stress of our digital lives by “intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing [our] use of the tools that really matter.”
There are two methods for achieving digital minimalism:
- Subtractive. Inventory and remove any digital tool, app on your homescreen, or service that sends you notifications and add back only the ones that provide you value.
- Additive. Delete everything initially and start over with a focus on value.
You can even use RescueTime to identify the tools you’re using most to see which ones are bringing value, and which are just adding to the noise.
3. Use strategies to protect your time
Saying yes to everything and filling up your calendar is a slippery slope towards burnout. Pretty soon you’ll be jam-packed but have set the precedent that you’re always available.
In my own life, I’ve had issues with setting boundaries and will often believe I can do more in the time I have than I actually do. At the end of the day, I’ve barely gotten through half what I thought I would and the thought of adding those leftovers to tomorrow’s to-do list is terrifying.
The more obvious solution here is to know how long tasks will take you and be realistic about how much you can do in a day. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.
Instead, we can help protect ourselves from burnout-inducing bloated calendars by protecting the time we do have. Here are a few ways to do this:
- Set aside uninterrupted time for your most important work every single day. This is unwavering and all other appointments and work will have to fit around it or else be denied.
- Have automated focus time. Using a tool like RescueTime’s FocusTime feature you can get rid of the decision to protect your time by automating sessions where you’re set to away in Slack, can’t visit distracting websites, and won’t be bothered by requests.
- Set expectations around response time. Your co-workers don’t always know that you’re drowning in work. And if you always respond instantly to emails, they’ll come to expect it. Instead, set specific ‘office hours’ for answering emails and messages and make it known that you’re only available then.
4. Take breaks and practice “Productive Procrastination”
This suggestion came from one of our friends on Twitter. Instead of letting their work dictate their day, they would schedule ‘productive procrastination’ by scheduling non-work events into their day. For example, going for a walk, meeting a friend, or playing with their kids. Basically, anything that involved being away from the computer.
The benefits of taking breaks in this way have been well documented.
Not only do we need periods of downtime throughout the day, but walking, especially outdoors, can alleviate mental fatigue and even help you sleep more at night.
Activities that bring in a social aspect to our day, also give us that much-needed time to connect and can make us feel more relaxed and hopeful for the rest of the day.
5. Bring some rituals into your life
While routines seek to make the chaos of our lives more containable and controllable, rituals add a sense of agency to our work and can help protect us from the detachment associated with burnout.
Many studies have shown that engaging in a repeatable behavior can help reduce our anxiety before performing in a stressful situation.
If you’re starting to feel yourself experiencing signs of burnout, take a moment to step back and create some rituals for yourself. This could be taking 10 deep breaths before you start a new task or a 5-minute walk at the end of your lunch. As novelist Anne Lamott said:
“Daily rituals, especially walks, even forced marches around the neighborhood, and schedules, whether work or meals with non-awful people, can be the knots you hold on to when you’ve run out of rope.”
6. Reinforce effort, not outcome
If your pride and productivity drive is what brought you to burnout, it can seem like a never-ending cycle: The more work you do, the more burnt out you get, the more work you feel like you need to do.
To break this loop, we need to change how we measure our value. Here’s how Etsy product designer Jessica Harllee did that:
“Achievers are known for how much they get done. They’re motivated by crossing things off their to-do lists. The thing that makes Achievers who we are is also our biggest source of pain: every day starts at zero, and then we judge ourselves based on the number of things we accomplish that day.
“No matter how productive we were the day before, in the morning the leaderboard resets to zero.”
To come back from burnout, we need to stop celebrating ticking boxes and start measuring effort.
Simple changes such as saying ‘I will write for 2 hours today’ rather than ‘I will write this blog post today’ reduce the often unnecessary pressure and burnout-causing stress we put on ourselves.
7. Build your self-awareness with regular reviews
The hardest part of warding off burnout is that we often don’t see it coming until it’s too late.
That’s why it’s important to develop our self-awareness through reflection and regular reviews of our life and work.
Researchers have found that the practice of reflection makes what we’ve learned stick in our minds better, as well as improving our performance. It also increases our self-efficacy (our belief in our own abilities), which can be a powerful remedy to the helplessness of burnout.
Try scheduling weekly, monthly, and even annual reviews to take stock of the work you’ve done, how you’re feeling, and where you see your work and your life going.
We’ve even put together a handy checklist of what to include in each review here.
How to come back from burnout
Burnout can completely change how you feel about life and make your previous existence seem like a dream. But it’s not a hopeless situation. Once you recognize these burnout symptoms in yourself, it’s time to take matters back into your own hands and get back to a healthier, happier lifestyle.
While there is no easy, all-encompassing answer when it comes to recovering from burnout, there are methods that have been proven to help us regain control over our feelings and begin to find joy and meaning in the work we do.
Let’s look at a few:
Recovery starts when you prioritize yourself and your health over the work and relationships that are burning you out. And while taking time off to rest and relax will always be the ideal solution, there are some techniques you can try during your work week:
- Use focused breathing techniques. This help calm you down and can tap into your parasympathetic nervous system and help reduce or manage stress.
- Take short, frequent breaks from work. Preferably 5-minute breaks for every 20 minutes spent at your desk or on a single task. Use your breaks to recharge, disconnect from your work, and do exercises to protect yourself from physical exhaustion.
- Use ergonomic chairs and desks. A sit-stand arrangement or similar helps alleviate the physical stress of sitting in one place for too long.
- Take up, or spend more time on a hobby outside of work. These allow you to decompress, de-stress, and disconnect from work and can be anything you’d like, but will be especially beneficial if it involves any form of exercise.
Building these healthy habits is no easy task, however.
If you’re having trouble making space in your schedule, take a week to assess exactly how you’re spending your time using a simple document, pen and paper, or an app like RescueTime. For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how valuable the activity is, and how you feel on a scale from 0 to 10 (with 0 being angry or drained of energy and 10 is joyful or energized).
This small report will help you see where you’re falling into the trap of working on draining projects and help you know when it’s time to interject a more meaningful, positive exercise.
Get more rest
With the near depression-level fatigue that comes with burnout, we need as much sleep and rest as possible to recover. However, Katy Milkman, a behavioral scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, says the short-term, high workload periods that cause burnout also make it harder to prioritize your future self.
The more overworked, tired, and burnt out we are, she says, the more impulsive our choices will be—leading us to decide we just can’t afford to take a vacation or spend a leisurely weekend not working.
To break this cycle, author Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter suggests starting by committing to a restful and de-stressed weekend:
“You can’t do any work. You can’t take any work-related calls or respond to any work-related emails or texts. If your family is a source of stress, try to get away from them for the weekend. Basically, your job is to remove as many sources of stress from your life as possible and infuse as many stress-reducing elements (mostly in the form of rest) into your life for two and a half days.
“Try to sleep in both days. Eat right. Occupy your time with relaxing activities that you rarely allow yourself to enjoy. If you like to read, read. If you like to cook, cook. If you like to write, write. If you don’t like to do anything, don’t do anything. Just don’t expose yourself to any stress for two and a half days.”
If come Monday morning you still feel the anxiety and dread of burn out, you may need to extend this period of rest through using vacation days or consider making more drastic changes to your lifestyle to help remove stress on a more permanent basis.
Start back small and limit your priorities
When you’re coming back from burnout, it’s easy to fall back into the bad working habits you had before.
That’s why copywriter and content strategist Gigi Griffis decided to make a drastic change to her formerly filled days and only add one task to her to-do list.
She calls it ‘The Only Thing You Have to Do Today’:
“I used to keep a seemingly endless to-do list. Multiple pages in my notebook. Updated constantly. There were many days when I just couldn’t stop ticking things off the list. The fact that the list existed meant I had to keep on ticking and ticking and ticking until I collapsed from exhaustion.
“Now, instead, my system is one of simple goals. A single-item list for each day. The only thing I have to do that day.”
Of course, you can still do more than one thing per day. But separating the one ‘must do’ from the rest of the ‘to do (if you can)’ helps you feel meaning and accomplishment every single day.
Find a support network of people you trust
Lastly, for long-lasting recovery, Dr. Maslach found that it is human connection that will most quickly claw us back from the grips of burnout:
“What we found is that people’s health, well-being, everything in life, is way better if you’re connected with other people,” she said.
“That social network, that each of you have each other’s back, that they’re there for you and you’re there for them, that’s like money in the bank. That’s a precious, precious resource.”
Look for coaches, mentors, or colleagues who can provide you with positive relationships and opportunities to learn and grow to combat the cynicism and pessimism of burnout.
Create meaningful relationships with people outside of your work through joining a group or organization. Or even just spend time with loved ones or old friends and rekindle that feeling of connection.
These are the people you can talk and vent to, and who will help give you perspective if you feel yourself slipping back into a state of burnout.
Burnout can feel insurmountable. But it’s a sign of something that needs to be fixed, not a life-time sentence.
By understanding what causes burnout, how it manifests itself in our daily lives, and discover ways to prevent, counteract, and recover from it, we can commit to a happier and healthier life at work and at home.