It’s hard to remember when we started being ‘busy’ all the time. Yet while we take on more work and responsibilities, work longer hours, and deal with higher levels of stress, our mind and bodies pay the price. Burnout is the rock-bottom consequence of our busy lives.
More than the stress of our daily work, burnout syndrome has serious consequences on both our physical and mental health. When we feel burnt out, we become exhausted and lose all joy we once had in our work.
And it’s only becoming more common. With studies saying anywhere from 23–54% of workers have previously or are currently dealing with burnout, it’s an issue we all need to more deeply understand.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all answer for how to handle burnout, there are clear triggers you can watch out for and proven techniques that will help you avoid, alleviate, and recover from burnout symptoms.
1. What is burnout syndrome?
- How burnout is different from regular stress
- The 3 types of burnout (and how to tell which one you’re dealing with)
2. Signs you’re suffering from burnout (and how to diagnose its source)
- The main signs and symptoms of burnout to watch out for
- How your workplace is causing burnout: Common risks associated with feeling burnt out
3. Coming back from burnout: The best strategies and tips for recovery
- 9 strategies and tools to help you avoid burnout before you’re already burnt out
- How do you come back from burnout? How to rebuild your creativity, passion, and organizational skills after burning out
Before we dive in… Burnout is a deeply personal and complex issue. While this guide is meant to help you understand and self-diagnose the signs and symptoms of burnout, a mental health professional is your best resource for individualized help.
1. What is burnout syndrome?
There’s a difference between the exhaustion of a long workday and the perpetual fatigue of burnout.
As Dr. Christina Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, explains, burnout is “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”
More than just increased stress, burnout causes overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from your job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
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.”
Burnout is a total loss of motivation and energy with no sign of relief. And while it once was only used to refer to the extremes dealt with by health care professionals, police officers, firefighters, and those who deal with trauma and human services, today, workplace burnout impacts everyone."Stress is the person who looks a little crazy at the end of the week. The burned-out person is the one who didn't even bother to show up." Click To Tweet
In fact, the World Health Organization’s latest International Classification of Diseases even lists burnout as an official ‘occupational phenomenon.’
However, there’s still a stigma around burnout that causes many people to ignore it. So how do you know if you’ve slipped from stressed to truly burnt out?
The 3 types of burnout (and how to tell which one you’re dealing with)
Let’s start by understanding where burnout comes from.
The obvious culprit is our workdays. And in most cases, when people talk about burnout they’re referring to professional burnout. However, there are other factors to consider if you’re feeling the symptoms of burnout.
In her paper, The Future of Burnout, Dr. Maslach defined three separate types of burnout:
- Individual burnout is caused by excessive negative self-talk, neurosis, and perfectionism. In other words, when you place extremely high standards on yourself or believe nothing you do is good enough.
- Interpersonal burnout is caused by difficult relationships with others at work or at home. For example, an aggressive or unwelcoming boss or coworker can compound the stress you already feel at work to the point of burnout.
- Organizational burnout is caused by poor organization, extreme demands, and unrealistic deadlines that make you feel like you’re missing the mark and that your job is in danger.
The first step in combatting burnout is understanding the factors that contribute to it: the people, processes, and personality traits that can push you over the edge. Without addressing each of these factors, you’ll always be at risk of burning out.
However, it’s also important to remember that burnout is rarely entirely your fault. There’s a stigma around burnout syndrome that makes people feel like it’s solely caused by your workload or an inability to handle stress. But in many cases, the factors are out of your control.
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?”
Rude and inconsiderate teammates or managers, unfair processes or misplaced judgment (or praise!) can all add to your sense of burnout. Don’t feel like you need to shoulder all the blame and be responsible for all the solutions yourself.
2. Signs you’re suffering from burnout (and how to diagnose its source)
Like any major health issue, the earlier you can recognize the signs of burnout syndrome, the better chance you have of recovering or even avoiding it altogether.
While we covered the top three signs of burnout above—exhaustion, detachment, and ineffectiveness—these aren’t always easy to self-diagnose.
If you’re uncertain whether you’re facing a period of stress or on the verge of burnout, here are the signs and symptoms to watch out for.
The major signs and symptoms of burnout
Stress is inevitable in the modern workplace. But the more you ignore the stressors in your life, the more likely it is that you’ll hit burnout.
“Quite honestly in America we glorify stress,” Dr. Maslach said in a recent New York Times article. “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.”
No one can run on empty forever. Instead of ignoring the stressors that are sucking the passion and motivation out of your workday pay close attention to the following feelings:
1. Chronic fatigue and physical and emotional exhaustion
The first thing you might notice when you’re burnt out is being tired all the time. In this way, 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.
While we all get tired, the constant fatigue associated with burnout syndrome is a different beast altogether. If you’re unsure whether you’re feeling burnout-related fatigue, here are a few questions to ask yourself:
- Do you wake up tired even if you go to bed early?
- Are you moving more slowly than usual and taking longer to get ready in the morning?
- Do even small tasks feel like they take more energy than you can afford?
- Are you dreading what lies ahead today and tomorrow?
This sort of mental exhaustion can manifest itself physically, with increased vulnerability to the cold and flu, nausea, and headaches. So listen to your body. It’s often more honest than your brain when it comes to how you’re feeling.
Are you feeling overworked and overwhelmed each day? RescueTime helps you understand how you spend your time and optimize it so you can get more done (without working more). Sign up for free today!
2. Cynicism and detachment
The honest truth is that you won’t love your work every single day.
But you might be suffering from burnout if the feeling of detachment and cynicism won’t leave, or if you’re constantly preoccupied with thoughts of how to escape work and projects (even when you’re outside of work or with friends and family).
Again, this sign of burnout can manifest itself in other ways such as increased pessimism, being less trustworthy of coworkers, friends, and family, as well as feeling isolated and disconnected from other people and your environment.
If you start to feel this way, ask a few questions to see if it’s something more than just a period of unhappiness:
- Are you more quick to anger or have less patience with those you work with than usual?
- Are you calling in sick or looking for excuses to get out of work on a regular basis?
- Do you find yourself ditching parties or events you were once looking forward to?
- Are you feeling a sense of ineffectiveness and a lack of accomplishment?
3. A lack of accomplishment and feeling ineffective at work
Once your burnout reaches a certain level, it’s sure to affect your work and how you perceive your own value. You might start to feel apathy, ineffective, and continually ask yourself ‘What’s the point?’
When you catch yourself giving up before you even start a task or project, ask a few questions:
- Do you feel like nothing you do at work matters?
- Is it harder to connect your daily tasks to a meaningful goal or a larger vision?
- Does it feel like there’s more work than you can realistically do every day?
- Are you overwhelmed with responsibilities to the point where you don’t want to do anything?
One of the biggest workplace motivators is seeing progress on meaningful work.
However, when you’re burnt out it often feels like it doesn’t matter what you do, nothing makes a difference. This can cause frustration and anger over your lack of productivity, but also a sense of hopelessness that’s hard to come back from.
Burnout red flags: Common risks associated with feeling burnt out
You don’t just start to feel exhausted, cynical, and ineffective overnight. Burnout is the consequence of compounding issues until you reach a breaking point. But what causes you to go over the edge?
We all deal with moments of stress in our lives. And a high-stress job doesn’t always lead to burnout. Instead, it’s a combination of the factors we mentioned before—people, processes, and personality—that lead to eventual burnout.
Let’s dig into a few of the common risks—especially in the workplace—that are associated with causing burnout.
- Unreasonable time pressures. Do you have enough time to do the work expected of you? Unfortunately for many people, a lack of time is the main source of burnout. With some studies finding that workers spend up to 80% of their day in meetings, on the phone, and responding to emails, we already have limited time to complete the critical work we do on our own. Unreasonable time pressure is a compounding issue. When you miss one unrealistic deadline it creates a snowball effect of stress for everyone.
- Lack of communication and support from managers. Do you get the support you need each day to complete your work and feel accomplished? According to a 2018 report by Gallup, workers who feel strongly supported by their managers are 70% less likely to experience burnout. On the other hand, an indecisive, negligent, or aggressive manager can make you feel disconnected, frustrated, and cynical.
- Unclear responsibilities and expectations. Are you clear about your priorities and responsibilities? When every day feels like you’re chasing a moving target, it’s easy to become exhausted and upset. Unfortunately, only 60% of workers say they clearly know what’s expected of them each day.
- Unmanageable workloads. Is your plate full or overflowing? Even the best employees will suffer when too much work is tossed their way. And often the most capable employees are the ones given too much work. Whether it’s your boss or your own pride taking on too much, a packed to-do list will make the most optimistic employees feel hopeless.
- Weak time management principles. Do you know how to properly manage your time? Our workplace is at war with our attention and ability to focus. Yet studies show that multitasking and context switching can eat up 20–80% of your daily productivity. When you can’t manage your own day you become more vulnerable to overwork, stress, and burnout.
- Excessive collaboration. Are you constantly waiting for other people? Collaboration is a necessary part of every work environment. However, when your ability to do your work feels out of your control it can lead to burnout.
- Lack of boundaries around work. Can you disconnect at the end of the day? Our always-on culture makes it difficult to separate your work from everything else. Yet it’s that inability to disconnect that causes the daily stressors to compound and become burnout. On the other hand, psychologically disconnecting from work has been linked to less fatigue, lower rates of burnout and greater satisfaction in work and life.
These burnout red flags can happen anywhere and from a variety of sources. But again, it’s important to remember that you can’t control them all.
Rude and inconsiderate teammates or leaders can lead to increased cynicism and pessimism about your workplace. While unfair treatment, such as seeing those who are undeserving being publically rewarded, can cause detachment and apathy.
Focus on what you can do, but be aware that a toxic work environment, poor management, or unfair treatment are just as likely to cause burnout.
3. Coming back from burnout: The best strategies and tips for recovery
Burnout can be an incredible force of destruction in our lives causing mental and physical fatigue, cynicism, and depression-like symptoms. And there are a variety of common sources and red flags that cause us to become burnt out.
So what can we do to alleviate, stop, reverse or even come back from burnout?
9 strategies and tools to help you avoid burnout before you’re already burned out
Occupational stress and burnout syndrome have been hot topics of research for the past few decades with many strategies and techniques developed to help protect you from their deadly effects.
Let’s go through a few of the easiest strategies and tools you can use to avoid burnout even before you’re burnt out.
1. Pay close attention to the stressors in your life (and reduce unnecessary ones)
Burnout syndrome comes from a prolonged response to chronic stressors. The more stressors you deal with on a daily basis, the higher your risk of burnout.
As Emma Seppala, science director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education explains:
“Biologically, we are not meant to be in that high-stress mode all the time. We got lost in this idea that the only way to be productive is to be on the go-go-go mode.”
We like to call this the busyness paradox: We mistake being busyness with validation that we’re doing the right things. But it’s just as easy to be ‘busy’ checking emails all day or running to meetings as spend time on meaningful work and seeing real progress.
When you feel yourself being pulled into that sense of busyness, take a step back and try to identify the root causes. Here are a few ideas:
- Unrealistic deadlines
- Frequent scheduling conflicts or interruptions
- Unpredictable schedules that don’t allow you to plan for proper rest
- ‘Technostress’ (i.e. dealing with new software, tools, or processes)
- Scope creep on projects
- Interpersonal demands such as dealing with difficult customers or coworkers
While each of these might ‘just be part of your job’ they also might be leading to burnout. Pay close attention to which ones are impacting your emotional state and try to find solutions to mitigate them.
For example, if you’re faced with unrealistic deadlines, you need to have an honest conversation with your manager. Explain your current workload and how, in order to hit these deadlines, something will have to be delegated, delayed, or dropped.
This transparency creates what author Brigid Schulte calls “positive friction”:
“With priority work made more transparent, calling a meeting won’t be seen as cost-free, but a values trade-off: what is everyone not doing because they’re at this meeting? And is the meeting the better use of everyone’s time?”
(And if they’re unwilling to make changes, this is a sign that your work environment could be to blame for your burnout!)
Even just an hour or two of truly focused time can be enough to make progress and start to feel in control and attached to your work again.
2. Understand where your time is actually going each day with a time audit
Besides stressors, a lack of time is another key source of burnout.
When you spend the majority of your day bouncing between emails, calls, and meetings, you have little time to focus on the work that matters. This problem only compounds when you have unrealistic deadlines, time pressures, or managers with weak time management skills.
A time audit is a 3-step process that helps you understand where your time is actually going and bring your intentions (how you want to spend your time) and actions (how you actually spend it) back in alignment:
Step 1: Write down your intentions. This is how you want to spend your time. For example, I might say that in an ideal day, I spend a minimum of 50% of my time writing (because that’s my main work).
Step 2: Gather data to discover where your time actually goes. For this, I like to use RescueTime as it automatically observes how I spend my time and presents it in a way that’s easy to understand.
In my example, I can see that in November, I averaged 47% of my time on writing. (It’s a good idea to do this same exercise for your top 3–5 intentions).
You can also use this as an opportunity to find what’s taking away your time and adding to your sense of burnout. For example, I can see that I’m spending 11% of my workday on social media and another 12% on communication and scheduling. Both of these are activities I want to do less of.
Step 3: Create an action plan. Now it’s time to find a way to bring these two back in alignment. Again, I like to use RescueTime here and set a Goal for 3 hours of writing a day. This way I can track my progress and get real-time feedback on how I’m spending my time.
I can also set a Goal and Alert for my time on social media to help reduce it during the workday.
Awareness of your time is one of the most powerful tools you have against burnout. Learn more about how RescueTime can help you be more productive and find more work-life balance.
3. Regularly revisit your priorities to make sure they’re realistic, valid, and connected to bigger goals
Saying yes to everything and filling up your calendar is a slippery slope towards burnout syndrome. Pretty soon, you’ll be jam-packed with to-dos while trying to balance being always available.
Instead, you need to be more deliberate with what you commit to. This means regularly revisiting your priorities and making sure they’re:
- Realistic: Is this something you can actually do? Have you given it a realistic deadline that considers any dependencies and resources you might need?
- Still valid: Is this the right task to be working on? As Peter Drucker said, “there is nothing worse than doing the wrong thing well.”
- Connected to your bigger goals: Will finishing this task make visible progress towards your long-term goals?
If you feel yourself becoming overwhelmed with responsibilities, take a step back and focus just on the one thing that deserves your attention. Copywriter GiGi Griffis calls this ‘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.
4. Bring more structure into your day
More rules and structure might seem suffocating and burnout-inducing, but the opposite is usually true. A structured daily schedule gets rid of decision fatigue, FOMO, and feeling overwhelmed. If you do it properly, that is.
There’s a difference between a day structured around endless meetings and emails and your ideal day.
During your time audit, you wrote down your top intentions. In other words, you answered the question of “what does an ideal workday look like to me?”
A schedule like this protects you from some of the biggest risks of burnout, like a lack of time, unclear priorities, and too much communication and collaboration. But the only way you maintain it is to protect your time.
Here are a few ways to do this:
- Set aside uninterrupted time for your most important work every single day. Even just 1–2 hours of clearly focused time will ensure you make progress on something important and feel accomplished (no matter what happens the rest of the day).
- Use FocusTime to block distractions. Burnout is an emotional issue and can cause us to go into a spiral of distraction. A tool like FocusTime that automatically blocks social media, news, and other distractions can help keep you focused during the day.
- 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’ during the day where you’ll answer emails and be available for chats.
- Don’t forget about taking breaks. The benefits of taking breaks in this way have been well documented and are even more important when you’re feeling burnt out. Set aside even just 5–10 minutes every 90 minutes to stretch, walk around, and talk with others. If you can, get outdoors, as it can alleviate mental fatigue and even help you sleep more at night.
Even just making a few of these changes can make your schedule more burnout-friendly. But if you want to go all-in, check out our Guide to Time-Blocking.
5. Create a wind-down ritual to separate work from non-work hours
Protecting yourself from burnout isn’t just about what you do during the workday (although that is a big part). With the near depression-level fatigue that comes with burnout syndrome, we need as much sleep and rest as possible to recover.
This starts with a wind-down ritual.
A wind-down ritual is your way to signify that you’re leaving work at work. It helps you to relax, recover, and recuperate from the workday and stops your stressors from compounding.
To properly disconnect and wind-down, you need to follow a few steps:
- Detach from the workday by removing your work devices and replacing your screen time with something healthier.
- Relax by spending a bit of time alone to recover from the social demands of work and home.
- Spend time on a hobby or other ‘mastery’ skill—these are things that challenge you but that you enjoy.
- Create a sense of control by following a closing ritual for the day, including writing out your to-do list, closing open browser tabs and reflecting on your day.
This should be your daily ritual. However, you might need something more if you’re feeling especially overwhelmed and burnt out. 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. And 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 on Monday morning you still feel the anxiety and dread of burnout, you may need to extend this period of rest through using vacation days or consider making more drastic changes to your lifestyle.
6. Focus on progress, not just the end goal
Productivity and burnout have a troublesome relationship. The more work you do, the more burnt out you get, and the more work you feel like you need to do.
To break this loop, we need to change how we measure our value. Instead of focusing solely on ticking items off a list, look at the progress you make each day.
In fact, when Harvard professor Teresa Amabile studied the diaries of hundreds of knowledge workers, she found that:
“Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”
A great way to focus on progress is to use RescueTime Goals and Alerts. Rather than setting a huge goal like “write a blog post”, start with something small and manageable like “write for 30 minutes in the morning.”
With RescueTime, you can track your goal progress throughout the day and even get real-time feedback on whether you hit or missed it. Simple changes like this reduce the often unnecessary pressure and burnout-causing stress we put on ourselves.
7. Build your burnout self-awareness with regular reviews
The hardest part of warding off burnout syndrome 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.
8. Make time for self-care: sleep, reflection, and hobbies
Burnout 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 workweek:
- Use focused breathing techniques. This helps you calm down and can tap into your parasympathetic nervous system to 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.
- 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, it’s important to make time for yourself—even just a few minutes a day. 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.”
9. Find a support network of people you trust
Lastly, for long-lasting recovery, Dr. Maslach found that human connection is essential for warding off burnout:
“What we found is that people’s health, well-being, everything in life, is way better if you’re connected with other people.
“That social network, that each of you has 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.”
While this network can certainly include your close friends and family, look for people who might be more familiar with the exact situation you’re going through. This could be coaches, mentors, or colleagues—anyone who can help you gain perspective and combat the cynicism and pessimism of burnout.
It’s also a good idea to create meaningful relationships that are completely separate from your work by joining a group or working on a hobby.
How do you come back from burnout? How to rebuild your creativity, passion, and organizational skills
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.
If you’re on the road to recovery and facing specific issues, we’ve written in-depth guides on:
- Creativity: This guide covers how to recharge your creativity and get ideas flowing again after burning out.
- Passion: Did burnout sap the joy you once felt for your work? This guide will show you how to start to rebuild a positive work environment.
- Focus: Has burnout left you feeling fuzzy at best? Here’s a step-by-step process for rebuilding your focus and finding mental clarity after burning out.
- Organization: Burnout can leave you feeling easily overwhelmed. This guide will teach you how to break the cycle and make a solid plan for each day.
- For managers: If you lead a team, you might be causing burnout without even realizing it. This 3-step program will help you fight team burnout before it happens.
Burnout doesn’t have to be a life sentence
As designer Frank Chimero writes:
“Fatigue happens to your body, but burnout exhausts your soul.”
Burnout syndrome can feel insurmountable. But it’s a sign of something that needs to be fixed, not a lifetime sentence.
By understanding what causes burnout syndrome, how it manifests itself in our daily lives, and how you can prevent, counteract, and recover from it, you can commit to a happier and healthier life at work and at home.