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Feeling burned out isn’t a new concept by any means. For decades, people have worked too hard for too long and eventually hit a breaking point. Yet lately, the phrase seems to be everywhere you turn. People across every generation, and in every industry, are feeling more burned out than ever before and taking mental health breaks.
The burnout epidemic has become so insidious that the World Health Organization (WHO) recently reclassified it as an “occupational phenomenon,” and a factor that influences health (but is not an illness or health condition).
So, it feels like as good a time as ever to talk about what burnout actually is, the symptoms of burnout, and how to prioritize self-care. Because chances are, you’ve experienced it before (*raises hand*) or will at some point in your personal life.
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a syndrome that can happen when you’re constantly feeling completely overwhelmed and underappreciated by co-workers. The WHO defines it as: “Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
The signs of burnout include ongoing exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of confidence in one’s abilities, says Michael P. Leiter, Ph.D., honorary professor of organizational psychology at Deakin University in Melbourne Australia. “Feeling tired or frazzled is often referred to as burnout but exhaustion on its own is not quite the same thing. Burnout is much more insidious,” he adds. “The big question is not so much whether you ever feel exhausted, but whether you can recover your energy after feeling exhausted.”
According to Leiter, it’s not uncommon for new college grads just entering the workforce to get burned out. “Ideals and hopes often take a beating at that point as work seems so much more mundane and tedious than one expected,” he says. Going from college life to the “real world” is a huge adjustment, and many people end up completely overwhelmed while also questioning whether their work aligns with their values. This can cause a constant cycle of stress, exhaustion, doubt, and ultimately burnout.
What Burnout Looks Like
Most people have experienced burnout, says Wayne Pernell, Ph.D., performance coach, author of The Significance Factor, and host of the One Sharp Sword podcast. “Have you ever felt exhausted, not that into your job, and not very efficient? Add those three together and you may have burnout.”
Of course, working hard or having a demanding job may mean that you overexert yourself regularly and often feel tired. “People generally do push through bouts of exhaustion or doubts about the value of their work. That’s part of life,” says Leiter. “But when you are stuck in a funk of exhaustion, cynicism, and discouragement, it’s hard to find your way out of that state on your own. You’re too tired to do anything, too cynical to care about doing anything, and too discouraged to believe you can do anything.”
A few more red flags that may mean burnout is impacting your well-being, according to Leiter:
- Most days, you feel tired before the workday even begins.
- You hate work you used to enjoy doing.
- You’ve lost hope that you’re ever going to achieve your goals at work.
Burnout doesn’t necessarily just impact you at work, though. “If you’re feeling burnout, you’ve probably started to withdraw a bit at home, too,” says Pernell. “You might find yourself [leaning on] even more screen time than usual.”
You may also notice that when you’re not working, all you have the energy or desire to do is lie on the couch, and that even running a simple errand (say, dropping off something at the post office) feels like a monumental task.
What to Do About Burnout
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to just quit our jobs the moment we notice the impact of workplace burnout. We’d find new ones that weren’t so demanding and that allowed us to have a better work-life balance. But the reality is that we all have financial obligations and new jobs don’t just fall into most people’s laps (if only…). So in the meantime, it’s important to find some healthy ways to deal with burnout—and take steps to avoid it in the future. Here are a few things to try when you see the warning signs come up:
1. Look for ways to find meaning in your work
“Can you connect with team members that inspire you? Can you make a positive contribution through your work? If things are difficult, the best thing is to try to shift more of your time into the kinds of work that you find meaningful,” says Leiter.
2. Take breaks and work on time management
“Set an alarm to get up and stretch every hour, whether you’re at the office or at home. You need mental breaks in order to offset or forestall mental fatigue,” says Pernell.
3. Get enough sleep
If you’re not getting a good night’s sleep, it can seriously impact your mood and ability to function and think clearly during the day. Adults should get 7-9 hours each night—and no, catching up on the weekends doesn’t count. Getting good sleep on the regular is key.
Writing down your feelings is a great way to gain perspective and manage stress, says Pernell. Set aside 5 minutes right before bed to write down what you’re feeling, whether it’s good or bad, and document your successes, no matter how small.
5. Gamify chores and other daily tasks
“Learning how to manage daily tasks takes practice,” says Pernell. “Small tasks can seem monumental. Give them each meaning. Group them by location. Quarantine them to a specific time frame,” he suggests. Better yet, turn it into a game and give yourself a small reward yourself when you get something done. Whether that’s permission to watch an extra episode of your favorite show or treating yourself to a latte at your local coffee shop, find something motivating that can help the small tasks feel more rewarding.
6. Take time to disconnect from stressful situations
“Take a wellness day for yourself and disconnect from tech. Get outside, no matter what the weather is,” Pernell suggests. This can help change your focus and take your mind off work, even if just for a brief amount of time. Regular mental breaks and resets can make a meaningful difference.
7. Make the most of your time outside of work
“Arrange the nonwork time of your life to be fulfilling and restful,” says Leiter. That can look very different depending on what brings you joy, but the key is to make time for whatever does. Even if you are working long hours and the time is scarce. Make a list of things you enjoy doing with loved ones and set aside a small pocket of time each day to do something that makes you feel happy, accomplished, and positive.
By Amy Marturana Winderl
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed by the interview subjects are not necessarily those of Earnest.