Burnout remains a widespread problem that can cause great harm to a person’s work and home life. The consequences of trying to cope with chronic, overwhelmingly-high levels of stress can be devastating. The sad truth is that despite its devastating impact many people don’t realise they are burning out. One of the main reasons why this takes place is because the symptoms all consist of things that every one of us experiences, at some time or another. As a result, telling the difference between ordinary fatigue or illness and the chronic depletion that heralds a serious problem is tricky.
So here are ten warning signs that could indicate that you, or someone close to you, might be experiencing burnout.
This is the most common sign of burnout, and it is often the first to appear as well. Work is meant to be hard; that’s why it’s called ‘work’ and not ‘play. And it will be tiring under most circumstances. But if you find yourself feeling tired most of the time, or even all of the time, it could be indicative of burnout.
It’s a type of fatigue that seems ever present and never really goes away. It strikes even when you haven’t been exerting yourself unreasonably, and you can think of times in the past when you were able to work far more effectively for far longer periods of time. This exhaustion can be experienced as physical, mental, emotional, or any combination. It can be pervasive and overwhelming. It is the feeling that you just don’t have enough energy to get by, that you are completely spent.
Having No Motivation
This sign comes up when you just can’t summon any enthusiasm for your work, or for much else for that matter. You just don’t have that strong, internal motivation that you used to. Obviously, this lack of drive can combine very negatively with the exhaustion and lack of energy mentioned in point one. And the two together can make every daily task an uphill struggle.
For many people this problem becomes most obvious in the morning when they find that it takes a large amount of effort to get going, and that they have to drag themselves to work. If you keep hitting ‘snooze’ because you don’t want to get out of bed, even though you know you’re just going to have to rush more later, you may have a problem. Although on a cold winter morning it might just be that you have a very comfy bed.
Becoming Frustrated and Cynical About Life
Many people who are burned out find that they are disillusioned with the state of their lives, or feel as if nothing they achieve has any significance. Their work seems meaningless and pointless. They wonder silently, or aloud, about whether anything they do really matters at all. This is something we can sometimes spot in our co-workers, and it might be a sign that they need our help.
As mentioned above we all feel negative emotions from time to time, it’s just a part of being alive. But it’s important to know when they might be a sign of a deeper issue. To do that we need to decide whether the emotions are normal for us or not, and whether or not they are having a negative impact on our life.
In psychology we sometimes say that something is only a problem, if it’s a problem. If you feel that you have always been a naturally cynical person then so be it. But if the attitude feels out of character to you, or your loved ones, and if the feelings you’re experiencing make you unhappy or impacting negatively on your career or home life, then that may be a problem worth looking into.
Focus, Concentration, and Memory
These three aspects are closely related, and they all involve the functioning of your mind. Burnout and chronic stress may interfere with your ability to pay attention, to maintain your concentration, or to commit important things to memory.
When we’re stressed out and worried our attention almost seems to narrow, and only focus on the negative things that are happening. We get a sort of negatively-biased tunnel vision. In some ways this is quite true, and it may be something we’ve evolved to do naturally. When animals are anxious about something it is usually because they are in imminent danger. It could be a literal life-saver for them potential threats in the area seem to be highlighted. And once a problem had been identified it was also useful to be able to focus on dealing with just that one thing, until they felt safe again.
But for us this type of narrow focus can create more problems than it solves. Humans have evolved to only face this type of stress in short bursts before returning to ‘normal’ functioning. If we are battling with chronic stress then this narrow focus can become our regular mode of operation, with all the limitations this implies.
By only ‘seeing’ the problem we are facing we can miss important information from around us like other people trying to help or forthcoming problems that are just on the horizon. By having our mental faculties consumed by only one issue it becomes harder to commit other things to memory and so our recall suffers. And the narrow focus can actually make it harder to solve complex problems or make important decisions.
You’re not as Good as You Used to be
Burnout tends to have a slow progression, a progression that can take months or even years before it fully manifests. And like we said above this slow, steady process can go unnoticed because it involves very small changes over quite a long period of time.
But one way that we can test to see if we might be burning out is to compare our current work performance with that from last year, or several years ago. If it seems to you that you are not performing at the same level as you used to, or that there has been a slow, steady decline in your performance, then you might be experiencing burnout, and the negative physical and mental consequences it brings.
But those consequences are not the only problems. There is also a related issue: the impact on your career. If your performance is gradually slipping then people are going to notice, and it is unlikely that you will get that promotion you were hoping for, or that raise you wanted. Facing the fact that you are burning out can be scary. But ignoring it is often far worse.
Problems with Others
Chronic stress often saps our emotional energy. This is the ‘emotional exhaustion’ we mentioned above. And arguably one of the worst consequences of this deficit is that it can irreparably harm our relationships with others. We can become irritable, bitter, or intolerant of other people’s mistakes. Often this leads to disagreements, poor communication, or serious arguments, and all of these can damage both our professional and personal relationships.
But this sign is not always so overt: it can also manifest in a completely different way. When we’re under pressure remaining civil while interacting with others can be a taxing experience that costs a lot of emotional energy. As a result, some people respond to burnout by limiting their interactions with others to an absolute minimum.
In the short term, this can seem to reduce our stress, but over time it erodes our relationships, drives our friends and family away, and leaves us feeling isolated and alone. Additionally, it becomes less likely that others will realise that we are burning out, and be able to help us, because we’ve become so isolated.
Stress encourages us to focus on problems and disregard our own wellbeing. And unfortunately, some of these factors work to amplify each other’s effects, and make our problems even more difficult to cope with.
This can manifest in many different ways. Some people stop exercising because they are already exhausted or feel that they don’t have the time. Some get into the habit of eating junk food instead of cooking healthy meals. When one puts these two factors together they can lead to obesity, which has the additional effect of lowering our energy levels even further and causing additional health problems. Obesity can also increase the risk of poor self-confidence, social isolation, and depression.
People who are stressed out also cut back on sleep to try and have more time to catch up on work. But once again this just lowers their energy levels and mental performance even further. Once their sleep cycle is disrupted they can find it harder to fall asleep, and chronic stress can of course have the same effect all by itself. To try and cope with this they resort to sleeping pills, which can often have unpleasant side-effects.
This ‘self-medication’ also plays out in a number of other ways. People consume excessive amounts of alcohol to try and ‘destress’ themselves rapidly. Others use marijuana for the same purpose. It’s not uncommon for people under stress to compulsively consume caffeine or nicotine in hopes that these stimulants will allow them to work longer or more effectively. But once their bodies have acclimatised the stimulating or calming effects are lost and the dangers of addiction begin to appear.
Not ‘Switching Off’
Everyone needs time to relax and recharge. Having a wild night out might be enjoyable in the short term but you cannot squeeze your relaxation into a short space of time and expect it to be enough.
Furthermore, getting physically away from work is only part of what we need to recover from the working week. It is also important to get away from work mentally, and many people find that even when they aren’t at work their work problems still consume their thoughts. Obviously, this makes it extremely difficult for them to destress. And if the thoughts are intrusive enough relaxation time can actually become another source of stress, because the person feels that they ‘should be working’ instead.
In these cases, it’s important to remember that you can only work effectively if you’ve taken the time to relax and build up your energy reserves again. Taking time off isn’t neglecting your work: in actual fact it is absolutely essential, if you want to do your job properly.
As mentioned above we all have good days and bad days. This is completely normal. But if we find that we are constantly unhappy it might indicate that we have a problem. This dissatisfaction can be aimed at our work life, our family life, our social engagements, our place within our community in general, or any other facet of our life that we feel has value.
For some people it is even worse and they suddenly realise that they are unable to take pleasure in any activity at all, even in activities that used to give them joy.
This inability to feel happy has a name: anhedonia. It literally means being unable to experience joy. It is a particularly troubling warning sign. This is firstly because living a life without joy can take a terrible toll on a person. And secondly, because anhedonia can also be a sign of major depressive disorder. If you are feeling this way I urge you to seek professional help, before it is too late.
Chronic Health Complaints
As discussed humans have evolved to deal with stress in short bursts, relatively far apart from one another. Never-ending stress takes its toll on the body as well as the mind. But as with many of the other warning signs these health complaints can be difficult to see as symptomatic of burnout, because we often experience them for other reasons. Thus, it is important to look at our health and try and decide whether our pattern of illness seems unusual.
There are several illnesses that might be indicative of burnout. For example, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) has been shown to often be closely related to stress. Allergies, heart disease, and obesity have all been similarly linked to burnout. And long-term, unbearable stress steadily weakens our immune system meaning that even normal bouts of cold and flu flare up more often than they should, and take much longer to recover from than normal.
Burnout is a tricky thing. It can be disguised as even the most innocuous symptom. But it never goes away on its own, and it can slowly eat away at our career, our relationships, and our health.
These 10 points are not just warning signs. They are also a most compelling reason for why burnout needs to be taken care of, before it destroys someone’s life.