Are you worried that you might be suffering from work burnout? When seeking out signs of work burnout, it’s natural to immediately consider your energy and mood during work hours or how you feel about your profession overall. Dissatisfaction, slipping job performance, and escalated frustration at work are common indicators that your job is stressing you out beyond your capacity to deal with them.
What Is Work Burnout?
A deeper look yields symptoms of work burnout in some surprising places. Studies have shown a direct correlation between professionals’ feelings of work burnout and their level of satisfaction with their work-life balance.
Imagine yourself standing centered on a balancing scale, personal life on one side, and professional on the other. Pressure starts to build on the professional side, so you jump over there to resolve it.
Meanwhile, with nothing left to ground your personal side, those responsibilities and needs are neglected. You jump back and forth trying to get each side settled. It’s not only ineffective—it’s downright exhausting.
While this back-and-forth dynamic probably sounds familiar, it’s also an overly simplified description. In reality, the lines between work and home are not so clear-cut. The nuances encompassing these parts of our lives are multifaceted and complex.
This is true even in the best of times. With the current climate of socioeconomic stressors and the compounding factor of work-from-home chaos, it is more important than ever to address the elements of our lives that may be leading us toward—or definitively causing—work burnout. (This is especially relevant if it is not feasible to make changes to your work situation right now.)
So, what can you do to relieve work burnout without overhauling your entire life?
7 Common Signs of Work Burnout
First, we’ll take an honest look at common signs of work burnout that may signal a lopsided work-life balance. Then, we’ll cover some powerful steps toward ending this cycle. The good news is that with a deeper awareness and a few simple shifts, we can feel more centered and satisfied in work and life.
1. Fatigue Not Resolved by Extra Rest
Physical exhaustion is usually the first symptom we notice. Feeling tired all the time can lead us into a downward spiral of added stress and trigger many of the other symptoms listed below.
However, our physical, mental, and emotional energies are all interrelated. In the case of burnout, sometimes the reason extra sleep doesn’t bring relief is that the root causes of mental-emotional fatigue are not being addressed.
If you believe the issue is purely physical, seek medical guidance as this may be a sign of depression, sleep disorders, nutrient deficiencies, or other issues requiring professional treatment. Stress-induced insomnia may also be part of the problem.
It’s important to understand some sneaky obstacles here that could keep you stuck in a cycle of mental-emotional exhaustion.
The first is comparison. What might be stressful or overwhelming to one person can be a total non-issue for another, so try not to make yourself wrong for struggling where others seem not to.
The second is expectation. Major life events or catastrophes are not the sole conditions related to work burnout. Ongoing stressors—even those that seem insignificant at first glance or a combination of several types—can wear us down over time and eventually create a powerful wallop of stress-driven fatigue.
These obstacles can cause a snowball effect of exhaustion because we’re fighting our internal judgment instead of using that energy to deal with the core issue at hand.
2. Postponing Basic Self-Care Needs (Whether Intentional or Not)
One of the most easily recognizable signs of work burnout is busyness, and it doesn’t help that our culture is consistently preaching and rewarding the “hustle at any cost” lifestyle. Unfortunately, this often results in people wearing their busyness like a badge of honor.
Sometimes, this looks like proudly announcing that you’ve been too busy working to take a lunch break. Other times, you might sacrifice hours of sleep by putting off bedtime to work on a project or try to catch up on unfinished tasks.
Whether intentional or not, the “busyness is best” mindset leads to self-neglect—a major contributor to work burnout and a core component of lopsided work-life balance.
3. Moodiness and Irritability
It’s common for a stressful work environment to trigger crabbiness. Unfortunately, it’s also highly likely that your snappy reactions aren’t being limited to professional situations.
One sure signal of emotional distress that may be leading to work burnout is when we find ourselves lashing out at people and circumstances that are not directly responsible for our mood. Unexplained grumpiness may be a secondary sign that you are also struggling with signs 1 and/or 2 above.
4. Lack of Focus or Concentration
These signs of mental fatigue can be caused by physical or emotional overwhelm as well as self-neglect. This means if you’re struggling with fatigue or stagnant self-care, as mentioned above, you’re likely to find yourself suffering from this symptom as well.
Being short on focus means you require more energy to complete even the most basic of tasks. Feeling like you don’t have enough time or energy to do what needs to be done is a catalyst for overwhelm and burnout.
5. Minor Unexplained Physical Ailments
When it comes to burnout, tension is high on the list of underlying culprits. It’s common for stress to manifest as physical discomforts that can’t be attributed to any medical condition. This can be frustrating, especially when we are absolutely suffering the symptoms but unclear on the links between them and tension-induced burnout.
Some of the main physical symptoms of tension include headaches, neck and shoulder pain and tightness, and digestive issues (heartburn, stomach-ache, bowel irregularity). Frequent random aches and pains, stiff jaw, and inexplicable weight variations can also be symptoms.
People in this situation often go from doctor to doctor seeking an explanation without resolve. Unfortunately, this is at least in part because burnout is not a diagnosable medical condition. It was, however, finally added to the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) with a rigid definition as an occupational phenomenon in 2019, after decades of debate.
If you experience these signs of work burnout and stress, try addressing the root causes described here. If you give an honest effort and continue to suffer, take this information to your doctor and keep advocating for your healthcare.
6. Self-Medicating, Numbing, or Escapism
When life feels stressful, one human tendency is to escape. Instead of dealing with our issues head-on, we look for an easy diversion to avoid the discomfort.
Food, alcohol, and drugs (prescription or not) release feel-good chemicals in the brain. This effect reinforces the behavior for us so that whenever we feel stressed or unhappy in a situation, our subconscious automatically signals us to reach for that quick fix to help us feel better.
Other examples of numbing and escapism include excessive busyness, video game addiction, and other mindless activities such as bingeing TV shows or endless scrolling of social media. To a certain degree, these behaviors are typically considered normal in our society. However, if you find you’re engaging in them to avoid certain tasks, situations, or emotions, this can be a sign that something is misaligned in your life.
7. Lack of Satisfaction in Activities or Tasks You Used to Enjoy
This symptom is also commonly associated with depression. There are several components of depression and burnout that overlap, but that doesn’t mean the two are mutually exclusive. You can have both simultaneously, or you can have one without the other.
In the case of burnout, you tend to feel too exhausted, stressed out, or preoccupied with worries to be present in the activities. It’s hard to enjoy something when your mind and heart are too distracted to be fully involved.
Another aspect of this is not really knowing what activities you do enjoy. When your main focus has been work and/or taking care of others for the majority of our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of the simple things that bring you pleasure.
What Is at the Core of Your Work Burnout?
Sometimes, these symptoms of work burnout are a sign of misalignment in our work, meaning we might be best served to pivot in a new direction. However, one of the most dangerous things we can do is to try to resolve work-related causes without digging deeper into the underlying problems.
Symptoms are exactly that—external evidence of an internal issue.
Mismanaged time and energy, trying to be everything to everyone, and lack of social-emotional support are some examples of the root causes of work burnout. When we bypass these by focusing on surface-level fixes, we risk repeating these patterns of burnout no matter what our work situation.
A simpler, more effective solution is to recalibrate our work-life balance—an approach that can serve us well in any work climate. Having a solid baseline of harmony and resilience helps us avoid and/or recover from burnout.
3 Steps to Recalibrate Work-Life Balance
- Create spaces in your schedule that are dedicated to both personal and professional endeavors to ensure you are incorporating a good mix of both. Include a variety of activities and tasks you enjoy.
- Take intentional relaxation breaks periodically throughout the day. When you make it a priority, it’s easy to manage just a few minutes to stand up and stretch, rest your eyes and focus on your breath, or take a quick walk around the block. These simple activities alleviate tension, refresh energy and focus, and boost your mood.
- Focus on “musts” first. These are your foundational, bare-necessity tasks and responsibilities both at home and work. Anchor these into your schedule, followed by your lower priority tasks and projects. Unexpected extras (such as taking over the school fundraiser or fulfilling favor requests from colleagues) need only be allowed to fill in the spaces surrounding these, not take up the majority of your precious time and energy.
I know it feels counterintuitive or cliché, but we need to take care of ourselves first. When we do this, we start building momentum toward feeling good. We have more energy and feel more vibrant and alive in our work—more connected in both our professional and personal relationships.
We can’t maintain good work if our work is all we do. When you begin to notice signs of burnout, remember that when we feel better, we can do better—and then balance accordingly.
Part of the reason behind the WHO’s limited definition is the fact that some of these symptoms also fit the diagnoses of anxiety and depression. If you continue to experience any of these symptoms despite lifestyle changes and tips mentioned here, please seek the support and guidance of a qualified medical professional.
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Featured photo credit: Samuel Bourke via unsplash.com
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