Burnout: How to Avoid It, How to Know When You’re Burned Out, and What to Do About It

The term “burnout” was first used in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to characterize the effects of severe stress and high ideals in helping professions (such as healthcare).

Christina Maslach, PhD, a leading researcher on the topic and professor (emerita) of psychology at the University of California in Berkeley, defined burnout in the 1980s as work-related stress that applies specifically to individuals who do “people work” — such as teachers, nurses, or social workers.

But it wasn’t until 2019 that it became officially recognized as an “occupational phenomenon” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

It’s not a health condition, according to the WHO. The term describes a set of symptoms that result from chronic workplace stress that is unmanaged or mismanaged.

Per the WHO definition, the term burnout should only be used in the context of work or an occupational setting.

Burnout involves feeling exhausted, feeling pessimistic (or numb toward or alienated from work), and becoming listless or underperforming at work.

Still, many doctors, psychologists, and other experts take a broader view and say burnout can set in outside of work, too. “Burnout, because it’s a psychological state of mind, it doesn’t care if the stressors are at work or at home,” says Anthony Wheeler, PhD, professor of management and dean of the school of business administration at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, who researches employee stress, burnout, engagement, and leadership.

For instance, it may result from caregiving responsibilities, dealing with a disease or chronic illness, or relationship fatigue, says Holly Schiff, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. “If you feel overwhelmed, drained, and unable to meet constant demands, you are burnt out,” she says.

Broadly, burnout is a state of physical and emotional exhaustion created by prolonged stress, says Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindwell Modern Psychology and Therapy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “It’s accompanied by a sense of helplessness over one’s conditions,” she says.

What Causes Burnout?

Again, many definitions of burnout link it directly to work and can be caused by:

  • Feeling overworked
  • Feeling underchallenged
  • Time pressure
  • Conflicts with colleagues
At its core, burnout comes about when someone commits themselves to various things but isn’t tending to their own needs.

It’s about overextending yourself, Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry says. It’s taking on too many responsibilities, spreading yourself too thin, and not seeking or accepting support.

Factors that can increase risk of burnout include working long hours, having a heavy workload, struggling with work-life balance, working in a helping profession (such as healthcare), and feeling like you have little or no control over your work.

What’s the Difference Between Being Stressed Out and Burned Out?

Feeling stressed out, overwhelmed, or overworked can certainly lead to burnout, but stress and burnout are not the same thing.

You feel stressed when everything is too much — that what’s being asked of you is too demanding on your physical and mental state.

But with stress, you still want to take care of all of your commitments. “People who are stressed are able to feel better if they feel they can get everything under control,” Dr. Schiff says.

Burnout, on the other hand, leaves you feeling empty, exhausted, and lacking motivation, she explains.

“Excessive stress is like drowning in responsibilities, whereas burnout is being dried up,” Schiff says. “Burnout is an extended period of stress that feels as though it cannot be improved.”

Signs You’re Experiencing Burnout

Sometimes burnout is obvious, and sometimes its symptoms are less clear. There are several evidenced-based tools that can help individuals make an initial burnout assessment.

But while these tools can help gauge burnout in groups of people (such as for research), Aasmundsen-Fry cautions that if you have concerns about burnout, you should consult a therapist or other healthcare professional who can assess your symptoms and make recommendations that are personalized to you.

The most common signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling cynical or critical at work
  • Having trouble getting started at work or feeling like you have to drag yourself to the office
  • Acting impatient or irritable with coworkers, customers, or clients
  • Feeling tired
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Not feeling satisfied by achievements
  • Feeling disillusioned about your job
  • Using food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or to numb yourself
  • Changing sleep habits
  • Experiencing headaches, stomach problems, or other unexplained physical issues

Burnout can also leave people feeling sad, depressed, apathetic, easily frustrated, isolated and disconnected from others, tired, overwhelmed, like a failure, and excessively worried about something bad happening, explains Carol Bernstein, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, whose research has focused on burnout and medical trainee well-being.

Those symptoms overlap with those of depression, anxiety disorders, and chronic fatigue syndrome, so it can be difficult in some cases to recognize burnout.

One way to tell if you’re dealing with burnout or something else is to see if the feelings are always present, or if they go away when you find yourself away from certain stressors (like a job or caregiving responsibilities) that may be contributing to that burnout.

If, for example, feelings of fatigue, depression, and apathy disappear once you get away from the work setting, that’s indicative of burnout and not depression, Dr. Bernstein says. “Depressive symptoms don’t go away if you get out of the circumstance,” she says.

And remember that sometimes burnout is less obvious and can manifest as with less common symptoms, such as weight gain, poor sleep, or getting sick more often (due to a weakened immune system), employee stress and burnout researcher Dr. Wheeler explains.

There are other long-term physical and mental health issues that may arise with burnout (especially if it is ignored).

Learn More About Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

How Can Burnout Affect My Health?

Burnout that’s not addressed can compromise your work and relationships with family and friends around you. It can also manifest as serious mental and physical health issues.

Research suggests that the mental and emotional toll of burnout can have physiological effects on the body, including compromised immune health, Wheeler explains. “Burnout has been linked to increased rates of heart attack and increases in pneumonia.”

A systematic review published in 2017 found job burnout to be a significant predictor of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high cholesterol, muscle pain, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, severe injuries, and a shorter life span.

Burnout can also lead to serious mental health issues, including depression, Bernstein says. A systematic review and meta-analysis from 2019 found a link between burnout and depression, as well as a link between burnout and anxiety.

The review considered research that had been done in groups of employees as well as professional athletes.

Burnout (perhaps unsurprisingly) has been shown to negatively affect job performance, too. A 2021 study involving 102 employees (including lawyers, statisticians, engineers, physicists, financial analysts, and administrative employees) found that burnout lowered a person’s working memory and led to cognitive failures, which lowered job performance.

What Can I Do to Prevent Burnout?

“Burnout can be prevented and more easily overcome in its early stages,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “When you start to feel a sense of dread or feel drained and notice changes in how you engage with others, step back to assess what your needs are. In the beginning, small changes make a significant difference.”

Some tips to help prevent burnout (due to work or other causes) include:

Set Boundaries

“One of the best things to mitigate burnout is to have strict boundaries between work and home,” Wheeler says. “Routines help you set those boundaries.” He suggests not checking email after a certain time each night and turning notifications off on your phone so you’re not lured back in.

Boundaries apply to non-work-related stressors, too. “Sit down and create some time and space to take stock of how you are feeling,” Aasmundsen-Fry says. “What and who is it in your life that drains or overwhelms you? Now recognize that these are the areas in which you have to set boundaries.”

For example, if a certain friend has you dreading hearing the phone ring, don’t pick up if you’re not in the mood. “It is okay to tell someone that you cannot support them to protect your own mental health,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.

Make Friends With Your Coworkers

Having relationships with coworkers can keep you from entering burnout territory.

“Social connection and a sense of culture and support in the workplace is one of the most significant protective factors against burnout,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.

This is more challenging if you’re working remotely, but it’s still important. If you learn of a connection or shared interest with a coworker, foster that relationship by suggesting a one-on-one video call, phone call, or in-person chat if you can, Aasmundsen-Fry says. Another tip: “Try to get involved with your office in making social plans or advocating for both virtual and offline social events,” she says.

Stick to a Healthy Sleep Schedule

If you’re working from home, you may be able to get away with sleeping in a little later than usual. But maintaining a clear pattern for sleeping and waking will help you maintain boundaries between your work and home life, Wheeler says. “Don’t do your work in your bed,” he says. “Don’t stare at computer screens before bed. Don’t read email before bed. Make sure your sleeping area is just a place you can sleep.”

Make Time for Hobbies and Relaxation


76 Top Self-Care Tips for Taking Care of You

“We all have things in our lives that we love doing: exercising, reading, listening to music, and hanging out with friends, among others. Whatever those things you love doing are, schedule those in,” Wheeler says. The point is to let your mind get away from work, he says.

Aasmundsen-Fry suggests choosing hobbies that you enjoy doing, not just ones you do because you value the outcome. For example, knit because you love knitting, not because of the hat you get from doing it. Or run because you love jogging, rather than doing it only because you want to hit a certain personal record. “When we base our activities and interests solely on outcome, it becomes another source of pressure,” she says.

What Can I Do About Burnout If I’m Experiencing It — and When Should I Seek Professional Help?

To deal with it, it’s important to first recognize the signs of burnout, find the source, and identify any immediate changes you can make, Schiff says.

If work is the reason for your burnout, it would help to figure out why that’s the case. Are you no longer passionate about the work? Are you having trouble setting boundaries? Do you feel unappreciated by your boss or coworkers? For some, the most effective solution may be to quit your job and find a job you’re more passionate about instead. For others, therapy may help empower you to create a more positive work experience for yourself.

If finding a different job is not an option or your burnout is not work related, employ a few of these tips:

  • Open up about how you’re feeling. “Make sure to talk to people you trust and lean on your social support system,” Schiff says. Talking with others about the problems you’re facing can relieve stress.

    “Other people provide perspective and might see ways out of the situations causing your burnout that you have not,” Aasmundsen-Fry says.

  • Join a support group. Research involving healthcare workers found peer support groups were a useful and inexpensive tool to alleviate work-related stress and burnout.

    Try 7 Cups, an online community that connects you with listeners and allows you to seek advice on a variety of stressors, including work, relationships, and finances.

  • Add burnout experts to your Instagram feed. @EmilyBruth and @CatalystforSelfCare are two popular accounts that dole out inspirational sayings and tips on setting boundaries.
  • Treat yourself with kindness. Schiff says it’s important to practice self-compassion by checking in with yourself during the day, paying attention to your needs, remembering what makes you happy, and taking the steps to meet those needs.

Finally, seek professional help from a healthcare provider or a mental health professional if you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout that are interfering with your daily life and ability to function, such as if you’re constantly worried or have difficulty concentrating, Schiff says.

Bernstein says talking to someone who’s trained to listen and identify potential underlying mental health issues (if there are any) can help you determine your best course of action.

Learn More About Coping With Burnout

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