Everyday stress from work is common. But how much is too much? While everyone has challenging days in the office (virtual or IRL), having to manage an excessive amount of stress frequently can lead to burnout symptoms.
And that can lead to workplace burnout. In fact, over a quarter of employees in the United States said they experience burnout symptoms sometimes, often, or always, according to a 2022 survey from the McKinsey Health Institute.
If you've ever experienced burnout, you know that it can feel like you're struggling to stay afloat while constantly fighting off low energy and fatigue. Or maybe you tend to stress eat or skip meals.
Still, it can be difficult to differentiate whether you're dealing with something like depression versus burnout because of the similarity in symptoms. Here's what you need to know about burnout and how to identify it.
Meet the experts: Sara Sarkis, PsyD, is a licensed psychologist, certified executive coach, and senior director of performance psychology at Exos. Monica Vermani, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario.
What is burnout?
In short, burnout refers to a state of chronic physical and emotional exhaustion that surfaces in relation to your workplace, says Sara Sarkis, PsyD, a licensed psychologist, certified executive coach, and senior director of performance psychology at Exos. If work-related stress isn't managed regularly, it can have physical, mental, and cognitive ramifications.
You may feel like you have to work extra hard to maintain satisfactory results. At the same time, you might feel like you're applying your usual effort, but your results are still suffering.
"When activity levels surpass your energy levels, you'll have high stress," says Monica Vermani, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist, author, speaker, and member of the College of Psychologists of Ontario. "And when high stress is consistent in your life, there's an accumulated effect of symptoms that can lead to burnout because you've been putting the needs of others or your role ahead of yourself."
What are common burnout symptoms?
Although burnout symptoms are ultimately tied to work, they often cause a ripple effect that mixes into other areas of your life. Here are some of the most common symptoms of burnout, according to Sarkis and Vermani.
Insomnia: This can include sleep disturbances and difficulty falling and staying asleep, which can also lead to physical exhaustion and irritability, says Sarkis.
Aches and pains: You may experience headaches, muscle tension, or other physical discomfort, according to Sarkis. Vermani notes that migraines are also a possibility.
Detachment: You might feel detached or hold negative attitudes towards your colleagues and tasks, says Sarkis. This can be especially harmful to those who work in team dynamics.
Reduced attention: Brain fog is one of the most common ways this symptom presents itself. You can also experience a decreased attention span or weakened cognitive performance, says Sarkis.
Diminished sense of accomplishment: You'll start to feel like your efforts aren't making a difference, which can lead to a sense of helplessness or a lack of motivation. As a result, you might withdraw from your responsibilities or take medical leave to catch a break, explains Sarkis.
Isolation: You may feel inclined to withdraw from your friends and family, and they may complain about your lack of presence, says Vermani.
How To Prevent Burnout
If you're in a position of power at your company, take active measures to create a work environment that encourages others (and therefore yourself) to prioritize their well-being. For those who don't have as much authority in the workplace, Sarkis suggests practicing setting boundaries early and often and using your "nos" if need be.
Of course, this can be easier said than done, so a good first step is getting clear about what boundaries you'd like to start setting, and be prepared to be specific about your needs when speaking to your manager.
For example, if you tend to log on during weekends to keep up with your work, saying something like "I want to work less" would be less effective than saying "I want to free up my weekends so I can recover and come back on Monday ready to perform," explains Sarkis.
Before you have a discussion with your higher ups, it might be helpful to practice your preferred form of mindfulness to ease nerves or anxiety. Keep in mind that depending on what your needs are, it may require multiple conversations.
For a daily refresh, you can turn to movement or mindfulness to relieve stress between meetings or before and after work. "Whether it's yoga, [deep] or a guided meditation, the purpose is to do one thing with complete presence," says Vermani. "To pause and reflect can ease your physical symptoms."
You should also return to the basics and focus on eating regular meals and getting a full night's rest. But if you need additional support, don't be afraid to reach out to friends, family, a therapist, or even your colleagues.
How To Treat Burnout
When it comes to burnout, the best form of treatment is prevention. Once you realize that you're experiencing burnout, you may have to increase the intensity of your approach to your self-care routine, says Sarkis. But if you feel like you're still struggling to get by, you may need professional help.
The kind of help you seek out will be entirely dependent on your burnout experience. For mild symptoms, you might be better off with a coach or therapist, says Sarkis. Meanwhile, someone with more severe symptoms may need to visit their primary care physician. Still, Sarkis recommends starting with your PCP and asking for their suggestions.
"You can work with somebody to get a plan going," says Sarkis. "Oftentimes, if we realign our purpose, mission, and values, it becomes clear to us where the holes in our recipe were. Sometimes that means you might have to look for a new job."
What happens if burnout goes untreated?
If you don't take steps to treat your burnout, you may find that your symptoms begin to escalate. "[Those symptoms] are your body's way of trying to make you pause, reflect, and reset," says Vermani. Ignoring them can lead to some of the following:
Regular panic attacks
Decrease in job performance
Weight gain or loss
Long-term strains on personal relationships
There's also the possibility of burnout that leads to other mental complications. "It's not a big jump to think if burnout went untreated for a long period of time, it could mutate into other psychiatric disorders and diseases such as clinical depression, where people are at an increased risk of suicidality," adds Sarkis.
What's the difference between burnout and depression?
As previously mentioned, noticing the difference between burnout symptoms and depression can be hard, but there are still qualities of each that set them apart.
"The big distinction is that depression is considered a psychiatric disorder, and burnout is the result of workplace conditions that have psychological symptoms associated with it," says Sarkis.
Both can range from mild to severe and debilitating, but depression is not directly work-related. If you have burnout and make specific changes in your work life, you may begin to see improvements in your quality of life. On the other hand, depression can cause a lower mood to persist despite those changes.
If you're unsure of which condition you have, speak with a counselor or psychologist for more guidance.
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