What does burnout feel like, and how can you cope with it?
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally recognized burnout as an "occupational phenomenon."
Their decision came after years of hearing people talk about it, trying understand why it affected them, and attempting to identify what they could have done to cope with it.
Recently, a Gallup study of around 7,500 full time workers found that 23% were often in "burnout mode." About 44% "sometimes" entered a burnout mode.
Although the WHO do not yet recognize burnout as a medical condition, some researchers call it "an occupational disease." This is due not only to the high number of people — all across the globe — who report experiencing it, but also due to its important impact on well-being and quality of life.
According to the same researchers, some of the occupations most at risk of burnout are linked to professions that encounter high levels of stress, including healthcare, social work, police work, teaching, and customer services. Other professionals who have reported high levels of burnout include lawyers and academics.
So, what is burnout, and how is it different from other forms of occupational stress? If a person does experience burnout, how can they cope with it in the moment, and how can they learn to overcome it with time?
For this Spotlight feature, we spoke to professionals who have had burnout themselves, as well as experienced mental health and well-being coaches, to find out the whats, whys, and hows of this occupational hazard.
What is burnout?
For years, academics and mental health professionals alike have been working to put together a definition of burnout based on the most common causes and symptoms.
"In a nutshell, [burnout] is a syndrome brought on from chronic workplace stress that hasn't been successfully managed," explained Kat Hounsell.
Hounsell is the founder of everyday people, an organization (based in the United Kingdom) that offers leadership development, well-being coaching workshops, and mental health first aid training.
"[It] can include feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from one's job, or negative/cynical feelings related to one's job — including reduced belief that [the person is] capable of doing the job and producing good results," she continued.
"Burnout can be defined as the loss of meaning in one's work, coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long term, unresolved stress," agreed business neurolinguistic programming practitioner and mental health trainer Tania Diggory.
Diggory is also the founder and director of Calmer, which supports entrepreneurs and professional teams with mental health and well-being training.
However, burnout is not simply work related stress; a moderate amount of stress at work can even have positive outcomes. So what's the difference?
The difference between stress and burnout
Some studies have shown that stress can help boost a person's motivation, improving their mental performance in the short run. This was the conclusion of a study from the University of California, Berkeley, led by Elizabeth Kirby, who is now an assistant professor at Ohio State University in Columbus.
"Some amounts of stress are good to push you just to the level of optimal alertness, behavioral and cognitive performance," says Kirby.
There is nothing positive about burnout, Diggory told Medical News Today. "The difference between burnout and work related stress is the point at which it becomes a serious health issue," she explained.
"Stress is something we all go through and there are different degrees of stress [...]. However, studies have shown that ongoing, high levels of cortisol — the primary stress hormone — are not good for our well-being," Diggory said.
"When stress starts to build over a period of time and we experience symptoms of anxiety or low moods," she added, "this can lead to chronic stress and our cognitive skills can become impaired. By this, I mean that our working memory, our ability to think logically and carry out tasks effectively isn't as sharp as it usually is."
"High volumes of stress over a long period of time can lead to exhaustion and, therefore, burnout."
Why does burnout occur?
Being under constant pressure to achieve, with few opportunities to take real breaks from work, can add to a person's levels of stress. This can make them feel overwhelmed and more likely to reach the burnout stage.
Too intense a workload, paired with a toxic work environment and other sources of stress, can lead to burnout.
But aside from an overwhelming workload, other factors can also contribute to stress levels and lead to burnout.
For one person who spoke to MNT, these factors included financial stress, as well as instances of workplace bullying.
"I experienced burnout [...] in the second year of my Ph.D., when there was just a constant level of stress underlying everything that I was doing in my job," Robin told us.
"That was from the workload that I had, financial struggles that went along with it, some workplace bullying — my supervisor and my team were very unsupportive," they added.
Douglas, who used to work a public-facing job in a healthcare environment, mentioned that his relationship with his managers also increased his risk of burnout.
"I think it was a mixture of unachievable targets and often having to deliver bad news to people as part of the job [that led me to burnout]. My managers did not deal with stress well either, which often had a knock-on effect to the rest of the team," he told MNT.
Indeed, many of the people we spoke with explained that the example set by higher-ups and peers — who worked to exhaustion and did not put any time aside for mental or physical recovery — was an important contributing factor to engaging in behaviors that led to burnout and not recognizing this experience for what it was.
"I found it really hard to tell that I was experiencing burnout [when] I was, and when people told me that I was, I didn't believe them," said Sam. He entered burnout mode while juggling a full time postgraduate degree and a job in order to make ends meet.
"In a way, [I] kind of thought that I wasn't working enough. [...] You get pressure from almost all angles, and one of the things I think isn't talked about enough [in examples of academic burnout] is that natural, peer-to-peer pressure that you get."
"I'm thinking about the shared misery of working on a Saturday, past midnight, or posting photos on social media accounts [showing] that you're working on the beach although you should be on holiday. That sort of pressure, I think, really gets in your head," he added.
'A growing epidemic of should-based thinking'
Diggory told MNT that many aspects of modern society drive people to allow their work life to seep into time they should be dedicating to leisure and personal relationships.
"From my observation, modern day society is driven so much by technology that we are experiencing an ever-on culture, where you can be online, contactable, and search for information 24/7 — for the human body and its sensory system, this can be overwhelming in large volumes," she warned.
"In the context of business, while there are multiple benefits to being more globally connected than ever before, I've personally noticed a growing epidemic of should-based thinking. Because we can work anytime, it doesn't mean we need to."
"However," she added, "unhelpful thinking patterns such as 'I should be working more,' 'I should be checking my emails,' 'I should work late again, there's just too much to do...' can lead us to experience high levels of stress, overwhelm, and anxiety."
How does burnout affect people?
Burnout can affect both physical and mental health and can be isolating.
"It was like I was swimming through a dark tunnel filled with custard. It sounds kind of stupid, but basically I was wading through this dense, horrible time."
This is how Sam described what burnout felt like to him.
Burnout can affect well-being and quality of life in various ways. This can lead to poor physical and mental health, as well as a sense of isolation from other people. It can also contribute to anhedonia, which is a loss of pleasure in activities that used to be pleasurable.
Describing what the burnout zone looks like to them, Robin told us, "I was working myself into the ground for a long time and stayed up until 2 a.m., not eating properly, just focusing on research and work constantly, and giving all of my time and energy to that without spending any time on things that I used to enjoy doing."
They also added that they had become quite isolated. Sam described a similar state of isolation, as did Sarah, another person who spoke to MNT.
She exclaimed: "[Burnout] affected every part of my life! It impacted my ability to concentrate and focus on my work, I couldn't sleep, I was constantly worried about work but felt unable to actually do any, it led to an anxious procrastination where I was constantly worrying about work but unable to get anything productive accomplished."
She added that "[t]hese feelings of stress and inadequacy quickly had a negative effect on my friendships and relationships. For a period I felt unable to leave the house, making me feel increasingly socially isolated."
Tips on coping and recovery
In order to manage burnout and eventually overcome it, the first step is recognizing that you are experiencing it. As the people we spoke to have noted, this can be very difficult — especially if burnout leads you to increasingly isolate yourself from others.
Also, if colleagues and peers are facing a high amount of work related stress and fail to recognize that they are close to burnout, it can make things even more difficult.
However, one way of getting to the root of the problem is by sharing your experiences with others.
Robin told us that it was through speaking to friends that they realized they were experiencing burnout — and that their peers were experiencing it, too.
For Sarah, the understanding that she was in burnout mode also came from speaking to a friend.
"I reached out to a friend who was in a similar position, who mentioned she felt all her resources were completely depleted, she mentioned feeling burned out and I thought: 'That's it! I'm exhausted and feel I have nothing left to give to my work,'" Sarah told MNT.
What happens once you recognize that you're experiencing burnout? Where do you go from there? Kat Hounsell advised breaking the cycle of isolation. "Ask for help, you don't need to battle burnout alone," she said.
"Good workplaces will have supports in place for when team members need help, but they're not always well communicated."
"Find someone at work [who] you trust, and ask what's available, [such as] a confidential [employee assistance program] system, occupational health support, even flexible working opportunities."
'Give yourself permission to take time off'
The next step in breaking through burnout is to make more time for yourself — with intention. All the people who spoke to MNT about their burnout experience said that carving out some time to do something enjoyable on a regular basis really helped.
"Taking time off and away from work helped! It was difficult to escape these [negative] feelings after hours and at the weekend without activities such as sports and playing music, although feeling low on energy could make these hard sometimes," Douglas told us.
Robin, Sam, and Sarah all said that taking up running helped them feel better both physically and mentally, motivated them to get out of the house regularly, and helped keep their minds off work related problems.
But any activity can be helpful, as long as it's something that you can use to relax and feel better. "There's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to taking care of your mental and physical well-being," said Diggory.
"So to start with, it's essential to give yourself permission to take time off work and enable yourself to build your inner strength."
"If you imagine you'd broken your leg, you wouldn't expect to get on with life as normal without taking appropriate rest and recuperation, until you'd built up the physical strength you needed."
Not just an individual responsibility
Organizations must put into place systems that support employees' well-being.
Although everyone should try to set healthful boundaries in their work life, to learn to say "no" when workload becomes overwhelming, and to ask for help when they need it, the responsibility of preventing and overcoming burnout does not only rest with the individual.
Organizations must also put into place systems that will foster employees' well-being, so that they are able to stay healthy and productive.
"At an organizational level, one top tip is for the business to accept that burnout happens, and that a culture that fosters well-being and good mental health is a must-have. A foundation building block is to conduct regular stress risk assessments (and act on the output)," advised Hounsell.
Diggory agreed. "I believe the solution [to tackling burnout] is reliant on organizations implementing a well-being strategy to nurture a mentally healthy culture in their workplaces; a happy business starts with managers and their staff," she told MNT.
Yet she added that people can take some steps in preventing burnout, particularly by "replac[ing] the 'shoulds' with 'coulds.'"
For instance, she said that if you find yourself thinking, "I could work more," instead, try telling yourself: "I've worked a lot today, and I deserve a break. I'll preserve my energy levels for my family [and] friends, and then feel at my best for work tomorrow."
She challenged our readers to reassess their thought patterns, asking them, "What choice will you make today?"
Disclaimer: We have changed the names of all the interviewees featured in this article to protect their identities.