The Complete Guide to Identifying and Preventing Burnout
Burnout is the state of acute mental and physical exhaustion that can affect the relationship you have with your family, friends, and career. Constant exposure to intense or high-pressure situations, working long hours without adequate rest or sleep, or repeatedly hearing bad news can all lead to burnout.
According to a recent Gallup poll, a whopping eight out of 10 Americans report feeling acute stress on a daily basis. The occurrence of pressure and anxiety is an increasingly alarming trend across the country and may be a leading factor in the rise of stress-related health conditions.
Although the experience of burnout is disturbingly common, it does not have to control your life. The following guide to understanding, identifying, and preventing burnout can help you take the steps to eliminate fatigue and live the life you deserve.
What is Burnout?
The term “burnout” refers to a severe stress condition that results in complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. German-American scientist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the word “burnout” to describe a flat-lined state of personal and professional fatigue. Much more than mere “tiredness,” burnout makes it difficult to impossible to complete basic, day-to-day functions.
People suffering from burnout may feel completely depleted as well as apathetic toward activities. For example, a person with burnout may have difficulties getting out of bed in the morning and completing standard personal hygiene. The person may also express a negative outlook toward life and have a consistent feeling of hopelessness that does not just “go away” on its own.
Who Experiences Burnout?
Anyone of any age, profession, or walk of life can experience burnout. Some of the individuals most at-risk to developing burnout include the following:
- First-responders, emergency room doctors, nurses, and other health professions
- Firefighters and law enforcement
- Mothers, fathers, and other primary caregivers of children
- Trial lawyers
- Schoolteachers and social workers
- Individuals struggling to get out of debt
- College and professional students
- Individuals caring for chronically ill family members
- Americans exposed to upsetting news about politics or social affairs (also known as the “24-hour” news cycle burnout
Left untreated, burnout can lead to stress-related conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, or cardiovascular disease.
What are the Signs of Burnout?
Do you feel you may have burnout but are unsure of the signs? The most telltale symptoms of burnout include the following:
- Exhaustion – People with burnout feel physically and emotionally drained. They still feel empty and depleted after a night’s sleep, OR they may feel so tired that they cannot get to sleep at all (insomnia).
- Isolation – Those suffering from burnout often feel overwhelmed and “suffocated.” As a result, they tend to isolate themselves from social groups like family, friends, or clubs.
- Unhealthy Escape Fantasies – People with burnout tend to fantasy about “getting away” from their problems. While there is nothing wrong with planning a well-deserved vacation, constantly daydreaming about “going away” with no concrete plans can make you lose time and energy. Even worse, some people seek escapism by self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or overeating to fill a void or numb the pain. Another form of unhealthy escapism is living vicariously through social media. Comparing oneself to false or exaggerated images on sites like Instagram can increase feelings of inadequacy and lead to what psychiatrists call “social media depression.”
- Irritability – Burnout can cause a person to feel tense and off-kilter. As a result, the person feels more irritable toward stressors or demands from others.
- Frequent Illnesses – Burnout strains your body’s stress response and eventually lowers your immune system. People with burnout are much more susceptible to viruses (such as the cold or flu) as well as mental illnesses (such as depression or acute anxiety). If you have a cold that seems to last for weeks at a time, consider other aspects of your life that may have induced burnout. In addition, burnout is an extremely common cause of the “ache” illnesses, including headaches, neck aches, and stomachaches.
- No Appetite – While some people eat as a way to cope with emotions, it is important to note that others may lose interest in food altogether. Since a complete lack of appetite can deprive your body of vital nutrients, it is important to correct this issue as soon as possible. Burnout can also cause related digestive issues such as constipation.
- Unexplained Lethargy – Burnout is the top cause of inexplicable sluggishness, weakness, and fatigue. Since burnout triggers your stress response, the body can eventually go into “shock” to conserve your remaining adrenaline or prevent complete shutdown. The “sluggishness” is often the body’s last-ditch effort to reserve as much energy as possible.
The 12 Stages of Burnout
Burnout does not happen overnight. To explain the gradual nature of the burnout process, Herbert Freudenberger and colleague Gail North comprise 12 steps or phases of burnout syndrome. These 12 stages are as follows:
- Excessive Ambition – People who end up with burnout often start with good intentions for completing a job or task. Whether it is “biting off more than one can chew,” not knowing how to say “no,” or trying to complete a job too quickly, an overachieving nature can quickly lead to burnout.
- Pushing Oneself to Work Harder – Ambition then leads the person to push much further and ignore internal limits.
- Neglecting Personal Needs – The person gradually begins to sacrifice (and justify) personal needs like sleep, exercise, and proper nutrition.
- Causation Misplacement – Instead of acknowledging the overwork itself, the person blames demanding boss, job, family, or colleagues for the increasingly constant feeling of exhaustion.
- No Time for Non-Work Activities – The person uses work to justify withdrawing from family and friends. Social activities like parties and dates start to feel like burdensome obligations instead of joys.
- Denial – Instead of recognizing the growing changes, the person denies the issue out of fear of incompetence or laziness.
- Withdrawal – The idea of confiding in loved ones or even a therapist begins to feel like a foreign concept.
- Behavioral Changes – At this stage, the person is considerably more irritable, becoming aggressive or snapping at other with little provocation.
- Depersonalization – People in this stage begin to feel an odd detachment from the ability to control their own lives. Some people refer to this stage as “going through the motions.”
- Inner Emptiness – This stage causes a person to feel hollow or “empty” inside. The person may also begin to feel generalized anxiety. Some people try to cope with the strange emptiness with uncharacteristic behaviors like gambling, overeating (to fill the inner void), or substance abuse.
- Depression – The main characteristic of this stage is a feeling a listlessness and hopelessness.
- Mental or Physical Collapse – This is the stage of breakdown and inability to cope, so mental-health intervention may be necessary.
How to Prevent or Correct Burnout
While stress may come with the territory of your career or current personal challenges, burnout can be preventable. Scientists and agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) recommend the following strategies for preventing burnout:
- Exercise – Taking the time to exercise can naturally boost energy levels. Exercising releases hormones known as endorphins that boost stamina and stabilize mood. For example, a recent Wayne State University study found that just 25 minutes of yoga each morning can boost energy levels, brain function, and mood. Endorphins can also lead to deeper and higher-quality sleep in the evening.
- Balanced Diet – Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant foods also act as natural antidepressants. You can also add an omega-3 supplement to give your body an internal boost.
- Consistent Sleep – Sleeping is necessary for the body’s internal repair and recovery. Try to go to sleep at the same time each evening to allow the body to naturally reset itself.
- Stay Hydrated – Dehydration lowers energy levels and reduces sleep quality by drying out nasal passages. Moreover, dehydrated tissues can make you less alert the following day. In contrast, a recent study found that greater water intake can increase calmness and positive emotions.
- Cut Back on the Caffeine – Although caffeine can give you an initial energy boost, the withdrawal can cause a crash. Balance the morning coffee with other vitamin-rich drinks and then avoid caffeine intake for the rest of the day.
- Cut Back on Alcohol – Most people are aware that alcohol is a depressant. But it can also lead to low energy and poor sleep if you are already stressed and dehydration. Limit your alcohol intake and designate as many alcohol-free days as possible.
- Address Any Allergies – Many people are surprised to learn that repeated allergic reactions can lead to burnout. Allergies can cause inflammation of the body’s airways, sinuses, and digestive system. Congestion from allergies can also cause poor sleep and brain fog that reduces effectiveness of work activities. Address any allergies early during the season and do not be ashamed to get medical intervention when needed.
- Reduce Sugar Intake – Too much refined sugar can cause the infamous blood sugar “spike-and-drop” that makes you feel drained. This is the last thing you need if you are at-risk for burnout. A simple way to reduce sugar is to avoid having sugary items (e.g. sweetened drink or pastry) until at least lunchtime. As much as possible, opt for natural sugar found in fresh fruit instead.
- Seek Therapy – The field of therapy has advanced leaps and bounds in the last five years alone. For example, a popular form of intervention specifically for those experiencing burnout is known as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of therapy allows you to express issues freely without judgment (instead of holding them inside until you feel depleted).
The Bottom Line
Constant exposure to high-stress conditions can easily lead to burnout. The state of burnout is dangerous because it is detrimental to the body and a contributing factor to a host of serious medical conditions. By prioritizing self-care and intervention as needed, you can lessen the impact of stress and live life as nature intended.