Even – and sometimes, especially – individuals with the strongest passion for what they do can fizzle out, and get "burnt out." Burnout runs deeper than daily stress, as it's typically the result of chronic stress that's permeated into different areas of an individual's life.
By understanding what burnout looks like, you’re empowering yourself to seek help if, and when, you need it.
What is burnout?
Burnout is an advanced degree of stress or fatigue. It occurs when we have experienced stress and fatigue for a longer time.
Dr. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist and pioneer in the field of burnout, points to three different components to burnout:
- Emotional exhaustion: Feeling chronic tiredness; being emotionally overextended; depleted; and/or lacking motivation.
- Detachment: Feeling less connected and less invested with work, clients, or bosses; increased irritability. This detachment can bleed into home life as well.
- Reduced personal accomplishment: Feeling less able to recognize and validate your work; lower confidence in yourself; reduced efficiency in your productivity.
People tend to notice their symptoms after many months, sometimes years, of feeling stuck and overwhelmed, because burnout creeps up on you. Especially if in a work environment where burnout is common, we ignore the signs, thinking they're just part of the job. With thoughtfulness and training, we can learn to notice symptoms suggesting early signs of burnout as early as 2 weeks in and take steps to get more clarity on what you need (e.g., more dissatisfaction with your day, unable to get replenished by activities as easily).
The severity of burnout depends on the duration, the intensity, and the impact it has on your quality of life. When untreated, burnout can develop into anxiety and depression, so it is important to address it when you notice some of the symptoms.
What causes burnout?
Many different factors impact burnout. I typically categorize them between personal and systemic factors:
Personal factors that cause burnout
Within-person characteristics, such as your:
- Approach to work
- Stress levels
- Problem-solving skills
Systemic factors that cause burnout
These factors are about the systems you negotiate, such as:
- High workload
- Workplace culture
- Accessibility of adequate resources
- Leadership style
- Institutional discrimination or ignorance
Burnout vs. stress: What's the difference?
Whereas daily stress is, typically, a short-term state with a clear end in sight (e.g., a work deadline, hosting your in-laws for the weekend), burnout is the culmination of chronically-building stress without release. Here's how this difference breaks down in everyday life:
- Stress/problem solving: When we feel stressed or fatigued, it’s easier to understand and address the stress or tiredness, which makes it easier to care for ourselves.With burnout, this is tougher because these symptoms have built up over time and are usually a combination of your environment and your responses to your environment.
- Emotional impact: With burnout, you might also struggle to use your emotions, such as sadness, tiredness, or frustration effectively in problem-solving because your emotions aren’t just about one thing – these emotions are usually an accumulation of stress.
- Recovery time: When stressed or tired, you might benefit from a nap, a dance session, or quick conversations with a friend. With burnout, it is a slower process of creating a realistic recovery and maintenance plan, which is actually a great investment in yourself.
- Impact on self and others: The emotional weight of burnout can negatively impact the way you relate to others (e.g., avoiding your boss because you’re afraid of being given more work, showing more irritability than that particular situation calls for) and with yourself (losing sight of your accomplishments, feeling disconnected from the ways you try to motivate yourself, more negative self-image).
How to treat burnout syndrome
There are many ways to address burnout syndrome on your own and with a trained professional.
Ways to recover from, and prevent burnout in the future include:
- Developing action items: Setting work boundaries, creating a stress reduction list, taking care of your body, and disconnecting from screens.
- Practicing reflective thought exercises: Being patient with yourself through recovery, rewarding the effort rather than just the outcome, reflecting on potential systematic problems.
- Professional support: While there is no mental health diagnosis for "burnout," there is a lot of overlap between burnout, depression, and anxiety. A trained therapist can help guide you through the process of reflection and recovery.
When to seek professional support for burnout
If symptoms of burnout are persisting, professional support and treatment are recommended. A trained professional can help you address burnout issues both psychologically and systematically, and offer an objective perspective.
Since I operate from a mental wellness lens, I think that it’s better to take steps as soon as you notice symptoms.
Consider seeking professional support if you:
- Feel stuck and unable to make the time or find the energy to figure out what might be going on by yourself
- Find that suggestions from loved ones or colleagues have not been helpful enough
- Know “what to do,” but are having a hard time implementing it
- Notice that symptoms of burnout are making you engage in behaviors that are pushing you away from healing and recovery (e.g., working longer hours, disconnecting from family, less professionalism in the workplace, worsened self-image)
What to look for in a therapist for burnout
When looking for a therapist for burnout, consider a professional who is well-versed in burnout treatment and can help you through both reflective and solution-oriented elements of burnout recovery.
Characteristics to look for in a therapist for burnout include:
- Deep understanding of burnout recovery literature
- Training in a combination of reflective therapy types (e.g. psychodynamic therapy) and solution-oriented therapy types (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy, solution-focused therapy)
- Ability to make you feel comfortable and feel heard – as with any therapeutic relationship, it's important to prioritize the therapeutic alliance
- Cultural competence, including understanding of systemic issues such as workplace discrimination, if these factors are in play.
Just as burnout takes time to set in, it also takes time to recover. Be patient with yourself as you move forward – setting unrealistic demands of yourself to recover only adds more pressure.
By recognizing the symptoms of burnout, you've taken an empowering first step towards recovery!