This post may contain affiliate links (including amazon.com because we participate in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program). Full disclosure is here.
Feeling totally exhausted? Did you know that there are symptoms to watch for when it comes to burnout? Let’s define burnout, go through the symptoms of job burnout, then what you can do to recover from and deal with burnout to turn your future into a brighter, healthier one.
Burnout isn’t one of my usual topics and you might wonder what it has to do with building your blog with love. So why am I writing this and what is burnout anyway?
Well, I hear more and more people talking about how exhausted and uninspired they feel every day. With so many responsibilities and little balance and self-care, stress levels are on the rise. Whether you’re a blogger, a nurse, an office worker, or a millennial, it’s time to recognize that burnout is very real but something that can be prevented and recovered from.
The truth is that a few years ago I pushed myself way too hard. I still do sometimes, but there’s one year of my life where I can honestly say I don’t know how I got through it.
I’ve since made a conscious effort to manage my workload and prevent burnout, because I know what happens when I don’t. I learnt some valuable lessons through my own experience that I’d like to share with you today.
If you’re feeling exhausted, depressed and demotivated, especially when sitting at your office desk staring at that screen, then perhaps you’re burnt out. This is not how life is meant to be, my friend!
I’m not a medical doctor and you should consult a professional if you feel you need treatment. But I believe that there are quite a few things you can do to support your recovery from burnout and steps you can take to prevent it from getting worse or happening again. I’ll go into that a little later.
Let’s define burnout
Burnout means that you’ve moved past stress and reached the point of absolute physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.
A recent study of 7 500 full-time workers reported that 23% often or always feel burnt out and 44% feel that way sometimes. But did you know that there’s no official medical diagnosis for burnout?
Burnout is now classified as an occupational phenomenon in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11), not as a medical condition. It has been classified as something that happens related to work, not other areas of your life (we’ll look at how work is usually the greatest source of stress but how other stress in life can contribute to burnout).
I think it’s safe to say that even though most healthcare authorities struggle to agree on the burnout definition for classification, most healthcare workers will agree that if we are exposed to long periods of unmanaged stress at our job, we often show negative physical symptoms.
Why do we stress?
All living animals are designed to take some stress in their lives. That stress is what kept us alive back in the day, when we roamed the land freely as hunters and gatherers.
When a lion attacked us, we released stress hormones. These helped us to act very quickly by running, hiding, or fighting back (if it was a baby lion, perhaps?).
We faced the danger, survived as best we could, then let those hormones go and went back to enjoying life.
We may not be hunted by lions anymore, but we still release the hormones. We release them when we get stuck in traffic and we’re late for work, when we have ridiculous deadlines to meet, when we can’t pay the bills, when we have to write blog posts in between running a family…
What causes burnout?
Anything that causes stress is called a stressor. When there are too many stressors for too long that aren’t managed, our stress levels stay high and we don’t recover like we should. Then we find ourselves agitated, disconnected, fearful, worrying, short-tempered, and/or depressed.
If these high stress levels continue for an even longer time, such as working in a stressful environment five days a week for several months or years, we get burnt out: our physical, mental and emotional exhaustion is not something that a good night’s sleep or a cup of tea can fix (my gran believed a cuppa could fix anything).
In fact, we probably aren’t sleeping well at all when we’re going through this.
When is stress good for you?
Not all stress is created equal.
Some stress is actually great for getting things done. If you use stress to reach a short-term goal, take action to get to that goal, then let it go, you’re effectively managing your stress to help you like it was designed to do.
In fact, it can be quite motivating and fulfilling to have good stress, otherwise life can become quite boring!
You’ll never avoid all stress and that’s perfectly fine. You just need to actively manage your stress levels so you don’t have high levels for too long and burn out.
How good stress leads to burnout if not managed
Stress affects our health and productivity if there’s no break from it or sense of achievement to bring it to an end.
Take a look at the following graph. The ‘No stress’ and ‘Positive stress’ areas are where you want to keep yourself, so you get enough stimulation to feel fulfilled and enough time for rest and total relaxation:
What does it look like when we don’t manage stress and we move from bored to burnout?
- We have a little stress, but life is good. When we do face challenges and complete them, we feel a sense of achievement.
- But then work stressors pile on top of each other over a long period of time. Work starts getting tiring and we are drinking coffee and eating candy to give ourselves a boost. We aren’t sleeping like we used to, and the candy is starting to make our clothes a bit tighter.
- And the stress continues. Now we’re worn out, grumpy, not sleeping well at all. We’re snapping at the people we love and forget things. We walk into things all the time and cry for no real reason.
- And the stress continues. Now you’re burnt out to exhaustion and the things you used to do so easily feel impossible.
What causes burnout?
Even though burnout is classified as an ‘occupational phenomenon’, there are lifestyle factors and personality traits that can contribute to it. There are, of course, many factors in each area and it’s impossible to list them all here.
There’s usually a combination of stressors over a long period of time, mainly from work, and everyone’s stressors and path to burnout is unique. So is their path to prevention and recovery. You need to take a close look at your own life to decide what is causing you too much stress and why, perhaps starting with the three key areas of work, lifestyle and your personality.
Let’s take a look at some common stressors in these areas that are known to contribute to burnout:
Factors at work that could lead to burnout
- Lack of work-life balance
- Lack of control or not having a say in things at work
- Not being sure what’s expected of you
- Having a job that’s very boring or too chaotic
- Spending your workdays helping people who are going through difficult times, e.g. nurses and police officers
- Working with people who are negative, bullies or backstabbers
- Not being recognized or rewarded for a job well done
Lifestyle factors that could lead to burnout
- Lack of work-life balance
- Lack of support from friends and family, or not having a strong social life
- Lack of sleep
- Unhealthy lifestyle, such as little or no exercise
Personality factors that could lead to burnout
- Having unrealistic goals and pushing yourself very hard to achieve them
- Trying to do everything yourself, without help
- Taking on problems as your own, even if you cannot fix them or it’s not your job to fix them
- Having a negative outlook on life
- Trying to do everything perfectly
What are the symptoms of burnout?
How do you know if it’s good stress or if you’re heading for burnout in the workplace? You look at the symptoms.
We know that burnout is psychological, emotional and physical exhaustion, not just feeling a bit tired or fired up.
Each person handles and reacts to stress differently. Once you know how prolonged stress shows in your body and emotions, you can take steps to recover from them when they start so that stress doesn’t lead to burnout.
Let’s go over some of the common symptoms of burnout you should look for.
Psychological and emotional symptoms of burnout
- Long-lasting depression and anxiety, especially when there’s no immediate threat of danger
- Memory loss
- A lot of accidents or clumsiness
- A strong sense of doom
- Not being able to concentrate
- Feeling totally overwhelmed
- Lack of focus and motivation
- Making bad or unhealthy decisions
- A sense of failure
- Feeling alone or lost in the world
- Becoming increasingly negative and cynical about life
- Feeling trapped
- Strong dissatisfaction at work
- Dreading going to work
- Lack of self-confidence
- Being antisocial and detached
Physical symptoms of burnout
- Feeling exhausted, no matter how much sleep you get
- Waking up tired
- Losing a lot of weight or picking up a lot of weight for no apparent reason
- Blood pressure that’s too low or too high
- Getting ill often, especially with colds and flu
- Getting a lot of headaches or migraines
- Often feeling light-headed or dizzy
- Pain and aches in the muscles for no obvious reason
- Not being able to sleep or sleeping too much
- Over- or under-eating compared to normal
- Losing body hair
- Skin discoloration (hyperpigmentation)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Feeling bloated and swollen all the time without any obvious reason
Behavioral symptoms of burnout
- Not caring about your responsibilities and the consequences of ignoring them
- Isolating yourself
- Fighting with others
- Thinking about work all the time, even when you’re not in the office
- Finding excuses not to go to work
- Doing things that could get you fired
- Procrastinating and taking far too long to get things done
- Using unhealthy habits to cope, such as alcohol, drugs, unhealthy food, or cigarettes
What if you don’t deal with burnout?
You could become very ill if you don’t deal with burnout. Left for a long time and untreated, you could end up with heart disease, type 2 diabetes, an autoimmune disorder, or become obese.
Not to mention the other consequences like losing your job and any friends you might have.
Burnout versus depression
Although many symptoms may be similar between burnout and depression, researchers define burnout and depression differently. Burnout and depression also need different treatments for recovery.
If you are depressed, it’s a good option to get therapy with a trained professional and perhaps medication. Depression a clinical issue, while burnout is related to exhaustion. Studies show an overlap between burnout and depression – sometimes we have both. If you’re burnt out for a while and nothing seems to hep, it’s worth going to a professional to be evaluated for depression.
If you are diagnosed with depression, consider taking steps to recover from burnout too. There’s a great list below with natural, healthy, free things you can do to boost physical and emotional recovery from exhaustion, and perhaps prevent it altogether.
How to recover from burnout: Things to start immediately
There are so many things you can do to recover from burnout. I’ve put together a list of things I did in my own healing and added many other great ones that I found in my research:
Get lots of deep sleep
You need to get a lot of sleep when you’re burnt out. Turn off the TV and any other screens long before bedtime, at least two hours.
Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark, without any noises or distractions. Get earplugs or an eye mask if you need to.
Try taking melatonin for a few nights to help you get back into a proper sleeping pattern.
In the beginning of recovery from burnout, get as much deep sleep as possible.
Eat really good food that nourishes you
Try not to stimulate your glands anymore, which means avoiding caffeine, alcohol, energy drinks and sugary treats. In fact, you could cut out other comfort foods too, such as bread and pasta. Focus on foods high in antioxidants as you probably have a high level of free radicals in your body.
Take Omega 3 fatty acid supplements to help improve your overall mood.
Want to know what changed my life? The Primal Blueprint – you can download the free 21-day transformation plan by clicking here Honestly, I found that moving to a more natural, primal diet made a huge difference in my sleep, concentration levels, energy levels, and more. And the author, Mark Sisson, has an amazing blog called Marks Daily Apple where he writes about things like burnout and living a healthier life.
Start saying no
Cut out as many activities or stressors as possible. Learn to say no to things. Take time to decide what is draining your energy and what you really don’t enjoy doing, then cut them out as much as possible. If you need to say no, try saying ‘No but…’ and offering an alternative solution for what they need. Say someone asks you to pick up their kids after school but you wanted to go home to relax. Why not try saying ‘I can’t pick up your kids today but you could ask Susan as I know she’s going to your area this afternoon.’ Now you’ve given them another option to follow up on and you said no, when before you probably would have said yes and been doing the school run.
Set boundaries so you know what to say no to before it even comes up.
And say no again to multitasking. Don’t try to do several things at once. Focus on what you need to do right now and do just that.
Try meditation, deep breathing and yoga
Yoga, deep breathing and meditation have been proven to have wonderful healing effects on the body. Get to a class or do a free video on YouTube or on Insight Timer (my new favorite app).
Don’t push yourself to exercise hard as your body is already exhausted and it’s time to let it heal. Instead of sweaty gym sessions, go for long walks, in nature if possible. In fact, walking can be great for helping you to lose weight and has a host of other benefits, too.
Use a quick stressor to get out of your head
When we are burnt out, we often get lost in a sea of negativity and what-ifs in our own head. This is never productive and makes it very difficult to break free from the feeling of exhaustion.
Do something to get yourself out of your head and back into your body and the present moment. Try a cold shower or a quick spurt of exercise like 100 skips with a skipping rope.
How to recover from burnout: Longer-term strategies
Seriously rethink your job
Did you know that our ancestors only worked up to 20 hours per week hunting and gathering food? The rest of their time was spent with others and enjoying life.
How many hours do you spend on work each week? And I mean getting ready for work, getting to and from work, sitting at work, and thinking about work when you aren’t there?
Add up all these hours. Now take your monthly salary and divide it by the total hours you spend on ‘work’ – you might be horrified by how little you actually earn per hour.
Ironically, it’s estimated that the average American employee only gets 90 minutes of productive work done each workday, and they’re more productive than many other countries. That’s 7.5 productive hours a week!
It might be time to rethink your job. You could either look for a new job or start a side hustle that brings in extra money and you can grow into a business. You could start now and slowly grow it over time. Working for yourself will give you a lot more options than just moving to another stressful job. You will also have a lot more freedom to manage your time, have control and know what’s expected of you, and manage your stress levels, which I find quite empowering.
Explore your creative side
Creativity is a great way to fight burnout, and it doesn’t just mean drawing and painting.
Learn a new craft, plan and plant some flowers in your garden, write a book. Do anything that gets your mind off your work and where you can enjoy complete concentration and relaxation at the same time – a state of flow.
Build a strong support structure
If you tend to keep things bottled in and isolate yourself, it might be time to start opening up to others. Make a point of meeting with friends and seeing your extended family members, and when you’re there, don’t discuss work and how hard it is. Focus on them and how wonderful it is to be with them.
If you don’t have many friends at this point, join Meetup or local groups to meet new people. We are social beings and it’s crucial to have others in our lives that we enjoy spending time with and experiencing things with.
Own your happiness
There are so many rules and beliefs on how life should be and how people should live. This is your life and you need to create a life that truly makes you happy. You need to own it.
If you aren’t happy, sit down and think what will make you happy. Getting a license to work on the yachts and cruise across the ocean? Selling the big house to get a smaller one that’s less maintenance? Leaving an office job to rescue animals?
It doesn’t matter what it is, you need to build a life that really matters to you. Don’t worry about what others think or say about it – it isn’t their life to live. I believe it’s often jealousy that leads to nastiness anyway. I mean, who wouldn’t want to sail the Mediterranean or spend their Saturday afternoons napping rather than mopping a huge house? None of it matters anyway.
Start making plans and taking action to make the changes you need to take. You don’t have to jump right in, but you can get the ball rolling.
Declutter and make life simpler
Moving countries a few months ago was a real eye opener for me. It was exciting but one of the most stressful things I’ve ever done. But decluttering felt goooooood. So good that I never want as much stuff as I had before. That stuff sits around, collecting dust. And it seems to keep on growing until it takes on a life of its own.
I now try live a much simpler life and a much happier one. If you’re interested, you can try my daily throw-out challenge, where you get rid of a certain number of items every day. My ideal number is 10 items a day. I find this much easier to do than a full declutter all at once.
Ease into it and it won’t be such a shock to your system. It took a while to collect it all and it’ll probably take a while to get rid of it.
Cut back on the news
There’s so much news out there. In fact, there’s just too much. We were never meant to see and hear it all, yet we get bombarded with it in newspapers, online, on sidewalks, you name it.
It’s a full-time job knowing what’s going on and you already have one!
Minimize your news time or cut it out completely. My philosophy is that I cannot save the world, but I can make a difference in my immediate surroundings and I focus on doing just that.
Become proactive instead of reactive
I’ve been listening to Dr Phil’s Living by Design podcast episodes (they’re well worth listening to if you’re interested), and one of the things he mentions is being proactive versus reactive in life.
If you’re constantly dealing with problem after problem, putting out fires, trying to fix everything as it pops up, taking it all on yourself and getting yourself stressed out and/or burnt out, it’s time to stop reacting to things and start planning better and being more practical with problems.
Be proactive in making plans for yourself in life, ones that will lead you to that happy life we talked about earlier. Make decisions that are in line with these plans – you won’t take a job as an accountant if you want to rescue animals because those are not aligned.
Think about what challenges might come up and have a plan A and a plan B for them. Don’t take ridiculous risks but take calculated ones.
Make sure you’re proactive in your life, not just reactive to everything as they happen around you.
So those were some excellent reminders for me too, about how to live a happy, healthy life and manage stress before the burnout arrives.
Not all stress is bad for you. But, when we are under too much stress for too long, there is a chance that we will burn out. Stressors at work, in our lifestyle and our personalities may all contribute to burnout and should be managed to prevent the burnout stage.
When we are burnt out, we tend to feel lonely, have self-doubt and can become accident-prone because we struggle to concentrate. Physically, we feel exhausted, have aches all over our body, and suffer from headaches and/or many colds or flu. Our behavior could change too – we fight more with others, become very irritable, struggle to relax, and think about work a lot more than we should.
We all show symptoms of burnout differently. One might develop IBS and pick up weight, another might lose a lot of weight and struggle with insomnia.
Spend time thinking about how chronic stress shows in your body and behavior, so you can do something about it when these symptoms start showing up. If you are experiencing burnout, seek help. Get good quality sleep, start eating more nourishing foods and cut out starchy, sugary foods. Avoid high-impact exercise for a while, and perhaps make some bigger changes in your life that will be better for you in the long term.
It’s time for me to take a good break.