Burnout Can Be Real and Requires Care

Burned-out woman

Burnout is a common experience, particularly among high-achieving people.  It can occur in tweens, teens, and adults.  Often, burnout can occur as a result of employment roles, but also other care-giving roles, such as those of parents and helpers.

What is burnout?

Burnout is defined as a state of chronic, enduring stress.  It is characterized by physical and emotional exhaustion, as well as low mood, low motivation, and lack of accomplishment.

When you have burnout, you are no longer able to function effectively personally or professionally. Symptoms of burnout happen slowly, which potentially makes it harder to recognize.  As a result, it is important to be aware of the signs of burnout, particularly if you are in a high-stress environment or if you have a high-achieving personality.  Research by Schonfeld and Bianchi  (2016) also indicated that teachers who were burned out were more likely to report prior histories of anxiety and depression. This finding suggests that, for those who have a history of these concerns, it may be especially important to take proactive steps to manage work stress and prevent burnout.

What are signs of burnout?

* Chronic fatigue and other physical symptoms.

Burned-out sleeping

Many people with burnout report a lack energy and fatigue.  As burnout progresses, you may feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, and depleted.  You may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead on any given day.  One well-known book on professional burnout, “Laying Down in the Ever-Falling Snow,” describes the feelings of fatigue well in its title.

With burnout, you may even become physically ill.   Physical symptoms may include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal pain, dizziness, fainting, and/or headaches.  Because your body is depleted, your immune system becomes weakened, making you more vulnerable to infections, colds, flu, and other immune-related medical problems.

* Insomnia and Appetite Changes

Often those with burnout symptoms have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at least one or two nights a week. If not properly treated, insomnia may turn into a persistent, nightly ordeal.  The paradox is that as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.  You may not feel hungry and could even lose weight without intending to lose it.

* Cognitive and Emotional Symptoms

Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are common, particularly if you have been ill or you are not sleeping well. If left untreated, cognitive symptoms may get to the point where you can’t get your work done, things pile up, and emotional concerns may settle in.  Many people report symptoms of tension, worry, and edginess. They may also report feeling mildly sad, hopeless, or guilty. At its worst, people with burnout may feel trapped, severely depressed, and suicidal.  Rarely, some people display angry outbursts and serious arguments, or have thoughts of harming others.

Burnout Can Be a Wake-up Call

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, you are likely on a dangerous path.  Examine your stress, as well as the buffers that are present in your life.  Unfortunately, burnout isn’t like the flu; it doesn’t automatically go away after a few weeks of rest.  You will need to make changes in your life.

Some ideas for preventing and reducing burnout


Find Ways to Enjoy Your Work.

Develop supportive professional relationships with your coworkers and supervisors.   They can be a great resource and comfort if you experience work-related problems, including burnout.  However, even the best of workplaces go through stressful situations at times.  If this happens to you, you may also want to consider whether you can learn skills in order to better adapt to the strain that you are experiencing.

Address any work problems proactively as soon as they arise instead of waiting for them to become unbearable.

Take the time to talk to your supervisor or Human Resources Department.  In order for them to help you, you will need to be honest about how you are feeling as well as for ideas to feel better.  Some suggestions to consider may include adjusting the type or amount of work you are doing, taking time off from work if you can, or asking for assistance from coworkers, family, or friends.  If you continue to find yourself regularly stressed or unhappy about work over a period of weeks or months, you may wish to re-consider whether your employment or life situation is conducive to your well-being.

Ask yourself if you need support in other areas of your life.

Many times, people can also become burned out in roles such as a parent or caregiver, particularly if they are caring for an infant, family member, or an individual with special needs.  In these cases, you will likely need the love and support from those around you.  In addition, you may need to hire assistance where possible, and be clear with your family members about how you are feeling.  It is very important to always let someone know if you are having symptoms of self-harm or thoughts of harm towards someone else.  Finally, you will need to take breaks and have a care plan in place for you to recover and heal over a period of months, not days.


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