Everyone experiences stress from time to time, some more than others. Whether it’s due to generalized anxiety or more day-to-day worries like large amounts of work, it’s important that people who are working — employees, students, or even artists — keep track of their mental health and wellbeing to avoid burnout. As described by Ada Health, burnout is a condition in which individuals who are overworked develop symptoms of depression, as well as “physical, mental, and/or emotional exhaustion as a result of stress related to their job or workplace.” In other words, burnout is something anyone who is working would definitely want to avoid.
Burnout isn’t uncommon, either. According to a recent Gallup study, 23% of full-time employees felt burned out at work “very often or always”, and another 44% felt burned out sometimes. But whether you’re a fulltime employee or working on your own, the risks of burnout are there, and it can make even the most everyday tasks seem difficult and overwhelming. Here are five signs that you might be experiencing burnout.
I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder, and one of the most prevalent effects it has on my life is that seemingly simple tasks and situations become overwhelming and difficult for me to confront, leading to avoidance and procrastination. Something as simple as making a particularly important phone call can become such a source of anxiety that I put it off, potentially making the situation worse or creating problems that wouldn’t have existed had I simply made the call in the first place.
Everyone experiences some level of anxiety now and again, but individuals who develop burnout will often find that these feelings become more pronounced and common, and might even build to a level where they are unable to complete work which normally would have been easy or second nature. A friend of mine, a university student, has been struggling with burnout recently, and she described how assignments which before would have seemed routine have become increasingly difficult to handle, and this has led to a general feeling of anxiety whenever she goes to, works for, or even thinks about her classes.
Anxiety is frustrating to deal with in part because it can make you feel like aspects of your life are insurmountable challenges, and by the very nature of avoiding them you’ll make them so. If you’ve found yourself struggling with newly onset anxiety in areas of your life where work has been particularly overwhelming, and it’s gotten to a point of negatively affecting your life, you might be experiencing burnout.
2. LACK OF SLEEP AND GENERAL FATIGUE
If there’s anything that can ruin your mental and physical wellbeing, it’s exhaustion, and unfortunately, two of the symptoms of burnout are the inability to sleep and a general feeling of fatigue throughout your day. A rough night here and there isn’t much to worry about, but when they start to pile up and begin to affect your ability to function in your day-to-day life, this can be a serious concern for your work and your health. You will be more likely to make mistakes and slow down in your work when you’re feeling exhausted, and this can make your general burnout even worse.
On top of that, a lack of sleep can lead to physical unwellness, both in an overall sense and also due to the danger it can put you – and others – in, such as when driving a commute to work or school. Sleepy driving is no joke, and this just goes to show that burnout doesn’t just affect your work life – it can have rippling effects outside of the workplace.
3. LACK OF CREATIVITY AND PURPOSE
Whether you work in a factory or as an abstract painter, losing your sense of creativity and purpose can be an exceptionally depressing experience. My friend who is struggling with burnout is an artist and animator, and they have found their drive to create and their general feeling of purpose and intent have become increasingly difficult to access, leading to many occasions where they will simply do nothing at all. The mind is like a muscle, and when it becomes exhausted, there’s only so far that you can push it further before you’re left exhausted and unable to access these important feelings of self-worth.
It’s okay to feel a lack of drive from time to time: no one is impervious to periods of creative block and a sense of aimlessness; but it’s when these feelings stop being an occasional frustration and become a daily struggle that you could be experiencing serious burnout.
4. EMOTIONAL NUMBNESS
As we’ve talked about in these blog posts before, people often misattribute depression as simply feeling “sad” all the time, when in reality for a great deal of people, depression is more a sense of emptiness – i.e. a depression of feeling more than a specific emotion. People suffering from burnout often experience a general emotional numbness.
On the surface, this might not seem too terrible, but in many ways it is actually the most extreme and affecting symptom of burnout. It can be incredibly hard to escape such a feeling (or lack of feeling), in part because when you are in the midst of a numb emotional episode, you often lose a desire to escape from it, and in fact might even begin to consider this way of being normal.
Feelings of emotional numbness can contribute to a poor work ethic as well, as a sufferer will often find the interest in finishing their work dwindling, and their care for whether or not it gets done well increasingly less of a priority. This can become a vicious cycle, as someone who has been avoiding work due to a lack of care will often disconnect further to avoid confronting their declining output and quality. For this reason, it is very important to not only be on the lookout for burnout in yourself, but in those you work closely with as well, because people with depression may not always feel motivated to advocate for themselves.
5. A CYNICAL OUTLOOK
Let’s be real: it can be hard to be optimistic about our jobs sometimes. We’ve all been in a place where we look at what we’re doing in our employment and feel a sense that it’s pointless, or at least irritating; but some light, occasional cynicism for a laugh is a very different experience than a completely cynical outlook. A person going through burnout might begin to strongly feel that there’s no escape from these feelings of pointlessness and drudgery, that such feelings are just par for the course with work, that things “will always” feel this way.
One important thing to get out of the way: it is not okay to be treated poorly in your job, or overworked to the point where you begin to develop psychological struggles. If you get to this point, your mind might want to find some justification or meaning to it all – “it’s worth it for the results,” or “this is just how work is” – but the truth is, sometimes a particular job is simply overworking you, and if this is happening, it is certainly not your burden to bear, especially alone.
My friend has decided to stick with university, but only with lots of support from her friends and consistent efforts to take care of herself. She’s optimistic that she can make it through this struggle and get to the other side of burnout and back to her regular self.
If you are experiencing any or all of the symptoms listed above related to your work, you might be experiencing burnout. There’s no specific “cure” other than what might seem painfully obvious: getting out of the situation that is causing you to overwork is generally the best way of making the feeling go away. Sometimes that might not be possible, of course, and if so, taking time to ensure that you’re getting the self-care that you need, and that the people you are working with are aware of what you are experiencing, or just reaching out to people in your life who might be able to help, are all important ways of coping with burnout and living a better life as a result. You deserve to be happy, and your work should enrich your life, rather than disrupt it.