Burnt Out? How to Identify Signs, Manage Symptoms and Prevent Burnout from Impacting Mental Health
The American work ethic is one of the most demanding in the world. To put this in perspective, here are some statistics about how our work culture compares to other countries:
-American employees work longer hours than employees in many other countries-- about 137 hours per year more than Japanese employees, about 260 per year more than employees in the United Kingdom, and about 500 per year more than French employees.
- Only one in five Americans report taking a lunch break in which they leave their desk.
-Americans have one of the lowest averages in the world in paid time off (PTO) granted to them by their employer, averaging about 15 days per year. Additionally, the average American employee only takes about half (47%) of his or her allotted PTO. When utilizing PTO, only about half of employees report being able to completely disconnect from work.
These increasing work demands are causing widespread burnout-- so much so that burnout was included in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” Burnout has deleterious effects on our physical and mental health. Common symptoms of burnout include headaches; muscle stiffness; irritability; sleep problems; fatigue; difficulty concentrating; low mood; and numbness, indifference, or withdrawal from work (or even outside of work). Burnout has also been linked to medical conditions like heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, musculoskeletal disorders, chronic pain (typically in the neck and back area), gastrointestinal problems, and respiratory infections. Many people struggle to even identify burnout, let alone take action on it. For many of us, it feels easier to allow ourselves time away from work when there’s an obvious reason like having a cold or the stomach flu. Physical illness forces us to take a break but, when left to make decisions for ourselves, we often choose to push ourselves to the point of exhaustion. We may do this for several reasons:
-Societal emphases on productivity, hard-work, success, and busyness
-We don’t want to let others down or burden others
-We don’t think we deserve rest and relaxation
-We’re scared to slow down (many individuals turn to workaholism or constant busyness to avoid painful emotions)
-We possess personality traits conducive to burnout (i.e., perfectionism, the need for control, pessimism, low self-esteem, or people-pleasing)
-We are unaware of the symptoms of burnout or our unique “warning signs” of burnout
-We feel we don’t have a choice (i.e. limited PTO, work deadlines approaching, productivity expectations, financial restrictions, etc.)
Burnout is best addressed preventatively, but that doesn’t mean we can’t tackle burnout reactively too. Here are some general tips for managing or preventing burnout:
Improve your assertive communication skills. This involves learning to ask for help and learning to say no. Oftentimes burnout results from people-pleasing tendencies which can cause us to agree to too much and feel unable to ask for help.
Find moments of joy and gratitude throughout the day. After each workday, see if you can identify 1-3 accomplishments of the day. We often spend a lot of time and energy thinking about how we missed the mark or have so much more to get done that it’s easy to overlook all of the things we did accomplish. Thinking in this way prevents us from giving ourselves credit and praise, which ultimately motivates us to keep working hard.
Take small breaks throughout the day and take time off from work regularly. Small breaks throughout the day improve our creativity, focus, and information retention. So take that lunch away from your desk and take a few moments to pause in-between tasks or meetings. Longer breaks of time off from work amplify these same effects. Regardless of whether or not you have a planned vacation or reason to take time off, make a commitment to yourself for taking time off. Ideally, this would involve at least one day off of work per month.
Maintain a healthy work/life balance. Find hobbies outside of work that revitalize you and provide a creative outlet. Most importantly, make sure you maintain this balance even when work is stressful or busy.
Stay organized. Outer order contributes to inner calm. Spend five minutes at the end of the day decluttering your workspace so you can return the next day feeling organized. Generally seek to eliminate visual clutter from your desktop and workspace.
Practice relaxation techniques or meditation at least once a day. There is a mutual relationship between our mind and our body. When stressed and burnt out, our body tends to hold residual tension which can lead to some of the aforementioned medical conditions that have been linked to burnout. Practicing relaxation techniques is essentially a “reset” button for your body, and relaxing the body helps to calm our mind. Some examples of relaxation activities are restorative yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery.
Find an emotional outlet. Feeling frustrated about work? Express your emotions by talking about it with someone (either a friend, family member, or, better, a therapist), journaling, or exercising. This will help prevent emotional spillover and buildup.
Be aware of the warning signs of burnout. Symptoms of burnout include headaches, muscle stiffness, irritability, sleep problems, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, low mood, numbness/indifference/withdrawal from work (or even outside of work). Each person experiences a unique reaction to burnout, so start to notice those warning signs that you tend to experience first so that you can take action early on to prevent your burnout from worsening.
Break down tasks. Break down big projects or tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. This will help you feel more organized and less overwhelmed.
Improve time management. Make a list of all of your work responsibilities. Identify the tasks that drain your energy and see if there are ways to get more support on these tasks. If not, try to schedule these tasks for first thing in the morning (we’re most productive in the morning, and completing it early prevents us from procrastinating all day, which leads to unnecessary anxiety and stress).
Reframe your thinking. Recognize some of these common thoughts that contribute to burnout and reframe them:
I am fine. →I choose to prioritize my overall health and wellbeing.
I am just tired. →I deserve rest and relaxation.
People are depending on me. → It’s okay to say no and set boundaries. My time away
will help me recharge so I can be more productive when I return.
No one else can do this. → I don’t have to do it all. Delegation isn’t failure. It’s okay to
ask for help.
I will be fine. → If I go too long without rest, that rest will come to me in the form of
injury, illness, or burnout.
This too shall pass. → I can do anything but not everything. If I listen to my feelings
now, I can prevent this from becoming a bigger problem later on.
Everyone is busy and stressed at work. → I’m not alone. Other people feel this way too.
If I don’t take breaks, I can catch up/finish on all the work I have to do. → I deserve time
to take breaks without feeling guilty. I am more effective when I take breaks for
This has to be done right away. → I don’t have to do it all. I can take one step at a time.
There is no solution. → I give myself permission to make choices.
I’m not good enough at my job. → I’m doing my best and that’s all I can ask of myself. I
believe in myself and my abilities.
I don’t have time to deal with my own issues right now. If I ignore my stress, it will go
away. → I’m learning to balance work and relaxation in my life.
Author, Expedia Guest, et al. “Expedia's 2015 Vacation Deprivation Study: Europe Leads World in Paid Vacation Time While Americans and Asians Lag.” Viewfinder Travel Blog, 11 May 2016, viewfinder.expedia.com/expedia-s-2015-vacation-deprivation-study-europe-leads-world-in-paid-vacation-time-while-americans-and-asians-lag/?AID=10581071.
Bresiger, Gregory. “Americans Work Harder than Any Other Country's Citizens: Study.” New York Post, New York Post, 4 Sept. 2017, nypost.com/2017/09/03/americans-work-harder-than-any-other-countrys-citizens-study/.
“Burn-out an ‘Occupational Phenomenon’: International Classification of Diseases.” World Health Organization, World Health Organization, 28 May 2019, www.who.int/mental_health/evidence/burn-out/en/.
Salvagioni, D., Melanda, F. N., Mesas, A. E., González, A. D., Gabani, F. L., & Andrade, S. M. (2017). Physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout: A systematic review of prospective studies. PloS one, 12(10), e0185781.