Burnout Warning Signs: How to Know When You Need a Break

Author and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Jose Toledo

What is the difference between pandemic and executive burnout

In today’s ‘hustle culture,’ it’s easy to find ourselves caught in an endless cycle of working excessive hours, chasing deadlines, and trying to meet impossible standards – while also trying to juggle home and family life, financial concerns, and a whole host of other responsibilities. 

This frenetic pace of life, combined with not paying enough attention to our health and well-being (for example, through regular exercise, a healthy diet, and quality sleep), means stress levels are continually building – week after week. 

If these prolonged, high levels of workplace stress are left unchecked and unmanaged over an extended period, and without adequate support, they will eventually result in burnout. 

Burnout can severely affect our physical, emotional, and mental health, so it’s crucial to recognize the warning signs of chronic stress and know when it’s time to take a break. 

When it comes to burnout, prevention is definitely better than cure. 

What exactly is burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in the International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (ICD-11) as ‘an occupational phenomenon.’ 

It is not currently classified as a specific illness or medical condition but is instead described as a factor influencing health status and contact with health services.

Burnout is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Risk factors that can contribute to burnout

Warning signs of pandemic burnout

Researchers have identified certain risk factors that can contribute to a person reaching burnout, which are worth consideration. Some of these include individual factors (such as physical health, commitment to the job, and personality type), but many structural and organizational factors can also play a prime role in burnout.

The most common burnout triggers include:

  • Excessive and/or unrealistic workloads that don’t match your capacity
  • Working without clearly defined boundaries
  • Concerns around job security
  • Perceived lack of job control/lack of autonomy
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Monotonous, uninspiring work/career stagnation
  • Lack of resources and support to meet work expectations
  • Lack of flexible work options
  • Insufficient time off for personal days, vacations, etc.
  • Dysfunctional workplace dynamics
  • Insufficient recognition and reward/feeling unappreciated
  • Conflicting values between employee(s) and organization(s)
  • Feeling isolated/disconnected from the team/lack of social support systems
  • Work-life imbalance.

Being aware of these potential triggers is essential for you as an individual, but it’s also the responsibility of businesses to protect their employees and create a positive, healthy workplace. 

Common signs and symptoms of chronic stress and burnout

How stress can take a toll on your body in the long term

As already mentioned, burnout is typically the result of chronic workplace stress that drains a person’s energetic resources over time until they have nothing left to give – they feel completely exhausted, switched off, and ineffective. 

Our bodies and minds are simply not equipped to cope with the stress response being activated 24/7. So something’s got to give!

With chronic stress and burnout reaching all-time highs across professions, we must learn to recognize the warning signs and know when it’s time to take a break. 

Common signs and symptoms of chronic stress include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Changes in social behavior, for example, withdrawing from friends and family
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating/unfocused thinking
  • Emotional and physical exhaustion – constantly feeling tired and run down
  • Increased alcohol or drug use
  • Irritability
  • Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Low energy levels
  • Overreacting to minor incidents
  • Unexplained aches and pains, including frequent headaches.

Those who haven’t paid attention to the signs of chronic stress, and learned to use effective stress-management techniques, will eventually reach the burnout stage. 

They will feel an overwhelming desire to escape everything, including work, family, and friends – permanently exhausted, drained, depressed, and detached. 

Common signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Cynical or critical at work
  • Difficulty coping with everyday things 
  • Difficulty relaxing or taking time out, even when help is available
  • Feeling helpless, trapped, and/or defeated
  • Irritable or impatient with co-workers, clients, or customers
  • Life revolves around work but gives little pleasure or satisfaction anymore
  • Loss of interest in things previously enjoyed
  • Neglect of self-care/personal needs
  • Poor immune function – frequently unwell with headaches, digestive issues, colds, flu, and other bugs going around
  • Sleep issues, including insomnia
  • Reduced energy and lack of enthusiasm
  • Self-doubt and low self-esteem
  • Heavy reliance on food, drugs, or alcohol to feel better or numb feelings.

Chronic stress and burnout are also linked to other physical and psychological conditions, including diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes; addiction to alcohol and/or drugs; behavioral addictions such as the internet, gambling, or food; and mood disorders, depression, and anxiety disorders.

The signs and symptoms of burnout can often be mistakenly identified as symptoms of other conditions. It can be helpful to explore other possible causes with a mental health professional rather than assume you have burnout immediately.

Why we shouldn’t ignore the signs of burnout

Make some time for yourself - Tikvah Lake Recovery

As prevalent as burnout is, it’s still often misunderstood and stigmatized, meaning sufferers prefer to keep it under wraps. But burnout should not be ignored. 

Ignored or unaddressed job burnout can significantly affect your mental health and overall well-being. Therefore, it is vital to recognize the signs and take action before it causes any further harm.

While ‘normal’ work-related stress can be eased by taking a weekend break, enjoying time with friends or family, or making sure you have regular relaxing holidays, by the time a person reaches burnout, these strategies will not be enough to aid recovery.

Burnout isn’t something that will go away on its own, and there are no quick fixes – it will only get worse until you address the underlying issues causing it. 

Taking action to manage burnout

While it’s important that organizations recognize their role in the issue of burnout and implement measures to address it, there are plenty of things you can put into place to take steps toward recovery and prevention on your own.

In your personal life

  • Take an extended break, if possible.
  • Make sure you’re getting regular exercise.
  • Improve your sleep
  • Eat a healthy balanced diet (at least 80% of the time!).
  • Learn stress management techniques like mindfulness, yoga, and meditation.
  • Talk about how you’re feeling with a family member or friend (if this isn’t possible, start writing a journal).
  • Sign up for a new class or hobby to help take your mind off work.
  • Set aside ‘timeouts’ each week to enjoy activities with friends and family.
  • Reduce or eliminate your intake of harmful substances, such as alcohol.

At work

happy lady sitting on the work desk
  • Set clear boundaries around work hours (keep your evenings and weekends free and make sure you take all your annual leave).
  • Learn to say no and to delegate whenever you can.
  • Set realistic work limits – and stick to them.
  • Improve your time management skills.
  • Determine your main stressors – change them if you can or reduce exposure to the ones that are out of your control.
  • Seek support from your manager, supervisor, mentor, or co-workers – and take advantage of any employee assistance programs. 
  • Seek professional help, either through a therapist or a residential treatment center.

It’s crucial to prioritize your mental and physical health and to find a healthy work-life balance that works for you over the long term. Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all cure for burnout, but given the time and proper resources, you can recover and prevent it from reoccurring.

How Tikvah Lake Recovery can help

No one’s work life is completely stress-free, but it typically follows a natural ebb and flow, which is manageable. However, feeling continuously overwhelmed by your workload without periods of relief – and in some cases getting worse – will lead to burnout.

For those where stress has remained too high for too long, a proper break is needed to fully recover and rejuvenate. If you’re struggling with work-related stress or burnout and want to discuss your options, contact us today to learn more about our services. 

We are here and ready to help you get back to your very best.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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