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What is burnout? What are the symptoms? 12 actionable tips to help you recover from burnout

by Vidya Sury February 3, 2021 7 comments
what is burnout? what are the symptoms of burnout? How to recover from burnout?

Burnout is a serious issue that you just cannot ignore. You might feel invincible. You might feel as though you have no choice. You might be trying to earn a certain amount of money or prove you’re the best or you don’t want to ask for help or you just don’t realize what is happening… phew! But at some point, unless you take a break and look at what is happening around you, you are going to suffer from burnout.

What is burnout?

The WHO classifies burnout as an occupational phenomenon and not as a medical condition. It defines burnout as:

Burn-out 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.

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

What it means is: burnout is a combination of high stress levels and exhaustion, and it can happen to stay at home moms as well as working people with or without children.

Burnout can affect your mental health as well as your physical health since you will not feel motivated to do anything or go anywhere.

And because we are conditioned to keep going like the energizer bunny, we often miss the signs of burnout. Exhaustion can strike anyone but the problem with burnout is that it hits those who are committed to their work. While exhaustion can be overcome by resting, with burnout, there is a deep sense of disenchantment with everything. Those who are not deeply committed to their work are unlikely to experience the signs of burnout.

What are the warning signs of burnout?

  • we become sick
  • we lack energy
  • we feel mentally and emotionally exhausted
  • our productivity decreases
  • we feel a disconnect from work and feel every day at work sucks
  • we avoid going to work
  • we don’t feel appreciated at work
  • we are irritable
  • we lose interest in things that once excited us
  • we feel depressed
  • we try and escape from the situation and sometimes turn to alcohol
  • we feel hopeless about life and work
  • we experience physical symptoms such as chest pain, breathlessness, sleeplessness.
  • we play the blame game

Is stress different from burnout?

While stress and burnout can look pretty similar, there are specific differences. Stress is usually short term and is a result of feeling that work is out of control. It can prolong for a few days, especially when you are handling a big project or racing towards a deadline. Once the deadline has been met, stress goes away or at least lessens. Constant stress can affect you negatively in the long-term.

Burnout builds up over a longer period, especially when you have been feeling that your work has no meaning—if what you are doing is not what you really want to do. Things get worse if your workload becomes more than what you can handle. You go through your routine listlessly rather than with joy. When this happens over time, you become cynical, exhausted and your performance is poor.

What are the causes of burnout?

There are many causes for burnout, some of which are:

  • A lack of control over your work
  • A feeling that there is never enough time to finish anything
  • A lack of alignment of your values with those of your role or organization
  • A lack of focus in life, with no clear goals or expectations
  • No support from your team or boss
  • Too much work
  • No recognition for your contribution at work
  • Boring work

What happens when you experience burnout?

Obviously, with all that is going on, the consequences are going to be severe. Productivity goes down, impacting your career as well as your team and also the organization where you work. You hardly feel creative because of your lack of interest in things. You may miss opportunities and find yourself making excuses not to do things. You take more sick days off. All this can impact your personal life, your well being and your relationships.

Can burnout go away on its own?

Sadly, no. It just gets worse until you deal with what is causing it.

Can you recover from burnout?

Recovery can be slow and takes time and also depends on various factors like which stage of burnout you are in, your mental health status, your support system and whether you have the skills to support yourself. These include self-awareness, self-compassion and emotional resilience. Let’s look at the five stages of burnout so you can assess where you are at.

The five stages of burnout

Stage 1 or Honeymoon stage

Everything is great with your life. You are energetic, full of ideas and absolutely in the flow. You have friends and family you can rely on. You are in a good mood most of the time and ready to accept responsibility.

At this stage, if you have good coping mechanisms in place, you could stay here indefinitely. But even stress can lead to burnout, so you must watch out. When you learn how to take care of yourself when things are going well, you will know what to do when they are not.

Stage 2 or Early stress

When stress enters your life, it usually comes with working late nights, feeling more irritable and not really being in the mood to chat with your colleagues on team calls.

You are likely grinding teeth; your hygiene levels are down—showering less often—and that extra glass of wine looks really attractive when you want to unwind.

Read 10 minute weightless meditation when you are stressed or worried

Stage 3 or Chronic stress

This stage is when you go from intense phases of work where stress actually helps, to long periods of stress where your day is ruled by pressure and anxiety. Not a good feeling.

You will often find yourself angry, missing deadlines, drinking too much coffee. There is increased apathy and feelings of panic. You also feel exhausted all the time and just won’t admit how bad it is.

Stage 4 or Burnout

You are like a timebomb waiting to go off and feel the physical symptoms—stomach ache, feelings of despair, a sense of emptiness that feel worse because you are now obsessed with how much your life sucks.

Everything that seemed great just don’t feel that way now and you want to get away from it all. Quite likely your relationships are suffering at this stage

Stage 5 or Habitual Burnout

The days just blend into one another and you feel trapped. You are tired all the time and overwhelmed by the physical and mental challenges you are going through.

Chances are you are experiencing depression, anxiety and chronic hopelessness and need professional medical help.

What is burnout Symptoms of burnout How to recover from burnout

How to recover from burnout?

Now that we know the five stages of burnout, it is time to do something about it. Talking to your doctor may be a good start, besides implementing some easy self-care measures.

12 tips to recover from burnout

1.    Take a break

One good way to deal with or recover from burnout is to take a break. Just stepping away from what is causing you stress for a few days – perhaps even one day, depending on the situation – can be enough. The worse you feel, the longer you are going to need away from the problem.

No matter how long you take, or what feels right for you, the important point is that you should not carry your work or home stresses with you. If you need a complete break, that’s exactly what you should take. For some, that means being at home. For others, it will mean a vacation far away. Still more will want to visit a facility such as The Banyans for professional help. Do what works best for you.

2.    Find a release

The main problem with burnout is that it is the culmination of a lot of built-up stress and worry. You are essentially like a human pressure cooker, and sooner or later that pressure can become too much, and you will explode.

This is why finding a release is a good idea. Relieve the pressure by enjoying a hobby of some sort. Not only will it help you recover from or deal with burnout, but it will also encourage you to learn new things, and to see that there is a life outside of work or away from home. This crucial acknowledgment can make a big difference and just knowing there is something you can do to make you feel better is a positive thing.

3.    Talk to someone

Talking to someone about how you feel is another way to relieve pressure. This can be family or friends, a co-worker, or a therapist. Sometimes it also helps to share how you feel in an online forum.

By venting your feelings and problems out loud, you will be able to not only have someone else understand how you feel but also put them into perspective and perhaps work out a way to overcome your challenges, whether that is getting more help at home or changing your job.

4.    Evaluate your options

You might want to talk to your boss about your situation. Perhaps you can find a solution together or at least reach a compromise. Try and list your goals for what needs to be done and what can wait.

5.    Learn to say NO

Avoid taking on more responsibilities or commitments when you are trying to recover from burnout.  This could be difficult particularly with colleagues who need your help.

Read Change your Life, Say NO

6.    Delegate

When you are overloaded, delegate. Ask your team for help. No team? Build your supporters. You really don’t have to do it all alone. So squash your ego and get help before you dive down the rabbit hole of burnout.

7.    Practice Positive Thinking

If there’s one thing that burnout can do, it is sending you into a cycle of negative thinking and this only gets worse over time. To prevent this, practice positive thinking. Use affirmations to help you visualize positive outcomes and keep you in a positive frame of mind.

Granted, that it is hard to make positive thinking a habit when you are in recovery from burnout, so start small. Practice thinking of something positive when you wake up in the morning, or when you go to bed. Recall something you accomplished during the day no matter how small. Celebrate the feeling and rediscover the joy in your work.

Practice random acts of kindness is another way to focus on positivity. You’ll find it satisfying when you are kind to others.

Read: 100 random acts of kindness

8.    Try stress management techniques

You might want to enroll in a yoga or tai chi class or practice meditation and deep breathing. Lowering your stress levels almost always guarantees a better outlook on life besides keeping burnout far away.

9.    Prioritize Sleep

Get your eight hours of sleep regularly. Sleep makes you feel rested and refreshed and ready to tackle the day. It restores your well-being and helps protect your health. And most things look much better after a good night’s rest.

10.  Get some exercise

Regular physical activity can help you to better deal with stress. It also takes your mind off work. Try to move at least for 20 minutes a day. Exercise releases endorphins that lighten your mood and puts you in a good mood.

11. Have a good cry

There’s nothing like a good cry to help relieve the physical tension of feeling upset. Crying returns our body from an aroused, “fight or flight” state to a calm, “rest and digest” state. So, go ahead and watch that tear jerker of a movie if you need incentive to bring those tears out! You will be amazed at how much better you feel!

12. Practice mindfulness

Live in the present moment. Focus on your breath flow to bring awareness to what you are sensing and feeling every moment, without interpreting or judging. At work, being mindful is about facing situations with an open mind, patiently, non-judgmentally as you look at your options. Don’t let work stress mess up your health.

Read 15 mindfulness hacks to make your life easier and happier

Whether you decide to seek medical help or talk it out with your BFF, do it sooner than later so that you can be back in that happy frame of mind again. Don’t hesitate to seek help when you experience burnout. Reaching out is not weakness – rather, it is pure strength on your part to recognize that you need support.

Wednesday Wisdom is a series with short bursts of easy-to-consume wisdom in the form of inspiring stories, verse, quotes, anecdotes, reflections, easy meditation, thought-provoking questions and humor. Oh yeah, some days are not so short.

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7 comments

Debbie D. February 4, 2021 at 5:26 am

Vidya, your description of burnout is spot-on, and I was getting flashbacks to the bad old “corporate slave” days. Getting “downsized” out of that nightmarish culture was actually a relief! I wish your excellent advice had been available then. On a less serious note, blogger burnout can also be overcome by taking a break or cutting back. Another issue I’m well-acquainted with. 😉
Debbie D. recently posted…PERFECTLY PEDANTIC! #LinguisticMusings #FunWithWords

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10 Posts I Enjoyed Reading This Week (4-Feb-2021) – Book Reviews by Satabdi February 4, 2021 at 11:09 pm

[…] What is burnout? What are the symptoms? 12 actionable tips to help you recover from burnout […]

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Pawan Ranta March 6, 2021 at 1:17 pm

Spotting signs of burnout and stress has become even more significant when most people are working from home. Stress-relieving workplace conversions have become non-existent.

Thanks for the tips.

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Sandra Pawula April 1, 2021 at 1:24 am

Great topic, Vidya. You’ve clarified my understanding of burnout. I think I suffered more from chronic stress than burnout in my life because I was always dedicated to my job and inspired by the mission, but the high demands and negative environment made it very stress. I’m sure many people will benefit from this information.

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Debbie L Hampton April 2, 2021 at 1:46 am

This is such a comprehensive article with so many good suggestions. Personally, I like mindfulness, exercise, and sleep to manage stress before it ever gets to burnout. I’ve gotten pretty good at saying “No” too – probably too good! The key is to manage and release stress and practice self-care, like you’ve listed, to never let it get to burnout!

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Elle Sommer April 2, 2021 at 8:55 pm

Like some of the previous commenters Vidya – I’ve managed to short circuit burnout by recognizing stress and overwhelm before it got out of hand. And after reading your article, I’m truly grateful that I managed to do that. Giving myself permission to step away wasn’t always the easiest thing for me to do, but once done, the benefits were immeasurable. Awareness of what was going on for me has always been key to the ability to make whatever changes were necessary.
Your article will be a boon to help others recognize when burnout is on the way.

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Zeenat Merchant Syal April 5, 2021 at 4:36 pm

You’ve really made a perfect distinction between burnout and stress Vidya. Its often confused..but this article is clear on their distinction and the how to handle burnout tips are gold! We all need these from time to time. You know #8 is my all time fav 😉
xoxo, Z~
Zeenat Merchant Syal recently posted…How to Release Your Hidden Inner Hero

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