Know the Warning Signs of Burnout (And the Why)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and Ascentim is proud to join this national conversation. Mental and emotional health is essential to our overall well-being, yet they are far too often neglected. While society has come a long way in identifying and addressing these challenges, a stigma remains, making it hard sometimes to seek help.  

That’s why this month’s blogs are shining a spotlight on mental health with helpful tips on how to keep your head clear and your heart full. We’re kicking it off with something I see a lot of in my coaching practice: burnout

What exactly is burnout? If you’re not sure, you’re not alone. New research shows that more than 75% of professionals report feelings of burnout, yet few people actually know what it is. 

What Is Burnout? 

Essentially, burnout is a combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and a sense of low personal accomplishment that leads to decreased effectiveness at work. Burnout can arise out of workplace stress and presents with both mental and physical symptoms.  

To be clear, we’re talking about more than a missed deadline or a poorly stocked supply closet. Burnout is the result of systemic stress that is continuous and unabating. When stress is long-lasting and begins to affect how you live your life, then it might just be burnout and you’ll want to take some steps to address it. 

Because burnout shares many symptoms with other physical and mental conditions, it can be tricky to catch and easy to misdiagnose. By understanding the more common symptoms and root causes, you’ll be better prepared to recognize when it starts to creep up on you. 

“Burnout is nature’s way of telling you, you’ve been going through the motions, your soul has departed.” ─  Sam Keen
Burnout Symptoms 

Physical: One of the most common physical symptoms of burnout is being just plain tired! Feeling exhausted throughout the day, having trouble getting out of bed, and general lethargy can be signs that something is wrong and should be investigated. Burnout can leave you fatigued even when there’s no strenuous activity involved. It can feel as though you have nothing in the tank from the moment you wake up. 

The lack of energy often co-exists with another common symptom: difficulty sleeping. People facing burnout may find themselves unable to get quality sleep in spite of exhaustion. It may seem like a contradiction, but that just demonstrates the complicated and confusing effect burnout can have on the human body. 

Mental: Anxiety and depression are frequent companions of burnout, and they are often co-morbid. Other mental signs of burnout include irritability, anger, and boredom. These are all part of the cloud of symptoms that are brought on by depression and anxiety.    

Other things to watch out for are:

    • A sense of failure or helplessness
    • The notion of being trapped or defeated
    • Feeling detached from the world
    • A lack of motivation
    • Decreased sense of satisfaction and accomplishment  

Burnout is difficult to diagnose precisely because its symptoms can manifest in a wide range of psychological diagnostic categories, depression in particular. To properly assess if it’s burnout or something else, we need to also understand the root causes of burnout. 

Burnout Causes 

Although burnout shows up in physical and mental ways, its causes are primarily psychological. It’s not just job stress that leads to burnout. Many people experience regular and continual stress on the job, but as long as their needs in the workplace are being met, they don’t experience burnout.  

Could you name a worthwhile career that is completely free of stress? Probably not, because It’s nearly impossible! Responding to and overcoming stress can be one of the most satisfying parts of a fulfilling career. The problems begin when that stress occurs in a work environment that fails to meet the needs of its workers.  

The need for meaning: It is incredibly important to find meaning in the work that you do every day. For some people, it’s the ability to support their family. For others, it might be reaching a personal goal, helping someone improve their life, or solving a problem. Meaning gives your body the energy it needs to get the job done. Taking a job for the wrong reasons, not feeling entirely sure why you’re there, or realizing the company is not a good fit for your values can all lead to burnout. 

Take a moment to consider what your current efforts are accomplishing. How does your organization make the world a better place? What value are you creating other than shareholder value? If you’re experiencing some of the symptoms above and can’t answer these questions, it might be burnout. It might also be time to find another career – or another company.  

“To have meaningful work is a tremendous happiness.” ─ Rita Mae Brown

The need for recognition: Any compensation expert will tell you that providing recognition to people is about much more than money. Yes, we need to be paid a fair and equitable wage. But beyond that, humans have a deep underlying need to feel appreciated. We need to know that the organization sees and values our individual contributions. When a manager fails to properly acknowledge your efforts and achievement, or if they make you feel unseen and unheard, feelings of isolation and futility can begin to fester; morale drops along with motivation. Even if the work itself is meaningful, that lack of recognition will eventually lead to burnout.  

To Be Continued… 

If you’ve put 2 and 2 together – cause and symptom – and burnout is getting you down, be sure to check back here next week. I’m going to give you a crash course on how not to let burnout get the best of you, with tips and strategies for overcoming a workplace that’s getting you down.

Lisa L. Baker - Certified Personal, Career, Success and Life Coach

Lisa L. Baker is a professional life coach, career strategist, and keynote speaker. Lisa is the founder of Ascentim – a Maryland-based coaching practice that utilizes a unique G.R.O.W. process to help clients gain clarity, realize new possibilities, overcome obstacles, and win at life. Lisa shows high-performing professionals how to Level Up and Live the Life of Their Dreams.

Ready to G.R.O.W.?