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7 Signs You’re Headed for Work Burnout

Updated: Jan. 25, 2024

This is about way more than a couple of stressful days.

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What is work burnout?

Work burnout is one of three major sources of stress among U.S. adults (along with money and family responsibilities) according to the American Psychological Association. “Burnout is a state of work-related depletion that overloads your individual and systemic resources leading to the classical combination of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization—when your thoughts and feelings seem unreal or you feel disconnected from your sense of identity—and reduced personal accomplishment,” says Grant Brenner, MD, a Manhattan-based psychiatrist. “While it’s not a clinical condition by definition, it is similar in ways to some clinical conditions and may overlap with stress-related conditions.” Burnout can happen gradually and quietly, hitting unexpectedly and suddenly after sneaking up for a long time. “We’re often in some degree of denial regarding burnout, ignoring the problem in ourselves, others and in the workplace for many reasons,” says Dr. Brenner. “We may be in denial because of attitudes we have about being strong and weak, trying to stay ‘strong’ at the expense of acknowledging basic needs, adding to the risk of burnout by preventing self-care efforts from kicking in or because we feel helpless to make the changes we know we need.” Whatever the cause, burnout can seriously prevent you from enjoying life to the fullest and forging the meaningful relationships that will matter even more in the long run than your day-to-day profession. Here are some expert-approved signs that you may be headed straight for a work burnout and how you can prevent the vicious cycle from happening in the first place.

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You’re completely exhausted

If feeling tired all the time has become the norm for you—no matter how many hours of sleep you’re clocking at night—your work life may be too demanding. “The very first sign we see in people experiencing a work burnout is an inability to relax while experiencing a constant state of exhaustion,” says John Mayer, PhD, clinical psychologist and author. “This often causes insomnia, when people are tossing and turning in bed at night because their mind won’t shut off and can even lead to physical illness due to your immune system being run down.” When you’re so run down, you’re more susceptible to sickness and this can be caused by lack of sleep, poor diet, and stress. Surprisingly one of the best things you can do for both yourself and your job is to take time to rest, reset and gain perspective so that you can come back to work with a positive attitude, mental clarity and enough physical energy and stamina.

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Despite how hard you work, you lack motivation

Do you dread heading to the office each morning and feel uninspired through the day? “If it’s hard to approach a new day at work or even get out of bed in the morning, you may be burnt out,” says Dr. Mayer. “Many people notice that they’re no longer initiating projects on their own and have no enthusiasm left for certain tasks or things you’d normally enjoy doing.” The best way to combat this is to stay organized even in the midst of constant to-dos piling up on your desk. “Regroup and find passion in what you’re doing again—be it an activity or interest that’s personal or professional,” says Dr. Mayer. “This is how you expand your mind, re-spark your energy and discover which areas you’d like to grow as a person and professional.” Here’s how having a bucket list can make your life more meaningful.

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You’re overly negative or everything frustrates you

If there seems to be a line up of obstacles—even minor ones—to nearly everything you try to do, from dodging traffic on your commute to work to spilling coffee on your shirt the moment you sit down at your desk, you might be experiencing a work burnout. “When you start approaching everything, even simple conversations, with a negative, ‘downer’ attitude, or you’re constantly shutting down others with a resounding ‘no’ or ‘that won’t work’ everything they come up with a solution, you need to catch a serious break,” says Dr. Mayer. To combat this behavior, try switching up your attitude to make it more positive—developing an inner and outer cheerleader rather than a slave-driving work attitude.

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You’re having trouble with concentration and focus

“We see this a lot in individuals who are working themselves to the bone to the point where they find it difficult to stay focused on even one particular task,” says Dr. Mayer. “This leads them to take even longer to accomplish tasks because their thoughts are in too many places at once and their mental focus starts to feel fuzzy.” And this creeps into your personal life, too—for example, you might notice that you can barely read a book without losing your place or watch an entire TV show with interruption. Do yourself a favor and give your mind the rest it needs. Just like a computer, your mind needs to shut off every now and then so it can work to its full potential when necessary.

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You’re experiencing issues with friends, family, or your significant other

Many conflicts in relationships usually spark from your inability to fulfill obligations, be on time, be reliable, etc., and these problems can often rise from work stress or overworking, says Dr. Mayer. “It’s so important to create a lifestyle that has work in balance with your personal life and to set strict boundaries and limits for yourself to experience pleasurable activities and events.” That means learning how to say no to more responsibilities or tasks so that you can be there for friends and family and the social gatherings that they’re counting on you to be at. “I counsel people to schedule pleasurable activities or leisure activities just like you would work duties to ensure they get done, which can ensure you unplug from work or other responsibilities.”

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You’re neglecting your hygiene or self-care

If you start skipping meals or no longer even feel hungry because you’re so focused at work that you almost forget to take care of your body, you’ve got a problem on your hands. “Developing positive self-care habits that help you refuel are vital to your personal health and sanity, as well as your professional efficacy,” says Paulette Kouffman Sherman, psychologist and author of The Book of Sacred Baths: 52 Bathing Rituals to Revitalize Your Spirit. First off: Know your priorities. Your basic needs have to come first because if you maintain your core areas, your will be much more resistant to burnout, and able to recover faster if it gets going. Maintain healthy routines that fit your work schedule, both when you’re not as busy and when you’re busier. Have a contingency plan in place so that if work ramps up, you’ll be able to go to that set of healthy routines easily, without getting caught unprepared. Avoid excessive use of unhealthy coping strategies, such as excessive alcohol use, overeating, and missing sleep for other activities. “I advise my clients to take 25 minutes in the morning for self-care, meditation, affirmations and visualization so that they can shift into relaxation, mental clarity and a state of well-being, which makes it easier for them to develop and manifest their goals.”

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No matter how hard you work, you never feel satisfied with your performance

If anything short of perfect feels unacceptable to you or your boss, it’s going to be a hard, long and near-impossible road to success. “This often happens to perfectionists, or the kind of people who will do nine things right and make a mistake on one, then berate themselves for two weeks about that tiny, one mistake,” says Sherman. “This is incredibly discouraging and exhausting behavior that’s not only draining, but leads to hopelessness because the person feels they can never win.” If you start noticing this behavior in yourself, cut yourself some much-needed slack and even consider starting to rage apply. Look at mistakes as part of a learning curve that will eventually lead you where you need to go and as a integral part of the professional process.

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More tips for beating work burnout

It’s so important to look at your life balance and take time out to sleep, exercise, relax, have fun and connect with others. This includes identifying the things that bring you joy and give your life meaning. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket; diversify so that your identity description is more layered than just ‘worker,’ which can take the pressure off. Just because everyone at your workplace is working till midnight doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for you. Don’t wait for your boss to suggest you not take work home or that you leave earlier. Take a step back and ask yourself what you need in life to feel balanced, happy and the most productive. Make a plan that makes sense. “Life coaches sometimes use a circle called a Life Wheel that divides your life into quadrants such as intimate relationships, health, self-development, career, finances, spirituality, family and fun,” says Sherman. “Then you can rate your life satisfaction in each category from one to 10 (10 being the highest) and see which three categories are the lowest and identify a few concrete steps towards raising your satisfaction in those lower areas so you can create more balance and have more overall satisfaction in life.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest