What is burnout, how to recognize its symptoms and how to prevent it

A desperate man in front of a laptop

It’s okay to feel overwhelmed sometimes. But if you notice these signs, seek help.

First, if you’re reading this, there’s a high chance you don’t feel good. It’s understandable – you have a lot on your mind and the world seems to get crazier and crazier every year.

There are many ways psychologists measure signs of burnout and this article is in no way a substitute for a doctor’s appointment.

But please, if you agree with more than half of these statements, search for a mental health professional immediately and have a thorough assessment of your health:

  • I feel emotionally drained from my work
  • I am annoyed with my coworkers
  • I feel people blame me for their problems
  • I am less empathetic than I used to be
  • I work way too hard at this job
  • I am fatigued when I get up in the morning
  • I didn’t accomplish much at this job
  • I feel like I’m at the end of my rope
  • I don’t really care what happens to people
  • I doubt my significance in this position

Okay. If these burnout symptoms didn’t scare you, we’re glad you’re fine.

Being stressed out isn’t the same as having burnout syndrome.

It sounds like a paradox but according to global statistics, industries with the highest burnout rate do not correlate with the most stressful jobs.

While the most burned out workers come from the hospitality industry, manufacturing and health care…

Employee burnout rate statistics from 2019 worldwide

…the most stressed out people are soldiers, firefighters and pilots.

A statistic of the most stressful jobs in the US in 2019

That means the amount of stress does not mean high burnout rate – that’s fascinating! So what’s the difference between burnout and stress?

The difference between being burned out and being stressed out

We often use these terms interchangeably, but as the data shows, they don’t necessarily correlate. This study suggests, that exhausting jobs lead to stress, but ‘important’ jobs lead to burnout.

In other words “heavy is the head that wears the crown”. Another finding was that job dissatisfaction is a major predecessor of burnout irrespective of profession.

The basic difference is that being stressed is a state we find ourselves in. Stress may pass once the task is done, the project is deployed, and a new teammate settled in…

It can even be helpful – stress motivates us, pushes us to do better. On the other hand, burnout is a condition – something that needs treatment or at least serious attention.

There is nothing motivating or helpful about it.

We analysed the connection between stress and the ability to focus on task at hand – check out this article to get more perspective on how to deal with stressful jobs.

Three types of burnout

An infographic of three types of burnout

Overload burnout

This is the most obvious one – if you work too hard for too long with too little appreciation and too little self-care, you may be headed for overload burnout. It’s like work exhaustion but for far too long. The most important thing is to find a slower tempo, to delegate or split the workload with someone.

Under-challenge burnout

Yes, you can burn out even when you’re not stimulated enough. Your work doesn’t have to be life-threatening or emotionally demanding. It can be very dull and still lead you to burn out.

When we don’t feel job satisfaction, we can lose motivation and confidence, which leads to the same symptoms as overload burnout.

Try to find bigger challenges at work. Small wins first – those will build up motivation and, over time, confidence. Then find a bigger fish to fry. Rinse and repeat.

Neglect burnout

This type is special – the risk of neglect burnout is high with people who were thrown into a position without proper training and support.

A toxic work environment is a major red flag that can send you this way. You may be absolutely capable of fulfilling your duties, but if no one trained you, you start to feel incompetent.

That leads to a loss of motivation and passive attitude. And that’s no bueno.

Using your skills and having the right opportunities to do so is extremely important to people. This survey says that around 95% agree:

A statistic of the importance of opportunity to use skills and abilities at work

What contributes to burnout?

Outer factors like your financial situation, unclear work instructions, chaotic environment, monotonous work, absence of other motivation than money, task overload but also lack of support (from your company and/or from your friends and family) or lack of recognition are the usual suspects.

Outer factors are out of your control or you have little say in them. That is one of the reasons they can be such big stressors.

Inner factors like perfectionism or overachieving tendencies, high expectations of yourself, feeling of loss of control over your work, reluctance to delegate, anxiety and depression (these may or may not be connected to your work) are among the most prevalent.

Inner factors are your responsibility and can only be changed by you. This can conflict with your already drained energy which makes them so much harder to deal with.

Dealing with burnout – five crucial steps

Five crucial steps to deal with burnout

First of all, there are things you need to accept:

  • Your work is not tied to your worth as a person, even if you love the job.
  • It is okay to have limitations and being aware of them.
  • Burnout is not something that passes or something you can push through.

When you work mentally, it’s hard to leave work at the office. It’s always with you. It’s even more challenging today when remote work and home office are standard.

1.) It is imperative you find time for yourself.

Since it’s physically impossible to not think about something, you have to actively distract yourself. Try to rediscover your old passions.

2.) Take your mental health seriously.

Imagine you hurt yourself on the job – would you try to push through it? You wouldn’t. Treat your hurt soul the same way. Visit a professional.

3.) Try finding contentment.

Many workaholics use their busyness to hide or overcompensate for their insecurities. Once you sever this link you created, you’ll feel much better.

4.) Put things in perspective.

What will this situation look like in 5 minutes? In 5 weeks? In 5 years? When we’re in crisis mode, it’s hard to imagine things can be different. They can and they will be, we just need to see the way out.

5.) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Whether it’s at work asking for more manpower or at home asking for some alone time. Don’t overthink it. Describe the challenges you face and then ask for help.

And lastly, if you were not satisfied at your job in the first place, you won’t be happy even if you turn into a zen master. Leave.

But if there is even a smidge of satisfaction to be found, you can reignite it. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for you.