How Not to Burn Out From Overwork—Signs and Symptoms, What to Do About It, and How to Avoid It

A woman with smeared mascara covers her mouth with a piece of paper with a smile drawn on it. (Unsplash)

It’s more than a case of the Mondays. 

You wake up exhausted and spend the day staring at a screen without ticking off any to-dos. You can’t catch a break when you log off for the day because of your never-ending backlog of life tasks. If a short fuse and a long sigh are your new normal, you might be on the fast track to burnout.

In this article, we’ll demystify overwork—why it happens, its fallout, and strategies to climb out of the overwork pit. We'll also map out how you can dodge Burnoutsville altogether. 

What does it mean to be overworked?

Overworking means you’re attempting to do more work than you can handle and clocking extra hours. If you often grumble about never having downtime, it may be time to take action. 

According to an American Psychological Association (APA) report, 77% of workers felt the pinch of work-related stress in the last month, and only 35% of workers said their employers encouraged taking a breather. 

More concerning, just 40% reported that their employers respect time off, and only 29% said their managers encourage mental healthcare. 

Too much work without support is a slippery slope because it can lead to burnout. That’s right, burnout: A joy-stealing monster that leaves you unmotivated, unenthused about your job, and unable to believe in your ability to finish all those tasks on your to-do list. 

Burnout is a psychological response to chronic workplace stress that shows up as exhaustion, cynicism, detachment, and a feeling of lack of accomplishment. Simplified: I don’t know, I don’t care, don’t mess with me—when can I take a nap?

Dr. Anya Scolaro, licensed clinical psychologist and Clinical Director of Aspire Psychotherapy, says, “It is a profound experience, akin to hollowing, where individuals trade their capacity to care for themselves and others merely to endure. Initially, detachment from work or responsibilities may serve as a protective mechanism.”

How are overwork, stress, and burnout different?

Overwork, stress, and burnout aren’t the same. Think of overwork as a verb—the series of actions that lead to mental and physical symptoms of stress and burnout.

Burnout might be part of the stress family, but it has unique quirks.

Here’s how Dr. Scolaro breaks it down: 

  • Stress says, “I have a lot on my plate, and I need to manage these overwhelming tasks.” 
  • Chronic stress amps it up a notch, saying, “I can't keep up with these stressors—it’s too much to handle, and I feel overwhelmed.” 
  • Burnout is the sound of gasping for air, saying, “No matter what I do, I can’t keep up, and it doesn’t seem to matter because nothing I do will change the situation.”

While stress can be a catalyst for action and change, one of the signs of burnout is the empty feeling you get when you’re detached and depleted from trying to keep up.

What causes burnout?

Burnout isn’t caused by just one thing but by a bunch of factors that push us into the deep end. Here are some common elements of overwork that feed the burnout monster:

  • Excessive workload: Working too many hours with too many responsibilities is overwhelming.
  • Lack of control: You have no say over your work schedules, assignments, or workload.
  • Unrealistic expectations: Unrealistic deadlines or herculean goals can heighten stress levels.
  • Poor work-life balance: Work consumes so much that there’s little time left for family or hobbies.
  • Toxic workplaces: Bullying, micromanagement, and a lack of social support feed burnout.

It’s not just about the actions of employers, managers, and team members—it’s about the emotional impact of those actions. Anything that makes overworked employees feel unvalued, belittled, or unsafe is toxic. 

Another one of burnout’s favorite snacks is gender disparity. According to McKinsey’s annual Women in the Workplace report, women are burning out at higher rates than men, and the gap is widening. The 2022 report reveals that the burnout divide between women and men almost doubled from the previous year. With productivity in corporate America at an all-time high, it’s concerning that 42% of women report feeling burned out. 

How do you know if you are overworking?

You may have trouble disconnecting, always feel a step behind, have a consistent lack of energy, or notice your health is heading south. Those symptoms are your cues to pay attention so you don’t venture into the danger zone of overwork. Here are common signs of overwork to watch out for:

  • Fatigue
  • Bad mood
  • Distraction
  • Lack of sleep
  • Weight fluctuation
  • Weak immune system
  • Poor work-life balance

If you notice these warning signs and symptoms of overwork, it’s time to take action. Otherwise, heftier consequences could be on the horizon.

A man falls asleep holding an empty coffee cup, surrounded by tech production equipment, with his head resting on the desk. (Unsplash)

5 consequences of overworking

Overworking is a bit like continuously piling more books onto an already full shelf—it’s a tricky balancing act that can topple over if not carefully managed.

The fallout of overwork can hit both your professional and personal life, with three in four employees sometimes experiencing burnout. It’s such a pervasive issue that, in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated burnout an “occupational phenomenon” that impacts your health. Let’s break down the potential outcomes:

1. Burnout

Burnout doesn’t only affect productivity. It wreaks havoc on job satisfaction and personal well-being, too. 

Dr. Scolaro explains, “Individuals experiencing burnout may grapple with insomnia, diminished self-esteem, a loss of motivation and interest in activities, heightened irritability, and increased sensitivity to their environment.”

2. Physical health issues

Overwork doesn't just drain you—it can knock your health sideways. Last year, about 60% of people worked even when they were under the weather. It seems many were pushing through their illnesses to hang onto their jobs. But let’s face it—working with that level of pressure isn't sustainable. 

Skimping on rest and piling on stress can spawn headaches, muscle tension, and insomnia and even turn you into a magnet for every bug going around. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic stress puts you at risk for other health problems like high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke.

3. Mental health issues

Those long hours and unending tasks don’t just create burnout—they can also short-circuit your mood. 

It’s no wonder. After all, 60% of American employees have reported anxiety in the wake of intense work stress over the past year. Overwork doesn’t just exhaust us physically; it takes a toll on our mental well-being, too.

4. Reduced productivity

Overwork creates a tricky paradox—the more you work, the less you actually get done. Over the long haul, inaction regarding overwork can impact your career, from lower quality of work to a hit on your professional reputation.

This impact on your work performance is because the fatigue and stress of overwork don't just sap your energy (even simple tasks seem impossible). They can throttle your brainpower, too. Cognitive function, decision-making, and creativity all take a hit when you’re running on empty, which can also cause you to make more errors.

5. Strained relationships

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), social connectedness positively influences our physical and mental health. 

But if you’re always working, you’re left without enough time or energy to create and nurture relationships. “Burnout’s effects can ripple through family relationships, career aspirations, and overall sense of fulfillment,” Dr. Scolaro says.

It’s clear that overwork isn’t just a workplace nuisance—it’s a health hazard with severe consequences. Now that we’ve explored the fallout, let’s explore the lifelines. 

What should you do if you’re overworking?

First, you need to focus on #1—you. Consider the airline instructions for parents to put on their oxygen masks before helping their kids with theirs. It’s in everyone’s best interest for the parent to focus on survival. In this case, that means making wellness a priority. 

Have you ever felt like you’re caught in the hamster wheel, perpetually going around and around? If so, what did you do to fix it? 

Dr. Scolaro advises, “For those who may not have the privilege of leaving their work or changing their circumstances, the next step is to take stock of past efforts, understanding what has and hasn’t worked in attempts to alleviate burnout.”

Is burnout new to you? If so, here are some ways to regain control of your time and energy if you’re stuck in the depths of overwork right now:

  1. Exercise: Regular exercise releases endorphins to relieve pain and create a feeling of well-being.
  2. Sleep: Get 7–9 hours of sleep each night to recharge your brain. 
  3. Be mindful: Focus on the present to positively impact physical and mental well-being. 
  4. Eat healthy: Good nutrition fuels your body and mind and enhances your resilience to stress.
  5. Set boundaries: Keep work from sneaking into your personal time. 
  6. Take regular breaks: They’re like mini-vacations for your brain.
  7. Explore a hobby: It provides an activity you enjoy and look forward to.
  8. Be social: Dr. Scolaro says, “We deserve support, compassion, and kindness.”
  9. Seek professional help if needed: This could involve talking to a counselor or therapist. 
  10. Reflect: Take stock of your goals, values, and priorities regularly.

“Focus on what brings a sense of accomplishment and pride. Recognize what’s within our control,” Dr. Scolaro says. “As burnout expert Dr. Nagoski says, ‘We cannot self-care our way through burnout.’ Identifying our needs and seeking help is the first step on the healing journey.”

How to talk to your boss about being overworked

Breaking out of burnout caused by a demanding company culture shouldn’t fall entirely on your shoulders. As Dr. Scolaro points out, burnout is often a systemic issue resulting from a work environment that places high demands on individuals while providing insufficient resources. “This situation robs them of a sense of control, preventing them from accomplishing tasks with autonomy, pride, meaning, and a belief in the significance of their work,” she says.

With that in mind, addressing your feelings of being overworked with your boss can seem intimidating, but it’s a non-negotiable for your well-being and productivity. Here’s a bit of guidance on how to steer that ship:

  • Express your concerns: Start by explaining the issue. It’s like presenting a puzzle with missing pieces—you need to show where the gaps are before you can fill them.
  • Offer potential solutions: Don’t just present a problem; bring possible solutions to the table. This proactive approach increases your chances of a positive outcome.
  • Seek support: Don’t go it alone. Reach out to colleagues and mentors when you’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed. They can provide advice, perspective, and comfort.
  • Request flexibility: Rigid work practices can worsen burnout. Ask for more flexibility in your work duties or schedule. This could mean different working hours, the option to work remotely, or a change in your workload.

Even though it might feel daunting, it’s vital that your boss understands your perspective and that you feel heard. By approaching the conversation with honesty, clarity, and a solution-oriented mindset, you’re more likely to find a path toward a healthy work-life balance.

How to avoid being overworked

If burnout is the lurking monster you’re trying to hide from, keeping a well-balanced workload is your invisibility cloak. Here’s how to stay on top of your workday so it doesn’t flow into overwork territory:

Craft a reasonable schedule

Resist the temptation to cram your workday or workweek with more tasks than you can realistically handle. To sidestep overwork, determine your work style and learn to manage your time with proven time management strategies like timeboxing or the Pomodoro technique.  

Incorporate mindful moments

Carving out time for mindfulness activities throughout your day can help keep the burnout monster at bay. Starting your morning by reflecting on the day before, scheduling mindfulness breaks, and ending your day with reflection can help you process your days and progress toward goals.

Communicate with your team

Let your team know your limits and how much work you can handle to keep work from eating into your downtime. Get comfortable with turning down tasks that cut into your personal time. After all, “No” can be a complete sentence.

Sunsama’s guided daily planner (Sunsama

5 tools you can use to get through the workday with less stress

1. Project and task management tools

These devices help you see the big picture of complex projects and manage workloads effectively. Task management tools, in particular, aid in creating a clean, organized list of tasks, prioritized and categorized based on their urgency and deadlines.

2. Time trackers

Time tracking tools give you a more objective view of where your time goes during the day. With Sunsama, you can plan your days and weeks so you begin your workday knowing your priorities. Then, you can end each day and week reflecting on your progress.

You’ll be able to ask yourself the tough questions: Are you spending more time than needed on a task because you want it to be perfect? Do you really need to check your email every half hour? And your answers will be honest because Sunsama’s time trackers make it easy to monitor your work hours and identify over-commitment patterns.

3. Communication and cooperation tools

Platforms like Microsoft Teams, Slack, and email can streamline your interactions and cut down on unnecessary back-and-forths. Some project and task management apps even feature integrations allowing tasks assigned through them to populate your calendar.

One of these tools is Sunsama. It gives you a single view of everything, so there’s no need to hop from app to app. The integrations automatically keep all of your work outside of Sunsama up to date.

4. Automation tools

Tools like Zapier, Grammarly Premium, and calendar schedulers can automate repetitive tasks, freeing up your time for more complex, high-priority work and reducing your risk of burnout. 

5. Distraction blockers

With distractions just a click away, it takes willpower made of steel or a little help from your tech friends to stay on task. Distraction blockers prevent you from opening time-wasting apps and hearing neverending notifications. Instead, they give you a gentle nudge to get back to work.

Sunsama’s Focus Bar and Focus Mode are perfect examples, helping cut distractions during work hours. Sunsama also helps you set realistic daily goals and manage your workload, so you can stay focused during your work hours without the need for overtime. 

So, remember—you're not doomed to a one-way trip to Burnoutsville. With careful planning, the right tools, and a commitment to self-care, you can keep the burnout monster at bay.

Are you ready to travel a smoother, more sustainable path? Sign up today for Sunsama’s 14-day free trial.

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