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


Burnout and stress are everywhere. A lot of us have personally experienced the feelings of disengagement, unmanageable stress, and general feelings of disinterest to some degree. According to the American Institute of Stress, as many as 120,000 people die as a direct result of work-related stress.

It’s because the demands of everyday life that we’re collectively met with the need to learn a new skill: How to prevent and manage burnout in our personal lives.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion caused by prolonged or excessive stress because of overwork. It can lead to feelings of isolation, irritability, and cynicism.

It helps to think about burnout as an imbalance: The demands placed on us and the resources — physical energy, time, attention, and even emotional energy —  we have to meet them do not match. You’re probably familiar with the feeling that creeps in that makes you feel like you’re falling behind or that your work is never good enough. That’s when you’re more likely to experience burnout.

The dangers of burnout are clear. You become disengaged at work, which can often bleed into your personal life and — most importantly — your health is highly at risk.

The types of burnout

The feelings of burnout can be so sneaky that we often tend to miss them as we get through busy weeks and packed schedules. That’s why it’s critical to get familiar with the different types of burnout.

1. Physical exhaustion

This is the most common symptom of burnout. Working long hours, handling a heavy workload, and not getting enough rest often leads to physical exhaustion. Fatigue, headaches, and insomnia can often follow.

2. Emotional exhaustion

You know that feeling of cynicism, pessimism, or even detachment from work? When we feel emotionally exhausted, we may find it difficult to care about our work or the people we work with. As a result, it’s easier to be short-tempered with a lower threshold for patience.

3. Mental exhaustion

Mental exhaustion can manifest as difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering things. We may also feel like our work is never good enough no matter how hard we try. It’s common to feel inadequate, frustrated, and experience general feelings of defeat.

Experienced any or all of these at the same time? This is when it’s critical to get in tune with the specific signs of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion so you can take a step back and regroup.

After all, you’re the machine that makes your world go ‘round. It’s critical that you don’t ignore the signs if you want to maintain a sustainable work-life balance.

The signs of burnout to look out for

What are the signs of burnout? They’re broadly categorized into three main types: physical, mental, and emotional.

Physical signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling constantly tired and run down
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Experiencing aches and pains
  • Mental signs include struggling to concentrate
  • Constant feelings of overwhelm
  • Constantly having negative or cynical thoughts
  • Feeling exhausted or fatigued most of the time

Emotional signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling irritable or short-tempered
  • Feeling hopeless or despondent
  • Losing interest in things that used to give you pleasure
  • A more constant than normal lack of motivation

Mental signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling disconnected or disengaged from your work or other activities
  • Feeling like your work or home life is out of control
  • Using alcohol or drugs to cope
  • Feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope
  • Feeling like you're not able to accomplish anything

The causes of burnout according to the latest research

It’s easy to see how working long hours, a lack of support, unclear expectations, and feeling overwhelmed with your daily workload can lead to burnout. But are there less commonly known causes to burnout that we aren’t talking about?

Researchers call burnout an “occupationally-specific dysphoria” that happens as a result of exhaustion. A study by the American Psychological Association found that employees who work more than 50 hours a week are more likely to experience burnout. According to the APA, a few contributing factors to burnout include lack of involvement and compensation.

Yet another study cites that employees who feel like they have no control over their work are more likely to experience burnout. A study by Gartner found that the main causes of burnout chalked up to:

  • Unreasonable workloads
  • Low autonomy
  • Lack of social support

The data strongly highlights the direct causes of burnout. But it’s worth asking how we end up allowing those causes to manifest in the first place. If you zoom out, a lot of burnout boils down to poor boundaries and poor self-management skills.

How you can prevent burnout

There isn’t any one way to prevent burnout. However, one of the best ways to prevent it is to learn to identify the early warning signs and take action to address them. The hard part is that — more often than we’d like — preventing burnout before it becomes a true problem requires significant lifestyle changes.

There are several things you can do to prevent burnout. These include:

Learn to manage your energy more than your time: Learning to manage your energy rather than your time is a way to approach productivity so that you’re able to get the most important things done at the most optimal time. That is, the time of the day you have the most energy. Mapping your daily energy levels with your tasks may be a way to manage your workload by prioritizing quality over quantity.

Change your approach to productivity: Sometimes, a fundamental approach to how we’re productive in our day to day life is in order. It’s too often that we give all of our time and energy to work tasks. In reality, being productive looks like stewarding your time across all the most important components of your life — this includes your personal time with friends and family and even carving out your own down time.

Identify your stressors: Make a list of the things that you do throughout the day. Chances are, you more or less have a routine around daily work and management tasks. Within that list, pinpoint areas of high stress. What schedules are stressing you out? What tasks are the most stress-driven? This can help you identify the things you need to change and encourage you to take action to make those changes as permanent as possible.

Change your environment: If possible, try to remove yourself from the source of your stress. This might mean changing jobs, schools, or living arrangements. This may not be realistic in the short-term (or at all) for some. The next best thing is to meet yourself where you’re at.

Set realistic boundaries: Learn to say "no" to things that you don't have time for or that are not an immediate priority. This takes practice, but it gets easier in time the more you repeat the act of setting your own boundaries. Self preservation requires setting strong and realistic boundaries.

Take care of yourself: Make sure to take time for yourself every day. This might include exercise, relaxation, and getting enough sleep. It’s often the case that prioritizing your needs feels like a misuse of time when you have so much on your to-do list. But taking care of yourself is a requirement if you want to keep burnout at bay.

Reach out for support: Support is a must-have not a nice-to-have. A lot of the causes of burnout include the lack of support, so it’s important to not isolate yourself. It’s crucial to lean on support if and when it’s available — often even if you don’t think you need it. Consider cultivating a support system, even if this looks like joining online communities where you share ideas with others similar to you or you take up your friend’s offer to help with that errand.

Is there a treatment for burnout? What are the risk factors

You’re probably familiar with the usual treatments for burnout. These can include:

  • Psychotherapy
  • Medication
  • A job change
  • Permanent lifestyle changes

If you think you might be experiencing burnout that goes well-beyond your ability to manage it with lifestyle changes — especially if you’re struggling with anxiety, depression, or any other mental health issue — make sure to seek professional help.

Talk to your doctor or a mental health professional if possible. Counseling or therapy can be an incredibly effective way to manage these issues and prevent them from leading to burnout. They can help you assess your symptoms and develop a treatment plan that’s tailored to you.

There is no one-size-fits-all treatment for burnout. Still, there are some general things you can do to start managing your burnout. Addressing any psychological or physical health issues that may be contributing to burnout is key. Now, while not everyone has access to the same resources, we can still do our best to work with what’s on the table.

It’s important to remember that burnout is not always avoidable. Sometimes, even if you do everything right, you may still find yourself struggling with issues of burnout and disengagement.

If this happens, remember to go easy on yourself – take some time to recover and focus on taking care of yourself both physically and emotionally. With time and effort, the goal is to get back to a healthier place with newfound lifestyle changes that help you manage work and life better.

Using planning tools like Sunsama to help prevent burnout

Let’s get practical for a minute. Burnout is an ongoing issue that takes time to remedy. So what can you do in the meantime to ensure you’re working with a healthier schedule and managing tasks better?

It’s always a sound idea to centralize your workload — whether you’re experiencing burnout or not. This is where a solution like Sunsama fits the bill. Its flexible daily planning tools give you an overview of what’s on your plate for the week, day, and month. But rather than being an overly optimized planning tool focused on long-term planning (though you can do that too) it’s designed to help you take things one day at a time to focus on your daily tasks.

Its array of features were crafted to help you be productive by managing your workload instead of adding more tasks to your day, which helps you free up some time for yourself. One of its best tools to help you set boundaries is its automated work hours reminder. Once it's set up, you’re prompted to start winding down for the day with a short writing prompt to reflect on what you got done.

Avoiding burnout is a process rather than a destination

The experience of burnout differs vastly across individuals as well as lifestyles. Because of that, there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that what works for one person may not work for another. It’s important to experiment and find what works best for you as you learn the skills necessary to manage your workload, set boundaries, and create an approach to productivity that works for you.

The important thing is that you start somewhere. If you’re at a loss for where to start, try Sunsama.

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