The signs of burnout: how you can identify them and start feeling better

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If you’re like me you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about burnout over the last year. An article published by Buzzfeed titled “How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation” sparked a wave of online discussion about a generation of young people wrestling with unhealthy relationships towards work. Talk of burnout was everywhere from Twitter threads to peer-reviewed journals and as time went on a common theme emerged: nobody was entirely sure what the signs of burnout were.

What Are The Signs of Burnout?

Despite affecting a startling number of people of all ages, burnout is not well defined and notoriously difficult to identify. Very little clinical research has been dedicated to burnout and the condition was only recently recognized by the WHO, set to be included in the 11th version of the International Classification of Diseases. The research that does exist largely focuses on the “giving professions” — doctors, teachers, lawyers, and social workers – however, that focus was slowly but surely beginning to change.

As highlighted in the Buzzfeed article previously mentioned, millennials in all professions are experiencing signs of burnout at eye popping rates (with some studies showing up to 70% of respondents reporting symptoms). To most millennials these figures aren’t particularly surprising . We were the generation that was constantly told that if you “choose a job that you love you’ll never work a day in your life”. As a result millennials are highly likely to pick jobs that are meaningful to them and view their work as an extension of themselves. That lack of distance between the personal self and the work environment creates the perfect conditions for emotional exhaustion and burnout.

Burnout is hard to define because it is ultimately a subjective condition — it doesn’t show up on a blood panel or through an MRI. Complicating things even further, the symptoms of burnout have significant overlap with other conditions, particularly clinical depression. Often times burnout is described as a depressive episode triggered by prolonged external stressors, not through a major traumatic event or abnormalities in brain chemistry. The similarities with depression were the main reason burnout wasn’t previously listed in the last version of the ICD.

So how can you tell if you’re actually burned out?

The Flourish Model of Burnout

At Flourish we have spent countless hours conducting behavioral research to better understand the nature and signs of burnout. We’ve spoken to hundreds of professionals who were struggling with burnout in their own lives and used what we learned to develop a working model of the condition. The diagnostic component of the model consists of a number of statements — if you think you might be burned out ask yourself if any of these resonate with you:

  • You no longer feel motivated and energized by your work in the same way you once did – and are uncertain if you ever will
  • You dread going into work, even hitting snooze 6,7,8 times in the morning
  • When you get to work, you find yourself avoiding the things that overwhelm you – and the smallest things often feel much bigger than they actually are, sometimes even insurmountable
  • You’ve lost your confidence at work – you don’t trust yourself to make decisions anymore, not even small ones
  • You’ve tried different things to get unstuck (maybe a vacation, job change, exercise), it provides some temporary relief, but you end up back in the same place after a month or two
  • You feel depleted or emotionally drained throughout the week, drinking more and more coffee to get by. On the weekends you lay around feeling tired, looking for activities to “re-charge” like binging on Netflix
  • The boundaries between your work and the rest of your life have blurred, perhaps even dissolved altogether, and you struggle to know where your work ends and your life begins
  • Social interactions feel like a chore and it’s taking a toll on important relationships in your life – you find yourself being short or even exploding in ways that surprise you
  • The things that previously brought you joy – an important relationship or a hobby – feel dull
  • You’re drinking alcohol more and you often “treat yourself” to comfort food to feel better, but it doesn’t last – you just feel worse

If you found yourself identifying with the statements in the model there’s a good chance you’re dealing with burnout. It’s important to note that it can be hard to recognize the symptoms of burnout on your own. Because burnout is a condition that builds slowly over time most people don’t realize what they are experiencing until things start to get out of hand. It can be helpful to talk about these questions with a close friend, family member, or partner to get their perspective on how you’ve been showing up in your day to day life. You may be surprised to hear what others have noticed in your life that you have been missing.

Since we’ve introduced this model into our working practice we’ve been able to identify burnout in many of our clients and gain a better understanding of the underlying factors causing their condition. Identifying burnout is only the first step in this process, but that alone can be empowering. From there we are able to devise uniquely tailored strategies for each of our clients to help them regain control of their lives, create lasting change in their behavior, and fundamentally reshape their relationships with work.

If you want to learn more about the methods that we have developed at Flourish to combat burnout you should sign up for our email newsletter below and check out our other posts where further explore what burnout is and what it means to have it and what you can do to alleviate burnout. If you want learn more about the program that we have developed to help professionals end their burnout, click here.

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