It’s a common scenario: You work long hours with a crushing workload, leaving little time for relaxing, much less a work-life balance. The mental and physical exhaustion drags you down, and waking up to start the daily slog begins to feel unbearable.
The diagnosis: Burnout. And you’re not alone.
In March 2023, Future Forum released the findings of a poll it had conducted the previous November and December of more than 10,000 workers across the U.S., Australia, Europe and Japan. The results showed that burnout is rising fast, with 42% of the workforce reporting it — the highest level since Future Forum began measuring burnout in May 2021.
But what exactly is burnout, and what can be done about it?
What Is Burnout?
Burnout is chronic physical and emotional exhaustion stemming from long-lasting and excessive stress, says Dr. Robert Murry, chief medical officer of NextGen Healthcare, a leading electronic health records and practice management company based in Atlanta.
“It often occurs when individuals experience a significant mismatch between the demands placed on them and their ability to cope with those demands,” he explains.
Burnout, he adds, can occur for a number of reasons, including a workload that’s too intense, hours far beyond a typical 9-to-5, a lack of autonomy or a lack of fulfillment or satisfaction from that work.
As for who may be affected by burnout, the answer is simple: Everyone.
However, those in helping professions — caregivers, first responders and health care workers — may be especially vulnerable to burnout. Rates of burnout, for instance, have skyrocketed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and burnout can impact the quality of patient care, “potentially compromising patient safety and outcomes,” Murry says.
Often, those who suffer burnout were previously passionate about their work, adds Christy Walters, a licensed professional clinical counselor at the Stress Trauma and Resilience (STAR) Program and a psychotherapist with STAR’s Trauma Recovery Center at the Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus.
“Within their caretaking role … many create patterns of self-sacrificing, which over time may turn into resentment. This buildup of resentment, anger and feeling taken advantage of may lead people to move away from their values or a profession that they once loved,” she explains.
Signs of Burnout
So, how can you spot burnout? Signs and symptoms can include:
— Mood changes.
— Muscle tension.
— Changes in appetite or weight.
— Lowered immunity and frequent illness.
— Insomnia or poor sleep.
— Poor eating habits.
— Emotional outbursts.
— Physical pain or weakness.
— Feelings of dread, helplessness or detachment.
— Increased feelings of cynicism.
— Reduced productivity.
— A decreased sense of accomplishment.
Complicating matters is that burnout is common but rarely acknowledged. As a result, people tend to turn a blind eye to symptoms, which only exacerbates burnout and makes it worse in the long run, says Dr. Neal H. Patel, a family medicine specialist with Providence St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California.
“Burnout is therefore not only an individual problem but can easily become a societal problem,” he points out.
Physical Impact of Burnout
It’s important to address burnout when it occurs, Patel says, because untreated burnout “can be severely debilitating and can even lead to more serious effects, such as suicide.”
Burnout, Walters adds, can also contribute to the development of other chronic medical conditions, such as:
And burnout isn’t just a potential issue for you; it can have a ripple effect, touching everyone — and everything — in your life.
“Burnout is a significant problem for everyone because it affects an individual’s overall well-being and has broader consequences for their personal and professional life,” Murry explains. “It can lead to decreased job performance, strained relationships and contribute to the development of mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety.”
Recovering from Burnout
While burnout can be a serious issue, recovery is possible, Patel says.
“Just like anything — such as substance abuse, bad habits, losing weight — it takes time, patience, self-awareness and practice,” he explains.
The first step involves acknowledging that you’re burned out and identifying the cause. Then, you can begin reprogramming the way you approach that cause by using mindful practices, such as exercise, improved nutrition, improved sleep and other forms of self-care, Patel says.
Taking time off can also help you get back in balance, as can reconnecting with loved ones to help you gain perspective and step back from a chronic stressor.
If your burnout is work-related, you may need to change your work environment or transition to a new career altogether to achieve complete recovery, Murry adds.
In all cases, Walters recommends showing yourself some compassion.
“Combining an act of kindness with empathy is compassion,” she explains. “Both self-compassion and engaging compassionately toward others are key components in recovering from burnout and realigning with our values in a sustainable manner.”
The Bottom Line
As you’re working through recovery, keep in mind that burnout isn’t a personal failing or weakness, Murry says. Rather, it’s a response to chronic stress that can affect anyone, regardless of their occupation or level of success.
“Taking proactive steps to prevent burnout is crucial, including maintaining a healthy work-life balance, setting realistic goals and expectations and practicing stress-management techniques, such as mindfulness or meditation,” he says, adding, “Seeking help and support isn’t a sign of weakness but a step toward regaining control and restoring your overall well-being.”
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Update 08/08/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.