Part of every career-oriented professional and leaders' toolkit should be the ability to recognize the warning signs of burnout so you can take steps to prevent it from escalating (for yourself and others). Burnout is a very cluttered phrase; it’s often referenced after a hard day at work “I feel so burnt out today!” as readily as it’s used in the doctor’s office to describe physical and emotional symptoms that put your health at risk.
These signs can be invisible to you, masquerading as a time-limited busy period of work and life, except when the busy period ends you don’t feel yourself bouncing back (if it ends, often new busy-ness replaces old). These signs are often also invisible to others because you mask them, unsure what they mean, or unable to address questions or concerns from others about any associated changes in mood or behaviour.
If left unchecked, burnout can have a significant impact on your productivity, physical welfare, relationship health, and emotional wellbeing. Learning to recognize the warning signs of burnout empowers you to take the necessary steps to prevent it from impacting overall health (for yourself and others).
BURNOUT SIGNS & RISKS
One of the primary symptoms of burnout is feeling emotionally drained and detached from work, colleagues, and others (clients, family members, etc.); particularly if this is an unwelcome change from the way you normally feel about work/home. This feeling of disengagement is often a sign you may be emotionally exhausted (reducing contact to focus on work without getting the desired relief) or you’re not being/feeling like yourself (isolating yourself so others don’t notice or so you don’t have to address their comments/concern). When used as a coping mechanism, disengagement reduces your motivation and ability to perform at your best. Other signs of burnout that often accompany a need to disengage include chronic fatigue, insomnia, irritability, and difficulty in concentrating, making it challenging to complete tasks that are simple or routine.
Another indication of burnout is a loss of initiative and creativity for work and activities you normally enjoy, leading to a lack of enthusiasm and diminished ability to problem solve. You may also feel like you’re not making a meaningful difference or that your contributions are not valued, leading to feelings of hopelessness and helplessness in your work. When this is present it can be hard to know if the meaninglessness came first, causing emotional detachment and exhaustion, or if it was a because of those experiences, but all are signaling your welfare needs more of your attention.
Other common signs you may experience are physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and gastrointestinal problems, which can further exacerbate feelings of fatigue and your stress levels. These are all signs of burnout risk you should discuss with your doctor to support your care and wellbeing.
SUPPORTING OTHERS WITH BURNOUT
One of the biggest challenges can be supporting someone (at work or at home) who you feel may be burning out. Empathy is crucial when dealing with burnout, as it helps you understand and connect with others' experiences (and provide self-compassion for your own if you’re burning out). When you see colleagues/family members struggling with burnout, offer compassion and a listening ear, encouraging them to take breaks, seek help, and engage in self-care activities that support their emotional and physical wellbeing.
Working to create a positive environment by promoting healthy work habits, like digitally disconnecting from work, working a humane schedule, encouraging open communication, and consistently valuing the impact of other’s work also goes a long way to support someone who may be suffering. Signalling acceptance of doing what’s right for health and wellbeing, particularly at work, provides the psychological safety needed for employees and colleagues to make decisions that are right for them in preventing burnout, or doing what they need to recover from it.
Burnout is a prevalent and growing issue in today's workplace, and it’s preventable. But to eradicate it as a threat to wellbeing the risks and signs must be known and taken seriously – talking about them to build awareness and normalize the experience keeps burnout risk from hiding in plain sight. By recognizing the warning signs and practicing empathy towards ourselves and others, you can take steps to prevent burnout and create a more supportive and healthy work environment for yourself and those around you.