How many times in the past month have you answered the question "how are you?" with something along the lines of "busy" or "stressed"?
People love talking about how jam-packed their schedules are. I'm no exception. In some sick way, it kind of feels good to share with people how much I have going on.
In a great article for Slate, Hanna Rosin writes about how complaining about business has become a mark of social status for some people.
"The art of busyness is to convey genuine alarm at the pace of your life and a helpless resignation, as if someone else is setting the clock, and yet simultaneously make it clear that you are completely on top of your game," writes Rosin. "These are not exactly humble brags. They are more like fretful brags, and they are increasingly becoming the idiom of our age."
But burnout is a real thing.
And though we often use the term "burnout" to talk about particularly trying weeks at work, the symptoms of actual burnout are pretty serious. The problem is, it can come on so gradually that we don't even recognize it until we've become chronically exhausted, cynical, and ineffective at work.
What Is Burnout?
There's no single definition of burnout that experts have agreed on. It's not an illness that can be diagnosed, like depression or an anxiety disorder. Instead, burnout is often described as a combination of mental and physical symptoms that can -- but certainly don't have to -- lead to illnesses like depression or anxiety disorder.
Here's the most concise definition of burnout I found: It's a state of chronic stress that leads to physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Although different people experience burnout differently, a telltale sign is when you're experiencing the trifecta of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy all at once.
The very way in which the term was coined in 1974 suggests it's always been more of a label than an illness. A psychiatrist named Herbert Freudenberger is credited with coming up with the term, which he used to refer to his clinical staff that had once been idealistic and motivated but had "suffered from a gradual loss of energy, motivation, and commitment."
In the 1980s, the term was adopted and refined by Christina Maslach and Susan Jackson, both professors of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, to include three parts:
Depersonalization: when you distance yourself from others.
Reduced personal accomplishment: when you devalue your work with others.
Emotional exhaustion: when you feel emptied of personal emotional resources and become highly vulnerable to stressors.
In their search to characterize what a "burned-out worker" looked like, Maslach and Jackson actually created a scoring system for burnout, which they called the Malasch Burnout Inventory (MBI).
The MBI is a survey that presents a list of 47 statements, such as "I feel emotionally drained from my work" and "I feel like I'm positively influencing other people's lives through my work." Participants respond on a numbered scale based on both how often they felt these things and how strongly.
After studying hundreds of people using their burnout scoring system, Maslach and Jackson found (among other conclusions) that people experiencing burnout are more likely to want to leave their job, to be dissatisfied with opportunities for personal growth and development on the job, would want to spend less time working and collaborating with people, and had more problems with insomnia.
Other symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue and restless sleep, increasing anxiety, irritability, lack of energy, weakened immune system, weight loss or weight gain, pessimism, and lack of productivity.
The Difference Between Burnout and Depression
You might be thinking to yourself, This sounds a lot like depression. How do I know I'm experiencing burnout instead?
Truth is, the symptoms can be very similar: exhaustion, feeling down, poor performance. And you certainly don't want to misdiagnose -- which is why it's important to see a doctor about your symptoms for a proper medical diagnosis.
But the key difference between burnout and depression, according to PubMed Health, is this:
Someone who's burnt out experiences symptoms like low productivity and the desire to alienate oneself in the workplace rather than outside of it, at least for the most part. (Sleep issues are going to happen at home, obviously.)
Someone who's depressed experiences negative thoughts and feelings in all areas of their life, not just at work. Symptoms of depression that don't overlap with burnout include low self-esteem and hopelessness.
What Causes It?
Two main causes of burnout are overwork (meaning long hours) and when workers have high demands placed on them but are given low control, according to Harvard Business Review. Of these two causes, employees tend to more readily recognize the long hours as a cause of burnout. When they feel like they have to be working 24/7, they have much less time to recharge or think about anything else besides work.
There are other causes of burnout, too. The Mayo Clinic points to unclear job expectations, dysfunctional workplace dynamics and relationships, a mistmatch in values, a poor job fit, extremes of activity (like when a job is always either monotonous or chaotic), lack of social support, and work-life imbalance. (Read this blog post to learn more about the history of work-life balance.)
What to Do if You Think You're Burnt Out
Unfortunately, these variables are most easily controlled and changed by a person's employer. But there are a few things you can do both inside and outside of work to help.
At work, ask your boss if you can "build in enough teamwork and overlapping responsibilities to allow emergencies to be handled and gaps to be filled without employees' routinely being pressured to go above-and-beyond," suggests Scott Behson for Harvard Business Review. Take time during the day to recharge and refocus, perhaps by adopting productivity techniques like periods of high productivity followed by periods of rest.
Outside of work, dedicate specific time for unplugging and relaxing. Avoid multitasking -- watching a movie while monitoring your work email isn't going to help you recharge. Also, if you're unhappy at work, focus on improving your life outside of work. Spend time on non-work-related hobbies you love, and develop deep relationships with friends and family. Finally, make sure you're getting enough sleep so you can recharge for the next day.
Don't expect that things will turn back to normal overnight. Burnout can take several months to be resolved, just as it usually takes several months to escalate. But the mental impact of burnout can be serious -- so ensure you're taking the signs seriously instead of just telling people about them, no matter how hardworking you think it might make you look.
Originally published Jul 29, 2015 7:00:00 AM, updated November 20 2018