Identifying Burnout in a World on Fire
When Stress Becomes Burnout
Have you ever had the overwhelming sense that driving into the nearest field and screaming at the top of your lungs would be therapeutic? Have you ever pulled into your driveway, sat in your car, and stared blankly out the window, not wanting to go inside to whatever responsibilities await you? Have you ever had such a bad day you started doing mental math to calculate whether you could get away with quitting your job? Whether it’s because of overwhelming professional, social, or personal responsibilities, the bottom line is you’re running on fumes. You’re just pushing through with the little to no gas left in your tank. Burnout is living your life on fumes for an extended period of time.
More commonly, this sense of “running on fumes” is the experience of mismanaged, prolonged stress. We know that a little stress is good for us: It keeps us alert and engaged. But significant stress for a long or indefinite period does not suit our physiology, and when we must endure it for too long, it transforms into something much more sinister: burnout. When our bodies are relentlessly combating stress hormones, getting irregular sleep, and experiencing daily fatigue, we have no opportunity to replenish our reserves. And it’s not just a physical depletion; it’s also psychological—we start to view our circumstances and future more negatively. Whereas short-term stress is perceived as a challenge that we can overcome with extra effort, burnout feels endless and insurmountable: We become resigned and hopeless, fearing things will never change.We Are Products of Our Environment
You don’t need me to tell you that global causes of stress—the impacts of the pandemic, inflation, political turmoil, and “hustle culture,” just to name a few—are on the rise. While most of us have long been accustomed to some stress, more of us than ever are reporting high amounts of it in recent years. Increased, prolonged stress means an increase in burnout.
As the pandemic bore on and showed no signs of abating, and as burnout continued to increase, the dam broke. People reached a breaking point and were forced to reassess what they were working—and burning out—for. As if we had a collective near-death experience, everyone reevaluated what they were spending their precious time on. The reminder of our finite time brought with it a renewed indignation and motivation not to waste it doing things that did not serve or fulfill us.
This widespread burnout reared its head in movements like the Great Resignation (the mass exodus of workers from the workforce), the Great Reshuffling (folks who quit and “shuffled” into different jobs instead of leaving the workforce altogether), and quiet quitting (the conscious decision to no longer go “above and beyond” basic job duties). These global trends, driven by employee dissatisfaction, illustrate millions of professionals’ desire for change. We are ready to work for a living rather than live to work.
For anyone who missed it: The 2021 Great Resignation was a period during which a record number of U.S. employees quit their jobs, hitting a twenty-year high of 4.5 million in November of 2022. And this was not a case of people simply retiring early. The main reasons workers left their jobs included low pay, working too many hours, lacking opportunities for advancement, and feeling disrespected by their manager or company. Those who changed jobs were more likely to take jobs that offered higher pay, more room for advancement, and a better work-life balance. Additionally, the increased flexibility in the shift to remote work made many people question the need to work as rigidly as they had been. Many workers left their roles in favor of remote positions that offered more freedom than they previously had in the office.
For the first time in modern history, the nine-to-five structure was questioned by employees who had successfully achieved the same work on a different schedule and in a different setting than before. When people’s jobs were stripped of the office, culture, and distracting hustle and bustle, many felt their roles left something to be desired.“Get Your F*cking Ass up and Work. It Seems like Nobody Wants to Work These Days.” —Kim Kardashian
The quiet quitting trend—popularized by social media throughout 2022 and 2023—is further evidence that professionals have been disillusioned. While “going the extra mile” or “going above and beyond” is virtuous, many employees who felt they’d been doing so for years realized that they had merely been “rewarded” with a lot of drain and personal sacrifice (and, in many cases, being asked to take on the work of a colleague who wasn’t doing their job as well). A “promotion” in duties but not in title or pay has become upsettingly common. It’s no wonder workers have essentially gone on strike, mounting to a mass refusal to “pick up the slack” and “be a team player” to their detriment. Indignation about these unfair and untenable expectations, and the realization that many others were feeling the same resentment, gave the quiet quitting campaign the fuel it needed to catch fire.
Of course, not everyone is fist-pumping in support of these movements. Often, the response to these “do less” trends is the assumption that “nobody wants to work hard anymore.” Even when the recommendation to scale back is for the purpose of reducing burnout or boosting mental health, many people still hesitate to acknowledge they’re burned out for fear that it will sound like they “don’t have what it takes.” To anyone who has internalized that belief: It is in your best interest to mentally decouple work ethic and burnout right now. Burnout is not a result of a lack of effort, determination, or grit. To perceive burnout as a personal failing instead of the result of persistent stress is incorrect.
There are universal factors that lead to burnout (such as feeling overworked, being in stressful relationships, or experiencing prolonged fatigue), and these are helpful to be aware of. However, equally important for managing burnout is knowing how you tend to respond to those factors. To help you catch and correct burnout in your unique circumstances, I’m going to teach you what to look for in yourself.I Spy with My Little Eye Someone Rewatching Their Comfort Show
So how can you recognize if you are experiencing burnout? Over time, perpetual stress causes symptoms that get our attention. Brain fog, shortness of temper, feelings of hopelessness, physical fatigue—this is our body tapping us on the shoulder to let us know we need to take notice because something isn’t quite right. Some folks misdiagnose their burnout as anxiety or depression because they share symptoms: feeling fatigued, overwhelmed, detached, and hopeless. While these maladies can look and feel similar, one of the main differences is that burnout is largely circumstantial—it’s directly connected to your conditions, and most often to your work. When those conditions are changed, your burnout can be alleviated. Conversely, anxiety and depression usually cannot be fully abated through a change in circumstance. Someone with depression is probably going to feel depressed even if they scale back their workload, get enough rest, or book an emergency vacation.
There are both internal and external indicators that you’re slipping into burnout. Internal indicators are signs you might notice in yourself; external indicators are signs others might be able to notice in you. Familiarizing yourself with both will help you spot and address burnout in yourself or others in the future.
Copyright © 2024 by Emily Ballesteros. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.