10 signs you're heading for a burnout diagnosis and 5 ways to rectify it

Burnout is real and it’s been recognized as an “occupational phenomenon,” according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It’s also something that Dr. Jamal Lake, a clinical psychologist at the Cognitive & Interpersonal Therapy Centre in Toronto, has seen rise steadily in recent years. He says many clients don’t even immediately recognize that they’re at the brink of burnout. Instead, they seek support for various other symptoms such as stress, anxiety and moodiness.

“If you experience depressive or anxiety symptoms, it is important to seek out professional assistance in order to address these symptoms before they become chronic and potentially accelerate burnout,” he says.

It’s become so common, in fact, that it inspired WHO to provide an official diagnosis for the condition in 2019. As an occupational phenomenon, burnout presents long-lasting emotional, physical and mental exhaustion and diminished sense of accomplishment caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Its sneaky symptoms, however, are sometimes harder to pinpoint.

Here is what you need to look for to recognize if you’re headed for a burnout diagnosis — and Dr. Lake offers tips on how to rectify the situation.

(NOTE: This advice is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a qualified healthcare practitioner. Always seek medical advice that is specific to you and your situation.)

Burnout symptom: you feel chronic exhaustion

You’re constantly stressed out and this takes its toll. You feel tired. Really tired. This type of chronic fatigue, according to multiple sources, isn’t just something you can sleep off in a weekend and emerge re-energized. This level of tiredness is ever-present and follows you from one day to the next. You may feel like you’re lugging around an extra weight-pack as you move about your day. It is a mental, emotional and physical feeling of weight. This exhaustion is the result of running off of adrenaline for longer than our system ever intended (read: you’ve simply been burning the midnight oil for far too long, and your exhaustion is not attributable to other hormonal changes).

Related: Want better sleep? Stock your wellness kit with these items.

Burnout symptom: you lack motivation and feel detached

Understandably, you just can’t engage to the level you once did anymore, as mentioned in this Fortune breakdown. All that exhaustion has caught up with you, your nerves are fried, and you’re merely going through the motions of your job, without any real sense of meaning or purpose. You may feel like you’re a hamster in a wheel, endlessly spinning to nowhere.

See also: 10 tips for coping with social anxiety.

Burnout symptom: you lack enjoyment and excitement in your life

This lack of purposefulness is seeping into other realms of your life, and you no longer enjoy the things you once did. You don’t feel excitement in your relationships or hobbies. In fact, what relationships or hobbies? Everything is overshadowed by your permanent sense of obligation to your job, because it feels like this is all there is.

Related: Ways to improve your self love now.

Burnout symptom: you’re always frustrated and irritable

It’s not just that you can’t enjoy yourself and get excited anymore, you are often moody, and even angry at seemingly minor things. Your fuse is short and your reactions are disproportionate to the situation. They can all be related to the common micro-stressors outlined by Harvard Business Review. You may feel like your day is boobytrapped with triggers that get on your nerves.

See also: Micro-stressors: what they are and how they work.

Burnout symptom: you’re feeling guilty and anxious

You are aware that you aren’t at your best and that something is amiss, even if you can’t quite name it. It’s an isolating feeling, and all this is making you feel guilty and anxious. You may even experience feelings such as shortness of breath, as though an elephant is sitting on your chest.

Related: Why the bamboo ceiling is real and how it hurts all People of Colour.

Burnout symptom: you lack focus

All this internal feedback is making it very difficult to stay on task and focused, despite the looming mountain of things you know you need to get done. You are easily distracted, and can’t seem to remember simple tasks all that well (such as returning an important call), even though there seems to be no real good reason for your lapse in memory.

See also: 10 signs you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

Burnout symptom: lack of productivity and poor performance

Despite you wanting to crush it at your job, your work simply isn’t reflecting that. You may feel like you’re often dropping the ball in critical situations and this is taking a toll on your confidence, further fuelling the downward spiral.

Related: Mental health terms you need to drop from your vocab.

Burnout symptom: you’re driven by fear of failure

At a certain point, you switch from the drive you once had to be successful to simply going through the motions out of fear of failure. This unfortunately only further makes you feel alone and like you can’t ask for help, because it would mean admitting that you just can’t do it all (or worse: that inner voice is right and you’re just not good enough). Because others seem to be managing just fine, you internalize all this, and think the problem is you. That’s not the situation.

Burnout symptom: you can’t stop

You aren’t coming up for air and this fear of failure is only making you feel like you should be doing more, faster. You may feel like you’re trapped in a permanent fog, and yet you can’t seem to snap out of it; you don’t think, talk or do anything else other than work. Unfortunately, as outlined in Psychology Today, this compulsion is only further fuelling your burnout, and not much else.

Burnout symptom: your physical condition is deteriorating

You’re getting sick more often. Your body is sending you signals that it can’t keep up with your demands of it, and that it needs you to halt. Now. This is only further exacerbated by your lack of self-care and attention to mental-wellness. You aren’t exercising, sleeping or eating well, and it’s starting to take its toll.

What to do next: seek support

If you’ve seen yourself in one or more of these symptoms, recognize that you may be putting yourself in overdrive. Know that you’re not alone. There is a reason why burnout has now become an official diagnosis. Dr. Lake attributes the rise of burnout to the increasing demands of our work culture (and some jobs are innately more stressful than others), the rise in costs of living in metropolitan cities, constant connectivity thanks to tech, and difficulty obtaining enough time off.

“If you experience depressive or anxiety symptoms, it is important to seek out professional assistance in order to address these symptoms before they become chronic and potentially accelerate burnout,” says Dr. Lake. Therapy can help you work on cognitive awareness, stress reduction strategies assertiveness and problem solving skills. It can also help you identify opportunities for self-exploration in times of change and conflict. “Seek support from family, friends, colleagues, organizations and/or professionals. Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to reach out.”

What to do next: set boundaries

“Being self-aware and knowing your limits and setting boundaries (assertiveness) with colleagues and management are important factors in helping to prevent burnout,” Dr. Lake says. Be aware of what workload is realistic. “It will be important to consider less of whether or not you are capable of doing whatever it is but whether it is in the best interest of your mental or physical health in the long run. You may want to consider if tasks/challenges can be broken down into smaller steps or delegated to others to be more manageable.”

What to do next: prioritize sleep and schedule relaxation

There is no way around it. You need to give your body the opportunity to recuperate. You may need to actively prioritize and schedule sleep and relaxation. Reframe sleep and relaxation, not as you doing nothing, but rather, as you actively recharging. And if you’re not getting enough sleep even when you set aside enough time, there may be other root causes.

Related: The 20 most sleep-deprived jobs in Canada.

What to do next: work on other aspects of yourself

Dr. Lake also recommends shifting focus to try and engage in more joyful, creative and energetic activities in your life. “This may include disconnecting from technology for a short time! It can also be beneficial to learn meditation, mindfulness, yoga or other forms of activities that require slowing down and relaxing on purpose.”

Going outside and enjoying nature can also be very helpful.

Related: Incredibly beautiful photographs of nature’s canopies.

What to remember about burnout

While, at present, WHO classifies burnout only in relation to your work, it is possible to experience burnout in other areas of life. “Many people can experience burnout when over time the situation or challenge exceeds their emotional, physical and/or intellectual resources. This can be seen in the workplace but also in relationships (i.e., parental/caregiver roles, friendships, partnerships), social media and technology (i.e. keeping up with trends, people or an online persona), school and academics,” Dr. Lake says.

Remember that time the high-achieving Jessie Spano reached her breaking point on Saved By the Bell? Don’t let yourself get to that point.

© 2021 Slice, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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