In my article "What is Burnout" I gave a brief overview of some of the symptoms you might experience on a path to burnout. However, burnout is a multi-faceted issue and can have many different symptoms as well.
So, what are the telltale Signs of Burnout?
Burnout has become such a commonly used term, so that sometimes people casually say, “I’m so burned out,” when they’re merely referring to having a bad day or a bad week.
However, for those who truly are burned out, there is a lot more going on than a bad day or a bad week. It’s a problem that significantly interferes with a person’s health, happiness, and overall quality of life.
Unfortunately, few people are able to see burnout coming until it’s too late. The good news is that it doesn’t have to get to that point. If you identify signs of burnout early enough, you can reverse this downward spiral.
SO THE QUESTION IS …RIGHT NOW, WHERE ARE YOU ON THE BURNOUT CONTINUUM?
Burnout can be defined as a state of “chronic stress and frustration”, leading to:
• Physical and emotional exhaustion;
• Feelings of cynicism and detachment; and
• A sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
Together, these symptoms lead to an inability to successfully function on a personal and professional level.
Although some of the symptoms within these three areas overlap, each has characteristic signs and symptoms. As you’ll see, many are the same or similar to those associated with stress.
This is because the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree, so the best way to prevent burnout is to identify the symptoms as close as possible to the less severe end of this continuum. The less severe the symptoms, the easier recovery will be.
Signs related to physical and emotional exhaustion
Chronic Fatigue: In the early stages of burnout, you may find yourself lacking energy and feeling tired often. You may go to bed early but still, wake up tired. You may move more slowly and find you need extra time to get ready and get out the door. At its worst, the fatigue becomes a physical and psychological state of exhaustion. You feel constantly drained, and everything seems a monumental effort. You have no energy, so you do as little as possible to make it through the day. It is difficult for you to get out of bed and may even call in sick on the days you feel like you simply can’t get out of bed. This type of extreme fatigue also often results in a sense of dread for what lies ahead of you on any given day.
Insomnia: In the early stages of burnout, insomnia may be a problem only one or a few nights each week. Although you feel tired, it’ may be difficult to fall asleep; or if you do fall asleep, it may be disturbed sleep; or you may wake up in the middle of the night or earlier than you have to. Often, this trouble sleeping relates to persistent thoughts about the insurmountable amount of work that you have to do, conflicts faced at work and whether you’ll be able to get through the day. In the later stages, insomnia may become a nightly ordeal. As exhausted as you feel, there may be nights when you can’t sleep at all.
Impaired Concentration and Attention: Physical and mental exhaustion lead to a host of cognitive problems, but the most common are concentration, attention difficulties, and forgetfulness. You may find yourself having to re-read things or asking colleagues or other people to repeat themselves. Because you can’t focus, it takes longer to get work done and things begin to pile up, causing more stress.
AT ITS WORST, THESE SYMPTOMS PREVENT YOU FROM GETTING ANYTHING DONE AND YOU SIMPLY CAN’T KEEP UP.
Physical Symptoms: All serious physical symptoms, especially chest pains or difficulty breathing, should first be evaluated by a physician to rule out any medical causes. But it’s not uncommon to find that most of the physical symptoms experienced by burnout victims are caused by stress.
These symptoms can include:
– chest pains
– heart palpitations
– dizziness or fainting
– tension headaches
– migraine headaches
– shortness of breath, and
– stomach pain.
These may interfere with your day-to-day functioning, making it difficult to go to work or get work done when you’re there.
Increased Illness: Because chronic stress depletes and weakens the body, burnout victims are more vulnerable to infections, colds, flues, and other immune system disorders. The worse the burnout is, the more vulnerable you’re likely to be and the longer it’s likely to take you to recover from simple infections, like a common cold, or even a small cut.
Loss of Appetite or Weight Gain: In the early stages of burnout, you may not feel hungry some of the time and may skip meals as a result. In the later stages, this may worsen to a complete loss of appetite and significant weight loss.
ON THE FLIP SIDE, SOME PEOPLE GAIN WEIGHT AND OVEREAT WHEN STRESSED.
Anxiety: Chronic anxiety is common in cases of burnout. Early on, the anxiety may be experienced as nagging feelings of tension, worry, and edginess, which may interfere with your ability to attend and concentrate. Physically, your heart may pound and your muscles may feel tight. Over time, this anxiety may become so severe that it interferes with your ability to go to work or take care of your responsibilities at home. Feelings of apprehension and dread are common. In some cases, the anxiety may become so severe that it results in panic attacks.
Much of this article is an excerpt from High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).