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23rd March, 20215 min read

How to spot the signs of burnout

Medical reviewer:Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:Libby Williams
Last reviewed: 22/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified burnout as an “occupational phenomenon”. This means it’s not thought of as a medical condition – but it is something that can affect your health.

Read on to learn what burnout is, who can get it, and how to spot signs that you might be burnt out.

What is burnout?

Burnout, also known as ‘occupational burnout’, can happen when the stresses and pressures of your job are very difficult to cope with over a long period of time.

Things that can play a part in burnout include a heavy workload, lack of control over your work and difficult relationships with the people you work with.

If you’re burnt out, you’ll be mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. This kind of tiredness is much worse than what you can get with normal levels of stress. Burnout makes it very difficult to deal with even the smallest day-to-day tasks.

The key difference between burnout and stress is your ability to look to the future with a positive attitude. When you’re stressed, you can usually still picture a time when you’ll be more in control and able to manage and reduce your stress levels.

But when you’re burnt out, you can’t see any chance of your situation improving. You may also feel that you’re beyond caring and have no motivation, due to exhaustion.

Who can get burnout?

You can get burnout in any job or occupation. However, some people are thought to be at higher risk due to the constant high levels of stress in their jobs. Doctors, nurses, first responders and care workers are among those most commonly affected.

What are the common burnout symptoms?

It isn’t always easy to know if you’re burnt out, so it’s good to be aware of the common signs and symptoms. These fall into 3 main categories:

Mental and emotional signs of burnout

  • a sense of failure and self-doubt
  • feeling helpless, trapped and defeated
  • lacking motivation
  • feeling detached and alone in the world
  • becoming more cynical and having a negative outlook
  • decreased satisfaction
  • lacking a sense of achievement

Physical signs of burnout

  • feeling really tired most of the time
  • changes in your eating or sleeping habits
  • headaches
  • muscle aches and pains
  • getting ill more often

Behavioural signs of burnout

  • ignoring your responsibilities
  • distancing yourself from other people
  • taking longer to get things done (procrastinating)
  • using food, drugs or alcohol to cope
  • being irritable and taking your frustration out on other people
  • not going to work, or arriving late and leaving early

Many of the symptoms of burnout are the same or similar to those of depression. If you’re unsure about your symptoms you should speak to your doctor. If left untreated, burnout may also cause depression or other mental health conditions. Your doctor will be able to help identify if you have burnout or depression and provide appropriate advice to help you recover.

Questions to ask if you think you might be burnt out

If you have some of the symptoms above but are still unsure if you’re burnt out, try asking yourself the following questions – if you answer yes to any of them, you may be burnt out:

  • have I become cynical or critical at work?
  • do I find it hard to get to work and get started on tasks?
  • am I irritable or impatient with colleagues, customers or clients?
  • do I lack the energy to get things done?
  • am I struggling to concentrate more than I used to?
  • do I get satisfaction from my achievements?
  • am I using food, drugs or alcohol to feel better – or to not feel at all?
  • have my sleep habits changed?
  • am I getting unexplained headaches, tummy trouble or other physical problems?

How to recover from burnout

If you think you’re burnt out, or are unsure about your symptoms, you should seek advice from your doctor or a mental health professional. They’ll be able to help you identify if you have burnout or another condition such as depression, why it’s happened and how you can recover.

Key points

  • burnout can happen if you’re under a lot of stress and pressure in your job over a long period of time
  • it causes mental, physical and emotional exhaustion
  • you may have a higher risk of burnout if you have a high-stress job
  • symptoms of burnout can be mental and emotional, physical and behavioural
  • there are things that can help you recover from burnout
  • see your doctor if you think you have burnout

Did you know, you can use the Healthily app to track your mood? Once you've downloaded the app, go to 'Settings' then 'My trackers' and choose 'Mood’.

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