One evening, after I went on a semi-hysterical rant, I listened with mild surprise to my husband. He told me I wasn’t allowed to do one more dish. I wasn’t to take part in any more extracurricular activities outside of work for the next week or two. Paraphrasing his words, I was “burned out and didn’t recognize it.” It was time to take care of myself.
Me, 27 years old, no kids, and burned out. Really? I cringe at all the mothers out there who must be smirking at me right now. The stubborn, self-sufficient, omnicompetent part of me refused to admit I was trying to do so much that I was becoming ineffective in all areas of my life. After all, I should be able to handle a full-time job, my first year of marriage, housekeeping responsibilities, and the nonprofit ministry we are starting in Midtown Sacramento, all the while maintaining a healthy lifestyle of eating well and working out regularly. Instead, this season of my life was beginning to feel like Mission: Impossible 4, without all the special effects and hot actors.
Everything in my little world, at this point, seemed forced and harder. Dragging myself out of bed was a daily struggle. It felt impossible. I wasn’t motivated to go to work. But I went anyway, kept my head low, and got my job done. Just getting makeup on by the time I got to work was a victory. Career women and mothers alike can relate, I’m sure. I forgot what it meant to relax, to let go. Even joy was eluding me. I stopped caring. I withdrew, even from my husband, who felt confused and frustrated.
I think it’s safe to say that I’m not alone in this experience. Many millennial women are experiencing burnout before they turn 30. In the TV series NCIS, Special Agent Gibbs has a list of life rules, one of which is Rule No. 41: “If you think someone is out to get you, they probably are.” I have adapted this rule to the circumstances I found myself in. If you think you are burned out, you probably are.
What IS Burnout?
In an article titled “A Review and an Integration of Research on Job Burnout,” burnout is defined as “a unique type of stress syndrome, characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and diminished personal accomplishment.” Burnout is a symptom of too much psychological (as opposed to physical) stress.
In psychology, stress is a feeling of strain and pressure. If not dealt with via healthy outlets, the person can become like a kettle that screams when it reaches boiling point. Small amounts of stress are desirable, beneficial, and even healthy; stress is a factor in motivation, adaptation, and reaction to your environment. But an excessive amount of stress may lead to physical harm.
In this context, burnout is a result of too much stress for too long a period. It’s like the effects of “information overload.” You have too much information or demands coming at you at once, to the point that your brain seems to become paralyzed. It’s as if you become unable to process any of the information on which demand should take priority.
Burnout can cause fatigue, insomnia, and anxiety. A recent study published in the International Journal of Stress Management revealed that 90 percent of burned out workers met the diagnostic criteria for depression. It suggested that burnout may be a depressive syndrome rather than a distinct entity.
I spoke with Dr. Thomas Roe, Psy.D, coordinator of graduate student counseling services at the University of California, Davis, to further understand burnout. He explained that defining burnout can be tricky because “burnout is not a clinical term or diagnosis.” According to Dr. Roe, burnout is a more casual, umbrellalike term. It can describe several underlying issues, such as stress, addiction, and perhaps depression.
“When I hear someone say, ‘I’m burned out,’ I will assume there’s probably an imbalance in their life at work or at home,” Dr. Roe says. “They’ve encountered some barriers and roadblocks along the way. And they’re struggling to get beyond them.”
Top Signs of Burnout
It is important to distinguish burnout from having a bad day or even a bad week. No one is at the top of his or her game every day.
(Note that not everyone experiencing burnout will exhibit all of these symptoms. Please also note that these symptoms can overlap with other clinical disorders, such as depression, according to Dr. Roe. Speak with a counselor, therapist, or psychologist if you experience any of these symptoms or worry you may be suffering from burnout.)
01. Chronic physical and mental exhaustion
Burnout can manifest itself through prolonged physical and mental exhaustion. If you’ve said or thought, “I’m too tired to think straight,” like a broken record, chances are you’re experiencing a form of burnout.
“Mental health isn’t something we’re taught about in school; most of us aren’t trained to tend to our mental health,” Dr. Roe says. "We’re more trained to be ‘go-getters.’ The American Dream is, ‘Work hard, and you’ll get what you want.’ I think sometimes we lose focus of what life is about.” Due to this constant frenzy, we often don’t even realize we’re getting burned out until it gets bad.
02. Persistent lack of motivation
Dr. Roe says you may be experiencing burnout if you’re finding it harder and harder to conjure up feelings of enthusiasm for anything or anyone or if you’re lacking a desire to get up and drag yourself to work.
03. Continuous frustration and cynicism
While everyone experiences pent-up annoyance, anger, doubt, impatience, and other negative emotions from time to time, it’s important to discern when these are symptomatic of burnout. Often, the first signs you can look to in diagnosing yourself are the reactions of the people who are closest to you, Dr. Roe shares. These people are the ones who claim they know you better than yourself. They’ll make verbal observations with growing frequency, such as, “You’re not your usual self,” or, “You need to slow down before you drive yourself crazy.” Heed their words, even if your immediate reaction would be to deny.
Dr. Roe notes that other signs include interpersonal problems at home and work. You either (a) find yourself having more conflicts; for example, growing more and more defensive or becoming easily offended by pretty much anything or anyone, and/or (b) you check out and avoid your family or coworkers. Even if you’re physically there, you’re often tuned out.
04. Decreased satisfaction
“Life becomes one big bore,” Dr. Roe says. Your job doesn’t seem rewarding. There’s nothing in it or outside of it that conjures up much enthusiasm. You just don’t feel fulfilled.
05. Increasing ineffectiveness
According to Dr. Roe, it’s as if you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off. You start to lose the ability to absorb information as well as you usually do. This often leads to slipping up in your job performance and forgetting important to-dos. Everything in your world is spiraling out of control. The more you try to control, the more you realize you don’t have it together.
06. Habitual neglect of one’s well-being
Another sign of burnout is if “you’re developing bad eating and drinking habits,” Dr. Roe says. If you feel you don’t have enough time in the day and are fighting a persistent lack of motivation, you most likely won’t make time to meal plan and will end up grabbing fast food from your quickie mart instead. You also may find yourself drinking most nights (or every night) of the week. Often you’ll find that you’re not getting enough sleep, and it’s affecting your attitude as well as your physical and mental stamina, so you’re not exercising either.
Steps to Avoid Burnout and Recharge
Some of you are already burned out. Some of you need to know how to recognize and avoid it.
Each person copes and resets in different ways. When I asked Dr. Roe how he gave his patients steps toward recovery, he asked if I was familiar with the movie What About Bob. He told me there’s a therapist in the movie whose motto is, “Baby steps.”
“That can be a really nice way to think about it [recovering from any disorder or addiction],” Dr. Roe says. “Start small. Start with one or two things. And build from your successes because change is hard, even if it’s good change.”
The list below identifies a few ways to create boundaries before burnout happens or to begin the process of recovering from burnout. Remember: baby steps.
01. Get enough sleep.
Dr. Roe says good sleep is critical to our health and well-being. Though the amount needed varies from person to person, the National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 get an average of seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
Rank tasks and schedule blocks of time or days during the week to get them done. You’ll find comfort in knowing that even though the pile of laundry or the dirty toilet bowl is glaring at you today, you’ll drop off the dry cleaning tomorrow and tackle the toilet bowl Saturday morning. Dr. Roe suggests, “Ask for help identifying or ranking your priorities, and learn to delegate. The same principles apply for work tasks.”
03. Set boundaries.
It’s OK to say “no.” No, really. According to “The Four Stages of Burnout,” Mark Gorkin, a licensed clinical social worker, says that being a team player doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your integrity or health. There’s an option: “Sure, I'll help you with this new demand and deadline. But for me to give the assignment the attention it deserves, we’ll have to renegotiate my priority list and timelines.”
Setting realistic limits is not a negative reflection on your work ethic or your ability to go the extra mile. Without boundaries, that mile often morphs into a marathon. Gorkin also says, “Burnout is less a sign of failure and more that you gave yourself away.” Setting boundaries is important to establishing a healthy work–life balance.
04. Block off regular “me” time.
Be intentional about relaxation, whether you choose to grab lunch with a friend, read a book, listen to music, or get a massage. Dr. Roe says it’s important to remember that relaxing comes in all shapes and forms. “Ultimately, you should have fun and find pleasure in ‘me’ time,” he says.
05. Be accountable.
Dr. Roe suggests talking to a good friend, family member, or your spouse about helping you recognize when you’re stressed or burned out. When someone has your back, you know you’re not taking this journey alone.
06. Speak with a mental health professional.
Don’t let time or money talk you out of seeking professional help. “A few years ago, the federal government passed parity laws,” Dr. Roe says. “These allow your health insurance coverage to include mental health, not just physical health. According to these laws, insurance companies are legally bound to provide services regarding your mental health.” Look into the options you have with your health benefits.