We often talk about stress and how to deal with it, but forget its very close cousin, burnout.

In fact, burnout is a specific kind of stress. While stress generally causes loss of energy, burnout causes loss of motivation and hope. Whereas stress mainly causes physical damage, burnout also causes emotional damage. And where stress is accompanied by hyperactivity, burnout is characterized by disengagement and helplessness.

Burnout often comes with doubts of your competence and the value of your work. Not only does it cause decreased work productivity and other performance issues, it can also initiate other behaviours that can seriously affect health, such as change in appetite and sleep habits, and using food, drugs and alcohol to cope. 

In their study on burnout Loss and gain cycles? A longitudinal study about burnout, engagement and self-efficacy, Susana Llorens-Gumbau and Marisa Salanova-Soria define burnout as “persistent, negative, work-related state of mind in ‘normal’ individuals that is characterized mainly by exhaustion and accompanied by distress, a sense of reduced competence, decreased motivation, and the development of dysfunctional attitudes at work.

It can be useful to think of engagement as the opposite of burnout. Llorens-Gumbau and Salanova-Soria define this as a “positive, fulfilling, work-related state of mind that is characterized by vigor, dedication, and absorption in the activity.

Nobody wants to be in a state of burnout. Yet too many of us have found ourselves feeling exhausted and disengaged from our work. In fact, Gallup’s State of the Global Workplace study suggests that a mere 13% of the world’s workers are actively engaged with their work. How about the remaining 87% who are either not engaged or actively disengaged? Perhaps not all of them suffer from burnout, but it’s safe to say that a vast majority of them might. Work-related burnout is definitely a prevalent issue in the workplace that needs to be addressed - both by individuals and organizations. 

To find ways to prevent and solve the issue of burnout, we need to first understand what causes it.

What causes burnout

It’s important to note that burnout is a recognized as a health problem in the 10th revision of the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. It is specified as a “state of vital exhaustion” under “problems related to life-management difficulty.” And this is the key to understanding the causes of burnout.

Although we often think of burnout in relation to our careers, anyone who feels overworked and under-appreciated is at risk - from the CEO to the stay-at-home parent.

Yet burnout isn’t only about how many responsibilities we’re juggling on a daily basis. Other factors that contribute to burnout are certain personality traits and your your lifestyle. 

For example, high-achieving, Type A personalities are at a higher risk for burnout. So are those who have a pessimistic view of the world, and those who take on too many responsibilities or are reluctant to delegate to others. Poor quality of sleep is also a big cause of burnout, as is a lack of a support network.

When it comes to work, burnout is more likely to creep up on you when your work is either extremely predictable and monotonous, or extremely high-pressure and demanding. Lack of recognition is also a major cause of work-related burnout.

In their study on the Relationship between burnout and depressive symptoms, Kirsi Ahola and her colleagues have discovered that burnout and depressive symptoms develop in parallel and cluster together. That’s probably what makes burnout so dangerous: it doesn’t come alone. Aside from depression, it also brings with it physical exhaustion, lowered immunity, frequent headaches, back pain and muscle aches.

Indicators of burnout 

The physical signs and symptoms of burnout mentioned above can be quite obvious. It’s not so, however, when it comes to the emotional and behavioural signs.

Emotional signs are subjective and can only be identified by the person that is experiencing burnout. These can include feelings of helplessness, dissatisfaction, a sense of failure and self-doubt, and loss of motivation.

On the other hand, behavioural signs are much easier to spot by those around the person experiencing burnout. These are the signs team leaders should look for if they think their team members are experiencing burnout: isolation, withdrawal from responsibilities, taking longer to get things done, and decreased work productivity.

If you’re wondering whether you suffer from burnout, or want to check how advanced of a state you’re in, check out a burnout self-test.

What to do about burnout

As with everything, it’s preferable to prevent burnout from appearing in the first place than to treat it. 

Prevention can involve the following actions: 

  • Setting time aside for relaxing rituals, such as reading something inspirational, meditating, stretching, writing in your journal, etc.
  • Adopting healthy habits that increase your energy levels.
  • Learning how to handle stress more efficiently.
  • Delegating and setting boundaries on the workload you take on.
  • Regularly disconnecting from your work and responsibilities. This includes taking regular breaks from technology.

Yet sometimes it’s too late to prevent burnout because we’re already past the breaking point. In this case, in addition to the prevention activities, you need to etch out a plan for recovery from burnout. It’s very important that you take steps toward recovery as soon as possible. Pushing yourself through burnout will only result in more damage.

When you’re recovering from burnout, these are some actions that you can take: 

  • Identify what exactly is causing your feelings of burnout, and make a plan to address those issues.
  • Cut back on some of your commitments if you can. This is a good time to pause and reflect, and take some time off to heal.
  • Seek support from your team members, your friends or family. This is the right time to strengthen your support network.
  • Reassess your passions, interests and values. Your burnout might be caused by a mismatch between your values and those of the organization you work with, or between your goals and the opportunities you have at work.

Even though burnout is extremely unpleasant, you can turn it into a positive experience.

It can become a great opportunity to work out what is truly important to you and to rediscover things that you are passionate about.

Have you ever been faced with burnout? How did you deal with it? What have you learned about yourself from dealing with it?