Let’s face it: 2020 was a disaster. And while 2021 offers promise, many of us are still feeling pretty gun-shy. We’re eager to get back to our old routines but there’s still so much uncertainty. And yes, we’re simply over pandemic life. Add all of this together and you’ve got a potent recipe for burnout.
“Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., clinical psychologist and author of Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. “This syndrome goes way beyond having a tough week.”
While it’s not classified as an actual medical condition, burnout has been labeled as an “occupational phenomenon,” and defined as a factor influencing health status by the World Health Organization.
Here’s what you should know about the struggle—and the myths we need to dispel in order to truly bounce back.
Symptoms Of Burnout
Typically, burnout is broken down into three groups of symptoms.
1. Physical Depletion
On a physical level, someone experiencing burnout may feel completely wiped out the majority of the time. As a result, physical ailments may occur, such as frequent complaints of body aches and/or gastrointestinal issues, as well as changes in appetite and/or sleep patterns.
One study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology even found a possible link between burnout syndrome (which the researchers also referred to as “vital exhaustion”) and atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm that could lead to other serious cardiovascular conditions, like heart attack or stroke.
2. Emotional Imbalance
Those experiencing burnout often find themselves in a continuous negative headspace, Lombardo says. Feelings of cynicism, helplessness, loneliness, and resentment are all common. “There is a type of heaviness hanging over you for a while,” she adds. Conflicts or arguments with coworkers and loved ones may ensue.
3. Mental Exhaustion
Often most noticeable at work, mental impacts include feeling overwhelmed and checked-out.
“There is a decrease in effectiveness, meaning you’re not engaged or productive,” says Lombardo. “You cannot focus or concentrate and your problem-solving skills go way down.”
If you have a traditional job, there’s also a good chance you’re taking an abundant number of sick days. “In fact, research shows people who have burnout are not only at an increased risk of high absenteeism, but also presenteeism—which is when you show up, but you’re not being effective,” she adds.
Who Suffers From Burnout?
Though burnout can happen to anyone, it often results from “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” according to the World Health Organization. This has certainly shown more problematic since the inception of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In fact, in a December 2020 survey, 76 percent of employees in the U.S. reported experiencing burnout. Their reasons stemmed from working while home-schooling children and taking care of parents, to ongoing hostile political climate and recurring natural disasters.
Meanwhile, another recent poll published on Business Wire found that 55 percent of college and university faculty are considering retiring early or changing their occupation due to pandemic-related burnout. In the financial world, junior investment bankers at Goldman Sachs have gotten press for threatening to quit because of damages caused by 95-hour work-weeks, unrealistic expectations, lack of sleep, and strained personal relationships.
Even pre-pandemic, the medical community was experiencing burnout. A 2018 study published in Cureus found that more than half of physicians and one-third of nurses have experienced symptoms.
Mental health professionals like Lombardo believe chronic stress outside of employment also contributes. “Burnout does not just impact people who receive a paycheck,” she says. “When I had a newborn with colic, I definitely had burnout.” Navigating the current state of the world and being a caregiver or parent can rocket anyone towards exhaustion.
4 Burnout Myths, Debunked
Burnout can take a serious toll on your overall health and well-being, so once you’ve identified that it’s affecting you, it’s important to bust through common misconceptions about the syndrome.
Myth #1: Burnout And Stress Are Interchangeable
Typically, the body goes through three stages when under stress. “The first stage is alarm, which is the fight-or-flight response,” Lombardo says. This is the body’s hormonal response to a perceived threat, which can cause physical changes like increased heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, and sweating, along with muscle tension and dilated pupils.
“Then there’s the resistance stage, which is when the body is in a chronic level of stress,” she continues. “This is where we’re trying to deal with the situation and doing the best we can on an ongoing basis.”
The final stage? Exhaustion. “This is when everything drops; our resources have been depleted and we experience burnout.”
Yet while stress is normal and tends to keep us going (which is why it can be referred to as having an adrenaline rush), burnout occurs after long periods of unmanaged stress that leave us feeling completely drained and defeated.
Myth #2: Burnout Only Affects Those Who Are Depressed
Though some might suggest burnout only affects people with mental health issues, that’s certainly not the case. “There can be a component of depression, but the majority of people suffering from burnout are not clinically depressed,” Lombardo says. Case in point: One Frontiers in Psychology study found “no conclusive overlap” among burnout, depression, and anxiety.
Burnout also is not an indication of mental or emotional weakness. Lombardo drives this home with patients through the following analogy: First, she asks if they can lift a 15-pound weight. When they respond that they can, she asks, “Can you carry that 15-pound weight for three months straight without ever putting it down?” The answer? Of course not!
Myth #3: Burnout Can Be “Fixed” Over The Weekend
Generally speaking, catching up on sleep and engaging in relaxing activities (like yoga and meditation) over a responsibility-free weekend can do wonders for the mind and body. But even though burnout is a sign that change is necessary, these shifts can’t significantly move the needle in just 48 hours.
“Weekends are great when you’re stressed and need downtime to recharge,” Lombardo says. “But once you’re in burnout and you’ve reached that level of exhaustion, a weekend off is not the cure.” So what does it take? More on that next.
Myth #4: The Only Way To End Burnout Is By Escaping Your Situation
Now here’s the promising news: You can overcome burnout. Unless you’ve found yourself in a toxic environment, walking away from a specific job, field of work, or personal situation isn’t the only solution.
Improving various aspects of your life starts with understanding your reasons for burning out. “Think about some of the components that cause burnout—lack of control, unclear expectations, lack of support, and not having any type of work-life balance,” Lombardo says. The key is changing the things you can control, such as optimizing communication, getting a clearer understanding of expectations, setting boundaries, and getting support from others.”
In fact, asking for and accepting help is a power move here. “People who don’t delegate—those who feel they need to do it all or else they’re failing—tend to burn out,” explains Lombardo. If you’re dealing with workplace-related burnout, consult with a colleague or manager about your current role and responsibilities. If you’re suffering from parenting or caregiver burnout, keep in mind that close friends and relatives want to lend a hand. “It can involve someone else picking up groceries or sitting with your loved one. Allow people to help,” she says.
If you don’t know where to begin in order to recover from burnout syndrome—or if burnout brings about thoughts of hurting yourself and others—seek professional attention as soon as possible.