How to recognise the symptoms of burnout
Burnout has become a popular term in recent years, but what does it entail exactly? The World Health Organisation (WHO) refers to burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. This is a very broad definition of burnout and, upon researching, I was flabbergasted to find that there are approximately 130 different symptoms - or, 130 symptoms that are currently known.
However, this does not mean that you need to have all 130 symptoms in order to be struggling with burnout; it simply means that burnout is a diverse syndrome that manifests in different ways for each person. Every person has different symptoms and, if we count all the symptoms that people can have, it adds up to (at least) 130 symptoms.
Also, it is important to mention that burnout has recently been found to not only be related to occupational stress, but that it can also arise from imbalances between different life domains. For instance, parental burnout has become increasingly common among parents, and social media burnout is a new term that describes the negative impact that excessive social media use can have on our lives.
The symptoms of burnout
Even though burnout can have different manifestations and be caused by different life imbalances (e.g., work, parental life, or social media use), there are three symptoms that seem to permeate throughout all those struggling with burnout. These “umbrella” symptoms include exhaustion, cynicism, and reduced performance and encompass the three dimensions of burnout: the physical dimension (exhaustion), the cognitive / emotional dimension (cynicism), and the behavioural dimension (performance). Here we explain some common symptoms experienced in each domain.
Here are some physical symptoms of burnout one can experience:
- Tinnitus (ear ringing).
- Muscle tension and back pain.
- Gastrointestinal complaints (stomach problems).
- Experiencing breathing problems or chest tightness.
- Feeling sick more often because your immune system may be more vulnerable.
- Sleeping problems; you may find yourself going to sleep later, or it takes you more time to fall asleep; or, you might wake up in the middle of the night and not be able to go back to sleep; or, you might suffer from restless sleep where you wake up many times during the night.
- Lastly, as discussed, one of the most common symptoms is exhaustion. Individuals with burnout suffer from low energy and fatigue. They might feel tired all the time - even after having a healthy night’s rest. It does not matter how much sleep you got; it still feels like it isn’t enough. You may sleep for 10 hours, go on holiday, or sleep-in an entire weekend, but you still feel tired and fatigued.
Emotional or cognitive symptoms
The following symptoms fall under the emotional or cognitive umbrella:
- Restless mind.
- Memory loss.
- Lack of motivation.
- Concentration problems.
- Rumination (overthinking during the day or night).
- Cynical approach to life.
- Indifferent to things that once brought you pleasure or joy (e.g., lack of interest in your hobbies).
- Pessimistic thinking; individuals with burnout can struggle with negative thinking about work or life as a whole, and might find themselves being more cynical about life and more sarcastic or bitter.
- Sadness; people with burnout might feel very sad and feel like crying all the time, and they might struggle with finding meaning in life and ask questions such as: “What is the point of working?” “What is the point of life?” “What am I even doing here?”
These physical and cognitive / emotional symptoms can translate into real-world behaviour, which can lead to reduced productivity and performance at work or other domains of life. Some behavioural symptoms include:
- Easily irritated.
- Absenteeism at work.
- Getting distracted very often.
- Procrastinating and postponing tasks.
- Feeling more agitated and aggressive; for instance, you could find yourself speaking to a client in a way you would have never imagined before.
- Inability to make decisions due to overthinking about every little thing, which can lead to changing your mind all the time and postponing small and big decisions.
- Relationship struggles; all these changes and built-up tension might affect your interpersonal relationships with your co-workers, friends or family.
It is important to note that all the symptoms above can interplay with each other. For instance, if you are experiencing trouble sleeping because of overthinking and could not have a nice rest, you might feel more irritable during the day, which might prompt you to be more aggressive with your co-workers and friends, ultimately impacting your relationships. Likewise, experiencing headaches and muscle tension can lead to reduced concentration and memory issues, which can hinder your performance at work and your willingness to engage in the hobbies you once loved.
If these symptoms hit close to home, I invite you to reflect on how long these symptoms have been present. During what period of time did these symptoms arise? For instance, they might have arisen after you changed workplaces, or when your baby was born. Think about the content of your symptoms; are you worried about work, family life, or other aspects of your life? Some behavioural tendencies, such as perfectionism or disorders like depression, can fuel burnout. Using cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques could help you identify which tendencies can be rendering you vulnerable to burning out.
Whatever the reasons behind your symptoms, it is not advisable to self-diagnose. So, if you suspect you have burnout, I encourage you to seek professional help. By speaking to a professional, you can receive an assessment and knowledgeable support to help you prevent or treat burnout.
Remember, you are not alone. Burnout has become increasingly common in our fast-paced world, and you are brave for seeking answers and help. Take care!