Burnout: Symptoms and Signs

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on March 05, 2024
9 min read

It happens to everyone at some point or another. Our lives get busy as we deal with various daily responsibilities, be it working, helping others, or taking care of our families. Sometimes, we get too busy and forget to take a step back and rest. That's when burnout can occur.

Burnout is a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped. It happens when we experience too much emotional, physical, and mental fatigue for too long. In many cases, burnout is related to one’s job. But burnout can also happen in other areas of your life and affect your health.

Burnout can be caused by stress, but it's not the same. Stress results from too much mental and physical pressure and too many demands on your time and energy. Burnout is about too little. Too little emotion, motivation, or care. Stress can make you feel overwhelmed, but burnout makes you feel depleted and used up.

The condition isn’t medically diagnosed. But burnout can affect your physical and mental health if you don’t acknowledge or treat it.

Burnout keeps you from being productive. It makes you feel hopeless, cynical, and resentful. The effects of burnout can hurt your home, work, and social life. Long-term burnout can make you more vulnerable to colds and flu.

Burnout vs. depression

Burnout can look like depression. So, it's critical to get a professional diagnosis. A key difference is that you can ease burnout with rest or time off. However, depression, a medical illness, needs to be treated with therapy or medication. Burnout is usually related to one aspect of your life -- your job, caregiving, or some other type of prolonged and stressful activity. Depression, on the other hand, affects every aspect of your life. Not treating burnout may raise your risk for depression.

These are four types of burnout:

Overload burnout: This happens when you work harder and harder, becoming frantic in your pursuit of success. If you experience this, you may be willing to risk your health and personal life to feel successful.

Under-challenged burnout: This happens when you feel underappreciated and bored. Maybe your job doesn’t provide learning opportunities or have room for professional growth. If you feel under-challenged, you may distance yourself, become cynical, and avoid responsibilities.

Neglect burnout: This happens when you feel helpless. If things aren’t going right, you may believe you’re incompetent or unable to keep up with your responsibilities. Such burnout can be closely connected to imposter syndrome, a psychological pattern in which you doubt your abilities, talents, or accomplishments.

Habitual burnout: The most serious phase of burnout, habitual burnout happens when your physical and mental fatigue is chronic. You feel sad and your behavior changes. Sometimes, you can cross over into depression and suicidal thoughts. It's crucial to seek help at this stage.

Burnout develops over time, and it's hard to realize at first. Two psychologists, Gail North and Herbert Freudenberger, came up with 12 stages of burnout.

  1. An urgent need to prove yourself. In this earliest phase of burnout, you want to do well to the point of perfectionism for fear of not fulfilling demands.
  2. Working harder. You feel the need to do everything yourself and complete tasks as soon as possible.
  3. Neglecting your needs. You think the stress of work or activities, such as caregiving, is normal. You neglect your social life and look down on others who pursue one. You begin to make small mistakes.
  4. More interpersonal conflicts. You have conflicts with co-workers, friends, or your partner. You don't sleep well, have other physical complaints, or become forgetful.
  5. Revision of values. You see things differently and begin to seem insensitive to others around you. Friends and family become secondary to your goals.
  6. Denial. Bitterness and cynicism creep in, and you begin to cut yourself off from others, becoming impatient, intolerant, and angry. Your performance suffers, and you feel physical discomfort.
  7. Withdrawal. Dealing with others feels like a burden. You get angry if someone criticizes you, and you may feel disoriented or helpless. You may try to self-medicate with alcohol or illegal substances.
  8. Behavioral changes. Apathy sets in and nothing matters. You avoid additional responsibilities.
  9. Depersonalization. You lose your sense of identity, seeing yourself only as the vessel through which work and responsibilities are completed. Your life feels meaningless, and you begin to neglect your health.
  10. Feeling empty. Exhaustion, anxiety, and panic set in.
  11. Despair. You may have feelings of self-hatred or depression coupled with suicidal thoughts.
  12. Total burnout. This last phase of mental and emotional collapse requires immediate care.

Originally, the term burnout was applied to work-related stress only. However, many psychologists see burnout as any type of prolonged, stressful condition. Studies show that women report experiencing job burnout in higher numbers than men, but more research is needed as to why.

Life and work factors that can contribute to burnout include:

  • Unmanageable workloads
  • Unfair treatment at work
  • Confusing work responsibilities
  • Lack of communication or support from managers
  • Immense deadline pressure
  • Too much work, not enough time to rest (downtime)
  • A feeling that work or life is out of your control
  • Feeling unrecognized or unrewarded
  • Work or responsibilities that feel too demanding
  • Boring or routine work, or chaotic or high-stress work
  • Taking on too much without asking for help 
  • Lack of sleep
  • Few supportive or meaningful relationships
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism, pessimism, and a need for control

Burnout doesn’t happen immediately. It’s a gradual process that builds with stressors from your job. Signs and symptoms can be subtle at first. But the longer they go unaddressed, the worse they can become, which can lead to a breakdown.

Many burnout symptoms can feel like symptoms of stress, but there are three ways to differentiate them: 

  • Feeling tired, or exhausted
  • No enthusiasm, and feelings of negativity toward your job
  • Inability to perform your job

Burnout can have many symptoms. It can often be confused with stress or advance to depression. These are signs to look for if you or someone close to you is experiencing burnout:

  • Exhaustion: You may feel drained and unable emotionally to deal with problems around you, both professional and personal. You may feel low and experience extreme tiredness, leaving you without energy. These symptoms can show up as physical pain, and stomach (or bowel) problems.
  • Alienation from activities: Look out for signs of cynicism and frustration toward work and colleagues. You may start to distance yourself emotionally and feel numb about your work and environment.
  • Reduced performance: This can occur at work or home (when caring for family members) because you have no energy left for everyday tasks. Burnout makes it hard to concentrate, handle responsibilities, or be creative.
  • Mental burnout symptoms: You may feel self-doubt, helplessness, defeat, and failure. You may feel that you are on your own, lose your sense of purpose, and feel increasingly cynical, dissatisfied, and incapable.
  • Physical burnout symptoms: You may feel greatly fatigued and without energy. You may get sick often, have body aches and recurring headaches, lose your appetite, or experience insomnia.

Burnout builds over time. It’s caused by stress at work or in other parts of your life, making it difficult to manage your job and other responsibilities. Once you’ve identified your burnout signs, there are ways to tackle your stress:

  • Talk with your supervisor: If you are in an environment where this is possible, try to explain how you’re feeling and discuss a more manageable workload. Communication is important for creating a healthy work environment.
  • Get enough sleep: Sleep is vital for good physical and mental health. If you aren’t getting enough because of anxiety over your job, it’s likely to lead to burnout. Prioritize getting enough sleep.
  • Try a relaxing activity: Yoga, meditation, or tai chi can be great ways to release stress. Burnout symptoms can appear physically, as you can hold onto stress in your body. Practicing these activities can help you release the tension.
  • Be mindful: This gets you to focus on yourself internally, and know how you’re feeling in the moment. Mindfulness can help you identify when you’re feeling overwhelmed and let you take stock of your emotional well-being. It can also help you manage the challenges of life and work.
  • Find support: The support of trusted coworkers, friends, and family is important. Their support can help you deal with the stressors of your job. Finding a therapist is also a great way to discuss your feelings and get support.

Burnout is a chronic state. Workers with burnout are more likely to take sick days or wind up in the emergency room. These feelings of stress and despair can result in long-term impacts on your physical and mental health.

Health care workers are at high risk for burnout. Even before the overwhelming stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, burnout among health professionals was high, with over 54% of nurses and doctors and about 60% of medical students and residents reporting burnout. Chronic job stress among these workers can mean impaired judgment and physical ailments such as heart disease and diabetes, sleep and relationship problems, anxiety, depression, and the possibility of substance misuse. Teaching and law enforcement are other professions with a high risk of burnout.

Other risk factors for burnout include:

  • Difficulty maintaining work-life balance
  • Having a "Type A" personality (being hyperfocused on work and achievement)
  • Competitive workplaces with lots of high-performers
  • High-pressure social and work environments
  • Cultural expectations

If left untreated. burnout can affect your career and relationships, as well as your physical and mental health. Unchecked burnout may lead to depression or anxiety.

In the workplace, prolonged burnout can lead to chronic absence and job dissatisfaction. Physically, burnout may cause:

  • Weight gain
  • Headaches
  • High cholesterol
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Stomach and gastrointestinal problems
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Breathing issues
  • Injuries, and even early death

If you're experiencing burnout, don't try to keep going. It will only make things worse. Instead, take a break to help yourself recognize the signs of burnout and work to lessen it.

What you can do:

  • Seek help in managing your stress. Burnout can make you apathetic and less likely to help yourself. Turn to friends and family to talk about how you're feeling. Spend quality time with loved ones.
  • Engage socially. Talk to or have lunch with colleagues. Avoid interacting with negative people. Find a volunteer effort, religious organization, or support group where you can be around and talk to people who enjoy the same activities as you.
  • Change your attitude about work. You can't always change your job, but you can change how you feel about it. Find something to value in your work and create balance in your life. Take a vacation or extended leave to remove yourself from work stress. Then, disconnect from your job completely.
  • Set new priorities. Slow down and reconsider your goals for life and work. Practice saying no. Disconnect from technology each day and pick up a new hobby or activity.
  • Exercise. Exercise helps lift your mood. Aim for 30 minutes a day, but even a 10-minute walk can boost your mood for several hours.
  • Eat healthy. Limit sugary and carbohydrate-rich foods that can lead to a dip in energy and mood. Avoid caffeine and nicotine, two stimulants that can affect your mood. Drink alcohol moderately.

There are ways you can help yourself recover from burnout. 

  • Know the problem. Realizing you have burnout is the first step toward recovery.
  • Prioritize your health. Get more sleep, eat better, and exercise -- whatever it takes to get back on track.
  • Keep a healthy distance. If possible, remove yourself from your source of stress. You can't always leave a job or get rid of caregiving duties, but you may be able to take a vacation or a day or afternoon off to get a break.
  • Consider what went wrong. What led to your burnout? Does your work or life reflect your values? Ask yourself what brings you joy. Think about what's most important to you.
  • Make changes. What can you do to avoid continued burnout? Should you leave a job or relationship? Get help with caregiving duties? How can you make your life less stressful? Follow through with whatever changes you decide to make.

Burnout happens when you’re overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to keep up with life’s endless demands. It saps your energy and reduces your productivity. Dealing effectively with burnout means admitting you have a problem and then taking proactive steps to combat it, such as seeking counseling, asking family and friends for help, and taking better care of yourself.

What are the five symptoms of burnout?

You might have burnout if you constantly feel:

  • Exhausted or drained of energy
  • Hopeless and unmotivated
  • Detachment
  • Cynical and negative
  • A sense of failure

What exactly is burnout?

Burnout is an ongoing state of feeling overwhelmed, fatigued, and emotionally drained due to consistent stress in your work, family, or social life.

How do you overcome burnout?

Make changes in whatever is causing you stress. Take care of your health, seek out positive relationships, and leave or adjust stressful conditions.

How long does it take to recover from burnout?

There isn't a firm timeline for recovery from burnout. The sooner you reduce your stress by asking for help, practicing self-care, and changing or leaving your situation, the better you'll become.