What to Know About Burnout

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 16, 2021

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger created the term "burnout" in the 1970s to describe a phenomenon that happens to many people in helping professions, like medicine or mental health. Today, experts know that burnout is not only for those who help. It can happen to anyone experiencing stress for a prolonged period of time.

People most frequently get burned out in work situations. But it can also happen to people who don't work traditional jobs, like celebrities or stay-at-home parents. Burnout also occurs in students.

Symptoms of Burnout

The symptoms of burnout are things you may experience for a day or two every once in a while. It becomes burnout when you have these symptoms every day for a longer period of time.

Burnout starts slowly. The symptoms may be hard to notice at first. Over time, they increase until you use management techniques to deal with the stressors causing your burnout.

There are physical, behavioral, and emotional symptoms of burnout.

Physical symptoms include:

  • Feeling drained
  • Noticeable changes in appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much
  • Headaches
  • Muscle aches
  • Getting sick frequently
  • Digestive issues

Behavioral symptoms include things like:

  • Feeling withdrawn
  • Isolating yourself
  • Leaving work early or coming in late
  • Procrastinating more than usual
  • Abusing coping mechanisms like drugs or alcohol
  • Acting more irritable towards others
  • Noticeably reduced performance, usually at work

Emotional symptoms include:

  • Feeling like a failure
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feeling trapped in the situation you are burnt out on
  • Low motivation
  • Cynical outlook
  • Negative thinking
  • Low sense of satisfaction
  • Harder to feel proud of accomplishments
  • Feeling detached
  • Feeling alone

Differences Between Burnout and Other Mental Illnesses

Burnout has similar symptoms to other mental illnesses, like depression. It can also look similar to exhaustion or general stress. How can you tell the difference?

Exhaustion vs. burnout. Exhaustion is just one symptom of burnout. So, even if you are completely exhausted, you may not be burned out, unless you have some of the other symptoms listed above.

Stress vs. burnout. Too much stress can cause burnout eventually, but just feeling stressed alone isn't the same. When you feel stress, you become hyperactive, trying to get everything done. You have a sense of urgency and still believe that you can get everything done.

With burnout, you lose energy and motivation. You feel helpless and may stop trying because you feel so overwhelmed that you no longer believe you can do everything that you need to do.

Depression vs. burnout. Feelings of burnout are usually related to a specific situation, often work. People who are burned out only feel hopeless about that particular situation. Depression is often about several or all aspects of life.

Causes of Burnout

Risk factors for burnout include:

  • Lack of work/life balance
  • Working too much overtime
  • Working in a "helping" profession
  • Having no control over your work situation
  • Spreading yourself too thin
  • Repetitive tasks at work
  • Lack of recognition for achievements
  • Too much pressure at work
  • Perfectionist tendencies
  • A generally pessimistic outlook

How to Manage Burnout

Reach out. Co-workers, friends, and family members are great resources for support. Since the instinct with burnout is to withdraw, it can be easy to lose touch with people. However, just talking to a friend or getting advice from a family member can help.

Work with a professional. A therapist, counselor, coach, or another mental health professional can help with your burnout. Some workplaces offer free or discounted counseling and coaching to employees. Take advantage of that if it is available to you, or seek someone out on your own.

Exercise. Moving your body is a great way to take your mind off of what you're burned out on. It can also relieve the underlying stress that causes your burnout.

Try mindful activities. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, qi gong, and other mindfulness practices can help manage burnout symptoms.

Take a vacation. Getting a break for a week or two from the activity causing you to feel burned out can be refreshing. It may not be a long-term solution, but can be a temporary relief.

Change your work environment. Talk to your boss, manager, or human resources department about the work factors that are making you feel burned out. If it is your home life burning you out, talk to your partner and other people living in your home to see if you can improve the conditions there. If your burnout still doesn't go away, you may consider making drastic changes to your job or home life.

Get enough sleep. Making sure to get enough rest can help burnout. If your stress levels prevent you from sleeping well, try improving your sleep hygiene or talking to your doctor about supplements or medications that can help.

Eat well. Including plenty of vitamin C, magnesium, and omega 3 fatty acids in your diet can help to manage stress.

Show Sources


ExploreIM Integrative Medicine: "Eat Right, Drink Well, Stress Less: Stress-Reducing Foods, Herbal Supplements, and Teas."

HelpGuide: "Burnout Prevention and Treatment."

Mayo Clinic: "Job burnout: How to spot it and take action."

NCBI: "Depression: What is burnout?"

Understood: "Burning Out in School: What It Means and How to Help."

verywellmind: "Burnout Symptoms and Treatment."

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