How to Tell You've Reached the Point of Burnout

Feeling depleted of physical energy?

Businesswoman working overtime at the office
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If you are experiencing high amounts of stress in your lifestyle, it's important to maintain an awareness that burnout could potentially be looming in the future if you don't take steps to avoid it. An important first step is to know what you're dealing with. While the term "burnout" is often thrown around in discussions of stress, do you really know what it means and how it’s caused?

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a reaction to prolonged or chronic job stress and is characterized by three main dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism (less identification with the job), and feelings of reduced professional ability.

More simply put, if you feel exhausted, start to hate your job, and begin to feel less capable at work, you are showing signs of burnout.

The stress that contributes to burnout can come mainly from your job, but stress from your overall lifestyle can add to this stress, and personality traits and thought patterns, such as perfectionism and pessimism, can contribute as well.

The term “burnout” is a relatively new term, first coined in 1974 by Herbert Freudenberger, in his book, Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement. He originally defined burnout as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”

While burnout isn’t a recognized clinical psychiatric or psychological disorder, there are some similar features between burnout and diagnosable conditions, such as depression, anxiety disorders, or mood disorders.

However, burnout is much more common. For example, it’s estimated that 25 to 60 percent of practicing physicians experience burnout. It’s also less severe, more temporary in duration, and clearly caused by situational stressors rather than a biologically mandated chemical imbalance. (It’s kind of like depression’s non-clinical, less intense cousin that just comes for a visit and leaves when you reduce the stress in your life.)

Symptoms of Burnout

It can be difficult to recognize when you're slipping from a state of chronic stress to burnout. A general sign of burnout is when you feel like giving up, or you simply can't motivate yourself to put in the (often high) effort that's needed to do the work that's required of you — or to care. Feelings of dread about going to work can be a sign as well. More classic symptoms include the following:

Depleted Physical Energy

Prolonged stress can be physically draining, causing you to feel tired much of the time, or no longer have the energy you once did. Getting out of bed to face another day of the same gets more difficult. If this is severe, it can also be a sign of depression or physical illness, so consider talking to your doctor if you feel there is something more serious happening. But if you find a general sense of avoidance developing, this could be a sign of burnout.

Emotional Exhaustion

This is when you feel impatient, moody, inexplicably sad, or just get frustrated more easily than you normally would.

You feel like you can’t deal with life as easily than you once could. Again, if moodiness becomes severe enough to affect your relationships or ability to do your job, it may be a good idea to talk to someone. 

Lowered Immunity to Illness

When stress levels are high for a prolonged amount of time, your immune system does suffer. People who are suffering from burnout usually get the message from their body that something needs to change, and that message comes in the form of increased susceptibility to colds, the flu, and other minor illnesses (and sometimes some not-so-minor ones).

Less Investment in Interpersonal Relationships

Withdrawing somewhat from interpersonal relationships is another possible sign of burnout. You may feel like you have less to give, or less interest in having fun, or just less patience with people. But for whatever reason, people experiencing burnout can usually see the effects in their relationships.

Increasingly Pessimistic Outlook

When experiencing burnout, it’s harder to get excited about life, harder to expect the best, harder to let things roll off your back, and harder to "look on the bright side" in general. You may also feel unmotivated or defeated in general, and less confident that you can make things better. Because optimism is a great buffer for stress, those suffering from burnout find it harder to pull out of their rut than they normally would.

Increased Absenteeism and Inefficiency at Work

When experiencing job burnout, it gets more difficult just to get out of bed and face more of what’s been overwhelming you in the first place. This may be an unconscious defense against burnout, but those experiencing it tend to be less effective overall and stay home from work more often. (This could also be due to increased illness resulting from lowered immunity, as discussed above.) This is part of why it makes sense for workers to take some time off before they start feeling burned out, and why it makes sense for employers to refrain from running their workers into the ground; they might not get back up so quickly!

What Causes Burnout?

Burnout has many causes. They fall into the main categories relating to job structure, lifestyle features, and individual personality characteristics. 

If you think you're at risk of experiencing burnout, you can explore resources on self care and finding satisfaction at your current job.  And if you feel that your symptoms are affecting your life significantly and you need help coping, there are many treatments that can help, and talking to a professional can be a good idea.


Alarcon G; Eschleman KJ; Bowling NA. Relationships between personality variables and burnout: a meta-analysis. Work & Stress2009; 23(3): 244-263. 20p.

Maslach C, Schaufeli WB, Leiter MP. Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology. 2001; 52:397–422.


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