How to recognize burnout before it's too late

Kim Bielak, MA, Clinical Psychology on Aug 11, 2022 in Mood and Feelings

I don't know about you, but it seems to me like the phrase "I'm burned out" has become almost as common as hearing "How was your weekend?" across offices today.

The always-available expectations set by communication platforms like Slack, the blurring of boundaries between work and home during the pandemic, and the increasingly competitive pipelines from brand-name schools to brand-name workplaces all keep us using resources faster than we can replenish until they're finally burned to a crisp.

The problem is, most of us fail to recognize and take meaningful action against burnout before it's too late. We're tricked into believing we can keep pushing and running on fumes until we finally come to the point where there's simply nothing left and the flame has gone out. And once it does, it usually takes a heck of a lot more work to bring it back.

So how do we recognize the early signs of burnout before it gets that bad?

To understand how to prevent burnout, it's important to first understand the difference between burnout and stress.

Stress is typically experienced as a state of heightened or hyper-arousal. We run around with a ton of urgency, we become over-engaged and often over-reactive, and we feel the physical toll in our bodies through things like clenched muscles and even health problems.

Burnout, on the other hand, looks more like depletion or hypo-arousal. It is our body's way of shutting down in response to chronic doses of aforementioned stress in the workplace. We have zero energy to get out of bed, we drag our feet and lose our sense of motivation, and we often even lose our previous sense of self-confidence or self-worth at work.

So while it may be helpful to catch the early warning signs of burnout, such as mental and emotional fatigue, growing cynicism toward your job, or uncharacteristic withdrawal from others and imposter syndrome, even more effective at preventing burnout is actually managing your stress before it gets to that point. A healthy focus on setting strong boundaries, nurturing close relationships, and finding a sense of purpose in your work are just a few great ways to mitigate the impacts of stress before you find that you need to quit your job and take a whole year off just to let your nervous system recover.

You can ultimately think of burnout as your body's way of slowing down when you won't. And it's a slippery slope because it can be all too easy to delude ourselves into thinking we can keep burning the debris indefinitely. But flames need oxygen and tinder to stay ablaze. Tend the flame first, and it won't burn out.

Kim Bielak is a Associate Marriage & Family Therapist in Pasadena, CA.
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