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Work Burnout: How to Know When You Need a Break

“The land of burnout is not a place I ever want to go back to.” – Arianna Huffington

Work burnout is a phenomenon many people experience on occasion. It affects organizational leaders, employees, and independent or self-employed individuals across all socio-economic levels. What’s important to know about this type of burnout isn’t that it happens, but that if you’re experiencing it, you know when you need a break from work. Be on the lookout for the following signs of work burnout.

Work Is a Burden

An article in Forbes on the five telltale signs of job burnout highlights a few symptoms that may easily resonate with overworked individuals in any line of work. Among them is one that stands out for me: Everything about work starts to seem like a burden. Indeed, when you get up in the morning and dread going to work, that’s a clear indication that work is getting to you. Everything else falls in line under this umbrella statement, for when work becomes arduous, something you don’t want to do, you have no energy, nothing seems enjoyable in your personal life or you feel guilty due to work responsibilities, and worry about the job makes you ill. This crescendo of symptoms, if not attended to promptly, can lead to career disaster, if not a complete physiological and emotional shutdown.

Negative Emotions Abound

According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is a type of work-related stress, and an increasing tendency to be critical or cynical at work should be a red flag. This, along with a marked uptick in irritability and impatience, and a feeling of job dissatisfaction or disillusionment signals a swirl of turbulent negative emotions that could be indicative of work burnout. It’s important to note, however, that underlying depression could be the cause, and not work burnout. A doctor or mental health provider can diagnose depression or another mental health condition. 

Connectivity Is Inescapable

With respect to work burnout, the miracle of connectivity is also a scourge, in that many of us are so wired that we can’t escape all those incoming notifications. Being always on has much to do with a feeling of being overwhelmed, since information overload can itself lead to inability to make a decision. As psychologist Ron Friedman, PhD. told Men’s Health, “We’re surrounded by devices designed to grab our attention and make everything feel urgent.” Of course, it’s not; yet we carry our work with us along with our devices. Ergo, we cannot escape the connectivity. Someone may want or need us, and we must always be available. This is a sure sign work is overtaking our lives.

Stress Coping Strategies Are Ineffective

A 2014 study published in PLoS One found that ineffective coping strategies to self-protect against stress is the cause of burnout among professionals. The study looked at the power of coping strategies on three factors of work burnout: overload, lack of development and neglect. Researchers found that venting of emotions mainly explained overload; cognitive avoidance most explained lack of development, although venting of emotions and behavioral disengagement also explained it; while only behavioral disengagement explained neglect. Authors concluded that cognitive behavioral therapies, particularly acceptance and commitment therapy, may prove useful for all work burnout types.

Eating and Drinking Habits Change

An American Express article points out that changes in eating and drinking habits can be another indication of work burnout. When you start coping with work stress by going to extremes in what you eat and drink, consuming inordinate amounts of food or alcohol, or depriving yourself of food either intentionally (to get work done) or unintentionally (you’re so consumed by work that you forget to eat), you’re engaging in counterproductive and ineffective strategies to reduce work burnout. In addition to eating too much or too little, you’re much more likely to consume junk food that has little nutritional value, yet is loaded with fat, sugar, and carbohydrates.

Withdrawal & Social Isolation Increase

Burnout is common among caregivers, especially after the individual has provided care to someone in failing health for a prolonged period. An article published in the Archives of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation notes that social withdrawal and feelings of isolation often begin to appear as the caregiver experiences burnout. Indeed, this may be indicative of burnout in many helping professions where the individual sees his or her patient undergoing progressive decline and/or experiencing increasingly negative emotional and behavioral changes. Other signs of caregiver or helper burnout include loss of intimacy with a loved one, and physical and psychological burdens.  

Frustration & Helplessness Set In

When you can’t see any progress and all your efforts seem a waste of time, it’s a quick slide into frustration and helplessness. These two signs of work burnout were highlighted in an article in Money Crashers. Feeling helpless at work, like you can’t make a difference, let alone move up in the ranks, may seem impossible to overcome. The more you give in to this kind of negative thinking, however, the more difficult it is to ever get free. In fact, you may need professional help in the form of psychotherapy, where a psychiatrist or psychologist works with you to separate what’s true and what’s possible, to identify potential therapeutic behavior changes that can ameliorate work burnout and get you back to a normal work-home balance. Ironically, psychiatrists and other mental health clinicians themselves are prone to burnout.

It’s Hard to Concentrate

Much of what people do at work involves problem-solving, creating innovative or unique solutions to unexpected or anticipated problems or issues. Cognitive ability, then, is a key enabler of work success. Being known for your ability to analyze a situation and come up with effective solutions is considered a hallmark of a valuable employee. When you’re experiencing work burnout, however, you’re likely to experience cognitive difficulties, as pointed out in another Forbes article. As such, you find that it’s increasingly difficult to be an original thinker; worse, it’s even hard to concentrate to get anything done. This leads to a circular engagement with other aspects of work burnout.

Work Burnout: How to Know When You Need a Break


Suzanne Kane

Suzanne Kane is a Los Angeles-based writer, blogger and editor. Passionate about helping others live a vibrant and purposeful life, she writes daily for her website, www.suzannekane.net. She is a regular contributor to Psych Central. You can reach her at [email protected].


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APA Reference
Kane, S. (2019). Work Burnout: How to Know When You Need a Break. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 7, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/work-burnout-how-to-know-when-you-need-a-break/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 Jul 2019 (Originally: 23 Jul 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 Jul 2019
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.