Burnout refers to the feeling of mental and physical exhaustion due to prolonged stress, such as at work. But there are ways to manage it.

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Life has stressful periods for all of us, but sometimes it goes past a simple need for a breather.

The term “burnout” has been around for a couple of decades, and the phenomenon is very common.

If think you may be experiencing burnout, know that you’re not alone and that there are options for not only preventing this level of overwhelm but also for managing it if it does arise.

The term “burnout” was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974. Simply put, it refers to a place of exhaustion — which can be both mental and physical — that’s the direct result of consistent or prolonged stress.

There are three primary types of burnout:

  • overworked
  • underchallenged
  • neglected

Other types of burnout include:

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General stress due to life circumstances or work is common but isn’t the same as burnout.

The primary difference, according to Tampa Bay area therapist Haley Neidich, LCSW, is that those experiencing burnout may find it difficult to feel as if their stress has subsided.

She notes, “Burnout looks and feels different from a stressful day or week in that episodic stress is typically followed by recovery and returning to a sense of equilibrium.”

“While the experience of burnout may vary, people do not typically return to homeostasis during the burnout experience,” she explains.

Homeostasis refers to the ability to stay balanced and self-regulate, even if the environment around you changes.

Symptoms and dimensions of burnout

According to a 2016 study, there are three common ways, or dimensions, that burnout shows up:

  • Exhaustion dimension. This is when you feel worn out and depleted. You may experience loss of energy and fatigue.
  • Cynicism dimension (“depersonalization”). In this dimension, your attitudes towards other people, like clients, may be perceived as negative or even inappropriate. You may withdraw and experience a loss of idealism.
  • Inefficacy dimension. This dimension is characterized by reduced personal accomplishment. You may feel less productive or capable or like you’re unable to cope. Your morale may go down, and you may lack the motivation to engage in work tasks or to work toward promoting your career or other goals.

“Burnout is also going to impact your ability to relax on the weekends or your days off and often includes a sense of dread or hopelessness when it comes to your job.” Neidich says. She also notes that people who are burnt out may:

  • begin to feel hopeless about their work environment
  • dread going to work
  • feel as if they’re “drowning” or barely able to keep their heads above water
  • develop a short temper
  • experience signs of depression
  • have trouble sleeping
  • often fantasize about leaving their jobs

The 12 stages of burnout

Freudenberger proposed a set of 12 stages of burnout — from first signs to more severe outcomes. Though these stages haven’t been formally studied, they’re often cited.

The proposed 12 stages of burnout include:

  1. excessive drive or ambition
  2. pressure on self to work harder
  3. neglect of your own needs
  4. dismissal of your problems (“displacement of conflict”)
  5. lack of time for your needs outside of work
  6. denial and impatience
  7. withdrawal
  8. behavioral changes, including impatience or aggression
  9. detachment from reality (depersonalization)
  10. inner emptiness or anxiety
  11. depression
  12. mental or physical collapse

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently changed their definition of burnout in relation to the workplace to “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”

Burnout is most commonly associated with work, especially direct service jobs, but Neidich reminds us that burnout can occur for anyone who’s in a stressful environment, including school or an emotionally draining romantic or platonic relationship.

A note on class

Neidich reminds us that there can also be a class component to burnout. Many people experiencing burnout have jobs where taking an extended break isn’t an option.

Due to life circumstances or job restrictions, there may not be a leave policy, and time off can’t be taken without a serious and potentially catastrophic impact on their families financial security.

Because of this, many people are hesitant to talk with leadership about burnout. This fear is compounded for folks of marginalized experience due to a long history of workplace retaliation.

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It can be difficult to address the feelings of burnout once they’ve begun, but there are options for dealing with burnout, even if you’re in the thick of it.

Take a break

Neidich suggests that if possible, you should schedule a break or a vacation to create some space between you and your stressful environment.

In terms of work-related burnout, she says, “If possible, communicating your experience of burnout to your superior is important in order to get support and discuss possible changes to your workload.”

Because being burnt out can lead to workplace errors, Neidich stresses the importance of taking a break for those within a medical profession, if it’s feasible.

Chat with a professional

Speaking to a mental health professional is also an option if you’re interested in venting at a set time each week with someone who can also help you in managing your symptoms.

“When burnout is leading to the development of… significant depression, suicidal thinking, persistent insomnia, or any other disruptive mental health symptom, it is time to consult a mental health professional right away,” notes Neidich.

If you’re unsure whether you can afford therapy, know that there are ways to receive mental health support at a lower or no cost. Options include:

  • therapists with sliding scale options or reduced rates
  • therapists in training
  • community mental health centers
  • employee assistance programs
  • support groups
  • faith and religion-based help

Consider a long-term change

“For folks who are unable to manage burnout, this may mean considering leaving their job to find other employment where they can better manage their stress,” Neidich says.

If taking time off or leaving your job aren’t options for you, know that there are ways to help manage burnout symptoms.

Neidich provides a couple of examples of mantras that can be used on a regular basis for work-based burnout, including, “This is just work, it’s not my whole life and it’s not who I am.”

Still, some experts note that mantras may not be effective unless they challenge the negative beliefs a person actually holds, beliefs which may contribute to depressive symptoms or disengagement due to burnout.

Neidich also suggests that compartmentalization can be an effective tool to manage within the moment and suggests the use of rituals to help you separate work from the rest of your life. This practice can be used with many situations, including school or particular relationships. Here are some examples of what this could look like.

Using your car as a place of transition

Neidich suggests allowing “all of the ‘sticky’ work experiences to fly away from you as you drive.”

This may look like:

  • listening to your favorite music and singing (or screaming) along
  • listening to an audiobook or podcast that you find engaging
  • calling your best friend to vent

While singing aloud may not be feasible if you’re using public transportation, listening to something you enjoy or calling a friend are still viable options.

Whether you’re in your own car or using public transportation, try to keep in mind that these transition practices will likely be most effective if they include something that’s meaningful to you.

Taking a moment before entering your home

Neidich recommends, “Before you walk through the front door, take a few deep breaths and set your intention for how you want to enter your home.”

This may allow you to leave work behind and shift focus to what lies ahead, whether that’s alone time or time with your family.

Shifting your energy

Neidich suggests removing your work clothes as a part of your ritual to separate work from home.

If you want to get a head-start on this part of your day, consider already laying out some comfy after-work clothes before you leave for work. That way, they’ll be waiting for you when you get home, allowing you to transition from work to home more easily.

Asking for what you need

“If you need time to decompress, ask for what you need,” Neidich says. Whether you have a partner, children, or roommates — don’t feel bad about letting them know that you need time for yourself to settle in from work.

Setting specific time aside for work venting

Neidich suggests setting aside a set period of time to discuss a particular work frustration, so that it doesn’t capitalize your time.

You can even make it a shared experience by making time for a “pity party,” a chance for you and others you care about to vent productively.

Prioritizing your well-being on a daily basis is a great way to mitigate burnout, rather than always figuring out how to recuperate.

Set boundaries

Neidich reminds us that learning to set limits in your life and keep healthy boundaries both at work and at home will also set the stage for decreasing burnout. The three core tenants for setting boundaries are:

  • saying no when something is too much
  • communicating your needs
  • standing up for yourself

“Setting boundaries at work and not taking on more than is necessary is essential. This may mean saying no if you’re asked to cover someone else’s shift and making the choice to keep work in perspective by using a mantra.” Neidich explains.

Engage in things you love

“Having and enjoying a rich, full life outside of work is the best way to prevent burnout and keep work in perspective,” Neidich says.

If you’re able, participating in fulfilling aspects of your life or hobbies outside of work or school can help remind you that there’s more to your life than the stressful situation.

Try mindfulness meditation

Though research on the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation for burnout is limited, studies from 2012 and 2015 have shown that the practice helped reduce stress and burnout scores in healthcare professionals.

Neidich suggests daily meditations as a way to incorporate self-care into your schedule, if you’re able.

“I recommend a meditation app like Calm, which has meditations as short as 3 minutes long that will help lower your stress hormones and bring you back into the present moment,” Neidich says.

“Meditation allows your brain a chance to rest and is a proven intervention for decreasing anxiety and improving sleep.”

Take care of your physical body

To manage symptoms of stress and burnout, taking care of your physical well-being is as important as taking care of your mental health needs.

This may include:

  • moving your body in ways that feel good to you
  • staying hydrated
  • not skipping meals

Burnout is common and can severely impact the way that our relationships and work are approached, but there are options for both managing and preventing burnout.

Navigating the effects of burnout is extremely common in work settings, especially those that are “helping professions” or within the direct service field, but these aren’t the only folks who can find themselves burnt out.

Whether it’s from an emotionally draining relationship, school, or job, consider taking the time to discover which boundaries you need to really maintain inner peace and balance.