Burnout is generally defined as emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. A tell-tale sign of burnout is what I refer to as the “Sunday Evening Blues” – a feeling of dread that hits you when you realize that you need to go to work the next day.

If you well up in tears and begin to cry when you talk about your work, you are likely grappling with more than a mild case of job dissatisfaction. Burnout doesn’t just happen overnight – it evolves over time.

Burnout begins with feelings of apathy, cynicism, and disillusionment. If unaddressed, these feelings can morph into more serious issues such as fatigue, depression, anxiety, insomnia, and substance abuse. Really severe cases can lead to complete breakdowns that require hospitalization.

It is much easier to treat mild burnout, so it is important to recognize and address early warning signs. The following questions can help determine if you are experiencing burnout.

  • Do you struggle to focus on tasks and priorities?
  • Is your performance suffering?
  • Have you lost a sense of accomplishment or satisfaction in your work?
  • Are you inpatient or irritable with customers or colleagues?
  • Do you feel anger and resentment about the way decisions are made?
  • Have you mentally “checked out” and sit silently in meetings or planning sessions?
  • Are you using food, alcohol, or drugs to numb out?
  • Do you suffer from insomnia, headaches, stomach pains, or other physical ailments?
  • Have family and friends commented that you just don’t seem like yourself?
  • Have you stopped doing hobbies or activities that previously brought you joy?

These are some of the ways that burnout manifests but what causes burnout? Causes run the gamut from poor job fit, dysfunctional work cultures, work-life imbalance, mis-matched organizational values, lack of control, chronic stress, and social isolation at work. In my experience, it is rarely a single issue but a combination of factors that lead to burnout.

Studies show that people in “helping professions” such as teachers, counselors, and nurses can be especially prone to burnout. Other factors often associated with burnout include monotonous work, rigid schedules, and jobs that offer little freedom or autonomy. Burnout can simply be the result of working too hard and playing too little.

It is imperative to explore the underlying causes of one’s burnout before making drastic changes. Since the causes can vary, there is no single prescription. For many people, a whole new career will make sense. For others, a job change to a better fit culture might do the trick. Sometimes, a commitment to improved self-care and professional counseling are most helpful.

Once you recognize that you are experiencing burnout, the following steps can help you on your journey to recovery:

  • Identify the root causes of your burnout.
  • See your medical doctor to rule out physical health problems.
  • Consult a counseling professional to address emotional issues.
  • Consider options and take steps to improve your current situation.
  • Address any related time management or organizational skills.
  • Adjust work habits to include short breaks and resist the urge to take work home.
  • Commit to improved self-care including diet, exercise, and sleep hygiene.
  • Socialize more and connect to people outside of work.
  • Explore new career options that align with your interests, skills, and core values.

Regarding those tears I mentioned earlier, they signify distress and sadness. Some people seem to accept burnout as an unavoidable or normal part of working. Don’t give up hope! It is possible to recover from burnout and regain a sense of purpose.

Rather than dismissing your pain, tune in and listen to what you want and need. Through self-exploration, you can then begin to create ways of living and working that are more satisfying and sustainable. If we take our suffering seriously, burnout can become a powerful catalyst for rediscovering our true desires and making meaningful change.