Let’s be real: You can probably name plenty of negative things about 2020. Perhaps you even dealt with burnout: After all, American workers experienced heightened rates of burnout in 2020 and 2021, per the American Psychological Association.
What exactly is burnout, you ask? According to the World Health Organization, it’s defined in ICD-11 (the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases) as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. It’s characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, increased mental distance from your job (or feelings of cynicism related to it), and reduced professional efficacy. And this definition is actually pretty recent, according to Sarah Sarkis, Psy.D, a licensed psychologist and executive coach. Until 2019, she says, it wasn’t recognized as a syndrome.
Now, while burnout is technically related to the workplace, Sarkis notes that it can arise from a combination of factors.
“Usually what you find when you get under the hood is that while work is a huge triggering factor, often it’s the other things that are happening in your life simultaneously that push it over the edge,” she explains. At a high level, she adds, it’s about the relationship you have with stress.
We know, it sounds bad—but there’s good news, too. You can prevent and recover from burnout. Below, the full scoop from Sarkis on what exactly this syndrome entails, plus insight into how to avoid burnout.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
To recap, there are three main signs of burnout, per Sarkis: exhaustion, a diminished sense of efficacy (you feel like you’re putting in the same amount of effort and accomplishing less), and cynicism (nothing you do seems to make a difference). Cynicism is perhaps the easiest for leaders to notice in their employees, she notes—and it’s highly corrosive to team dynamics.
Sarkis adds that burnout is a full-system experience, meaning it manifests in cognitive, emotional, and physical ways. In terms of cognitive signs, think brain fog, lack of concentration, and decreased motivation (perhaps as a result of that lost efficacy), she says. Physical symptoms can include stomach aches and exhaustion. Meanwhile, emotionally, some people feel like they’re on their last good nerve—and others just feel withdrawn and disconnected, according to Sarkis.
Who’s susceptible to burnout?
In a word, everybody. You can think about your energy in the same way you think about a financial budget, per Sarkis (who credits Lisa Feldman Barrett, PhD, with this idea). Anybody who makes more withdrawals than deposits can go into debt, Sarkis explains—and this is your body’s way of being in debt.
How do you know if you’re burning out?
It’s important to know what to look out for, Sarkis notes, since preventing burnout is crucial. To that end, she recommends doing an energy audit. Examine your energy bank account, and ask yourself: What’s going in? What’s going out? Those two things don’t need to match up daily, Sarkis notes, but you want to make sure you have energy in the bank—and to do that, you need to check in with yourself.
“Ask yourself, ‘How am I feeling?’” she advises. If you notice your energy dwindling, you need to preserve it (more on that later). And remember those full-body symptoms mentioned earlier?
“Those are the canaries in the coal mine,” Sarkis says. Everyone’s symptoms show up differently, she adds—cognitive symptoms like loss of focus might present themselves before any physical symptoms, or you might feel the physical deterioration first.
What can you do to avoid burnout?
First things first: Examine your relationship with stress, then change it. You’re never going to live a stress-free life—even if your wildest dreams come true, Sarkis points out. So, she suggests taking a look at the stress management tools you have to manage it. For instance, you might fix your sleep, develop a mindfulness practice, and, without obsessing over it, focus on getting quality nutrition, hydration, and movement. (Plus, when you hit your Streak in the Paceline app, you can unlock rewards!)
Another piece of the puzzle, according to Sarkis, is fixing broken boundaries. People who suffer from episodes of burnout often say yes when they mean no, overschedule, and are pathologically accommodating—and they usually have really good reasons why they operate that way, she notes. But all of that amounts to the need for tighter and healthy boundaries.
Finally, Sarkis suggests getting outside and soaking up some sunlight every morning and evening for somewhere between five and 20 minutes. This will benefit your circadian rhythm, she explains, which helps with emotional regulation and sleep (think: giving back to your energy budget!).
What can you do to fix burnout?
“Recovering from burnout and preventing burnout is the same toolkit,” Sarkis says. But you’ll want to start by fixing broken boundaries in order to claw back some time for self-care, she notes. Just remember: You’re not going to find more time—you’re going to have to take it.
Note: You can reach out for professional help at any point in the journey, Sarkis advises, but she suggests you do so before you’re really starting to deteriorate. Since recovering from burnout can be a long process, she adds, start now, start small, and aim to be consistent (not perfect!). If you’re experiencing moderate to severe symptoms, Sarkis encourages you to contact your family doctor to discuss.