11 Signs to Watch Out for When You’re at Risk of Career Burnout

Career Burnout 11 signs to look our for - burntout person sat at a computer in their kitchen looking unhappy

Burnout is not good for you or your career. Research by Glassdoor has revealed that reports of burnout among UK workers have almost doubled over the past year. The report said workplaces were “extremely understaffed and workers disillusioned” after Covid. Employers initially felt pressure to ‘build back better’ but were caught short by disruption.

As part of our Career Lab Series, we recently ran a session for a client on ‘Preventing Career Burnout.’ So, that’s the subject of our latest series of posts.  In this post we’ll look at what career burnout is, who gets it, and the signs you should watch out for.

What is Career Burnout?

‘Burnout’ is a term coined by the psychologist, Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. 

Two important definitions of burnout are:

  • “A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations.” – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.
  • “A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.” – Herbert J. Freudenberger.

Between them, these definitions embrace the essence of burnout. The first stresses the part that exhaustion plays in it, and the second focuses on the sense of disillusionment that is at its core.

Three Components of Burnout

Burnout is a three-component syndrome that arises in response to chronic stressors on the job.

Let’s examine each symptom—exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy—in turn.

  1. Exhaustion is the central symptom of burnout. It comprises profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue that undermines people’s ability to work effectively and feel positive about what they’re doing. This can stem from the demands of an always-on, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or simply having too much to do. It is especially likely when you lack control over your work, dislike it, or don’t have the necessary skills to do it. In a state of exhaustion, you find that you’re unable to concentrate or see the big picture. Even routine and previously enjoyable tasks seem arduous, and it becomes difficult to drag yourself both into and out of the office.
  2. Cynicism, also called depersonalisation, represents an erosion of engagement. It is essentially a way of distancing yourself psychologically from your work. Instead of feeling invested in your assignments, projects, colleagues, customers, and other collaborators, you feel detached, negative, even callous. Cynicism can be the result of work overload. But it is also likely to occur in the presence of high conflict, unfairness, and lack of participation in decision making.
  3. Inefficacy refers to feelings of incompetence and a lack of achievement and productivity. If you have this symptom of burnout, you feel your skills slipping and worry that you won’t be able to succeed in certain situations or do certain tasks. It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and cynicism because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work. But burnout can also start with inefficacy if you lack the resources and support to do your job well. It can also be activated by the absence of feedback and meaningful recognition. You are left wondering about the quality of your work and feeling that it’s unappreciated.

The term ‘burnout’ is not a medical diagnosis

The term “burnout” is not a medical diagnosis, but it is a very real condition. Its symptoms bear a strong resemblance to other mental health issues, particularly depression. Because of this, people who are burned out often self-diagnose incorrectly. Part of this is due to fear or a lack of understanding of their condition. This can make the problem worse since those with burnout usually ignore the signs and continue working. Fortunately, burnout doesn’t come on suddenly. This means you can watch for signs and take preventative measures before it happens.

Who gets career burnout?

Burnout mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work.

Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: you can only “burn out” if you have been “alight” in the first place.

While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment. It is not experienced by people who can take a more cynical view of their work.

Anyone who feels overworked and undervalued is at risk for burnout. There is little doubt that it is a symptom of modern workplaces that are increasingly fast-paced, complex and demanding. At work, many employees feel overwhelmed by competing demands and conflicting expectations. And technology — especially mobile technology — has blurred the lines between home life and work life.

Signs of Burnout

Burnout is a gradual process. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it can creep up on you. The signs and symptoms are subtle at first but become worse as time goes on. Think of the early symptoms as red flags that something is wrong that needs to be addressed. If you pay attention and actively reduce your stress, you can prevent a major breakdown. If you ignore them, you’ll eventually burn out.

Once we can spot signs of burnout, we can act. So how do we recognize the warning signs of burnout? Here are some guidelines:

Physical Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Exhaustion: Feeling tired most of the time leading to feeling physically and emotionally drained

Insomnia: Part of what makes you exhausted is the fact you have trouble sleeping. It seems counterintuitive since exhaustion should lead to sleep. But people with work-related burnout are often kept awake by stress and concern about their job. They have problems relaxing and either find it difficult to fall asleep or they wake up many times during the night.

Loss of appetite: This may start with skipping a few meals so you can focus on work. After a while, however, it can develop into a complete loss of appetite. The resulting weight loss only feeds into that general feeling of exhaustion and depletion.

Weakened immune system: Burnout, like other long-term stress, can lower your immune system. It makes you more susceptible to colds, flu viruses and other kinds of infections.

Emotional Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Anxiety: It’s normal to feel worried and tense when you’re stressed about work. But as you move toward burnout, those feelings develop into anxiety, which can hamper both your professional and personal lives.

Irritability: The more you feel incapable of doing your work, the more frustrated you become. Before long you find yourself overreacting to the slightest annoyance. This only further damages your relationships with friends, family and work associates.

Cynicism:  Whereas you used to feel invested in your projects and the people with whom you work, you now feel detached. Maybe you’re developing negative attitudes about your work and even your teammates. You’re no longer feeling proud of the work you do and don’t want to put in that extra effort anymore — you want to do just enough to get by.

Feeling helpless and hopeless: As your energy levels drop and it becomes harder to concentrate, frustration and sadness set in. These can lead to feelings of hopelessness ending in depression. You might find that you no longer enjoy your work or even your home life, preferring to be alone rather than with family and friends.

Escape fantasies: Dissatisfied with the never-ending demands of their jobs, people with burnout may fantasize about running away or going on a solo vacation.

Behavioural Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Taking out frustration on others: Burnout can cause people to lose their cool with friends, co-workers, and family members more easily.  Coping with normal tasks like preparing for a meeting and doing household chores may also start to feel insurmountable.

Isolation: People with burnout tend to feel overwhelmed. As a result, they may stop socializing and confiding in friends, family members, and co-workers.

Using food, drugs, or alcohol to cope: In extreme cases, they may turn to drugs, alcohol, or food to numb their emotional pain.

Be aware of these signs. These are all things to look out for before it gets bad enough to cause a full-blown burnout meltdown. It’s also worth keeping in mind that everyone is different when it comes to burnout. These are general guidelines; you’ll need to take your own situation into account as well.

Our friends and partners at Bodyshot Performance have a great free resource with advice at each stage of the burnout spectrum, for you or for your teams.

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