Burnout in some form has probably existed as long as humans have walked the earth — guarding the village from predators couldn’t happen to be easy. But its contemporary form was defined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, PhD, who listed three primary characteristics: emotional and physical exhaustion, a feeling of alienation from work leading to cynicism and depersonalization, and a listlessness and inefficiency that starts to affect responsibilities in other areas of life.
“There seems to be a trajectory between just fatigue so when it really becomes burnout,” says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work. “Burnout begins with exhaustion and then deepens right into a sense of meaninglessness, of not deriving a feeling of purpose anymore.”
The consequences can be serious for both individuals and society. This past year the World Health Organization began classifying burnout like a syndrome that increases the need for healthcare services.
That’s no surprise, since burnout can affect everyday aspects of health, such as sleep and diet. Additionally, it may lead to serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, and drug and alcohol dependence.
Burnout is also surprisingly common, affecting people in all types of jobs and positions, from minimum-wage service-industry workers to CEOs. A 2021 Gallup poll of seven,500 full-time employees revealed that 23 percent felt burnout symptoms often or always, with 44 percent feeling the results at least sometimes. Burned-out employees are also 63 percent more prone to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit the ER.
People who feel burned out often don’t realize how serious their situation is until it’s past too far. George Mason University School of Business professor Mandy O’Neill, PhD, describes her very own experience as a vague feeling of not feeling like herself that gradually resulted in dwindling engagement. Eventually, it meant the shutdown of her “compassion valve.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” she recalls, describing as soon as she realized she had burned out on teaching. “And my heart felt like coal.”
For most, the problem soon becomes self-reinforcing: Emotional withdrawal results in greater disconnection from the things that make life and work worthwhile.
Burnout can afflict those laboring outside the conventional workplace, too, for example those caring for a chronically ill family member, or those raising children while holding down demanding jobs.
Paradoxically, burnout can’t occur without caring; what often starts with a deep desire to do a job well becomes a form of numbness. It resembles depression, but unlike depression, there’s traditionally been no diagnosis to spur individuals to take action.
Some healthcare providers and mental-health experts, however, are actually taking a proactive approach to treating burnout.
“It truly is about tools,” says Salzberg. “I had been involved with a four-year program that brought loving-kindness meditation to front-line domestic-violence workers, which morphed into work with humanitarian-aid workers. For me, recovery is about mindfulness of what we’re feeling, and greater understanding and self-care. It’s difficult, but we must realize that self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential.”
Causes and Effects
People who suffer from burnout tend to list several cause, but almost all describe a sense of being continually overwhelmed by responsibilities.
“There's two general categories for when people feel burnout,” explains psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, director from the Center for Mind–Body Medicine and author from the Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. “You will find those doing work that they actually really want to be doing, but who are overwhelmed by the stress and the workload. Then there’s another group simply carrying out work that is deeply unsatisfying to them.”
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and other alike triggers occur across a number of occupations. It affects high-level professionals, service workers, paid and unpaid caregivers, and freelancers with multiple jobs within the gig economy. And not just them.
“I experienced burnout when I was in my doctoral program,” says choral conductor and music professor Amelia Nagoski, DMA, who felt sexism in her own male-dominated field exacerbated the demands of her studies. “Halfway through, I finished up in the hospital for four days. They couldn’t evaluate which was wrong, but it was just stress — having to stuff it all down until I learned to deal with it.”
Nagoski, along with her sister, sexual-health educator Emily Nagoski, PhD, channeled these experiences into Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. It draws a sharp distinction between stressors and stress. They explain that particular negative stimuli — feeling disrespected at the office, driven to produce without agency, absorbing others’ negative emotions or behavior — often trigger a physiological response that may become “stuck,” or unresolved.
“Chronically activated stress response means chronically increased blood pressure level, which is like constantly turning a firehose on in your blood vessels,” they write. “We're not built to live in this state.” The stress response affects every organ system in the body, as well as digestion, immune function, and hormones.
Things get even tougher when financial worries compound the stress of burnout, as in many low-wage occupations. Journalist Emily Guendelsberger, who wrote about working several low-wage jobs in Around the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did in my experience and How It Drives America Insane, sounds the alarm about the pervasive effects of burnout for service workers.
“All you have to do is remove control and predictability — the exact things low-wage workers have been forced to sacrifice in the name of corporate efficiency and flexibility,” she writes. “Is it any surprise it feels like the country’s losing its collective mind?”
What Could be Done
To battle burnout, Gordon and other experts believe it's important to summon a sense of hope – since the situation is workable.
“The very first thing to understand is that it is possible to deal with burnout,” Gordon says. “As somebody who has caused thousands of people who have gone through it, I've come across these people make the change.”
The shift begins with small steps to rebuild the body and spirit. These are a few of the components of a successful transition:
The insomnia can contribute to many aspects of burnout, including brain fog. One study, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, discovered that sleep-deprived subjects were as judgment-impaired as an intoxicated person. Sufficient sleep, meanwhile, provides the body the time it needs to perform vital repair functions.
Salzberg suggests carving out specific times for mental rest too, along with mindfulness practices and journaling. These may help you gain perspective in your situation and approach it with a fresh eye.
Seek ways to “complete the strain cycle.”
When early humans faced stress, it always corresponded to a mortal threat – just like a predator. If they successfully avoided death, they celebrated using their community, eating, dancing, then sleeping. All this triggered their parasympathetic “rest and digest” systems and allowed them to complete the stress response that kicked in when that lion first started chasing them.
Today, however – and particularly in burnout situations, when one is commonly stressed around the clock – we rarely complete the cycle, or resolve the stress reactions within the body. The Nagoskis highly recommend finding ways to bring stress full circle so the alarm system can turn off.
Begin by doing “literally something that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply,” they suggest. That could be as simple as 10 jumping jacks, a brisk walk neighborhood, or a three-minute dance party. Once you're back in your body, find ways to interact with others, ideally in ways that involve belly laughter and physical affection. Social engagement helps resolve the stress cycle and bring the body back to alignment.
Emphasize friendships both at and out of doors of work, says O'Neill. She specifically suggests seeking chances to laugh together with your colleagues on the job. Not only does this help release stress, it fosters the supportive bonds that improve working conditions.
Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing and mindfulness practices can calm a racing mind and decelerate a churning nervous system. When you're especially anxious, try the 4 -7 -8 breathing exercise, derived from yogic breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for seven beats, then exhale for a count of eight. This exercise helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Consider your options.
When we're burned out, it may be easy to succumb to feelings of helplessness. Although the majority of us probably can't change a difficult situation overnight, there may be steps we are able to take to improve things. Are you able to hire someone to help you care for your ill member of the family? Can you start a childcare trade with some other parent friends? Can you do more to steer free from that toxic person at work? Can you start polishing up your résumé? Is there someone you can people for assistance with any of the tasks weighing you down? Are you able to, if necessary, quit and work somewhere else?
Find a creative outlet for the distress rather than just stuffing it or grousing to your friends or spouse. Recovery depends on breaking repetitive internal loops and finding new ways to view your situation, such as perceiving your challenges with increased curiosity than rigidity.
To tap unconscious strategies, Gordon promotes techniques like writing out a dialogue together with your job or drawing solutions to your feelings of being trapped. Also, he teaches mindfulness, soft-belly breathing, and uninhibited shaking and dancing. “After a couple of days or a couple of weeks, you can be in a place where there's more balance,” he states. “Then you can use your imagination to explore what's going on.”
Reshape your job.
Sometimes there's room at work for changing your responsibilities so they align more closely together with your strengths and talents – or simply to give you a chance to play a less frustrating role. Collaborating having a supervisor to adjust your workload, consciously rearrange your work relationships, or redefine your work can, as the Harvard Business Review highlights, “give companies a different way to motivate and retain their most talented employees.”
If you are a family caregiver, is there another person who's sharing the load along with you? Could you trade some tasks with this person so you're both doing new things?
Take a sabbatical.
Does your job allow for a leave or time away? People in academic fields traditionally take sabbaticals to work on their research, but many companies have begun to recognize the wisdom of this approach. Creating distance out of your current situation might enable you to return recharged. (For more, see “Sabbatical Stories”.)
In some cases, you may not be able to leave your work or relinquish a caretaking responsibility, whether due to financial necessity or physical impossibility. If you don't provide care for your aging parent, for instance, no one will.
In these cases, it may be helpful to reframe the situation in terms of your values. What larger values performs this commitment serve? Who do you need to be and how does this allow you to be that person? Will this situation last forever or is there an end in sight – and how do you want to look back on this? In short, what is the meaning here?
“Meaning can make your life much easier,” says Amelia Nagoski. “Finding meaning is the source of renewal and nourishment.”
What to Say (and Not Say) When Someone You Love Is Burned Out
Maybe your loved one seems more irritable than normal, flat or out of sorts, more negative about work, or projecting an unusually careless attitude in general. It can be difficult to know how to react to someone's burnout, but how you approach the situation can make a difference.
- Start with listening. Your loved one may be feeling unseen or unappreciated at work. Some gentle questions (“How's work going?” “How does that make you feel?”) will get the dialogue going.
- Be constructive. Try to preface your response with something positive. Talk about how he or she excels at work when given the right support or recall a current achievement before engaging with any negativity.
- Frame positive requests. Because they're feeling boxed in already, people experiencing burnout can shut down when given advice. Framing suggestions as questions (“Do you believe you would be able to talk to your supervisor?” “Is there anything I or other people can do to support you?”) can help them feel some agency.
- Maintain your boundaries. Many of us have the impulse to jump in and empathize by stoking negative feelings or grievances. Try to offer understanding for frustrations or trapped feelings while suggesting there might be more options than are apparent at the moment.
- Try not to call it burnout. While making resources on burnout (such as this article!) available would be helpful, keeping the conversation from dwelling around the term will help your loved one focus on being a dynamic, evolving person rather than a condition.
Burnout in the Caring Professions
Caregivers and others who work with people in distress and trauma on a regular basis have intensely emotional jobs. Though their exhaustion is often identified as burnout, many experts put it in the own category: vicarious trauma.
“With vicarious trauma, there is indeed a permanent shift in one's worldview,” says Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, MSW, author of The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul. “Once you've experienced and borne witness to trauma, you do not go back to a time of not knowing.”
The effects of vicarious trauma can be profound for those it affects – in addition to their friends and family. Many begin to suppress their emotions when faced with suffering. They may also participate in inappropriate behavior and experience isolation, nightmares, and flashbacks.
As with burnout, people suffering from vicarious trauma might see their job performance suffer, but as their work often involves caring for others, the consequences can be far-reaching.
“This is a situation of great suffering and intractability, attempting to deal with a system unresponsive to people's needs,” says mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg, who has worked with burned-out caregivers. “One through line is a feeling of being unappreciated. And in many situations where people need clarity, balance, and equanimity, there's often very little, and that exacerbates the exhaustion.”
Van Dernoot Lipsky emphasizes the complex interplay of things for people in caring occupations. Many individuals attracted to this work have experienced trauma in their own individual lives, or they struggle with lifelong patterns of putting others' needs before their own. Their intense desire to help others at their own expense can lead to a spiritual and physical state of distress.
While she acknowledges the situation is complex and difficult to resolve, she does offer hope. “The goal would be to create the conditions to help you metabolize what you've borne witness to,” she says. “Over time, it can contribute to even more compassion and deeper empathy.”