When we set out to get our first job, most of us imagine our dream job — one that feels fulfilling, leaves us happy and rewards us financially for our efforts. However, as many workers find out, work can become overwhelming and stressful — leaving us mentally and physically exhausted instead.
This feeling has a name: burnout. Burnout is not a medical diagnosis, but it’s very real and can have a negative impact on our health and wellness. It’s important for all of us to understand what burnout looks like and what we can do to manage its impact.
What Is Burnout?
According to the World Health Organization, burnout results from chronic work stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout is characterized by:
- Emotional and physical exhaustion
- A sense of reduced accomplishment
- Feelings of cynicism and negativity
- A loss of personal identity
Burnout is work-related, but it doesn’t just apply to people in suits in high-powered positions. Burnout can affect a stay-at-home parent or a caretaker who is exhausted from caring for others and managing the household. Burnout often impacts those in helping professions, such as health care and teaching, where the mental and emotional toll can be heavy.
Burnout can look different for everyone, but here are some things to consider:
It’s important for all of us to understand what burnout looks like and what we can do to manage its impact.
- Do you get any satisfaction from your job anymore?
- Are you easily irritated and frustrated?
- Do you have trouble getting motivated?
- Are you having trouble sleeping?
- Are you using alcohol, drugs or food to help you cope with how you feel?
- Do you have unexplained headaches, stomachaches or other physical reactions to your stress?
- Do you feel like you’ve lost sight of yourself and your goals?
- Are you constantly tired, stressed and tense?
These can be signs of burnout, but they can also be signs of another mental health condition. If you find that nothing helps to relieve these feelings, you should talk to your health care provider about what you’re experiencing and see if there could be something more going on.
Why Does Burnout Happen?
Burnout isn’t a sign of weakness. It doesn’t mean you can’t handle things that other people can. Here are some common reasons people may experience burnout:
- A lack of control — Maybe you feel like you don’t have enough control over your schedule, your workload or how you spend your time.
- Unclear expectations at work — Maybe you’re constantly on edge because you don’t really know what’s expected of you.
- Unhealthy relationships — Being around people who are negative or critical can make you feel like you’re constantly tense, ready to defend yourself.
- Work-life balance — Maybe you work extremely long hours and don’t feel like you have enough time to do things for yourself. Maybe you’ve had to give up exercise, a hobby, friends or a social life.
- A lack of support — When you have a tough job and don’t feel like you have anyone to lean on or turn to for help, it can be very isolating.
- Too much pressure — Maybe the people around you have set unrealistic expectations for what you’re supposed to do each day. Maybe you’re overworked and don’t have the energy to do it all anymore.
How Does Burnout Affect My Health?
Burnout can impact your health in negative ways. The stress related to burnout can:
- Raise your blood pressure
- Increase your risk for type 2 diabetes
- Make you more vulnerable to illness
- Increase inflammation in your body
High blood pressure and inflammation have an impact on your heart and its health. In addition, when you’re burned out you may make lifestyle choices that negatively impact your health as you try to deal with it. You may feel too exhausted to exercise, you may overeat to help you cope or turn to drinking or drugs to escape.
How Can I Manage My Burnout?
Taking action to address how you feel is the first step. Here are some suggestions:
- Explore what’s causing it. You might know exactly what’s causing your burnout, but sometimes it can be hard to pinpoint. Is it your boss? Your work-life balance? Is it the emotional toll of taking care of a loved one? If you can better understand what’s causing your exhaustion, you can try to address it.
- Identify small changes you can make immediately. The big picture might not be solved in a day, like a brand-new job, but what can you do to improve your immediate situation? Can you get a particular project reassigned? Can you say no to something? Reevaluate your commitments and see if there are things you can cancel or remove from your plate.
- Seek support from others. Sometimes we just have to ask for help. Reach out to a co-worker, your partner, a family member or a friend. If you’re struggling, open up and let people know. You can also explore if your work has any support programs you can access.
- Find a way to relax that works for you. If you’ve given up a lot of other aspects of your life, it’s time to figure out how to add something back in that relaxes you. Maybe it’s yoga, a phone call with friends or exercise. Sometimes even 10 minutes a day of “me time” is enough to break the cycle of burnout.
- Maintain healthy habits. Regular exercise and restorative sleep are important ways to combat stress and boost your immune system. Movement and activity can help you reduce your stress levels, and sleep can help restore your well-being and give you a better outlook on life.
- Find time to breathe. More people are turning to meditation as a way to deal with stress. Breathing exercises can be done anytime, anywhere and can help us reduce our blood pressure and anxiety. Check out Mindfulness and Meditation: An Easy Guide for Getting Started for some tips.
- Set limits and boundaries. With access to technology, it can be hard to know when to stop working. Technology allows us to keep working over dinner, late into the night and all the time in between. Set some limits. Maybe it’s the first hour of the morning you decide to claim is yours, or maybe it’s the last hour of the night. Either way, set boundaries to give yourself a break.
- Practice self-care. It’s important to make time for yourself and find ways to recharge. If you don’t, you won’t have the energy to keep up with your job or to help others. It’s not selfish to take time for yourself.
- Get professional help. You may need someone who can guide you in healthy coping mechanisms and stress-reducing strategies, or help you uncover anything deeper that may be going on. If these strategies don’t do anything to relieve your burnout, talk to your health care provider about your symptoms and come up with a plan together.
What Resources Are Available to Help?
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers a Whole Health approach that centers your health care around what matters to you. You can create a personalized health care plan, access self-care resources and much more.
- VA also offers a number of services through the Caregiver Support Program to support family caregivers, including peer support mentoring, skills training, telephone support and referrals to other resources.
- Make the Connection offers stories from other Veterans about work-related challenges and how they’ve managed to cope.
Resetting yourself after burnout can take time and patience. But by choosing to address it, you’ve already taken the first step.