Professional exhaustion, or burnout, is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive stress. Burnout typically stems from the job, but can be caused by any situation that involves being overworked and undervalued.

Burnout is almost always caused by working too much and not dealing with stress and anxiety as it comes along. The stress and anxiety pile up. Each time something is not dealt with the body sends out a signal. It could be a headache, fatigue, illness, or muscle aches. Whatever the sign the body sends out is ignored and not dealt with. Over a period of time the body cannot handle it anymore and this is where burnout comes in. It is almost like the body just shuts down and waits to be taken care of before it starts to work properly again.

The most common cause of burnout is work. Work-related burnout is caused by having little or no control over your work, unclear or overly demanding expectations, lack of recognition for good work, doing work that is monotonous, and working in a high pressure environment. Professional exhaustion doesn’t happen overnight, which can make it difficult to spot. It grows over time, eventually producing feelings of failure, defeat, and detachment. Leaving these feelings alone only makes the problem worse. Trying to forge ahead as normal will only cause further physical, and more importantly, emotional damage.

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 & Elliott 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

It mainly strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard working and successful people – and it therefore holds a special fear for those who care passionately about their careers and about the work they do.

It is the person with passion, energy and dedication to the job that is most likely to suffer from this attitude.

Burnout is not stress

Unfortunately, burnout is often misunderstood and mislabeled – “I’m just stressed-out.” “It’s only a bit of depression.” When those words are spoken, it’s obvious burnout has been missed and dismissed.

Here’s the best way to understand the difference between stress and burnout…

Stress is an issue of too much, whereas burnout is about not enough.

There are many who take-on tons of stress, and they manage well because they can envision things turning around once they get their ducks in a row.

But burnout is about feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and inadequacy. And it’s tough to move forward under their spell.

There’s another stress/burnout distinguishing factor. You typically know when you’re in the midst of a ton of stress. Burnout, however, often flies under the radar. You know something’s wrong – but what? And that’s what makes burnout so dangerous.

Here are a few reasons:

  • Frustration - an employee starts off full of energy and optimism and pour their personal energy into a project, job or position and yet the results aren’t what they hoped for - this can cause them to stop trying.

  • Unappreciated - An employee can feel unappreciated if they work in an environment that doesn’t believe in positive reinforcement. Giving 110% every day is rewarding to these high achievers if recognized, but giving 110% with no return on that investment of energy will quickly lead to burnout. The lack of recognition in the workplace according to Potter, can manifest itself in: Inadequate pay and Underemployment.

  • Unrelenting Stress - No one can be “on” all the time. A person’s energy needs time to recharge or eventually their internal battery won’t take a charge anymore and you’ll have burn out. Back to back stressful projects or situations are sometimes unavoidable, but three times in a row with no end in sight? Only do it if you want to burn through employees and have a high turnover rate.

  • Overwhelmed - A high achiever often has a lot on their plate in multiple areas of their lives. It’s important for us to recognize our limits and realize that sacrificing sleep can only work for so long before our reserves are gone and burnout ensues.

  • External factors - Such as Being away from your family for too long or Traveling alone and living in motels.

Burnout and Personality

Research shows that introverts experience more stress than extraverts and feeling types experience more stress than thinking types. (Regarding stressors, the research shows there is no difference for the sensing/intuition or judging/perceiving preferences.) If introverts and feeling types experience more stress, does that mean they burn out more often, too?

Yes and no. Research indicates that introverts do burn out more than extraverts because introverts, on the average, do not have and use as many coping strategies as extraverts.

Symptoms of Burnout

Emotional symptoms include disillusionment with the job; the loss of a sense of meaning and cynicism towards our organizations or clients; feelings of helplessness; frustration of efforts and a lack of power to change events; strong feelings of anger against the people we hold responsible for the situation; and feelings of depression and isolation.

Behavioral symptoms can include increasing detachment from co-workers, increased absenteeism, an increased harshness in dealing with our teams, marked reduction in our commitment to our work, and increased alcohol consumption. These symptoms reflect exhaustion and a loss of satisfaction with work.

Tips to prevent Burnout

Get a life plan. What do you want in life? No small question. But a clear, exciting answer will provide context for your toils and support for your weary psyche.

Get into self-improvement. Burnout is a state of mind, not circumstantial. Improve on your attitude and you’ll be able to handle more than you think.

Exercise. No need to conjure up the discipline yourself; join a group (not a gym) where you are expected to show up with a fun bunch of people to work out in any way, shape or form on a regular basis.

Meditate. Sit and be quiet for a good 15 minutes, preferably every day. Try not to think about anything. If thoughts and words come into your brain, just escort them casually back out. Be sure to breathe deep while doing so.

Be thankful. List, preferably on paper, all the things you are thankful for in your life. Don’t stop until you’ve thought of at least 30 items. Do this regularly.

Learn to say no. A healthy person knows their limits. To them, “not wanting to do something” for someone is the same as not being able to do it. If it doesn’t feel right, say no.

Be nice. Nothing adds to energy and confidence like being nice to someone. But only be nice within the limits of what you’re capable of; too much will lead you straight to burnout.

If you are hit, take it positively

Sometimes, job burnout can be an opportunity. The opportunity burnout offers to us is to re-examine our lives, our careers, our workplaces, and planning where we are going.

So, what I do? First and foremost, you must recognize you are in a burnout state. Self-awareness is the first step in making a change.

Second, understanding that you and you alone, are ultimately are in control of your career. And although there might be less than ideal circumstances in your workplace, you are ultimately responsible for controlling your work destiny.

Looking at possibilities to grow outside your job might, in fact, enhance your job. Activities can range from taking classes to connecting with people.

Asking yourself, “Is my workplace the real culprit for job burnout or is it me?”

Look critically at your workplace. Is it a toxic workplace? Perhaps, you are in a unique pressure-cooker environment, with “No Way Out.” If that is the case, you need to look at your external options.

Are you doing what you like? Are you utilizing skills that you enjoy? Does your work give you a sense of purpose and mission? If you are out of touch with this aspect of your work, it is time to consider making a career change, small or large.

And finally, is my life and career balanced? Do I have opportunities with my family, friends, or hobbies? Or am I just working incessantly with no end in sight? Every job has its peaks and valleys, however, it is important to take time to refresh and replenish ourselves.

Life-Work balance is an issue that crops up all the time when workers are asked what do they look for in a good job or workplace. It is up to you to assertively find opportunities that will promote a healthy career and life style.

Think of a burnout crisis as a gift, one that helps inform us that something is out of kilter in our lives and we must look deeper within to find answers to its resolution. Without the burnout crisis, we may never feel prompted to finally answer some critical questions about our lives:

  • What am I trying to accomplish with my work life?
  • What are my key interests and does my work fit with them?
  • What are my key skills and does my work use them?
  • What are my core values about life balance, about family, about money, about the treatment of people? Is my work in synch with these?
  • Am I overworking? If so, why?
  • Where is the balance in my life between work and play?
  • How would I live my life if I no longer had to work?
  • What does work accomplish for me and what is it preventing me from accomplishing?
  • Can I shift the focus of my current work or should I look into another type of work?