Why You Need to Recognize the Warning Signs of Burnout ASAP, According to a Psychologist

According to a 2017 CareerBuilder survey, 61 percent of American workers reported feeling burned out in their current job, while 31 percent admitted to experiencing high or extremely high levels of stress at work. Knowing this, why aren't more people doing something about it? Well, burnout can be easily dismissed since it's not a medical term, and many don't think to take it seriously. The dangerous thing about burnout is that it can slowly creep up on you if you don't recognize the warning signs. And if you actively choose to ignore the red flags, you're endangering both your mental and physical health. To help us identify early symptoms, we spoke with Dr. Sherry Benton, psychologist and founder and chief science officer of online therapy service TAO Connect.

Signs of Early Burnout

  • Constant exhaustion that can't be medically explained.
  • Insomnia.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Headaches.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Digestive issues.
  • Irritability and/or anger.
  • Symptoms of anxiety disorder.
  • Symptoms of depression.

Causes of Burnout

Overworking isn't always the source for burnout, though it is a major contributor. Dr. Benton told POPSUGAR that it's really caused by "a person's lifestyle mismatch." In addition to not having a healthy work-life balance, you can also experience burnout from having work that isn't meaningful or work that doesn't provide you with the sense that what you're doing is worthwhile. Not having enough support or reinforcement in the workplace can also lead to burnout pretty quickly, Dr. Benton said. Working hard, long hours doesn't automatically burn you out, either. She continued to explain that if you find the work you're doing enjoyable and rewarding, you can actually feel energized rather than drained.

It's also important to view burnout from multiple angles. "Too often we think about mental health and mental illness as a single dimension, but the two are separate constructs," she said. "You can have a high level of mental health or a low level of mental health, and you can have more severe symptoms of mental illness or no symptoms."

For example, you may have a diagnosable disorder, such as major depression, that's managed with medication and treatment, while still having a high level of mental health in spite of that. You can also have a nondiagnosable disorder and have very low mental health, even though your symptoms wouldn't necessarily lead to a mental health diagnosis. "Burnout is often in the exact category," Dr. Benton said.

Although burnout is especially a chronic problem among students, according to Dr. Benton, professional workaholics aren't doing themselves any favors, either. Those who equate perfectionism with achievement are actually hurting their productivity.

"When that's your mindset, you arrive to the point of diminishing return," she said. "Your concentration falls apart, it's hard to focus, and every task you do becomes more difficult and more complicated. It affects your entire brain's memory system to try to work in a burnout state in a long period of time. You actually become far less effective, and you're making yourself less competent by not having that balance in your life."

Ways to Prevent It

Dr. Benton said that the best way to prevent burnout is to have "multiple sources of well-being." Physical activity, support from friends and family, a creative outlet, or simply doing more of what you love can make a significant difference. Actively working on your life balance is key to staying healthy in more ways than one and recovering from difficult life events. But the longer you try to tough it out without any of these positive sources will only make you more susceptible to burnout.

What to Do When You Are Burned Out

If you're already in a state of burnout, it's important to take some time for yourself. Dr. Benton suggested taking a vacation, going for a walk, and focusing on experiences rather than material possessions as a source of joy.

"We know from research [that] having more things, more money, more toys, bigger houses, better cars — those don't actually contribute to happiness and well-being," she said. "What does contribute to happiness and well-being is having experiences. They stimulate our brains in ways that improve concentration and memory."

Your ability to bounce back is dependent on how badly things got before you recognized it. If it's fairly fresh, taking a couple days to relax and recharge could very well do the trick. But if you've been running on empty for months, it may take a lot more effort than that.

Consequences of Ignoring Symptoms of Burnout

The longer you dismiss the signs, the worse it'll get. You'll find that your immune system is compromised, and you can also wind up with anxiety, depression, and other lifestyle-related illnesses if you don't address it in time. Burnout is not something to take lightly, so be sure to focus on self-care as needed!