In December of 2015, I moved my family 3,000 miles across the country to take a new job. In August of 2016—a mere eight months later—I quit my new job. But I didn’t quit for a new, higher-paying job, and I didn’t give a notice. I just stopped going. I didn’t show up for work one day, and I never went back.
Here’s what happened: I woke up one morning to get ready for work, and my brain and body went on strike. It was like that point after eating too much when your body refuses to swallow another bite. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to go to work; it was that I couldn’t.
I didn’t know how to explain it to anyone—not my boss, my coworkers, or my friends and family back home who’d listened to me rave about the new position for three months before moving. "I just couldn’t do it anymore" sounds weak or lazy, and I’m neither. The truth was that I didn’t even really understand what happened.
Then a few weeks ago, I read a piece on Medium—Let’s Talk About Burnout"—by Stacey King Gordon who told a familiar story. After turning her freelancing job into a business and growing it to a nearly million-dollar company, she just walked away. The reason: burnout.
What Is Burnout?
"Burnout is the car crash you don’t see coming." – Stacey King Gordon
I always thought of burnout as just being tired of something. For example: "Pizza used to be my favorite food, but I just burned out on it." I was wrong.
Burnout is an actual psychological disorder caused by chronic stress. The term was coined in the 1970s by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who noticed the symptoms of burnout in volunteers at a free clinic for drug addicts. Over time, the formerly cheerful and energetic volunteers became exhausted and resentful of their patients.
The commonly cited symptoms of burnout include "an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment, and a sense of professional ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment." But these are just the ways that burnout manifests itself in daily life. Behind the scenes, chronic stress actually alters the structure of the brain.
Studies have shown that chronic stress thins the frontal cortex—a process normally associated with aging. As a result, burnout isn’t just something that happens and ends.
Burnout has long-term effects on memory, creativity, and attention spans. Additionally, people who’ve experienced burnout have less control over their negative emotions, meaning they become stressed more quickly and easily than individuals with a healthy brain.
Chronic stress has even been known to cause young professionals to suffer from strokes—a medical condition that primarily occurs in people over 65.
But perhaps more disconcerting than the short- and long-term consequences of burnout is its ability to go unnoticed. According to Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter: "Burnout doesn't happen suddenly. You don't wake up one morning and all of a sudden ‘have burnout.’ Its nature is much more insidious, creeping up on us over time like a slow leak."
For this reason, it’s crucial to recognize the signs of burnout before it’s too late.
10 Major Signs of Burnout
Stacey King Gordon explains that the signs that she was heading for burnout were fairly obvious. She began suffering from insomnia, anxiety, and depression. She fought with her husband, stopped hanging out with friends, and felt alone—as though no one understood what she was going through.
My own symptoms weren’t quite so harsh, but the signs were there long before I moved cross-country. Sundays—once my favorite day of the week—were no longer enjoyable. I spent the entire day dreading work and feeling resentful that the weekend was over, even though it wasn’t over yet. I started feeling nauseous every morning while driving to work.
My solution to the problem was to take a job 3,000 miles away. The problem with my solution was that the job was pretty much the same thing I’d been doing for three years—just with more responsibility and complexity. I changed nothing but the wallpaper.
The burnout only worsened with the new job. The same old symptoms resurfaced after about three months, and then new ones developed. Tiny things infuriated me, and I felt incapable of doing my job, which led me to stop caring. All I ever wanted to do was watch TV because it kept me from thinking.
I ignored the signs because I thought they were the result of some defect in my personality. I never once attributed them to stress. But all of these symptoms are pretty typical signs of burnout:
Fatigue – You feel physically or emotionally exhausted. You stop exercising, start sleeping more, or fill your mind with distractions to avoid your own thoughts.
Insomnia – You have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep and commonly dream about work. Those dreams are occasionally—or frequently—nightmares.
Addiction – You pick up smoking again, start drinking more heavily, begin using drugs, or gain weight due to overeating.
Loneliness – You feel alone even when you aren’t. No one understands what you’re going through, and even if they do understand, they don’t really seem to care.
Feelings of Inadequacy – You feel unqualified for your job, like someone made a mistake hiring you. You may also feel like a terrible spouse, parent, child, or friend.
Anger – Inconsequential things infuriate you. You may have road rage, and you may find yourself in frequent arguments with coworkers, family, and friends.
Cynicism – You believe you’ll fail, so you have a hard time convincing yourself to start or try anything. You may also be overly critical of your coworkers' or boss’s ideas.
Numbness – You stop celebrating birthdays or holidays, and no longer find joy in professional accomplishments.
Illness – You have headaches, feel as though you’re having heart or breathing problems (likely from anxiety), or feel nauseous in anticipation of going to work.
Short Attention Span – You struggle to get started on tasks, miss deadlines, or procrastinate uncharacteristically.
Of course, any of these symptoms could be signs of general stress, but as Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter says, "These signs and symptoms exist along a continuum. In other words, the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree, which means that the earlier you recognize the signs, the better able you will be to avoid burnout."
Stress vs. Burnout
If the difference between stress and burnout is the degree to which you’re experiencing symptoms, it’s important to understand how to differentiate between the signs of stress and the signs of burnout. The chart below shows some possible stages along the continuum. Use it to evaluate where you might be on the burnout spectrum.
Signs of Stress
Signs of Burnout
You are less energetic and feel tired most days.
You are physically and emotionally exhausted and dread doing everything.
You occasionally have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.
You have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep more often than not, possibly even nightly.
You begin having a glass of wine after a stressful day to relax before bed.
You feel as though you’re incapable of relaxing without having a drink.
You go out less often and take fewer lunches with coworkers.
You go out of your way to avoid talking to others and may get frustrated when people talk to you or invite you out.
You speak up in meetings and/or volunteer for projects less often.
You feel as though all of your work outputs are garbage and wonder why you were hired.
Brainstorming or debating with coworkers irritates you, and conversations may be tense.
You have angry outbursts at work, hide in the bathroom to cry, or get into heated arguments with coworkers.
Your formally optimistic perspective has been replaced by pessimism.
You not only feel like nothing will work, you think it’s stupid to even try or consider things.
You dread going to work and spend most of the day looking forward to leaving.
You feel ill at the idea of going to work, and you don’t even look forward to your personal time with friends and family.
You have headaches more frequently and either call in or work from home more often.
You’re often sick with colds, infections, the flu, or other illnesses because of a weakened immune system.
Short Attention Span
You forget things and have trouble paying attention during meetings and presentations.
You cannot focus on anything—possibly at work and home—causing a pile of up work and neglected responsibilities.
Note: This chart was compiled using data from Dr. Sherrie Bourg Carter and the Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research.
If you’re experiencing multiple signs of stress, take steps immediately to limit your stress to avoid progressing into burnout. Get more exercise, limit the amount of overtime you work, make sure to get a healthy amount of sleep regularly, and—if possible—transition some responsibilities to someone else.
Related: The Art of Delegating
If you’re experiencing even one symptom of burnout, get help before chronic stress causes irreparable damage. First, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional to make sure what you’re experiencing is burnout and not a more serious condition.
Next, evaluate the causes of your stress, and take steps to stop doing the things that are causing your symptoms. As Dr. Carter says: "Burnout isn't like the flu; it doesn't go away after a few weeks unless you make some changes in your life. And as hard as that may seem, it's the smartest thing to do."
Avoiding burnout may mean going to your boss and having a painfully honest conversation, or it may mean finding a job that’s better suited to your personality, sensibilities, or interests.
Recognizing Symptomatic Behaviors Is Also Key
By conventional definitions of success, I was successful. By any sane definition of success, if you are lying in your own pool of blood on your office floor, you are not successful
A former boss used to hound me constantly about doing other people’s work for them. He wanted me to intentionally let things fail to highlight the problems our department was encountering.
I stressed for months over every part of a project. I did anything anyone asked of me—sometimes secretly so my boss wouldn’t find out. I worked evenings and weekends; took my company laptop with me on vacation. All of the stress seemed worth it in the end when I felt the pride of accomplishing a goal.
I couldn’t see my own burnout because I kept telling myself the stress was temporary. Once the project was finished, once I was settled in my new home and job, and once I hit the next goal, the stress would subside. But it was never long after hitting a goal before I began anxiously pursuing another.
In an interview with Oprah, Arianna Huffington once spoke about her own experience with burnout—how she collapsed in her office and badly cut her eye in the process. There was nothing medically wrong with her. Her collapse was the result of chronic stress.
So she asked herself, "What is success?" And her answer was, "By conventional definitions of success, I was successful. By any sane definition of success, if you are lying in your own pool of blood on your office floor, you are not successful."
It’s easy to view the signs of burnout as temporary, to convince yourself that they’re necessary for success or to minimize them for a time with the excitement of something new. For that reason, it’s important to also watch for behaviors that might put you at risk for burnout and not just the symptoms:
Working overtime frequently.
Working while you’re on vacation, even if you’re just "catching up on email."
Checking work email in the evening, over the weekend, or as you roll out of bed.* Accepting new work/projects even when you’re already at capacity or overburdened.
Taking time away from sleep to get caught up.
But perhaps the biggest warning sign is rationalizing the causes of your stress. High stress might feel like a constant in your life, but it's not normal. Even driven high-achievers need time for self-care.
Remember: Burning Out Doesn’t Mean You’re Weak, Incapable, or a Failure
This is my own Achilles’ heel when it comes to burnout. While writing this piece, I’ve had to talk myself out of deleting everything and starting over several times, thinking that I shouldn’t make my own weakness so public and permanent.
But I know that it’s not a weakness and that I’m not a failure even if I feel differently. There is ample evidence proving that people who’ve suffered from burnout move on to be highly successful in future roles.
There’s the anonymous businessman in this Harvard Business Review article who went on to become the CEO of a major corporation.
There’s Arianna Huffington who, after collapsing from burnout in 2007, went on to build such an influential digital property that AOL purchased it for $315 million a mere four years later.
And finally, there’s Hillary Clinton who, after experiencing burnout during her first presidential campaign against Barack Obama in 2008, went on to serve as Secretary of State, and very nearly became the first female president of the U.S.
People don’t burn out because they’re weak. They burn out because they overdo it and live with stress for so long that their bodies take over in defense. But by the time the body takes over, it’s usually too late. Even after making professional and personal changes, the effects of burnout might linger for a lifetime.
If you’re experiencing some of the signs of burnout, make changes to reduce your levels of stress. And if you’re not sure whether or not the stress you’re experiencing is normal, talk to a doctor. If nothing else, the conversation may be able to provide you with some much-needed perspective on your own definition of what it takes to be successful.
For ideas on how to reduce stress in your personal and professional life, check out these other stories: