How Do I Know if I’m Experiencing Burnout?

I’m burned out. Between the constant grind of school and work, moving, and the current state of my country, I am completely drained.

I am not alone. In 2021, 79% of U.S. employees reported experiencing work-related stress. Nearly 3 in 5 reported being negatively affected by work, including lack of energy, motivation, and cognitive fatigue.

There are many reasons for stress to pile up in modern life. Having constant access to the news 24/7, being isolated in individualistic cultures, collective traumas like the pandemic, a culture of productivity, and our personal history all contribute to this mass feeling of exhaustion.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome, not a disorder. This means that any person can experience it at some point in life and generally can process it without intervention from a professional.

To count as burnout, it needs to have three dimensions A person needs to be exhausted, experience cynicism or depersonalization, and have a negative self-view of performance.

Burnout is talked about in the literature solely as related to work. It was first coined to explain the collection of symptoms common among therapists and other service workers that experience chronic stress. Presumably, stressors outside of work can also cause burnout.

Burnout vs. trauma vs. depression

Burnout has a lot of shared symptoms with trauma and depression. It can make it difficult to pinpoint what the cause of the problem is and get proper treatment. Many people use the term burnout when they’re actually experiencing other issues.

The chart above is not exhaustive, and specific symptoms are subjective in where they fall.

Shared characteristics are exhaustion, depersonalization, cynicism, irritability, anxiety, helplessness, headaches, withdrawal from social, and numbness or emotional outbursts.

Some key differences about burnout are that it is usually short-term, that you can pinpoint the source of the stress, and that self-care can prevent it. You can also start with burnout, which leads to depression if prolonged enough.

If your symptoms last a while, you’re experiencing suicidality, you’re getting intrusive thoughts and flashbacks from the source of stress, you have physiological changes, or you’re feeling down most of the time, you should seek professional help. This would indicate you are not experiencing burnout but are experiencing something else.

Common causes of burnout

Something that is not often discussed in the context of burnout is that it is mainly organizational. We typically put it on people as their responsibility to fix their burnout when the organization has a climate that leads people to burnout.

Sweden provides employees paid time off for burnout and other stress-related illnesses. Burnout researchers found that although they got this time off to rest, many employees still didn’t want to return to the workplace. You cannot fix a poor organizational structure or fit by taking time off.

In one study, employees rated their bosses and found that for every point increase in leadership score, there was a 7% decrease in burnout and an 11% increase in job satisfaction.

The most common work structure factors that lead to job satisfaction or burnout are:

  • Workload – how much you’re doing
  • Reward – work incentives/meaning
  • Control – how much autonomy you have
  • Community – the work culture and relationships
  • Fairness – if employees are treated equally
  • Values – your personal values vs. the company’s

If any of the above areas is poor in a given work environment, you will experience stress and less job satisfaction.

Autistic burnout vs. occupational burnout

While autistic and occupational burnout shares a name, the two are distinct. Autistic burnout is a relatively recent term, so the clinical literature is sparse, but the available research points to autistic burnout being longer lasting (up to years), decreased tolerance to sensory stimuli, barriers to treatment preventing relief, and issues with living independently.

Autistic people can also experience occupational burnout, contributing to autistic burnout. The symptoms look similar, but autistic burnout is more severe and enduring.

Like other forms of minority stress, contributions to autistic burnout are the cumulative load of expectations combined with systemic barriers to treatment Things like masking, transitions, dealing with the debilitating parts of autism, and social expectations fray the rope of stress management. Being dismissed by others, poverty, poor boundaries and self-advocacy, and not taking a break causes no relief from the stressors.

More research needs to be done on the condition and the best recovery methods. The early research on autistic people’s perspectives indicates that setting boundaries, asking for help, doing wellness activities, and recognizing autistic traits/diagnosis all alleviate autistic burnout.

Solving Burnout

You’ve tried all the self-care under the sun, and you’re still burned out. You’ve been told repeatedly that you need to take time off to solve your problems when that would only lead to more problems. You’re stuck in a cycle of waking up, dreading work, going home, dreading work, and going to bed.

I get it. Burnout is really hard. And unfortunately, there isn’t a magical solution.

You cannot self-care your way out of burnout. Self-care is meant to be preventative, not an intervention.

The first question you have to answer is: is it me or my job? If you look at the lists above and see that your company is missing several crucial dimensions, it may be time to start job hunting. Trying to solve burnout when the organizational problem is like that art installation where the robot is trying to clean up a constant pool of blood.

If it’s not an organizational problem, here are some tips that can help.

  • Disconnect from your phone. Set digital wellness timers, limit the content you’re seeing, and take a break from the news.
  • Prioritize responsibilities. Think of your responsibilities as juggling balls. Some are made of glass, and others are made of plastic. Figure out which ones are glass and focus on making sure those don’t drop. You’ll be fine if you drop the plastic responsibilities for a bit.
  • Take your breaks at work. Use PTO. Think of it as investing in your productivity.
  • Talk to someone, preferably a therapist. Verbally processing your situation can help you realize what will work.
  • Have a physical outlet. Our bodies naturally try to physically shake off stress, but we often inhibit it. Animals shake in the wild to relieve acute stress.
  • Do the wellness activities you can. You can’t do everything, but choose what’s most important.
  • Set time between responses. Most communication doesn’t require an immediate response.
  • Engage the parasympathetic nervous system. “Tricking” your body into calming down will boost your energy and mood.
  • Do nothing. Boredom can be beneficial in sparking creativity and letting your mind rest.

Remember, you are worth more than your job. Your inherent value is not tied to your productivity. You are worth just as much when you’re burnout as when you’re at your peak productivity.

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