12 Signs to Help Identify and Avoid Burnout

Unfortunately, it has become the norm to be chronically stressed out; sleep deprived, and in constant need of a holiday.  We experience stress when we don’t have the appropriate resources to deal with the demands placed upon us, and if left unchecked, can turn into something more sinister. Burnout is a more serious situation that tends to creep up without our awareness that it’s happening.

Those who have a strong drive for success, a passion for their work, or set perfectionist standards for themselves are the most susceptible and hardest hit.  Couple that with a lack of attention to self-care and we can soon find ourselves without the energy or interest to keep up the pace.  If left unchecked, burnout can become a serious mental health issue that may lead to feelings of hopelessness and suicidal thoughts. The following are twelve signs of burnout that may help identify the our potential for burnout and make the necessary changes to avoid it altogether…


1. A Drive for Success

It usually starts with a passion to help others or the drive to excel in a chosen career but, make no mistake, working long hours and taking on heavy workloads will eventually make us sick.  It’s common to see a higher rate of burnout in the helping professions like nursing or social work. Unfortunately, the passion to make a difference and help those in need overrides the need for self-care that leads the helper in need of help.  

It is important to understand that we are more susceptible to burnout when we are driven in our work. They key to avoiding burnout is to develop a self-care action plan that includes scheduled time for rest and re-creation.  This may be as simple as a long bath or could be a weekend away, but no matter how; taking regular breaks in our schedule to take care of ourselves is the number one prevention tool for burnout.


2. Chronic Fatigue

It is one thing to feel fatigued due to a sleepless night or lack of attention to nutrition, but another to be fatigued all the time no matter what we do.  We may go to bed early only to wake up tired, and without the energy to keep up during the day.  We may find ourselves overwhelmed with the smallest of tasks and begin to do less while calling in sick more.

Although chronic fatigue may slowly creep up on us, it serves as a red light that something’s wrong and needs to change.  If we become aware early enough, we can make the necessary changes to our schedules to help prevention complete burnout in the long run.

exhaustion fatigue

3. Lack of Focus

For those who have ever tried to focus on a task only to start thinking of something else, the lack of concentration can be quite frustrating. In fact, the inability to focus on tasks for long periods of time can be a symptom of stress or burnout.  This can result in missed deadlines at work, inability to achieve important goals, or procrastination.

Should this become an issue, there are many exercises one can do to enhance concentration and overcome the lack of focus.  Some simple suggestions may be turning off all other distractions such as email or divide a large task into smaller ones; taking it one step at a time.


4. Physical Symptoms

Burnout can have a devastating effect on our physical health.  From muscle aches and back pain to gastrointestinal problems and weight fluctuations, burnout can not only cause pain and discomfort, but lower our immune system.  Catching one cold or flu after the other is a sure sign our immune system is struggling to keep up.

Unfortunately, if burnout gets to this stage, the only thing we can do is stop (before our body does).  Reducing our workload and the demands placed upon us will be tough, but if we don’t attend to the physical symptoms, we will be inviting more serious health issues down the road.  Saying “no” more often, taking time outs, getting enough sleep, and practicing meditation or relaxation techniques are great ways to reverse this nasty effect of burnout.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

5. Anxiousness

Anxiety may be defined as worry, nervousness, or a feeling of dread or uncertainty and is another symptom of burnout.  Although anxiety may be related to other mental health issues, it may serve as a signal for us that we need to slow down.

Although some may need the assistance of medication, others may find respite through mind/body techniques such as meditation, deep breathing, and visualization exercises.  There are many techniques that can help anxiousness found online and in the bookstore or library.  


6. Insomnia

From lying awake all night thinking about work to waking up in the wee hours unable to go back to sleep, insomnia can have a very serious impact on our physical and mental health.  In fact, sleep deprivation can impair one’s cognition just like alcohol. Habitual sleeplessness can have a negative impact on our memory, eating habits, physical activity, overall energy levels and mood.

It may help the chronically sleep deprived to write down thoughts of anxiousness or stress before bedtime or practice a progressive muscle relaxation technique that may help slow the mind down.  Again, there are many great suggestions that may help online or consult a healthcare practitioner.


7. Depression

Not too surprising, depression and burnout are strongly related to each other.  As reported by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute in Quebec, similar symptoms of burnout also relate to depression.  From fatigue and muscle ache to lowered immune system and feelings of worthlessness, depression can manifest from burnout.

The difference between diagnosed depression and burnout is in the remedy. If one is challenged with depression due to burnout, the key would be reducing or eliminating the cause of the burnout.  If one is suffering from depression without burnout present, there may be a wide range of causes and removing workload or pressures may not make a difference.  Seeking out the support of a helping professional is a great way of determining the appropriate action.


8. Anger

We don’t have to search too long on social media before hitting a few clips of angry people.  Examples of road rage and other public displays of anger are everywhere.  Interestingly, anger is a secondary emotion and serves as a signal to us that something else is wrong.  Anger can result from feelings of sadness, fear, worry, and other overwhelming emotions.

By being in a state of burnout, the experience of such feelings may lead one to default to anger instead of sitting with the primary emotions.  The key to working through anger is taking the time to experience the emotions that are causing it.  This may mean taking time out of our busy schedule to seek emotional support or allow feelings of sadness to come to the surface.  Although it may be uncomfortable in the short term, it may help to prevent further burnout long term.

Angry Outbursts

9. Lack of Enjoyment

Although some of us may not love what we do for a living, we can find hobbies, social clubs, and recreational opportunities that bring us joy.  For those experiencing burnout, enjoyment is lost in all aspects of life.  From the joy we feel with family to riding our bikes in nature, it is stolen from us as we move deeper into burnout.

Once we realize this may be the case, it is important to take heed and scale back the workload. Although it may take some time before we can take pleasure in things again, eventually we will recover. Be patient, practice self-care, and don’t forget to ask for help if needed.


10. Isolation

When we are feeling overwhelmed, stressed, or burnt out, we have a tendency to shut ourselves off and retreat into our own space.  Isolation can be risky business when we are alone with our thoughts and can make a bad situation worse if we let it.  Feelings of not belonging or rejection can be made worse by cutting ourselves off from the world.

Negative self-talk can be reduced if we are able to challenge these thoughts.  Thoughts relating to feeling unloved or useless need to be nipped in the bud and replaced by thoughts more forgiving and kind (i.e., “I’m loveable and matter to people”).  If we are able to acknowledge our feelings and take the steps necessary to be with others, we may begin to feel more socially connected (and valued) soon enough.

SAD Light Therapy

11. Emotional Detachment

Emotional detachment, as it relates to burnout, occurs when we begin to remove ourselves emotionally from our work, family, and friends.  Related to isolation, detachment causes a general sense of disconnection from others and our environment. Signs of detachment can include taking more sick days than usual, not getting work done on time, and ceasing to return calls and emails.

This defence mechanism can be a result of burning the candle at both ends.  The good news is we can get back to being our socially connected selves once we are able to address the root of the problem and get back on the healthier path.


12. Feelings of Hopelessness

Hopelessness is like walking in dark tunnel without a light in the distance to guide us.  We don’t know what direction we are going, we don’t know when the light will come on, and we may start feeling like nothing is going to change. Depression and hopelessness are closely linked together and one of the more serious results of burnout.  

Once we get to this stage of burnout, it is difficult to get out by ourselves. While it is important to understand our feelings, it is equally important to talk to someone and/or seek the support of a clinical counsellor.  In time, through taking a step back from the workload and practicing self-care, hope will return and the light will come on.


Stress - Menstural


Kathi Cameron, MA, RCC

Kathi has worked in the health and fitness profession for over 25 years and holds a degree in Kinesiology with master’s degrees in exercise and sport psychology and clinical counselling. She is currently a corporate facilitator in health promotion on topics relating to exercise, mental health, and addiction awareness. She is a firm believer in the prescription of exercise for positive mental health and that good health can be enjoyed at every size.