*By Kat Boogaard
I can recall one specific time in my career when things became really—I mean really—difficult.
Trudging to my desk each morning felt like a feat of superhuman strength. Once I actually made it there, I’d stare at my laptop screen for minutes on end, just willing myself to get something accomplished. Even if I managed to make a decent dent in my to-do list for the day, I still felt hopeless—like I was stuck on this hamster wheel I’d never hop off of.
I vented to numerous loved ones about my workday woes, and they all had the same response: It sounds like you’re burnt out.
“Nah, that’s not true,” I’d respond nonchalantly. “Things have just been busy lately and I’m in a funk about it. I’ll bounce back.”
As I’m sure so many other people have, I brushed aside these red flags as normal work stress. A little bit of exhaustion, frustration, and anxiety was a standard part of working life, right? That’s why it came with a paycheck.
Spoiler alert: What I was feeling wasn’t actually justifiable stress. I really was teetering on the edge of full-fledged burnout, and (ironically) it took a lot of hard work and habit changes to bring myself back.
The experience itself was brutal, but it also made me realize that it’s incredibly difficult to identify the signs of burnout at work when they’re actually happening.
Despite the fact that “burnout” has become a bit of a buzzword, it’s still a tough concept to wrap our arms around—where’s the dividing line between normal stress and a larger problem? Read on for a guide to exactly what burnout is, the signs it’s happening, and what you can do when you realize you’re sliding down that slippery slope.
What Is Burnout…Really?
Unfortunately, there hasn’t always been one centralized definition of burnout to point to.
However, in May 2019, the World Health Organization announced the 11th revision of its International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD-11), which includes an updated and much more detailed entry on burnout. Previously defined only as a “state of vital exhaustion,” it’s now classified as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
The WHO emphasizes that burnout is specifically work-related—it “should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”—and is characterized by:
- A sense of exhaustion or depletion
- Mental distance from or negativity or cynicism about work
- Decreased effectiveness at work
This new description echoes some common themes that most researchers and experts tend to agree on.
“Burnout is when somebody just feels depleted from doing the task at hand,” says Alice Domar, PhD, Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health. “It happens when the demands being put upon you exceed the resources you have. The tank is empty.”
Domar points out that burnout is more than a bad day or a tough week—after all, every job has those. “Burnout tends to be when you just don’t have any good days, and it goes on for a long period of time,” she says.
What Are the Signs of Burnout?
Sure, you get the overall idea and understand that it’s something that persists for longer than a week or two. But it can still be challenging to turn the magnifying glass on yourself and recognize when you might be veering straight toward feeling burnt out at work.
Take it from someone who’s been there before: I totally get it. So let’s try to make things as black and white as possible by looking at a few of the most common and prevalent symptoms of burnout.
1. You Can’t Get Excited About Work Anymore
Domar explains that one of the telltale signs of burnout is a lack of interest or enthusiasm about what you’re doing.
Even the projects that used to make you feel fulfilled now leave you feeling completely depleted. “They don’t get the same level of satisfaction,” says Domar of people who are experiencing burnout. “They don’t get the same thrill if it goes well.”
In the worst case scenario, this attitude of indifference can extend beyond your work and negatively impact your interest in various aspects of your life outside of the office.
Put simply, if you’re struggling to muster up even a shred of enthusiasm for things that used to energize you, that’s a giant, waving red flag not just for burnout, but for depression. (If you think you might be depressed, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.)
2. You’ve Stopped Putting in the Effort
That lack of excitement often leads directly to a negative and even apathetic attitude.
“A lot of it is just not caring anymore,” Domar explains. “You think, ‘Okay, I’m going to go to work and I’m going to complete the tasks that are set in front of me. But I’m not going to put myself into it and I’m not going to go out of my way to improve it. I’m just going to do the bare minimum to get by.”
She adds that people who struggle with burnout are often those who have reputations as high achievers, so these signs of burnout on the job are typically a stark contrast when compared with their normal approach to their work.
*Kat is a Midwest-based freelance writer, covering topics related to careers, productivity, and the freelance life.
*This article first appeared on themuse.com website