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Understanding What Burnout Is- and How to Prevent It

Our daily lives are filled with many stressors which come from school, work, home, or our relationships. These stressors can lead us to take on too much, cause emotional depletion, or even have negative feelings about our job. We are here to bust some myths about burnout and share some strategies on how to cope before it gets serious.

So what exactly is burnout?

Burnout goes beyond just stress and exhaustion. Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and are unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. According to research, if burnout is left untreated, it can lead to other mental health disorders.

Burnout can be caused by work-related stressors or lifestyle stressors. One of the most common work-related stressors is when you feel you have no control over your work. You may also notice that you’re rarely recognized for your hard work, or receive zero feedback or any affirmation from your manager or coworkers. Most of us appreciate knowing how we’re doing, and this can take a huge toll over time Or perhaps you work for a high-pressure company where the systems are flawed and you're expected to complete an unhealthy amount of work.

Burnout can also creep into our lives as a result of lifestyle stressors. Maybe you are noticing a pattern when you work late nights and end up consistently canceling on your date night or girls' night out. Or maybe you are a recovering perfectionist who says yes when you really mean no. Caregiving is also a huge life stressor. Parenting or caring for aging or dependent adults in your home is incredibly taxing! You may find yourself struggling to ask for support from others when you need help. All of this stress adds up to chronic, emotional exhaustion.

Burnout is essentially what happens when we tell ourselves we aren’t human! We are denying ourselves of the human experience under prolonged periods of stress. Our bodies were designed to and deserve to rest.

Burnout can manifest and show up in sneaky different ways, so it's vital to be mindful of these signs.

You may be on the road to burnout if you experience these mental, emotional or physical experiences: You have trouble remembering key details or things that just happened. You find yourself procrastinating and avoiding work. You have difficulty sticking to your self-care routine, or find that it’s no longer helpful. You have trouble concentrating at work. You isolate yourself from your partner or kids after a long day. You rarely experience joy in your day-to-day. You feel emotionally disconnected from people close to you and at work. You fight the feeling of being overwhelmed constantly. You get the Sunday Scaries that ruin your Sunday. You feel so exhausted even though your exercise usually recharges you. You feel so depleted and have chronic pain or tension headaches. You have difficulty sleeping even when you are physically tired.

Whether you're conscious of them or not, all of these things can impact your actions and how you show up in both your personal and work life. They ultimately end up impacting your relationships. Ask yourself, “Have I started to withdraw from responsibilities or isolate myself from my teammates in the office?”

Recognizing the signs of burnout is a crucial first step in stopping the cycle of completion, coping, and regaining your power. Check out our healthy coping and prevention resources to help reduce the risk of burnout and boost your mental wellness.

Reassess Your Current Workload

Saying no and changing your workload is a difficult feat! It often involves sitting down with your manager or asking for a call with your boss. It requires us to have that hard conversation and ask if you can shift some of your workload to others. Hello overachievers! Asking for this may feel defeating–like you are letting yourself down. In these moments of discomfort, remind yourself that asking for a more balanced workload will allow you to gain back more moments of peace in your day-to-day. You’re not asking for a light workload; you’ve been doing way too much and are asking for a sustainable workload.

Schedule Time to Rest & Self-Care

Find a self-care activity that you actually enjoy. Self-care looks different for everyone and it does not have to mean giving yourself a manicure or taking a bubble bath with an eye mask. Self-care could be scheduling a daily mental health walk in nature or curling up with your favorite book for twenty minutes when winding down for the night. You could also engage in a mindfulness activity, such as journaling, deep breathing exercises or daily gratitude practice.

Rest is also rejuvenating when we begin to feel depleted in our lives. For each stressful or tiring activity, balance it with a scheduled moment of rest or reflection. For example, if you have a long meeting, take a five-minute break afterward to reset yourself.

Set Healthy Boundaries

Learning how to set boundaries can help us say no. This could mean stating that we need help before trying to overextend ourselves. It could also mean sticking to the boundaries you have set up for yourself around the times you will answer texts or work emails in the evening. And if you’re going to stick to those boundaries, you need to know what they are in the first place!

Take some time to think through the areas of your life that are causing the most burnout, and identify where your natural boundaries have already been broken. Let’s go with the example of being burnout out at work. You might write things down like, “my boss frequently emails me at 10 pm….oh…and then I respond to them.” There are two pieces here. One is talking with your boss about after-hours expectations. I totally understand that this could be an intimidating conversation. While some bosses are total workaholics with unreasonable expectations, others might be struggling with their own boundaries and appreciate the reminder. The other piece is recognizing that if you’re consistently answering those late-night emails, you’re breaking your own boundary! As you continue to think through what bothers you or is causing more stress, write down ways that you can change the pattern. Here, it's necessary that we give ourselves the gift of accountability.

If you’re looking for support with burnout or setting better boundaries at work the psychologists at North Berkeley Counseling are here to support you. We offer in person therapy in Berkeley, California, as well as online throughout California, Florida, Virginia, and Hawaii. Book your first session today!


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