Burnout in some form has probably existed as long as humans have walked the earth — guarding the village from predators couldn’t have been easy. But its contemporary form was defined in the 1970s by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, PhD, who listed three primary characteristics: physical and emotional exhaustion, a feeling of alienation from work that leads to cynicism and depersonalization, and a listlessness and inefficiency that begins to affect responsibilities in other areas of life.
“There seems to be a trajectory between just fatigue and when it really becomes burnout,” says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of Real Happiness at Work. “Burnout begins with exhaustion and then deepens into a sense of meaninglessness, of not deriving a sense of purpose anymore.”
The consequences can be serious for both individuals and society. Last year the World Health Organization began classifying burnout as a syndrome that increases the need for healthcare services.
That’s no surprise, since burnout can affect everyday aspects of health, such as sleep and diet. It can also lead to serious illnesses, including cardiovascular disease, depression and anxiety, and drug and alcohol dependence.
Burnout is also surprisingly common, affecting people in all types of jobs and positions, from minimum-wage service-industry workers to CEOs. A 2018 Gallup poll of 7,500 full-time employees revealed that 23 percent felt burnout symptoms often or always, with 44 percent feeling the effects at least sometimes. Burned-out employees are also 63 percent more likely to take a sick day and 23 percent more likely to visit the ER.
People who feel burned out often don’t realize how serious their situation is until it’s too late. George Mason University School of Business professor Mandy O’Neill, PhD, describes her own experience as a vague sense of not feeling like herself that gradually led to dwindling engagement. Eventually, it meant the shutdown of her “compassion valve.”
“I didn’t feel anything,” she recalls, describing the moment she realized she had burned out on teaching. “And my heart felt like coal.”
For most, the situation soon becomes self-reinforcing: Emotional withdrawal leads to greater disconnection from the things that make life and work worthwhile.
Burnout can afflict those laboring outside the conventional workplace, too, such as those caring for a chronically ill family member, or those raising children while holding down demanding jobs.
Paradoxically, burnout can’t occur without caring; what often begins with a deep desire to do a job well turns into a form of numbness. It resembles depression, but unlike depression, there’s traditionally been no diagnosis to spur people to take action.
Some healthcare providers and mental-health experts, however, are now taking a proactive approach to treating burnout.
“It really is about tools,” says Salzberg. “I was involved with a four-year program that brought loving-kindness meditation to front-line domestic-violence workers, and that morphed into work with humanitarian-aid workers. For me, recovery is about mindfulness of what we’re feeling, and greater understanding and self-care. It’s difficult, but we have to realize that self-care isn’t selfish. It’s essential.”
Causes and Effects
People who suffer from burnout tend to list more than one cause, but almost all describe a sense of being continually overwhelmed by responsibilities.
“There are two general categories for when people feel burnout,” explains psychiatrist James Gordon, MD, director of the Center for Mind–Body Medicine and author of The Transformation: Discovering Wholeness and Healing After Trauma. “There are those doing work that they actually really want to be doing, but who are overwhelmed by the stress and the workload. Then there’s another group simply doing work that is deeply unsatisfying to them.”
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, and similar triggers occur across a variety of occupations. It affects high-level professionals, service workers, paid and unpaid caregivers, and freelancers with multiple jobs in the gig economy. And not just them.
“I experienced burnout when I was in my doctoral program,” says choral conductor and music professor Amelia Nagoski, DMA, who felt sexism in her male-dominated field exacerbated the demands of her studies. “Halfway through, I ended up in the hospital for four days. They couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but it was just stress — having to stuff it all down until I learned to address it.”
Nagoski, along with her sister, sexual-health educator Emily Nagoski, PhD, channeled these experiences into Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. The book draws a sharp distinction between stressors and stress. They explain that certain negative stimuli — feeling disrespected at work, driven to produce without agency, absorbing others’ negative emotions or behavior — often trigger a physiological response that can become “stuck,” or unresolved.
“Chronically activated stress response means chronically increased blood pressure, which is like constantly turning a firehose on in your blood vessels,” they write. “We are not built to live in this state.” The stress response affects every organ system in the body, as well as digestion, immune function, and hormones.
Things get even tougher when financial worries compound the stress of burnout, as in many low-wage occupations. Journalist Emily Guendelsberger, who wrote about working several low-wage jobs in On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane, sounds the alarm about the pervasive effects of burnout for service workers.
“All you have to do is remove control and predictability — the exact things low-wage workers have been forced to sacrifice in the name of corporate efficiency and flexibility,” she writes. “Is it any surprise that it feels like the country’s losing its collective mind?”
What Can Be Done
To battle burnout, Gordon and other experts believe it’s important to summon a sense of hope — because the situation is workable.
“The first thing to understand is that it is possible to deal with burnout,” Gordon says. “As somebody who has worked with thousands of people who have gone through it, I have seen these people make the change.”
The shift starts with small steps to rebuild the body and spirit. These are some of the components of a successful transition:
The lack of sleep can contribute to many aspects of burnout, including brain fog. One study, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, found that sleep-deprived subjects were as judgment-impaired as an intoxicated person. Sufficient sleep, meanwhile, gives the body the time it needs to perform vital repair functions.
Salzberg suggests carving out specific times for mental rest as well, along with mindfulness practices and journaling. These can help you gain perspective on your situation and approach it with a fresh eye.
Seek ways to “complete the stress cycle.”
When early humans faced stress, it usually corresponded to a mortal threat — like a predator. If they successfully avoided death, they celebrated with their community, eating, dancing, then sleeping. All of this triggered their parasympathetic “rest and digest” systems and allowed them to complete the stress response that kicked in when that lion first started chasing them.
Today, however — and especially in burnout situations, when one tends to be stressed around the clock — we rarely complete the cycle, or resolve the stress reactions within the body. The Nagoskis strongly recommend finding ways to bring stress full circle so the alarm system can turn off.
Begin by doing “literally anything that moves your body enough to get you breathing deeply,” they suggest. That could be as simple as 10 jumping jacks, a brisk walk around the block, or a three-minute dance party. Once you’re back in your body, find ways to connect with others, ideally in ways that involve belly laughter and physical affection. Social engagement helps resolve the stress cycle and bring the body back into alignment.
Emphasize friendships both at and outside of work, says O’Neill. She specifically suggests seeking chances to laugh with your colleagues on the job. Not only does this help release stress, but it also fosters the supportive bonds that improve working conditions.
Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing and mindfulness practices can calm a racing mind and slow down a churning nervous system. When you’re especially anxious, try the 4–7–8 breathing exercise, derived from yogic breathing: Inhale for a count of four, hold the breath for seven beats, then exhale for a count of eight. This exercise helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Consider your options.
When we’re burned out, it can be easy to succumb to feelings of helplessness. Although most of us probably can’t change a tough situation overnight, there may be steps we can take to improve things. Can you hire someone to help you care for your ill family member? Can you start a childcare trade with some other parent friends? Can you do more to steer clear of that toxic person at work? Can you start polishing up your résumé? Is there someone you can ask for help with any of the tasks weighing you down? Can you, if necessary, quit and work somewhere else?
Find a creative outlet for your distress rather than just stuffing it or grousing to your friends or spouse. Recovery depends on breaking repetitive internal loops and finding new ways to view your situation, such as perceiving your challenges with more curiosity than rigidity.
To tap unconscious strategies, Gordon promotes techniques like writing out a dialogue with your job or drawing solutions to your feelings of being trapped. He also teaches mindfulness, soft-belly breathing, and uninhibited shaking and dancing. “After a couple of days or a couple of weeks, you can be in a place where there’s more balance,” he says. “Then you can use your imagination to explore what’s going on.”
Reshape your job.
Sometimes there’s room at work for changing your responsibilities so they align more closely with your strengths and talents — or just to give you a chance to play a less frustrating role. Collaborating with a supervisor to adjust your workload, consciously rearrange your work relationships, or redefine your job can, as the Harvard Business Review points out, “give companies a different way to motivate and retain their most talented employees.”
If you’re a family caregiver, is there someone else who’s sharing the load with you? Could you trade some tasks with that person so you’re both doing something new?
Take a sabbatical.
Does your job allow for a leave or time away? People in academic fields traditionally take sabbaticals to work on their research, but many companies have begun to recognize the wisdom of this approach. Creating distance from your current situation might enable you to come back recharged. (For more, see “Sabbatical Stories”.)
In some cases, you may not be able to leave your job or relinquish a caretaking responsibility, whether because of financial necessity or physical impossibility. If you don’t provide care for your aging parent, for example, no one will.
In these cases, it might be helpful to reframe the situation in terms of your values. What larger values does this commitment serve? Who do you want to be and how does this allow you to be that person? Will this situation last forever or is there an end in sight — and how do you want to look back on this? In short, what is the meaning here?
“Meaning has the potential to make your life much easier,” says Amelia Nagoski. “Finding meaning is the source of renewal and nourishment.”|
What to Say (and Not Say) When Someone You Love Is Burned Out
Maybe your loved one seems more irritable than usual, flat or out of sorts, more negative about work, or projecting an unusually careless attitude in general. It can be difficult to know how to respond to someone’s burnout, but how you approach the situation can make a difference.
- Start with listening. Your loved one may be feeling unseen or unappreciated at work. Some gentle questions (“How’s work going?” “How does that make you feel?”) will get the dialogue going.
- Be constructive. Try to preface your response with something positive. Talk about how he or she excels at work when given the right support or recall a recent achievement before engaging with any negative feelings.
- Frame positive requests. Because they’re feeling boxed in already, people experiencing burnout can shut down when given advice. Framing suggestions as questions (“Do you think you would be able to talk to your supervisor?” “Is there anything I or anyone else can do to support you?”) can help them feel some agency.
- Maintain your boundaries. Many of us have the impulse to jump in and empathize by stoking negative feelings or grievances. Try to offer understanding for frustrations or trapped feelings while suggesting that there might be more options than are apparent at the moment.
- Try not to call it burnout. While making resources on burnout (like this article!) available would be helpful, keeping the conversation from dwelling on the term will help your loved one focus on being a dynamic, evolving person rather than a condition.
Burnout in the Caring Professions
Caregivers and others who work with people in distress and trauma on a regular basis have intensely emotional jobs. Though their exhaustion is often identified as burnout, many experts put it in its own category: vicarious trauma.
“With vicarious trauma, there really is a permanent shift in one’s worldview,” says Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, MSW, author of The Age of Overwhelm: Strategies for the Long Haul. “Once you’ve experienced and borne witness to trauma, you don’t go back to a time of not knowing.”
The effects of vicarious trauma can be profound for those it affects — as well as their friends and family. Many begin to suppress their emotions when faced with suffering. They may also engage in inappropriate behavior and experience isolation, nightmares, and flashbacks.
As with burnout, people suffering from vicarious trauma might see their job performance suffer, but because their work often involves caring for others, the consequences can be far-reaching.
“This is a situation of great suffering and intractability, trying to deal with a system unresponsive to people’s needs,” says mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg, who has worked with burned-out caregivers. “One through line is a feeling of being unappreciated. And in many situations where people need clarity, balance, and equanimity, there’s often very little, and that exacerbates the exhaustion.”
Van Dernoot Lipsky emphasizes the complex interplay of factors for people in caring occupations. Many individuals attracted to this work have experienced trauma in their own lives, or they struggle with lifelong patterns of putting others’ needs before their own. Their intense desire to help others at their own expense can lead to a spiritual and physical state of distress.
While she acknowledges that the situation is complex and difficult to resolve, she does offer hope. “The goal is to create the conditions to help you metabolize what you’ve borne witness to,” she says. “Over time, it can contribute to even more compassion and deeper empathy.”
This originally appeared as “Braving Burnout” in the March 2020 print issue of Experience Life.