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What Does Burnout FEEL Like?

Updated: Mar 14

Something I've noticed in burnt-out individuals is that they spend a lot of time wondering whether they are burnt out or not, then fail to listen to their gut response. This stops them taking action. My intention with this blog post is to answer the question "what does burnout feel like?" in the hope that anyone in early burnout can recognise the signs sooner and do something to halt the progression into deeper burnout and take steps to feel better.

What is burnout?

The World Health Organization (WHO) describes burnout as an occupational phenomenon, a syndrome* resulting from poorly managed, chronic workplace stress.

But many professionals working with burnt-out individuals like myself believe that this official definition is too narrow, invalidating the experience of millions of unpaid workers who don't work within a formal occupational setting. Such as parents, informal-carers and students. There is now research into burnout in all of these separate populations to help tailor interventions and support accordingly.

How Does Burnout Feel?

The three-prongs of burnout syndrome include:

1. Physical and emotional exhaustion. Feeling worn-out, drained, or lethargic. You might feel heavy or sluggish, or emotionally as though you have nothing left to give. People in burnout often report feeling stressed and overwhelmed; irritable or depressed. This can also slip into demotivation or reduced passion for work.

2. Feeling disengaged from your work or self. Feeling detached from work (cynical or caring less), and even zoning out. This can also reflect a more generalised difficulty in ‘feeling’ — a numbness sometimes described as compassion fatigue. Many people describe feeling like they're 'just going through the motions' at this point.

3. Reduced personal accomplishment. Feeling that what you do either doesn’t make a difference or gives you less satisfaction. Other ways this can manifest are the commonly reported experience of brain fog (struggling to concentrate or having unclear thinking) and becoming less productive (through procrastination or from making more mistakes).

You can experience these three prongs to differing degrees and there is a 5-stage model of burnout which shows the progression from mild stress into clinical burnout that I will share in a blog post next week.

But for now it's important to know that you don't need to have completely broken down to be considered burnt-out. If you are struggling with any of the above despite appearing to be function as normal then this still counts and you should listen to your internal signals as a sign to do something differently (read to the bottom of this post for that).

And importantly burnout isn't a one-size-fits-all concept; it can stem from different professional situations and personal predispositions. Research into therapist burnout by Barry Farber in the '80s gave us three distinct styles of burnout, which ones do you resonate with (it might be more than one!)?

Types of Burnout

1. Under-Stimulated Burnout (sometimes referred to as Bore-out) When we think of burnout, we often picture relentless workloads and frantic deadlines. However, monotonous, unchallenging work can be just as draining. Under-stimulated burnout emerges in environments lacking dynamism and challenge. It's a gradual process where the tedium begets a sense of disenchantment with work, leading to exhaustion, detachment, and becoming less effective (e.g. failing to prepare for meetings, skim reading documents etc).

For instance, a GP seeing an unvarying array of cases day in, day out, without engaging in diverse projects, might struggle with this form of burnout. People who have been in their role for a while and/or high-achievers are particularly susceptible, as their drive for challenge and fulfilment goes unmet.

The key to mitigating this type of burnout lies in integrating variety and challenge into one's professional life, through pursuits like continued learning, project diversification, or strategic job changes.

2. Over-Burdened Burnout Perhaps the most recognised form of burnout is this one. It is a by-product of our high-pressure work culture. It emerges when professional demands outweigh personal bandwidth, leading to a life where work overshadows everything else. Many modern professions, especially those in the public sector like teaching, social work, or healthcare, are rife with this burnout type, where staff reductions lead to overwhelming workloads for the remaining employees.

The trajectory here starts with physical exhaustion, evolves into emotional numbness, progresses into a diminished connection with personal and professional life, and culminates in a pervasive cynicism. Addressing this burnout requires a multifaceted approach: setting healthy work-life boundaries, learning to delegate and say no, and fostering a supportive professional environment.

Organisations (like companies, schools and wider systemic circles) also play a crucial role in acknowledging and addressing systemic issues contributing to over-burdening people.

3. Worn out Burnout (sometimes referred to as Brown-out) Less about workload or stimulation, worn-out burnout strikes at the core of one's personal sense of value and how aligned you are with the work you do. It surfaces when your work fundamentally clashes with your values or skews your ability to perform effectively in line with those. For instance, as a therapist in the NHS a few years ago I struggled with this when new targets were brought in to see more clients per week. I was restricted to offering fewer therapy sessions per client than I felt they needed in order to meet the targets.

This form of burnout starts with emotional exhaustion that, over time, can evolve into feeling detached, a subconscious effort to shield oneself from the negative emotions of the job. Combatting worn-out burnout necessitates realignment with one's values, which might involve advocating for systemic change, redefining job roles, or transitioning to roles or environments more congruent with one's core beliefs.

Finding Your Way Through Burnout Burnout, in all its forms, is a signal—not a sentence. It's a sign that something fundamental needs to shift in the level of demands made on you and support available, but also with how you relate to these pressures.

The research consistently shows that people who have skills in managing stress and responding sensitively to their distress recover more quickly and sustain positive changes. Take a look at my free 7 Steps To Recovery From Burnout here for some practical steps in this regard, it includes a free tapping tool for soothing your nervous system. There are also some top tips at the end of this blog post too.

You can also contact us to work with one of our psychologist on a bespoke plan.

Read Next:

👉 What's the difference between stress and burnout? (to be published in March 2024)

*A syndrome is not the same as a disorder. A syndrome is a collection of difficulties that co-occur but do not originate from a specific underlying cause, that is to say that burnout is not considered to be a medical condition.

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