The telltale signs of burnout at work
Burnout at work affects a lot of people – one study by Gallup found that over 60% of employees experience burnout at work. And it isn’t just people feeling burnt out all the time: 40% of people experience burnout occasionally, meaning they may not even know it’s happening. It not only hinders productivity at work but it makes life miserable. The problem, though, is that burnout can be hard to identify. It doesn’t show up with a neon sign or a like a big announcement on a loudspeaker. It creeps up on you, many times appearing as just having a rough day.
Since identifying burnout at work as early as possible is the best way to avoid its nasty effects, look at the common signs that you may be burning out. Keep reading to see what those signs are and what you can do about them.
12 – You can’t concentrate
If you’ve ever heard of getting into a “flow” zone, you know that humans are capable of immense concentration and focus. In just a couple hours of work, you can accomplish more than you get done in an entire day. You’re incredibly productive, you are super creative, and everything seems to flow easily.
But when you suddenly can’t concentrate (and that becomes your norm), you may be on the way to burnout. Things stop clicking. You can’t get into that “flow” zone, even when you put in a lot of effort. Now, this is not just having an off day. Everyone, even the most productive and healthy people in the world, have days where they can’t concentrate. It happens, and that’s ok.
There are a lot of environmental reasons why people have an off day. It could be as simple as sleeping in a weird position the night before, so your sleep quality was a bit lower. It’s important to remember that one off day does not mean you are burning out. But if it becomes a trend where one day turns into a week or a constant issue, then it could be leading to burnout.
What to do if you can’t concentrate at work: The first thing to do if you can’t concentrate at work is to see if any major environmental change that could be causing it. Did you get a new mattress? Start drinking an additional cup of coffee midday? Stop drinking coffee suddenly? Any other major changes in your life or workplace? All of these could be the cause of your lack of concentration. If there have been major changes, see what you can do to either get used to the changes or change things back. Oftentimes, getting used to a change is a matter of time, so try to be as patient as possible in this case.
If there haven’t been any major changes – or your lack of concentration feels deeper than that – try to make sure you know what you need to do each day. Write out task lists, clarify expectations, and make sure you know your key metrics. It may be a mental block causing your lack of concentration as well, so try these tips to unblock your mental block.
You may also just need to clear your head with something like going for a walk, meditation, or moving tasks and coming back later.
11 – You’re easily irritated
Sometimes annoying coworkers get the better of you and you lose your temper. Or you had a crappy day and you leave work angry. Maybe you got some harsh feedback, true or not, and it left you fuming. All of these are normal. Anger is a normal reaction for humans and can be very healthy – it usually is a signal that something needs to change. That could mean your actions, your attitude, or your environment, but anger itself is not a bad thing.
Being angry all the time, though, could be a sign that you’re burning out. Or if you’re usually a happy person but you’re irritable and things make you angry more quickly than they used to, you may be dealing with burnout at work. Perhaps every question coworkers ask you just… bugs you. Or receiving fair feedback sets you on edge.
Most people don’t think of themselves as angry people, so it can be tough to realize when you’re angry all the time. However, it can be a sign of burnout at work if everything gets to you. This is especially true when something that used to not matter to you now makes you angry.
What to do if things are bothering you all the time: If you’re facing a situation where everything is bugging you or irritating you, try to “talk” yourself through the situation. This can either be with a journal, by thinking through it, or by talking to yourself. It’s whatever you’re comfortable with. But the process is simple: re-explain what happened, using facts only, step by step.
For example, if a coworker asked a question that bothered you, replay the situation how it happened. Step 1: you sat down in your desk. Step 2: your coworker came over. Step 3: your coworker asked you about XYZ. Step 4: you got mad.
Oftentimes, walking back through the experience that bothered you will help you see that it’s not a big deal. Or, if it is a big deal, you can think more rationally about how to respond.
If you can’t take the time to think through everything in the moment (for example if the coworker is still there), do your best to walk through the situation as soon as you can. It may not help you calm down in that moment, but you begin to see patterns that can hopefully help you stop yourself from getting angry in the future.
10 – Yawning more than usual
Studies show yawning is contagious. When you see someone yawn, you’re more likely to yawn – even if you’re not tired. Yawning is also a natural human thing. We yawn mostly when tired or bored, but it can happen at any time. Yawning all the time, though, could be a signal that you’re burning out.
When you yawn all the time, it’s your body’s way or showing that it’s tired or disengaged. It is often one of the first things you notice. You may feel fine or be interested in what’s going on, but be yawning all the time.
If this happens, pay attention. Some people are “yawners” that yawn frequently for a variety of reasons. If you are someone who yawns a lot naturally, a couple extra ones may not be a problem. Further, there are many reasons why someone might be yawning a bit more than usual – it’s often that you’re simply tired. But if you suddenly find yourself yawning way more than usual, keep an eye out for potential burnout at work.
What to do if you’re yawning way more than usual at work: If you’re suddenly yawning way more than usual, look for ways to get a bit more rest. This doesn’t necessarily mean sleeping more, though that’s a big way to address the problem. But it does mean finding some time to rest throughout the day.
Some things you could try are:
This could simply be closing your eyes and breathing deeply for 3-5 minutes. Some meditations are guided, others use music, and others are totally quiet. You don’t have to follow any form you don’t want to, and even a few minutes a day could help your brain rest and reset.
Going for a walk
Believe it or not, a bit of physical activity helps you “rest”. It’s called “active rest” and it’s the idea that you do light activity to keep your body and mind moving, but not so much that it’s stressful. A short walk can help you reset your mind.
Booking time between meetings
Days of back to back meetings can take their toll, leaving you tired all the time. Taking a break between meetings – even 5 minutes – can help your mind reset and get ready for the next conversation.
9 – You get little illnesses more frequently
According to a study by WebMD, people get an average of four colds per year. These can range from the occasional sniffles to being laid up in bed for days. Some people get hit with colds worse than others, so it’s not always a horrible sign if you get a bad cold. The issue, however, is when you’re either sick far more frequently or illnesses are worse than they usually are.
While getting sick is normal for humans, burnout could be an issue if you find yourself always getting sick. Have a cold that you just can’t seem to shake? Or perhaps you usually just get a stuffy nose but suddenly you can’t get out of bed? You may be heading to burnout. This is because burnout affects some of the body’s natural defences. If all of your defences are lowered, it’s easier for you to get sick or be sicker than you usually get.
If this is the case for you, it’s important to take care of yourself and realize that you may be dealing with burnout at work.
What to do if you’re getting sick all the time: If you’re getting sick all the time, check to see if your environment has changed. Are you near sick people more frequently? Did your coworkers kid catch something they may pass to you? Did your office environment change? See if there are correlations you can look for – you only got sick after switching desks, for example. If there are any environmental things you think may be causing you get sick, adjust what you can.
Then make sure you take care of yourself. One of the best ways to get rid of an illness is to rest. Your body will be less stressed and therefore can dedicate all its defences to handling the illness. This could mean working from home, if possible, so you can be more comfortable and not worry about transit. This is also helpful for your coworkers, since you don’t want to get them sick. Also make sure your diet is healthy and filled with nutrients. That way you give your body the best “fuel” possible to keep you healthy and fit.
8 – You need more caffeine than ever
Many people joke that they can’t function without coffee. They say they need the caffeine to really wake up. According to one study by Zagat, people drink on average 3.1 cups of coffee per day. That is about a large or extra-large coffee at most major chains, which could easily be your daily order. Enjoying coffee and getting the extra boost from the caffeine is very common in the working world, so drinking a lot of it is not necessarily seen as a problem. There are even studies that look at the positive benefits of coffee for a variety of things.
If your jokes about not functioning without coffee turn into an all-day need for constant caffeine, you may be dealing with burnout at work. The same goes for other caffeinated or sugary beverages like soda or tea. Caffeine gives you a short-term boost in energy, which can help you start the day and get things going. But if you’re burning out, then you may be so tired that you need that short-term boost multiple times per day to make it through.
This leads to caffeine addiction, which carries its own symptoms like headaches and grogginess. It not only doesn’t feel good, it can get expensive. A study by NDP Group found the average coffee costs almost $3 dollars. Over a year, that’s about $750 dollars for one cup of coffee per day. If you suddenly need 2 or 3 (or 4), that’s thousands of extra dollars per year.
What to do if you need more caffeine than ever: Caffeine gives you a short-term boost in energy, so the best way to counteract the need for more caffeine is to find other short-term energy boosts. Start by tracking when you “crash” and need another cup of something. You may find it usually happens around the same times. Then think about alternatives.
A short cardio workout can boost energy, according to various experts. Or try a caffeinated beverage with less caffeine, for example a green tea over a double espresso. You could even try decaf, which gives you the placebo effect of tasting coffee but not actually drinking caffeine.
Since drinking a lot of caffeine disrupts sleep schedules, which continues the cycle of you feeling burnt out (and thus needing more caffeine), non-caffeinated alternatives will help you sleep better over time. This will in turn reduce your reliance on caffeine, bringing you back down to a healthier caffeine habit.
7 – Working out is harder than ever
A good workout can make a huge difference in energy levels. Many studies, including a well-known one by the University of Georgia, have found that one of the primary cures for exhaustion is to workout more. When you get the body moving, all sorts of good things happen.
That said, sometimes you may get through a workout and other days it might be tough. But if getting through your workout is harder than ever, you may be dealing with burnout.
A workout is supposed to be difficult – that’s how you gain muscle and endurance. If a workout is too easy, then you’re not really helping yourself that much. That’s not to say you have to do intense things, though. Even walking can be a good cardio workout, but it should be at a brisk pace to be the most helpful. You don’t need to be panting at the end of a workout or sweating a lot in order for it to be a good workout. However, burnout at work can creep into other areas. If you’re used to working out at a certain level and then that level becomes difficult or impossible to complete, pay attention.
What to do if working out becomes too difficult: The first step is to figure out your baseline. Everyone is different when it comes to working out, so the key is to look at your trends and consistency. It doesn’t matter if you’re using 10 lbs, 50 lbs, or 100 lbs for a lift – it’s whatever provides resistance and a good workout for you.
Once you know your baseline, think about if there have been any major changes to your workouts. Are you used to using 10 lbs but you moved to 15 lbs recently? That could be a reason your workout is tough to finish. In that case, the difficulty is a good thing. However, look at your overall trends of working out – how many times per week, length per workout, weights and exercise you use, and the water you drink.
If your trends are the same and you simply have way less energy, don’t stop working out! Adjust as you need to so that you’re not over-exhausting yourself. This can feel like a weakness, but remember that working out is for your benefit. It’s also a lifelong thing. So if you need to reduce the weights or take it a bit easier on the cardio, do it. If you are dealing with burnout, pushing yourself to the limit every time could result in major exhaustion or injury, both of which would push your training back far more than a few easy workouts.
6 – You zone out more than usual
We’ve all had those days where we’re “in the zone.” It feels great, you get a lot done, and everything seems to fall into place. There are also the average days. You may not be in the zone, but you’re still getting things done and it’s not a problem. In both high productivity days and regular days, people zone out. That’s normal. It’s healthy and useful, even, as one study from UC Santa Barbara found that zoning out allows your brain time to comprehend its surroundings.
Despite the high productivity of being in the zone and the potential benefits of zoning out, if you’re always zoning out, burnout may be creeping up. When you’re burning out, your body and brain are working in overdrive to keep you consistent. What used to be totally normal for you suddenly becomes difficult. And zoning out – not paying attention to anything in particular – is one very obvious symptom.
What to do when you’re zoning out more than usual: The first step is to recognize that it’s happening. Sometimes we can zone out for a few minutes without realizing it. Usually, you zone back “in” when someone asks you a question and you realize you didn’t hear a word they said.
Once you recognize what’s happening, do your best to remove all possible distractions. If you’re on your computer, make the page full screen so you don’t see popups and other pages. Turn off your phone or set it to airplane mode. Or, if you’re using your phone, don’t use anything else. By removing distractions, you stop the chance that your mind will wander to the distractions and not focus on what you’re doing.
If possible, set up your task to have frequent “reminders” or be consistently engaging. You can do this by making it a game for yourself. For example, if you’re writing, make a goal to write one paragraph then declare you’re done (silently, if you’re in a group setting). That way you remind yourself of the task at hand and encourage yourself to keep going. It may help you keep zoned in longer.
5 – Resting doesn’t recharge you
Sometimes, all you need to feel better is a good sleep or a day off. This rest can be anything – even a good workout can be considered a rest if it gives you the chance to feel calm. The feeling of a good rest is nothing short of amazing. Suddenly, difficult problems seem easier (or at least not as potentially damaging). You get new ideas. Hard challenges seem solvable. It’s fantastic.
If you’re dealing with burnout, though, it’s possible that a good rest isn’t good enough. If you’re taking enough time to rest and it’s still not recharging you, burnout may be creeping up on you.
When you rest, you give your body a chance to recover. This could be physically, from exhausting work or being on your feet all day. Or it could be mentally, for example after a long day of creative thinking. With burnout, though, you’re so over-extended that even a good rest isn’t enough.
What to do when resting doesn’t recharge you: If you find that normal amounts of rest don’t recharge you, it may be time to take a longer rest. This doesn’t need to be drastic. It could be as simple as not making plans for any evenings one week so you can go home and chill. You could also plan for an entire weekend of staying in and sleeping. This is a particularly helpful step if your weekends are usually jam-packed with activities. Getting more rest doesn’t always require taking days off. It could just mean re-adjusting your lifestyle temporarily to allow for more time to rest.
If lifestyle readjustments don’t help you rest and recuperate, then it may require a bit of time off. In some cases, one day may be enough. You may need a work from home day or a day completely off to sleep in, sit on the couch, and enjoy the day. If you can work from home or take a vacation day to properly rest, it may be a good idea.
If a full day off or away from the office isn’t helping, you may need a bit more time. At this point, it’s helpful to chat with your manager or boss to see what can be done. You don’t want to leave your job or under-deliver, but at the same time the current situation isn’t allowing you to deliver your best work. If you end up chatting with your boss about addressing the potential burnout, make sure you go with a mindset of looking for how you can recuperate and deliver – you’re not trying to find a way out of work.
4 – You have to set more alarms than before
Who hasn’t hit the snooze button a couple times before? A study by Sleep Junkie found that more than half of people hit snooze at least once. If you’re in that camp, don’t worry – it’s normal. The study also found that only a handful of people ever wake up feeling totally refreshed, so being a little tired in the morning is also fairly normal.
But if you suddenly find that hitting snooze once or twice turns into hitting snooze five or 6 times, it could be a sign of burnout.
When you’re dealing with burnout at work, a couple things happen. First, you’re going to be more tired because your body is running on fumes and is less able to hold energy. Second, you’re mentally going to want to avoid work, especially if it’s the cause of your burnout. That starts to look like not wanting to get out of bed and get ready… so you keep hitting snooze.
What to do if you keep hitting snooze: A main reason people hit snooze is because they are exhausted. Being burnt out doesn’t change that fact. If you’re hitting snooze a lot more than usual, try to get to bed earlier. It may help you get the extra rest you need to overcome exhaustion before it turns to burnout.
If sleeping earlier isn’t an option – life can take over that way – try to turn off all screens about an hour before bed. Don’t read something on your phone. Read a book. Avoid watching TV. Try cleaning or having a conversation with your roommates or partner. This will help your mind adjust the natural darkness of the night, potentially helping you get a deeper sleep.
Exhaustion and burnout can also cause you to toss and turn in bed, unable to fall asleep. It seems cruel, that being tired makes you less able to fall asleep, but it can happen. In these cases, deep breathing can really help your mind settle. Make sure to focus on your breath as that will help stop your mind from racing.
3 – Every new task fills you with dread
When you get asked to take on a new challenge at work, you’re likely feeling ok about it most of the time. Sure, you may be busy or have other things on the go, but a new challenge can be exciting. It’s also possible that you even asked for a new challenge at some point, perhaps as a part of your professional development.
If every new task fills you with dread, though, you may be dealing with burnout. It’s a common reaction when you’re exhausted or feeling like you’ve got too much on your plate.
Instead of reacting with excitement, or perhaps a logical decline because you truly are too busy with current work, you get angry or freak out internally. Even if you maintain a happy face on the outside, you might feel like you’re being taken advantage of, like no one values your work, or like you’ll never be able to finish the task on time and your other work. All of these feelings are part of feeling dread, so it may be tied to burnout.
What to do if new tasks fill you with dread: If your boss comes up and asks you to do something on top of your current work and the thought fills you with dread, try to push off accepting the task in the moment. Ask your boss if you can take a look at how the task fits into your other work so you can make sure you can deliver high quality work. It’s important here that you position it as you needing to make sure you can do a quality job. If you just tell your boss that you can’t take on the task with no reason, it may reflect poorly on you in a way that isn’t fair.
If you can’t avoid the task, make a plan for it. Look at all the elements of the task first before starting work. For example, if you got asked to write a blog post that would have the elements of research, outlining, drafting, and editing. Once you’ve broken down the task, you can see how small parts can get done over time. That way, the additional work won’t seem so daunting.
2 – Your muscles get sore even when you don’t workout
A good workout will usually leave you sore. That’s fairly common since you’re stressing and stretching your muscles in order to grow them. It’s totally normal and passes. Even elite athletes get sore after most workouts, so you’re not alone in that camp. But if soreness randomly pops up in your body with no explanation, that may be burnout. Usually, this random soreness appears without an additional workout or anything particularly strenuous. It just kind of… appears.
If you’re not changing your routines much but still get sore easily, it could be a sign that burnout is creeping up on you. When this happens, it can make sitting at your desk uncomfortable. Or it can feel more painful than sore, as if someone is pinching you somewhere or poking your body. Not only is it uncomfortable or painful in its own right, it can stop you from thinking clearly because it steals your focus away. This can lead to situations where you feel you aren’t able to work properly, and your work suffers.
What to do if your muscles get sore even when you don’t workout: When you’re working out, you handle soreness with stretching, rest, and lots of hydration. A similar approach can be used to help with muscle soreness (even if it’s not caused by working out).
Depending on what’s sore – shoulders, back, legs, etc. – there are tons of stretches that help you reduce tension or inflammation in the muscles. A quick Google (or Bing or Yahoo) search will show you many options, many with pictures. There are also many books on stretching. When you’re stretching, there are multiple different varieties, so don’t worry if you have any mobility issues – there’s a stretch you can probably do.
Rest is important as well, since sometimes you need to stop using the muscles in order to let them heal themselves. Even if you’re not working out, you’re using your muscles. Carrying a shoulder bag or purse can put pressure on your shoulders and neck, for instance. Sitting at a desk needing to hunch over to see your computer can put pressure on your upper back. If you stand at work, that’s using your legs all day and putting pressure on your feet. Whatever environment you work in, try to rest in the opposite position.
Hydration is also crucial. Water helps keep the body healthy, so it’s necessary that you’re drinking enough for you. If you work in a position (or live in an area) where you might sweat a lot, you may also be lacking electrolytes. In general, dehydration can be addressed by drinking more water. However, you may also need additional resources. If you’re concerned about anything, always consult your doctor.
1 – You get drunk faster
Most workplaces have events that involve alcohol. That could be an office social with beer and wine or a bar night where people are drinking all kinds of things. This is especially true in professional services and other offices where most people work at desks or on computers. While people who work in manual labour jobs may drink less on the job, people may still choose to drink after work or with friends.
Alcohol is a well-known part of working life, for better or worse. Most people who drink are able to have a couple drinks before feeling anything. But if you’re suddenly feeling drunk after far less alcohol than usual, you may be burning out.
Since burnout affects your body’s natural defences, it’s possible that your body is less efficient and you feel the alcohol more easily. That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re not processing it, but it could mean your body is exhausted and something like alcohol, which studies show leads to dehydration, can hit you particularly hard.
What to do if alcohol hits you faster than it did before: If you’re concerned about burnout and you’re suddenly getting drunk faster than you did before, it might be helpful to stop drinking for a little bit. While a bit of alcohol may make you feel happy or excited, which seems like the opposite of burnout, if it’s affecting you badly then stopping for a little bit – or cutting back – could be a great way to help.
If you can’t or don’t want to cut back on alcohol, match each alcoholic drink with a glass of water. So if you have a beer, have a water with it, for example. That way you rehydrate your body which studies show can help you stay healthier in the long-run over people who drink a lot but also don’t drink enough water.