Exhaustion isn’t just easy to identify, it’s actually pretty impossible to ignore. Fuzzy thinking, a short temper, drooping eyelids, and the need to practically hook yourself up to the coffee pot with an IV drip are all tried and tested signs that you’re physically spent.
But burnout is a more complex beast.
Sure, you can get physically burnt out and feel any of the above symptoms, but sometimes burnout is more about monotony, lack of motivation, empty creative reserves or the slow but steady accumulation of little stressors and slightly too long workdays. This sort of burnout can creep up on you, slowly changing the way you function at work and at home and go unrecognized until it reaches a final, critical stage.
So how can you recognize this sort of creeping burnout and intervene before it tanks your productivity, alters your personality, and compromises your physical and emotional health? Experts have suggestions. For the real deep dive, Mind Tools offers a 15-question burnout self-test to score and evaluate exactly how worn out you are. But Business Insider offered a more quick and dirty guide to the signs recently. The signals of impending burnout the post outlines include some that you may be less aware of:
Inability to concentrate: The post quotes David Ballard of The American Psychological Association, who explains that the human brain is only designed to handle short bursts of stress. “When stress becomes chronic, this narrow focus continues for a long time and we have difficulty paying attention to other things,” he says.
Guilt: “You’re constantly working, but can’t seem to get all of your work done (maybe because your work load is too heavy or you can’t concentrate) and you eventually feel guilty for not completing your work, which leads to working even more.”
Frequent mood changes: “A report published by the NASW Assurance Services, Inc., says that burnout may cause emotional exhaustion and a loss of a sense of personal accomplishment, and therefore lead to depersonalization, alienation, and depression,” reports BI.
Social isolation: Burnout leads to depression which can lead us to isolate ourselves from others which leads to yet more depression, and thus begins a vicious cycle. “When people are burnt out, they will start feeling ashamed about their work and will start to isolate themselves from others and decrease the number of social interactions they’re involved in,” says the post.
Increased drinking: “If you find yourself at happy hour a bit too much, this could be a coping mechanism to avoid all the feelings that are weighing you down. The Mayo Clinic asks potentially burnt out workers if they are using food, drugs, or alcohol.”
If all of this is setting off alarm bells of recognition, what can you do about it? If you’re adventurous (and solvent), taking a sabbatical is a radical cure that has a high likelihood of knocking you out of your rut. But if you, like many, are too tied down to empty your desk and strap on a backpack, there are other interventions that can help.
When addressing the topic of recovering from burnout, everyone from doctors to tapped out creative types to techies with marathon workweeks leads with the same key bit of advice– enlist the support of others. The first step to recovery is to get your mood and energy levels back up a bit and your perspective readjusted. Seeing loved ones is a surefire way to expand your focus beyond your work and raise your happiness levels (exercise, as always, also helps, but you knew that already).
Once that’s accomplished you should have the mental and physical resources to start thinking about more practical steps such as delegating more, developing a healthier relationship with your communication tools, setting boundaries a work or starting a side project or hobby.