Preventing Burnout: How To Identify and Avoid It

By Jennifer Herrity

Updated May 12, 2022 | Published December 12, 2019

Updated May 12, 2022

Published December 12, 2019

Jennifer Herrity is a seasoned career services professional with 12+ years of experience in career coaching, recruiting and leadership roles with the purpose of helping others to find their best-fit jobs. She helps people navigate the job search process through one-on-one career coaching, webinars, workshops, articles and career advice videos on Indeed's YouTube channel.

Related: How To Prevent Burnout While Working Your Remote Job

In this video, Sinead shares five ways you can prevent burnout while working from home, from setting your schedule to creating time to recharge.

Sometimes your desire to do well in your job and succeed in your career can lead to unnecessary burnout. While ambition to achieve your career goals is a good thing, you should watch for unhealthy work habits, like answering emails at all hours of the night or otherwise making yourself always available. These types of habits can easily lead to burnout unless you pay careful attention to the symptoms.

In this article, we will help you identify the symptoms of burnout and offer strategies to prevent burnout before it happens.

a dejected-looking person rests their chin in their hands while looking at a screen

What is burnout?

Burnout is a special form of chronic stress usually associated with overworking. It happens when you work a large number of hours over a long period of time. People who tend to overachieve are particularly prone to burnout, but it can happen to anyone feeling the pressure to succeed.

For example, if you are working on a difficult project and feel pressured to complete it on time, stress can quickly become burnout. People with pressing financial obligations who work multiple jobs are also candidates for burnout.

The term “burnout” is not a medical diagnosis, but it is a very real condition. Its symptoms bear a strong resemblance to other mental health issues, particularly depression. Because of this, people who are burned out often self-diagnose incorrectly. Part of this is due to fear or a lack of understanding of their condition, but this can make the problem worse since those with burnout usually ignore the signs and continue working.

Fortunately, burnout doesn’t come on suddenly. This means you can watch for signs and take preventative measures before it happens.

Related: How To De-Stress at Work

Signs of burnout

Both emotional and physical signs usually indicate that you’re headed for burnout. If you develop several of the following symptoms over a prolonged period, pay attention to what your body is telling you:

  • Exhaustion: This isn’t simply being tired. Exhaustion from burnout starts with being tired every day but eventually leads to feeling physically and emotionally drained. You have no energy and are reluctant to go back to work.

  • Insomnia: Part of what makes you exhausted is the fact you have trouble sleeping. It seems counterintuitive since exhaustion should lead to sleep. But people with work-related burnout are often kept awake by stress and concern about their job. They have problems relaxing and either find it difficult to fall asleep or they wake up multiple times during the night.

  • Lack of focus: This level of tiredness makes it hard to concentrate at work. Over time this can seriously affect your productivity, leading to mistakes and eventually difficulty doing your job.

  • Forgetfulness: Exhaustion and lack of focus lead to forgetfulness. You might only be forgetting minor things, but the frequency with which you forget should alert you that something is wrong.

  • Loss of appetite: This may start with skipping a few meals so you can focus on work. After a while, however, it can develop into a complete loss of appetite. The resulting weight loss only feeds into that general feeling of exhaustion and depletion.

  • Physical pains: Mental stress can have physical side effects. It’s not uncommon for people with burnout to feel muscle tension and headaches, or even migraines. Digestive issues can result from either bad eating habits or increased acidity due to stress. Chest pains and dizziness are also common with burnout.

  • Weakened immune system: One of the effects of exhaustion is a greater susceptibility to colds, flu viruses and other kinds of infections.

  • Psychological effects: Burnout exposes you to mental health issues that, if not dealt with early, may eventually require professional help. As your energy levels drop and it becomes harder to concentrate, frustration and sadness set in. These can lead to feelings of hopelessness ending in depression. You might find that you no longer enjoy your work or even your home life, preferring to be alone rather than with family and friends.

  • Anxiety: It’s normal to feel worried and tense when you’re stressed about work. But as you move toward burnout, those feelings develop into anxiety, which can hamper both your professional and personal lives.

  • Irritability: The more you feel incapable of doing your work, the more frustrated you become. Before long you find yourself overreacting to the slightest annoyance. This only further damages your relationships with friends, family and work associates.

  • Cynicism: Whereas you used to feel invested in your projects and the people with whom you work, you now feel detached. Maybe you’re developing negative attitudes about your work and even your teammates. You’re no longer feeling proud of the work you do and don’t want to put in that extra effort anymore — you want to do just enough to get by.

Related: 16 Tips for When You're Stressed About Work

How to prevent burnout

If you’re displaying a number of the aforementioned symptoms, you could be headed for burnout. Here are nine strategies to help you avoid burnout and regain a healthy perspective on your work:

  1. Learn to say no

  2. Get enough sleep

  3. Talk to friends

  4. Leave your work at work

  5. Take breaks

  6. Eat lunch somewhere other than at your desk

  7. Get enough exercise

  8. Treat yourself

  9. Talk to your manager

1. Learn to say no

You might be the kind of person who likes to do things for others, often called a people pleaser. However, this trait can lead to burnout in the office.

For the sake of your health, don’t be afraid to say no. Try to be diplomatic. For example, you can see if one of your colleagues can take the work instead, or forward the work request to your manager to assign. If your manager is the one asking you to do additional work, have an honest conversation about your workload.

Related: ​​What Can I Expect From My Manager At Work? Examples and Tips

2. Get enough sleep

Help prevent burnout by making sure you get a good night’s natural sleep. That means sleep that isn’t helped by off-the-shelf or prescription sleep aids. While these may be effective in sending you to sleep, they interfere with the body’s natural sleep cycle and affect sleep quality.

3. Talk to friends

Stress and overwork often lead to isolation. You don’t want to be around people, partly because you don’t have time. But you also don’t want the added stress of being sociable. However, the company of friends might be exactly what you need.

Schedule time to get away from work and be around people who care about you and will listen as you talk about your frustrations and stresses. You might even be able to relax and have fun.

4. Leave your work at work

People close to burnout often take their work home with them. When they do this, they take the stress and pressure of the office, too. Not only is this not good for your mental health if done regularly, but it might also add stress to your home life.

You need your home to be a place of refuge and comfort. Protect that space and leave the pressures of work at the office.

Related: How To Achieve a Healthy Work-Life Balance

5. Take breaks

Force yourself to step away from your desk and take time out of your work day. Get up and move around — grab a coffee refill, take a short walk, play with a pet — at least every hour or two. Spend a few minutes looking at something other than a screen and thinking about something other than work. Put time for yourself on your calendar every day and use that time to meditate or journal.

Related: How To Manage Long Days at Work: Tips for Work and Home

6. Eat lunch somewhere other than at your desk

When you are under pressure to get work done, it’s easy to either eat at your desk while you work or skip lunch altogether. Instead, schedule your lunchtime on your calendar so you have a reminder when it is time to eat.

Then take a full lunch break, whether it’s half an hour or an hour. If you can’t afford to eat out for lunch every day, pack a lunch but eat it at the work cafeteria or somewhere other than your office. If it’s nice outside, take a walk and find somewhere you can sit and eat in peace.

7. Get enough exercise

Not only is regular exercise a good way to relieve stress, but it also gets you away from your desk and doing something other than work. Go for a run before work or check out a gym class to find the method that works best for you. Exercise should help lift your mood and positively impact your quality of life.

8. Treat yourself

Include things in your schedule that will not only take your mind off of work but will make you smile. Schedule a daily ice cream break or an after-hours drink at the end of the week. When you finish an important project milestone, celebrate. Take the family out for a meal or book a weekend away from home.

9. Talk to your manager

If you believe you’re beginning to show symptoms of burnout, talk to your manager as soon as you can. See if some of your work can be given to others. It’s in your manager’s best interest to keep you healthy and productive, so they should work with you for the good of the team.

Related: What To Do When You're Feeling Overworked

Is it stress or burnout?

You might be second-guessing if the way you’re feeling is as severe as burnout, or just everyday stress. Sometimes, people miss that burnout is happening entirely, but some common patterns are sure indicators of burnout versus stress.

Stress Burnout
Beginning stages of burnout Caused by prolonged and excessive stress
Characterized by loss of energy Characterized by loss of motivation
Accompanied by a sense of urgency Accompanied by feelings of hopelessness
Overengaging in work or tasks Disengaging from work or tasks
More physical symptoms Physical and emotional symptoms
Overreacting emotionally Reacting without or with less emotion

Some ways of pinpointing burnout include asking yourself the following. If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, it’s likely burnout:

  • Are my days mostly “bad” ones instead of “good”?

  • Am I no longer feeling challenged or excited by my work?

  • Am I lacking motivation?

  • Am I always exhausted?

  • Am I consistently feeling unrecognized for the work I do put in?

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