Your Guide to Burnout & How to Spot It

So, you’ve come here to learn about burnout, welcome! Since you’re here, I’ll bet there’s a good chance that you are (or suspect you may be) experiencing burnout on some level. First, I commend you for stopping by to explore more — we can’t begin to do something about burnout if we don’t understand what it is and how it shows up in our lives. With that, you’re already on the path to being more in control. 

Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress,” and because so much goes into it, it will present itself differently based on the individual. And although we may experience it in our own unique way, one thing is universal; burnout impacts our joy, health, and wellbeing. So during our time together, we will address just that, while honoring the varied experiences out there.

By the end of this article, you’ll have a better understanding of what burnout is, what it means in the mind and body, and some obvious and not so obvious signs to look out for.

The Background on Burnout

Although the concept of overdoing it is timeless, the idea of “burnout” dates back to 1970 when Herbert Freudenberger coined the term to describe the impact of “severe stress and high ideals” in the “helping industry.”  It was used to define the unmatched exhaustion workers primarily in the medical industry (doctors, nurses, and caregivers) were experiencing. The term burnout has evolved since then. The World Health Organization (WHO) has officially recognized it as an “occupational phenomenon,” and “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” And with the rise of the pandemic, burnout is more widely discussed than ever before.

Burnout in Numbers 

If any of what we discuss feels familiar to you, you are far from alone. The data shows that burnout is at an all-time high across the globe and various industries. Here are some notable statistics that researchers have gathered over the past year: 

  • In the US, a whopping 67% of workers surveyed reported signs of burnout in the past year. 80% of those respondents believe that COVID-19 has worsened their feelings of burnout. 

  • One UK study surveyed 40,000 staff across 114 organizations and found the wellbeing of 41% of employees had got worse during the pandemic. 

  • Burnout has hit different generations with an increase in Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Baby Boomers. 

  • 61% of US remote workers and 53% of on-site workers now find it more difficult to “unplug” from work outside of working hours. And while 39% of all workers say they check emails outside of regular work hours every day, only 6% of virtual workers say they “never” check emails after hours.

These stats are hard to ignore and show a universal consensus that stress has gotten out of hand. Here’s the thing – the conversation around burnout usually looks something like this: work instills a “go hard” mentality →  we, in turn, go too hard →  we then eventually crash. Packed schedules, tight deadlines, and unrealistic workloads come to a head, and we are left with an empty gas tank.  

While this is true, the reality is that people can experience burnout in any area of their life where they’re overdoing it, exerting too much energy daily, or not connecting with what truly drives them. In many cases, the cause of burnout means so much more than the overbooked calendar, it means no longer moving through life in a healthy, grounded, and authentic way. The woman taking care of a sick relative at home, the single parent playing teacher during the pandemic, the person who no longer feels like they have a purpose at work — these are also are the faces of burnout. 


In the past decade, psychologists, sociologists, and neuroscientists have been able to gather more information about what happens to us mentally, emotionally, and physically when we become burned out. Their findings? Experiencing burnout quite literally alters the makeup of our noggin. When the parts of our brain that regulate stress response (aka the amygdala, anterior cingulate cortex, and medial prefrontal cortex) can’t communicate with one another, we start to feel more irritable, exhausted, and anxious. The more this happens, the more it sticks, leading to long-term consequences. This is where the line between burnout and other mental health challenges becomes blurry. If left unchecked, initial psychological signs of burnout can worsen, leading to obstacles like regular anxiety and even depression. While all of these are somewhat connected, here are some mental, emotional, and psychological signs that directly relate to burnout:

A disclaimer: if you’re experiencing these signs on a regular basis and have been suffering, consult a mental health professional who can also help guide and support you. 

  • Reduced productivity: Are you having trouble focusing on things that you once felt seamless? Consistently finding it difficult to concentrate on tasks both in and out of the workplace is a sign of burnout and should be noted. 

  • Fatigue: This type of fatigue doesn’t just mean feeling a bit sleepier before you hit the hay. The type of fatigue we’re referring to shows up throughout the day, regardless of how much sleep you’ve gotten the night before. If a nap continually seems like a better option than any task at hand, you might be at the point of burnout. 

  • Anxiety: According to the American Psychological Association, anxiety is defined as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” And occasionally, anxiety is completely natural, especially when faced with a new or challenging situation. But note if feelings of anxiety (increased heart rate, shortness of breath, obsessive thoughts) start to become the norm, rather than situational. 

  • Loss of purpose: Feeling purposeless or so low on energy that you don’t care about your purpose is a sign and side effect of burnout. This might be a new way of thinking about burnout, but going through the motions without connecting to what authentically drives you is ultimately unfulfilling and unsustainable. This can also tie into feelings of failure which impacts your confidence. 

  • Irritability: Do things that never seem to bother you all of the sudden get on your nerves? Impatience and frustration are unfortunate signs of burnout, so notice if you feel your blood boiling more often than usual. 

  • Helplessness & Detachment: This is one of the more serious symptoms of burnout and should especially be discussed with a mental health professional. While this is a sign of burnout, it’s also characteristic of depression. If you feel yourself withdrawing on a regular basis or consistently experiencing symptoms of emotional numbness, make sure you seek help. We’ve listed resources for you at the end of this article.

While this year has unveiled many of the emotional challenges people are facing, there isn’t as much discussion around another side of burnout: the physical symptoms. And because the mind-body connection is real, the physical symptoms of burnout are just as valid and important. Here are some ways they might show up in your body :

  • Exhaustion: Similar but not identical to fatigue, exhaustion is when we don’t have the physical ability to move through our day. If climbing the stairs once was easy for you, but now feels like a hike, your body might be on the brink of burnout.  

  • Tummy troubles: There’s a reason why they say “go with your gut.” Stomach issues (nausea, frequent/infrequent bowel movements, cramping) are unfortunate side effects of stress. 

  • Muscle tension: When we’re stressed we tend to hold tension in different parts of our body. Some common areas one can feel hold onto stress are the hips, jaw, head, neck, and shoulders! 

  • Headaches: Speaking of the head…  Excess stress, poor sleep, and eye strain are all culprits of burnout and can manifest as tension headaches in many folks. 

  • Compromised Immunity: This year has taught us a lot about how important a healthy immune system is. What’s not so healthy for the immune system? Burnout. Stress can cause increased susceptibility to colds and flu, and the inability to fight off infections easily. 

  • Poor sleep quality: The tricky thing about burnout is that even we want to wind down, we find it difficult to. Our bodies are operating at a heightened level which makes falling asleep and staying asleep tougher to do. 

  • Tightened chest/increased heart rate: This one has a lot to do with how we physically experience anxiety. Note if situations where you once felt calm start to feel particularly nervous for you. 

  • Hormonal changes: Especially applicable to women, stress can mess with hormones. Some ways to sport hormonal changes? Irregular, longer, or shorter periods, and worsened premenstrual symptoms. 

The tricky thing about burnout is that all of these emotional and physical manifestations feed off of one another – so fatigue might lead to irritability or muscle tension could lead to exhaustion! The takeaway? Burnout doesn’t stay in its silo, it shifts and eventually permeates into all areas of our life.

Now that you know a bit more about burnout and the toll it can take on your mind and body, you might be asking yourself, “What can I do about it?” The beauty in burnout is that it can serve as a wake-up call for your wellbeing, so tune into our next sections where we’ll explore just that! 

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