How to Tell if You’re Burned Out, According to Experts

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BY NOW, YOU’VE probably heard a lot about burnout. It’s the feelings of stress, exhaustion, and lack of motivation that come with being overloaded with tasks and responsibilities at work. So much so that it can affect your home life.

While burnout isn’t a new concept, it’s something that workers continue to struggle with. The feelings were exacerbated by the uncertainty and stress of the pandemic, says Kandi Wiens, Ed.D., co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s masters in medical education program and author of the forthcoming book Burnout Immunity.

“People were experiencing more personal stress that was draining our capacity to deal with work-related stress,” which was also increasing, says Wiens, who researches the relationship between emotional intelligence and burnout.

“It was inevitable that we would see higher burnout rates,” she adds.

These feelings are sticking around for many people. The American Psychological Association’s 2023 Work in America Survey revealed that 77 percent of workers had work-related stress.

All this stress is creating negative experiences at work, such as emotional exhaustion, lack of motivation, lower productivity, a desire to quit their jobs, and irritability and anger—all signs of burnout, according to the APA. Just 29 percent said their employer encouraged employees to take care of their mental health.

Burnout looks different for different people. Recovering starts with recognizing that you have it, Wiens says. And, some of the signs can be subtle and build over time. That’s why it’s crucial to know the symptoms and stages of burnout and what to do if you’re dealing with it.

Are you actually burned out?

Everyone deals with stress from time to time, but not all stress is burnout. Research suggests that the hallmarks of burnout are emotional exhaustion, feeling cynical, and feeling diminished personal accomplishments.

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“Most people who label themselves as being burned out are actually overextended, but they don’t necessarily feel less effective at their jobs or they don’t feel cynical,” Weins explains.

In other words, they may be overworked, overwhelmed, or overtired, but they still have positive feelings about work, Wiens said.

To think through whether what you’re feeling is burnout, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel more emotionally exhausted than normal now compared to the last six months?

  • Do I feel more cynical over the last six months than I typically do?

  • Have I lost all feelings of being effective in my job—where I feel like no matter how hard I work or what I do, my work doesn't seem to matter?

Answering yes to these questions likely means you have burnout, Wiens says.

Who’s most likely to be affected by burnout?

Burnout can affect anyone, but people with certain personality traits may be more at risk.

A 2023 literature review published in the journal BMC Psychology examined which personality traits on the five-factor model of personality used in psychology were more likely to feel burnout. It found that people with higher levels of neuroticism and lower levels of agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, and openness were linked to higher levels of burnout.

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“Neuroticism simply refers to the degree of emotional stability we’re able to sustain, especially when under stress,” says Greg Lozano, L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor at Grow Therapy. “It makes sense that if one scores high in measures of neuroticism, such individuals would be more prone to burnout as a result of emotional exhaustion.”

Others who might be more at risk for burnout include people-pleasers, perfectionists, and people with a strong need for control, Wiens says.

Having a high degree of grit, or being very ambitious and engaged and persevering through goals, can sometimes protect people from burnout, Wiens says. But, as people with this quality hit a breaking point, they can get burned out at a slower pace.

What are the stages of burnout?

There aren’t any officially recognized stages of burnout, Lozano says. Burnout usually happens gradually, Wiens says, adding that most of the people she’s interviewed for her research are typically in active burnout or recovering from burnout.

“Most of them describe burnout as being very insidious—this thing that sneaks up on them,” she says.

Here are some symptoms of burnout to pay attention to:

Feeling exhausted and cynical

The first signs of burnout may be feeling more exhausted—mentally, physically, and emotionally—than normal, especially compared to the past few months, Wiens says.

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You may also notice that you feel more cynical, she adds. For instance, you have a bad attitude about your work, responsibilities, and the people you work with.

“Even people who tend to have a much more optimistic or positive outlook on life, and those people notice the cynicism set in sometimes before the exhaustion,” Wiens says.

In her research, Wiens interviewed a police officer who compared their stress to a bad headache, but burnout to a migraine that they couldn’t get rid of. They also discussed feeling total depletion with no energy to give to their work.

Feeling hopelessness

People with burnout also tend to feel that they’re not as effective at work or performing their usual tasks as well as they used to, Wiens says.

You may not be doing as good a job as you used to be, or just feel like you’re not as effective. This can lead to feelings of despair, discouragement, or helplessness, she explains.

Burnout has been linked with a loss of productivity, absenteeism, a lack of motivation, and low satisfaction. “If one is tired and constantly drained, this is likely to affect our performance at work,” Lozano says.

Neglecting yourself

Feeling burned out might cause you to neglect your needs, Lozano says. For instance, you might struggle to fall or stay asleep. You might skip meals or avoid friends or activities you enjoy.

Not taking care of yourself can heighten stress, which might worsen burnout, he adds.

“If the ability to function in daily life activities is becoming difficult, then it’s time to make changes, including taking a step back from the source of stress and consider seeking therapy as well,” Lozano says.

Affecting relationships and mental health

Since burnout zaps your energy and causes you to disconnect from others, it can affect your relationships with family, friends, and coworkers, Lozano says. This might increase conflicts with other people or create problems with work-life balance.

Burnout can lead to issues like depression and anxiety, according to the Mayo Clinic. But not everyone who’s burned out has depression or anxiety. The symptoms can overlap, but research shows that they’re “different constructs.”

Asking for Help

Recognizing that what you’re feeling is actually burnout is crucial to turning things around and getting your life back. Then, you should ask for help, Wiens says.

Talk to a friend, a mentor, or a therapist about your experiences, she adds. Think about what changes you can make to improve your situation, whether it’s changing jobs, discussing work problems with your boss, taking a break, saying “no” more often, setting boundaries, or something else.

When you’re concerned about your situation, feel like your problems are affecting your daily functioning, or your symptoms persist no matter what positive changes you make, talk to a mental health professional, Lozano urges.

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