Stress gets a lot of attention during healthcare provider visits and in the popular press. Researchers know stress is toxic, that it's linked to several health conditions and that there are all kinds of strategies that can help relieve it (take a deep breath!). But burnout? That's a different issue.
"Burnout is not the same as stress," says Lisa MacLean, M.D., a psychiatrist at Henry Ford Health. "Instead, it's a trifecta of work-related symptoms where you feel a loss of enthusiasm – you don't feel excitement about your work, you feel exhausted by your work, and even more importantly, you feel that the work you're doing doesn't matter."
Okay, But What Is Burnout, Really?
Even before the pandemic hit, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified burnout as a medical diagnosis, describing it as a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
"There are so many processes that drive burnout," Dr. MacLean says. "It feels a little bit like whack-a-mole. When you knock down one mole, another one pops up. You never get ahead of it."
While the term "burnout" applies only to an occupational context, it can dramatically impact every aspect of your life, including your health, well-being and relationships. If you're feeling burned out, your thoughts might look something like this:
- How can I get through the day?
- I can't do this anymore.
- I’m working harder but I can’t catch up.
- What is wrong with me? I can’t think straight.
Over the past 18 months, burnout among American workers, caregivers and parents has skyrocketed. The trouble is, it can be difficult to spot since the signs are subtle and they develop gradually over time.
How To Tell Whether You're Stressed Or Burned Out
It's true that stress and burnout often overlap. But burnout refers to work-related exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and a sense of feeling "stuck," with no pathway forward. Unlike stress, where you can imagine feeling better once things settle, burnout feels hopeless.
"The downstream effects of burnout negatively impact people on both a personal and a systems level," Dr. MacLean says. Life loses meaning and even the smallest tasks seem to require Herculean effort.
Here's how the two conditions break down:
- You put in too much effort
- You feel emotions more strongly
- You feel hyperactive and anxious
- You have less energy
- It takes a physical toll
- It's hard to put in any effort
- Your emotions feel blunted
- You feel drained and helpless
- You have less motivation
Burnout tends to come with a feeling of complete exhaustion that doesn't dissipate with normal recovery tactics like time off, a work-free weekend or a vacation. Signs of burnout include:
- Excessive use of substances, including alcohol, drugs and prescription drugs
- Physical and mental overwhelm and fatigue
- Moodiness and irritability
- Inability to make decisions
- Loss of motivation
- Suicidal thoughts
- Withdrawing from support systems
- Sleep deprivation
Still not sure if you're stressed or burned out? Talk to your doctor. There are assessment tools that can help you determine whether you're suffering from the sense of hopelessness that is inherent in burnout. "Knowing that you're burned out may help motivate you to focus on self-care and ask for more support, both on the job and at home," Dr. MacLean says.
What Can You Do If It's Burnout?
Like many ails, burnout requires recognizing the problem to devise solutions. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for employees to keep pushing — more work, longer hours, less recognition — until they can no longer function.
"A person experiencing burnout needs to connect to their meaning and purpose in the work that they do," Dr. MacLean says. "People need to identify their values and use those values to guide their decisions and actions."
Unclear how to get started? Dr. MacLean recommends taking these five steps:
- Ask for help: Instead of pushing through burnout, talk with your supervisor and coworkers and explain where you need support. Maybe a colleague can pick up a project you haven't started yet. Or maybe you can devise a more manageable work schedule. No matter what you're struggling with, you're not likely to get the support you need if you don’t ask for it.
- Say "no": You don't have to say yes to everything your boss wants to put on your plate. Be strategic about what you say yes to and don't beat yourself up when "no" feels like the better answer for your health and well-being.
- Decompress: Take a time-out to develop coping strategies that help you decompress, both while you're on the job and during your off time.
- Practice self-care: Think about what makes you feel rested and relaxed and do more of it. Most important, give yourself grace. Demonstrate self-compassion, particularly when you're having a tough day, and practice gratitude so your mind is primed to focus on silver linings.
- Prioritize relationships: If you do nothing else, find time to nurture your personal connections. "At the end of the day, it's really about prioritizing your people," Dr. MacLean says. Your family, friends and coworkers can help you feel more connected to your values and offer you an opportunity to breathe and reset. They'll also be there to support you during difficult times.
If you need support figuring out your "why" and creating a more value-driven life, consider making an appointment with a counselor or mental health professional. Sometimes, we need permission to be kind to ourselves.
Dr. Lisa MacLean is a psychiatrist specializing in adult ADHD treatment at Henry Ford Behavioral Services in Detroit. She is the director of physician wellness for Henry Ford Health, using her expertise to help doctors optimize wellness and find balance by teaching them healthy coping strategies so they can better serve their patients.