- Stress at work is incredibly common. As a small business owner, I think it’s important to understand the causes and symptoms of stress so I can help my colleagues and employees succeed. But, while researching work-related stress, I found some worrying statistics:
83% of Americans experience work-related stress.
25% of workers cite work as their number one stressor.
Every day, 1 million Americans miss work because of stress.
What worries me more is the age of these statistics. Finding recent, reputable studies on work-related stress proved more difficult than I’d hoped. The above statistics come from surveys and studies performed 20 or more years ago. With the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inflation, an impending recession, a worker shortage—work today has new stressors.
Which means work is potentially more stressful today than when these stats were current—and that these scary stats are probably much scarier today.
I think of burnout as “stress plus.” It’s what happens when you don’t set healthy boundaries at work (or have those boundaries violated), become stressed as a result, then ignore that stress. It gets worse until it becomes insurmountable. And, even once you recognize it for what it is, it can take weeks, months, or even longer to recover from burnout.
That’s why recognizing work burnout symptoms is so important. If you can spot the signs, you can take steps to correct it. You can create a better work environment for yourself and those who work beside you. Recognizing it in yourself can help you make more positive health decisions that can improve your business, your attitude, and your quality of life—including your work life balance.
What is burnout at work?
There’s no medical diagnosis for burnout. Until recently, there was no single agreed-upon definition of burnout. It wasn’t until 2019 that the World Health Organization (WHO) created a specific definition. They classify burnout as a syndrome “resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
Burnout happens when stress at work continues unchallenged by those who face it (or those in a position to help). It builds and compounds until it creeps into other aspects of your life—both professional and personal. It affects you mentally and physically.
Where typical work stress can disappear once you take a brief break or finish work for the day, burnout stays. And it might even be worse the next day.
Recently, burnout has factored into the trend of quiet quitting.
5 signs of burnout
The WHO’s definition of burnout includes three symptoms or stages. While these are helpful, they’re a little broad. I’ve done my best to break them down into smaller, more recognizable symptoms to help you determine if you might be experiencing burnout.
The top 5 symptoms of burnout to look out for are:
The stress levels associated with burnout can cause many physical symptoms. It can affect anything from specific areas of your body to entire bodily systems.
The physical exhaustion burnout causes can take many forms, including:
- Excessive fatigue
- Irregular sleep habits/insomnia
- Increased illness
- Physical pain, including headaches/migraines
- Lack of appetite
- High blood pressure
In short, when you experience burnout, you’re probably in some state of physical distress most of the time. Even worse, this can inform and even feed into some of the other common symptoms of burnout.
There’s been a shift toward mental health awareness in recent years—and for good reason. Your mental health can affect literally every aspect of both your professional and personal life. While work stress can already affect your mental health, burnout can cost an enormous emotional toll.
Emotional exhaustion can happen when there’s simply “too much.” Too much work, too much pressure, too many feelings—too much to process. As a result, the way you feel (about work or in general) can change.
The Mayo Clinic offers this powerful list of emotional exhaustion symptoms:
- Feeling hopeless
- Feeling powerless or trapped
- Lack of motivation
Because job burnout can affect your emotions in such stark ways, it can often feel like you only have bad days. You might feel sad or angry pretty consistently—especially at work.
And that can lead directly to (or work together with) our next symptom.
Loss of motivation
The chronic stress that comes with burnout can be overwhelming. Before long, that can affect your attitude—especially at work.
And this can lead to a near-total lack of motivation.
Because burnout is so all-encompassing, we’re talking about the kind of motivation loss that starts with the alarm in the morning: dread at going in to work, a lack of energy to complete your tasks, a belief that the work will never be done.
This last point is key, because it highlights something important about burnout: it feels repetitive and unending. No matter how much effort you put in, there will be more tasks to complete.
And, even worse, you feel ineffective. Similar to impostor syndrome, you might feel you’re the problem—that your efforts simply aren’t good enough to do the job well. This can create a terrible loop where your lack of motivation helps feed other burnout symptoms, making you feel even more overwhelmed.
Understandably, this can affect your work.
Drop in performance
If you already feel as if you’re “not good enough,” this symptom might make things worse. Because you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, it’s very common for those suffering from burnout to see a drop in performance.
This can mean either in productivity (your numbers go down) or in the quality of your work. And this could be despite your best efforts: no matter how hard you try, you just can’t seem to work at your top level. You’re too tired, you can’t concentrate, you have trouble understanding concepts.
And even though it’s not your fault, it’s hard to understand that—and even harder to recover.
Depersonalization is a coping mechanism. It gives you the feeling of detachment from your work, like you’re simply an observer. You don’t just lack motivation; you become completely indifferent. It makes sense: if work causes you so much physical and mental stress, it’s easier to not feel anything at all. You create a distance between yourself and anything to do with your job. None of it matters.
Including your colleagues. This can lead to feeling even more disconnected and even lonely, because you have no personal relationship to your work or anyone associated with it.
Understandably, this can become more pronounced if you work remotely. The lack of physical connection with others can feed into the mental distance, leading to even more loneliness and disconnectedness. This is partly why it’s so important to keep your remote employees engaged with their work.
Unfortunately, distance can prevent you from finding help. Since it’s not really happening to you, there’s nothing you (or anyone) can do about it.