The Real Cost of Burnout — And How to Avoid it

Practice self-care with these 5 research-backed tips

While it can be tempting to push through feeling run-down in the name of getting stuff done, that road can push us closer to burnout.

It’s 4:00 PM, and your project is due by the end of the day. But no matter how you try, you can’t seem to keep your mind focused for more than a few minutes at a time.

The stress of the workday presses down like a weight — one that keeps getting heavier. It feels like you have little left to give. In short, you’re burning out.

But while we’re all familiar with the term “burnout,” what does it actually mean? How do we know when we’re suffering from it? What measures can we take to recharge and avoid burnout before it’s too late, or deal with the consequences once we’re caught in the middle?

Interestingly, researchers haven’t yet agreed upon a clinical definition of burnout, but many characterize it as having three main types of symptoms that we can look out for:

  • Exhaustion — feeling depleted, having lowered concentration, being especially forgetful
  • Alienation — wanting to avoid social situations, feeling pessimistic, feeling cynical
  • Reduced performance — missing deadlines, feeling listless, being less engaged

We’ve all had moments when we’ve felt one or more of those things, and like our list of responsibilities might exceed our ability to handle them. Now, picture feeling that way for weeks on end, or even longer. That’s what feeling burned out can look like.

The real costs of burnout

Being burned out is far more serious than just “having a bad day” or “being stressed out.” It can cost us health, happiness, and achievement, with serious, long-term effects ranging from depression and insomnia to gastrointestinal issues, and even increased mortality.

And that’s to say nothing of the profound impact burnout has on those around us: our family, friends, and colleagues. When we burn out, it places deep stress on our personal relationships and businesses as well as damaging our own psyches and bodies.

Many of the symptoms of burnout overlap with feelings of depression, but the phenomena are different. More research is needed, but burnout is especially related to the pressures of work life, while with depression they can be related to several areas (for example romantic relationships, family dynamics, and socio-political issues). In both cases, we’re dealing with internal states that can be difficult to recognize and talk about, so developing self-awareness is key.

Worth heeding the signs

How do we know if we’re on the road to burnout?

Signals differ, but in general, we can watch for those three types of symptoms listed above: exhaustion, alienation, and reduced performance.

Exhaustion-wise, we might find ourselves “running out of gas” earlier in the day or week, eventually reaching the point where we can’t seem to focus no matter how hard we try. We might notice ourselves performing tasks out of logical order, becoming forgetful, or getting stuck on simple tasks.

If we’re feeling more alienated than usual, we may become irritable, cynical, or frustrated with people. Getting out of bed and going to work becomes a chore, then something worse — a stressful, anxiety-filled situation we can’t bring ourselves to face. We might find ourselves cancelling plans simply because we don’t have the energy and taking out our emotions on others.

Last, reduced performance might mean we are no longer fully engaged with our work. We approach our jobs with a lack of enthusiasm or apathy, miss deadlines, and perhaps fall into a cycle of guilt, where the stress of not doing our work well harms our performance even more.

Reclaiming control

When we take charge of a situation that may have seemed beyond our control, we’re giving ourselves an opportunity to pull back and rejuvenate.

While some factors that contribute to feeling burned out are out of our control, there are steps we can take to renew ourselves. Here are five self-care strategies for avoiding burnout:

1) Reach out to your community

There’s no need to go it alone. Sometimes, the symptoms of burnout can be hard to detect. And when life feels like it’s moving too fast, it can be easy to forget to ask for help, feedback, and support from friends, family, and trusted mentors. These people can help make us more self-aware, pointing out when we seem to be on the road to burnout.

Sometimes, simply sharing how we feel can be a reminder that we’re not alone, and be cathartic in itself. When in doubt, consider teaming up with a therapist to process these feelings.

2) Prioritize good quality sleep

Getting better sleep can help the exhaustion aspect of feeling burned out. While sleep disturbance can be a symptom of burnout, working towards having a consistent sleep schedule will be helpful. Most adults function best on 7.5 to 9 hours per night, with total darkness in the bedroom, and screen-free time before laying down. Developing a winding down ritual, when you might consider dimming the lights, lighting a candle, writing in a journal, or reading. These simple steps can help you relax and fall asleep faster.

3) Take care of your body

Like sleep, wholesome nutrition and regular exercise can help mitigate exhaustion symptoms. Having adequate protein, lots of veggies, and healthy fats promotes stable blood sugar, which is tied to heightened mood, better focus, and better awareness. Exercise promotes blood flow, releases endorphins, and increases focus — all factors that can help us feel more like ourselves.

Yoga may also help. In a two-year study of workers on sick leave from burnout, researchers found that participants who practiced yoga for seven hours per week for 20 weeks showed significant symptom improvements.

Interesting side note: regular exercise can also improve sleep quality, creating positive momentum in regards to the tip above.

4) Keep a stress log

Because burnout symptoms are often challenging to recognize and heed, it can be helpful to evaluate your feelings by creating a stress log, using a journal or a digital tool such as Evernote.

A couple of times a week, and definitely whenever you’re stressed, consider ranking the following burnout symptoms on a 1–10 scale (1 = this feeling is hardly present; 10 = this feeling is all consuming):

Level of stress:

Level of feeling depleted:

Level of lowered concentration:

Level of forgetfulness:

Level of wanting to avoid social situations:

Level of pessimism:

Level of cynicism:

Level of apathy:

Level of lowered engagement:

You can also rank your overall amount of energy on a scale of 1–10, with 1 being totally depleted and 10 being the Energizer Bunny.

These are uncomfortable feelings, and being honest with ourselves about them can be difficult or feel slightly demoralizing. But we can also see it as empowering. When we notice those numbers creeping higher, we are taking charge of a situation that may have seemed beyond our control, giving ourselves an opportunity to pull back and rejuvenate.

If you want to keep your stress log in Evernote, we’ve created a simple template you can use.

5) Manage workplace stress

Since burnout is primarily associated with our work, that is one place we can definitely make an impact. We don’t have to accept the notion that jobs are inherently stressful and there’s nothing we can do about it. Find ways to structure your day to incorporate short breaks and maximize your peak energy times. Work with your employer and teammates to reduce meeting overload and focus your working hours on the things that matter.

In today’s “always on” world, stress can be overwhelming, and we often feel like it’s our fault if we can’t stay on top of everything. While it can be tempting to push through feeling run-down in the name of getting stuff done, that road can push us closer to burnout. Taking the time to assess, wind down, and rejuvenate instead can make us healthier, happier, and yes, more productive, in spades.


How do you manage things when you feel like you’re burning out? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Written by Valerie Bisharat on April 16, 2018.

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