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  • Writer's pictureDr. Sophia Aguirre, Ph.D., CGP, FAGPA

Understanding & Preventing Burnout

Burnout refers to a state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion brought about by long-term commitment to a cause or emotionally demanding situation that may have failed to produce the expected outcome. Burnout is characterized by three main dimensions: professional exhaustion, feelings of ineffectiveness or incompetence, and a sense of disillusionment with other people, the organization, or one’s career. Unlike stress which tends to be shorter-term and resolves after the completion of stressful project or deadline, burnout is a longer-term process that can negatively affect your work and your life. If your workload increases beyond a sustainable point or work-related stressors are not resolved, this will ultimately lead to feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and cynicism about your workload or career.

Common Causes of Professional Burnout

  • Excessive drive or ambition

  • Having unclear goals or lacking clear expectations

  • Unreasonable demands or unrealistic job expectations

  • Working in a dysfunctional team or toxic work environment

  • Feeling inadequate or incompetent on an ongoing basis

  • Neglecting personal needs

  • Excessive workloads with no-end in sight

  • Lack of support from peers, supervisors, or the organization

  • Lack of recognition or appreciation of your work

Recognizing the Signs of Burnout

Burnout can affect anyone, at any time in their lives. However, burnout is most common in people between the ages of 25 and 44. Individuals often may not realize that they are dealing with burnout and may instead believe that they are just struggling to keep up during stressful times. Stress, however, is usually experienced as feeling anxious and having a sense of urgency; in contrast, burnout is more commonly experienced as helplessness, hopelessness, or apathy. Signs of burnout may include:

  • Feeling unmotivated, disengaged, or detached from your work

  • Chronic fatigue and depletion of energy levels

  • Decreased productivity or creativity

  • Dreading going to work and/or wanting to leave work early

  • Increased absenteeism or chronic fantasies about escaping work

  • Feelings irritability triggered by coworkers

  • Wondering if your work is making a difference

  • Feelings of cynicism about your work or life

  • Isolating from friends and family

  • Difficulties sleeping (falling asleep, staying asleep, restless sleep)

  • Physical symptoms: fatigue, headaches, or muscle tension

Burnout, like other long-term stress, can lower your immune system, making you more susceptible to cold, the flu, and insomnia. Severe burnout can also result in debilitating self-doubt, drug and alcohol abuse, and ultimately can render you unable to functioning effectively on a personal & professional level. If left unaddressed, burnout may result mental and physical health problems including in clinical depression, anxiety, and chronic illness.

Preventing Burnout

If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, this should be a wake-up call that you may be on a dangerous path. Take some time to honestly assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it's too late. While short-term solutions (taking a few days off work or a vacation) can temporarily decrease the stress of work, the relief is only temporary. It is important to implement long-term strategies that can have a deeper impact and create lasing change. Even if you are not experiencing stress or burnout now, the wisest course of action is to proactively take up self-care and build your mental resilience.

Strategies in the Workplace:

  • Clarify Work Expectations. Help organize and prioritize work into manageable and clear expectations. Elicit help from your supervisor or colleagues to manage conflicting priorities or demands.

  • Change your Approach to Work. Stop multi-tasking and focus on one thing at time. Break down seemingly overwhelming tasks and projects into smaller achievable parts.

  • Work at a Reasonable, Steady pace. Take Regular assigned breaks and resist working unnecessary overtime

  • Recognize Successes. Take time to celebrate your small victories and accomplishments along the way.

  • Set Boundaries. Identify what you will and will not do – be okay with saying no. If you are feeling overwhelmed, ask for help, delegate tasks, or reset priorities.

Strategies in your Personal Life:

  • Find Creative Outlets. These could include arts and crafts, painting, knitting, adult coloring books, woodworking, sewing, decorating, pottery, gardening etc.

  • Practice Daily Self-Care Strategies. Follow a healthy, balanced diet; practice good sleep habits; exercise regularly; minimize or eliminate alcohol and caffeine.

  • Increase Social Support. Connect with people that you trust. Find ways to become more involved and connected with friends, family or the community. Enjoy giving to others or performing random acts of kindness.

  • Cultivate a Positive Mindset. Focus on your accomplishments and decrease self-criticism, write in a daily gratitude journal to help refocus your mind on the positive things in your life; post a list somewhere you can see it daily of what is valued, enjoyable or most previous in your life.

  • Manage Stress. Practice relaxation techniques including journaling, massage, yoga, reading, music, tai chai. Use quiet reflection, meditation or mindfulness and breath techniques to become centered and grounded.

Strategies for High & Overachievers

Individuals who are high-achievers are a higher risk of burning out professionally. Because high-achievers are often so passionate about what they do, they tend to ignore the fact that they're working exceptionally long hours, taking on exceedingly heavy workloads, and putting enormous pressure on themselves to excel—all of which make them ripe for burnout. Strategies to balance these expectations include:

  • Avoid compensating for others. Having to consistently pick up the slack and/or coach peers can drain a high performer’s energy and morale.

  • Avoid always saying “Yes” and set healthy boundaries. An overachiever may agree to every request because they feel that it is expected, have a hard time saying “no”, or underestimate the amount of time and energy that it will take. Individuals who keep agreeing to do that one more thing may feel like they’re never getting caught up, are inadequate, and not living up to expectations. These thoughts can be drivers of burnout.

Burnout can be avoided by making self-care part of your daily routine. Recovering from burnout is possible but may take weeks, and for some, it can be a life-long journey. If left unaddressed, burnout can make it difficult for an individual to function well in their daily life, and may increase risk for developing depression. Consider enlisting the help of mental health professional to help you address struggles with burnout and its impact on your life.

If you’re struggling to manage burn out, it may be helpful to consider seeing a counselor or therapist. The Aguirre Center for Inclusive Psychotherapy provides individual therapy, group therapy, and relationship therapy which can help you heal and recover from burnout in the workplace. If you are ready to start your healing your journey you can get started through any of the steps below:

  1. Visit our Getting Started Page to request an appointment with one of our talented therapists.

  2. Learn more about our team of therapists and contact one of our therapists directly if you resonate with what they share on their profiles.

  3. Review our Frequently Asked Questions page to learn more about what you can expect about the services we offer.


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