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How to tell if you have workplace burnout or something else

Burnout has gotten a lot of attention this year. But these four symptoms can actually indicate something else.

How to tell if you have workplace burnout or something else
[Photo: Mikhail Spaskov/iStock; pyzhova/iStock]

Ask around, and it may seem like everyone is experiencing burnout. A survey from staffing firm Accountemps earlier this year found that 96% of senior managers say their team members are experiencing some degree of burnout. In a separate survey, 91% of workers said they are at least somewhat burned out.

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As Kim I. Mills recently wrote for Fast Company, in May 2019 the World Health Organization expanded its definition of burnout in the ICD-11—the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases—which moved its definition closer to the way occupational health psychology has defined it.

“They’re just bringing their definition in line with what we’ve known from the research for some time,” says Dr. David Ballard, head of the Psychologically Healthy Workplace Program at the American Psychological Association in Mills’s piece. The new definition doesn’t mean that workplace burnout is officially recognized as a diagnosable disease, but it does tie it directly to employment.

According to the new definition, this occupational phenomenon is defined as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It is specifically job-related and has three main dimensions:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • Reduced professional efficacy

But, despite the new definition, the term burnout has become a catchall phrase for a variety of symptoms—some of which belie more serious issues, says therapist and licensed clinical social worker Alyza Berman, founder and clinical director of The Berman Center, an outpatient mental health treatment center. “People are quick to diagnose something without understanding the full picture,” she says.

So, before you describe your feeling as burnout, consider if there may be other causes for these common, but sometimes misleading, symptoms.

Fatigue or exhaustion

One of the key criteria used to identify burnout is “increased energy depletion or exhaustion.” But feeling tired on the job can be caused by many issues. Lack of sleep is a common one, but that may be exacerbated by poor nutrition or substance abuse, which may be reactions to stress or mental health issues. Life circumstances may also play a role. For example, a new baby at home, or a personal challenge that interrupts sleep or is particularly stressful, can be a culprit, Berman says. People who are depressed may feel tired and sleep a lot too, she adds.

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Lack of engagement or motivation

The ICD-11 also lists increased mental distance, negativity, or cynicism related to one’s job as symptoms of burnout. But there are other possible causes for those symptoms, says Jennifer Paul, PhD, founder of therapy practice Conscious Healing Solutions. One common cause is simply being bored.

“Burnout is true disengagement because we are exhausted, feeling depleted, or experiencing that depersonalization. Boredom can absolutely look like that. [So can] unhappiness with our supervisor,” she says.

Personal challenges and grief can also make it difficult to be engaged and productive at work. “Everybody has those constraints and situations that we don’t want to be in,” as licensed clinical social worker and resilience expert Linda Hoopes, PhD, author of Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World, shared in a previous Fast Company story. Sometimes, you have short-term challenges that need to be addressed first. Consider whether personal adversity or issues in your personal life may be making it more difficult to focus and get things done.

Memory or concentration issues

If you’re having bouts of forgetfulness or having trouble concentrating, that could be a sign of burnout, but those are also common symptoms associated with depression. “If someone who is usually on it basically, or really focused, all of a sudden cannot concentrate, that could be burnout, or it could also be something’s off in another area,” Berman says.

Or you may be having a particularly stressful time or conflict at work that makes it unpleasant. Examining what’s at the root of those feelings can help you determine whether they’re short-term issues or something else.

Workplace dread

It’s common to feel the “Sunday night blues” now and then, but routinely dreading going to work is another matter, Berman says. That may signal anxiety or depression. While someone who is experiencing burnout may show increased absenteeism and have a cynical attitude toward work, that may also be a sign of depression or anxiety, Paul says. “Somebody that has a social anxiety isn’t going to want to be around people either. They may feel too panicky that day to even come into work,” she says. “Depression and anxiety are two biggies that can look a lot like burnout, but yet they’re not.”

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Telling the difference

Even though burnout symptoms may be similar to those of other issues, there are some telltale signs that can help you determine whether you’re dealing with burnout or something else.

Has something recently changed in your life? If something is disrupting your home or work life or if you’ve recently had a major change that’s causing stress, that could be the reason you’re feeling overwhelmed, unhappy, or anxious, Paul says.

Does the feeling change when you’re not at work? People who are burned out at work may feel better when they get home or after a few days off. Issues like anxiety and depression are often more persistent, Berman says. “You don’t snap out of it situationally. . . . You could have the best relationships at home,” she says. “With something like depression, that doesn’t matter.”

Is this affecting other areas of your life? If your symptoms are having an impact on other areas of your life or affecting your day-to-day activities, you may be dealing with something other than burnout, Berman says. “Are you still able to do the things you love doing? Do you still have passions, or do you still have friends that you’re hanging out with? Do you still engage with your family?” she asks.

If the answer to those questions is “no,” then “I would say maybe this is a little bit more than burnout,” she says. And whether you’re dealing with burnout or something else, consulting a mental health professional can help you determine what’s causing your symptoms.

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About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books

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