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4 signs you’re experiencing burnout, according to a cognitive scientist

If you’ve been feeling exhausted, here’s how to know if you just need a relaxing weekend, or if it’s something more major.

4 signs you’re experiencing burnout, according to a cognitive scientist
[Source image: Stanislav Chegleev/iStock]

If you have had a long week at work, you might be justifiably exhausted and feeling like you can’t do anything productive. That feeling might be a sign that you need a nap or a relaxing weekend, or it could be a sign of more serious burnout. How would you know?

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I’ll talk about some of the key symptoms of burnout, but to begin with, it is a long-term state. It is common for people to have a bad day or even a bad week. You might say, “I’m feeling burned out today,” but if a good night’s sleep, a weekend away, a spa day, or some exercise has you ready to come back to work, you were tired rather than being burned out.

Lack of Motivation

One key sign of burnout is that you don’t have motivation to get any work done. You might not even have the motivation to want to come to work at all. Instead, you dread the thought of the work you have to do. You find yourself hating both the specific tasks you have to do at work, as well as the mission of the organization you’re working for. You just can’t generate enthusiasm about work at all.

Lack of Resilience

A second symptom is a lack of resilience. Resilience is your ability to get over a setback and get yourself back on course. It’s natural for a failure, bad news, or criticism to make you feel down temporarily. But, if you find yourself sad or angry for a few days because of something that happened at work, your level of resilience is low.

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Bad Interactions

When you’re feeling burned out, you also tend to have bad interactions with your colleagues and coworkers. You find it hard to resist saying something negative or mean. You can’t hide your negative feelings about things or people that can upset others. In this way, your negative feelings about work become self-fulfilling, because they actually create more unpleasant situations.

Inability to make decisions

Burnout can also lead you to have difficulty making decisions at work. Good decision making requires difficult cognitive work. You have to weigh the costs and benefits of the options and think carefully about which aspects of the decision should get the most weight. Your burnout can make it hard to concentrate enough to do this calculation.

In addition, you are likely to have gut feelings about options that carry additional valuable information about aspects of the choice that are hard to put into words, but still matter. When you’re feeling burned out, everything feels lousy, so your gut feelings don’t help you either.

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What to do

Many of the feelings of burnout are similar to symptoms of depression. Indeed, if you’re feeling burned out at work, it is worth engaging with a therapist to be evaluated for depression, because at any given moment somewhere between 8% and 10% of the population in the United States is clinically depressed. Even if you’re not depressed, a therapist can help you work through some of the reasons why you might be feeling burned out and also provide some strategies for helping you feel better about your work and to rebuild your resilience.

One reason why I recommend working with a therapist or coach is that when you’re feeling burned out, you might be tempted just to change jobs. It may be that a change will help you a lot. But, there are several factors to consider.

First, if you are dealing with a more general depression, changing jobs alone is unlikely to be the cure. Second, even if a job change is needed, there may be some skills that you need to develop that will help you to be successful in a new position. Third, a good coach can help you decide whether the best change for you is to look for another job in the same industry or whether a more significant change in your career path is needed. Finally, burnout can put a stress on your relationships. By engaging with a therapist or coach, you’re lightening some of the burden your loved ones may feel to help you get better.

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