She started getting migraines, and brain fog clouded her days. By winter, she was utterly depleted. “I didn’t mentally have the capacity to figure out another piece of spaghetti to throw at the wall,” she said. “It was like a pressure cooker: One thing after another kept getting added in, and all of a sudden there wasn’t enough space and the lid was going to blow.”
As weary Americans emerge from a harrowing global pandemic — and, in many cases, a period of heightened personal and professional demands — experts say burnout is a common affliction.
“Burnout” has become a popular catchall phrase in the “language of the people,” said Christina Maslach, a professor emerita of psychology and a researcher at the Center for Healthy Workplaces at the University of California at Berkeley.
“Some people use it to mean they’re bored — like, ‘Oh, I’m getting so burned out on Pilates.’ Or, ‘I haven’t had a creative idea all week.’ So it’s like a lightbulb has burned out, as opposed to a fire that has burned out,” she said. It makes sense that people have latched on to the term: “It’s very catchy — the visual imagery of flames and ashes and all that kind of stuff.”
But experts, who have been using the term for more than 50 years, rely on a more precise definition. In 1981, Maslach, who wrote some of the earliest literature on professional burnout, developed a diagnostic tool that is still used widely in research studies.
According to the Maslach Burnout Inventory, burnout occurs when three factors are present at the same time: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and a diminished sense of personal accomplishment. (In 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational syndrome — not a medical condition — based on those same three components.)
Emotional exhaustion is characterized by feeling depleted and like you don’t have any energy, Maslach said. Depersonalization, which is also referred to as cynicism, is “a hostile, take-this-job-and-shove-it attitude,” and a reduced sense of personal accomplishment means, well, exactly that. People experiencing professional burnout will be overwhelmed by their own alleged inadequacy and notice that their productivity plummets.
There’s a lot of overlap between burnout and stress, said Inger Burnett-Zeigler, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University. But burnout is the result of “exposure to prolonged stress,” she emphasized — not just one or two taxing days at work.
The pandemic has been a perfect breeding ground for the syndrome to fester: “When we think about burnout in the context of covid, I personally can relate,” Burnett-Zeigler said. “And I know a lot of folks I work with have been under extreme stress, working longer hours, balancing work with child-care responsibilities, having back-to-back meetings and adjusting to working in a different environment.”
Though most research has focused on burnout in the workplace, some experts, like Nagoski, are adamant that burnout isn’t just an occupational hazard: It can happen to anyone. There’s no estimate of how many Americans are burned out, but anecdotally it has become more prevalent during the pandemic.
How burnout affects our bodies
Burnout can manifest physically as well as emotionally. When we’re burned out, our amygdala — the brain’s danger detection system — might “hijack” our frontal lobes, said Leah Weiss, a mindfulness expert who teaches a course called “Leading with Mindfulness and Compassion”at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. This can trigger a fight-or-flight response, which makes it difficult to think clearly, draw conclusions and recall memories.
Burnout is also linked to hormonal imbalance, hair loss, changes in menstruation, stomach problems and sleep disruption, Weiss said. People suffering from it commonly report headaches, muscle aches and listlessness.
In 2017, a research article in the journal PLOS One examined the physical, psychological and occupational consequences of job burnout. The authors reviewed 61 prospective studies and found associations between burnout and serious health problems such as increased alcohol consumption, coronary heart disease, depression, sedentary behavior, obesity and musculoskeletal pain.
As Maslach sums it up, burnout “exerts wear and tear on human beings physically, emotionally and cognitively.” That’s why it’s so important to address it.
Policies to prevent burnout
Experts emphasize, however, that there is only so much that employees can do on their own to prevent burnout. “It's imperative to look at this as a systems-level problem, not an individual problem,” Weiss said. That means that the best way to head off burnout is to change the workplace procedures that encourage it, she said.
Steps that employers can take, the experts said, include allowing staff to set their own schedules, checking in with them to monitor well-being, designating meeting-free days and proactively addressing microaggressions or rude workplace behavior. Employers also shouldn’t normalize, or praise, working around-the-clock and should actively encourage staff to use vacation and sick days.
Maslach said that, in many ways, the timing is ideal to make meaningful workplace changes. Companies had to learn how to operate differently during the pandemic, and that “presents a golden opportunity to really think outside the box and say, ‘Okay, we have to change. Something has to be different,’ ” she said.
If staffers have the energy to advocate for change, that can help. Weiss suggests being a “culture champion” and modeling boundaries, perhaps by not responding to emails outside of work hours. It’s important, however, to recognize if your workplace is a “dysfunctional environment and you're not going to be able to change it,” she added.
Dealing with burnout
Though the onus primarily is on employers, there are still ways for burned-out folks to recharge and recover. Here are some tips from experts:
Seek support from friends and family. “Self-care cannot be the cure for burnout,” Nagoski said. “Burnout is all of us caring for each other.” Aim to be surrounded by a “protective bubble of love,” she said: people who will remind you of your value and who you can lean on as you work through your burnout.
Take breaks. Build these into your daily schedule, Burnett-Ziegler said. Spend your breaks resting or doing something you really enjoy, like reading a favorite book or going for a swim. Take vacations or, when needed, even longer time off from work.
After Sides — the burned-out fitness instructor in North Carolina — felt like she hit a wall last year, she took a “massive step back” and temporarily shut down her online business. Within a few months, she said, she felt like she had the clarity and energy again to resume working.
Prioritize exercise for well-being. We often exercise because of social pressures, such as achieving the so-called perfect body. In that context, working out might not help relieve stress, Nagoski said. But judgment-free exercise can. Think “dancing to Beyoncé in the kitchen or punching something in the basement,” she said. Do it for yourself, not to meet anyone else’s expectations of you.
Build transitions into your day. At the end of every workday, Weiss knows she could easily log a few more hours — but she’s clear about her values, such as spending time with her kids. She recommends implementing a routine that can help you transition from your work persona into home mode. “Maybe that’s walking the dog or putting on a soundtrack as you close your work for the day or taking some mindful breaths,” she said. “It’s something that reminds you why the rest of your life matters and not to sacrifice that.”
Get creative. Painting, writing poetry, sewing and any other form of creative expression are terrific ways to push through the chronic stress that defines burnout, Nagoski said. Working with your hands helps you “burn up all your feelings,” she said, by allowing you to channel your emotions into an object or process. Her sister, who writes romance novels, described it to Nagoski this way: “She’s just sitting over her keyboard sobbing, and as she’s writing, she can feel the gunk leaving her body — pouring out of her and into this page,” she said. “It moved from inside her to outside her, somewhere it’s not going to hurt anybody and it's only going to be a benefit to the world.”
Angela Haupt is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter @angelahaupt.