Burnout: Early Signs, Causes, and What to do

The term burnout was first presented by Freudenberg in 1974. It is a state of prolonged mental, physical, and emotional exertion that diminishes a person’s level of energy and motivation. (Schaufeli & Greenglass, 2001). WHO considers it a syndrome as it affects various parts of one’s life. Just like fire ignites for several reasons and it progresses if it is not controlled on time, the human body demands physical and psychological intervention to recharge itself when drained.

Burnout can be avoided if early signs are addressed. According to Schaufeli and Enzman (1998), our body signals early signs and symptoms, which are divided into five main categories, these include:

  1. Affective Signals

The person unknowingly may feel agitated and frustrated. They may have a low mood. Day-to-day activities may cause stress and anxious feelings. They may experience fatigue even after resting. They often feel tearful over additional inconveniences as they have bottled up many emotions. If early signs are ignored, a person may develop adjustment disorder or depression and anxiety-like symptoms if not managed on time. Symptoms of burnout can vary, for example female burnout may present as fatigue whereas males may experience depersonalization or agitation.

  • Cognitive Signs

Since burnout is caused by prolonged mental exertion, the person may lose confidence after constant effort. They may feel a lack of control, which can cause learned helplessness (Seligman & Maier, 1967). Burnout affects a person’s productivity and performance; if no intervention is done, they may develop significant hopelessness and low self-esteem leading to suicidal ideation. 

  • Physical Signs

When mental exertion is not managed, it starts to express in the form of physical symptoms. Early symptoms may include headaches, neck stiffness, and sleep disturbance which may progress into body aches/ fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and gastrointestinal problems. A person’s immunity may be compromised as the body tries to fight against psychosomatic symptoms.  

  • Behavioral Signs 

Initially, the person may procrastinate more due to a lack of motivation or exhaustion. They may develop poor coping skills, including over-eating, substance abuse, or watching binging TV shows leading to social withdrawal and addiction.

  • Motivational Signs

The person may feel disappointed and may need more desire to work hard. They may desire an escape from constant stress resulting in them abandoning their daily responsibilities. If early signs are ignored, the person may develop anhedonia, i.e., a lack of interest in any activity. Chronic burnout may impact their professional life as they may drop out from school, resign from a job, or experience a deterioration in performance standards and ability.

There are different causes of burnout and early identification can facilitate management and recovery. These include:

  • Individual Differences

Certain people may be more prone to burnout. These include perfectionists, as they do not allow themselves to make mistakes. They set extremely high standards for themselves that may require extra effort. People’s pleasing personalities may cause burnout, too, as they struggle with boundaries and overwork themselves for others at the expense of their health. (Montanez, 2019).

  • Family factors

The family environment acts as an essential contributor. People who cannot recharge themselves at their homes and have dysfunctional families may be more vulnerable to burnout. This is because their body is already dealing with various stressors, it is already in survival mode. Their bodies are hypervigilant to be prepared for any negative impacts or outcomes, all of this may lead to already high cortisol hormone levels. (Bakker & Schaufeli, 2005).

  • Occupational and Job stressors

Workplace stress is the main factor for burnout due to a competitive work environment and lack of supervisor validations and approvals. A strict environment may cause poor communication. Employees may feel constantly neglected, devalued, silenced, or they may witness favoritism. One main reason for burnout is poor time management, lack of extrinsic rewards (including promotions), dominating employers, and poor work-life balance. (Maslach et al., 2001).

  • Social factor

Having a good social circle or social life may reduce the chances of experiencing burnout. Social support has been proven as the main asset for happiness. Isolation may lead to cynicism which can lead to burnout, whereas prosocial behavior leads to the development of trust. (Wekenborg et al, 2022). People often go to their friends to discuss their problems, take a break from daily stressors, and recharge themselves. However, negative social groups may lead to misunderstandings and feeling undervalued or unappreciated.

According to an article by Erika Katherine Ferszt in 2021, burnout can be avoided through these simple steps and the acronym CARS

C– consciousness of emotional state and physical indicators

A – acceptance of negative feelings.

  • It is essential to realize what we are feeling and why.

R – recognizing that intervention is required.

  • It identifies what may have caused it and how it can be avoided.

S – strategy and skill implementation to redirect your mood.

  • Strategies may include meeting a friend, having a self-care day, taking a break from work, reconnecting with nature, time management, and proper task planning. Self-reflection on your growth to shift to an internal locus of control, overcoming negative coping skills, including perfectionism and procrastination, and creating a work-life balance to avoid professional burnout.

Burnout can also be avoided by using a guided journal. You may use 52-Week Mental Health Journal: Guided Prompts and Self-Reflection to Reduce Stress and Improve Wellbeing by a licensed therapist Cynthia Catchings to reflect and replan your life. You can explore guidance from burnout recovery books, including, Burnout to Breakthrough by McDargh, and The Burnout Fix by Dr. Jacinta M. Jiménez.

If you frequently feel burnt out and feel like there active stressors in your life restricting you from reconnecting with yourself, you can contact us at https://serengetiwellness.comm to explore individual therapy to foster long-lasting change and overall wellness.


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