Burnout: Here’s how to recognize the symptoms

WATCH: What is burnout? WHO recognizes it as an "occupational phenomenon"

When friends or family ask how you’re doing, a common response these days is: “busy.” Being busy has become somewhat of a social currency — a currency which can lead to burnout.

The World Health Organization now recognizes work “burnout” as an occupational phenomenon. The syndrome is included in the agency’s handbook of medical diagnoses, which guides health professionals around the world.

According to the WHO, doctors can issue a diagnosis of burnout if a patient exhibits three symptoms: feeling depleted of energy or exhausted; feeling mentally distanced from or cynical about one’s job; and problems getting one’s job done successfully.

If you told people you were feeling burnout in the early 1970s, you would have gotten a lot of disapproving stares. Back then, the term was used to describe the side effects of heavy drug use. 

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It wasn’t until German-American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger borrowed the term in 1974 that the definition changed.

He described what volunteers at a clinic in New York City were facing with their jobs: Gradual emotional depletion, loss of motivation and reduced commitment at work. 

According to the Harvard Business Review, workplace stress leads to an estimated US$125 to $190 billion in health-care spending every year.

When you’re under stress you have a cortisol release in your body and that’s great. If a car pulls out in front of you and you need to slam on the brakes in your car you have that instant stress release,” says Siobhán Murray, a psychotherapist living in Dublin.  

That’s good stress that keeps us safe but when we’re in burnout and we’re in that horrible stage of continual stress, the body is still producing cortisol. We don’t have enough. We’re not allowing ourselves to replenish the tank,” the author of The Burnout Solution added. 

Cortisol plays an important role in helping your body respond to stress, which helps regulate your metabolism and immune response. 

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Burnout symptoms

Though the symptoms of burnout vary for different people, according to experts, the most common are:

  • Signs of physical exhaustion. These can include chronic fatigueinsomniaconstantly falling ill, and weight gain or loss of appetite.
  • Signs of emotional exhaustion. These may manifest themselves as anxietydepression, and anger issues. There is also a tendency to toward pessimism, cynicism and detachment.
  • A drop in productivity. Your overworked brain starts forgetting important tasks on a regular basis. That, along with an inability to concentrate and pay attention, generally leads to a vicious cycle, where the workload only gets bigger.

Laura Abate from Montreal was working as a freelance travel blogger when she had a burnout. She said it was this self-imposed guilt of wanting to be successful and comparing herself with other people that pushed her over the edge. 

It was just really a complete lack of energy, lack of clarity. Pretty much depression I would say because I didn’t feel like talking to anybody didn’t really feel like getting out of the house,” Abate said. 

Abate says being self-employed, she worked 60 hour weeks and never turned off. 

“And my whole goal in life was to have the freedom to travel and then travel became this dark subject for me. And so, mentally, I was just not there. It just feels like a dark cloud I guess over you and nothing feels like it has any purpose.”

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Research from Gallup found nearly a quarter of U.S. workers feel burned out from work “very often or always.” Experts say there’s a stigma attached to burnout. 

“And so a lot of people that I see here who are, you know, going through burnout or have taken long-term leaves from work feel like they’ve failed. They feel like they’re weak and so changing that core belief for them is so difficult because in the workplace it is seen as a weakness or they’re looked down upon,” Kristin Greco said from Newmarket Psychotherapy Team. 

Experts say the most important thing to understand with burnout is that a vacation or two won’t make a difference. You have to figure out the root cause of your exhaustion and make adjustments. 

“People are not asking for help or if they are there may be a ‘here take a pill, this is going to cure you.’ And unfortunately for burnout, burnout is about making lifestyle changes,” Murray said. 

A healthy hustle includes challenging yourself to grow, moving beyond comfort zones and knowing when to rest and play. 

A toxic hustle could be grinding all day and night, prioritizing work above all else, wearing productivity like a badge of honour and forcing outcomes at all costs. 

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Experts say the latter is often the result of a toxic work culture or unaddressed fears about worthiness. If I achieve so and so, then I will be enough. 

Lifestyle choices that can prevent burnout

According to Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and frequent speaker on the subject of workplace and mental health, your daily life should include the following:

  • Play. This involves stimulating the brain in novel and diverse ways, she said. It could mean embracing a hobby that has nothing to do with the tasks you perform at work.
  • Others. Having “positive, meaningful social connections” is also a proven way to keep stress levels down, said Kang. This generally needs to go beyond one’s partner and kids, she added. “As mammals, we’re meant to live in a community.” Be it friends or extended family, everyone needs a “village” of sorts.
  • Downtime. This doesn’t mean vacation, said Kang. Though unplugging for a few days or weeks is certainly helpful, our brain needs to unwind and recharge on a daily basis. This may mean taking a lunch break instead of gulping down your meal in front of the keyboard; going for a short walk in the evening, or even taking a shower and reading a book instead of spending the last few moments of the day surfing the web. Still, building time for downtime in our busy routines isn’t easy. It requires a conscious effort, said Kang, who advises her patients to literally draw up a 24-hour pie chart of their day, and make time for a few moments of downtime but cutting out whatever tasks aren’t absolutely necessary.

So it’s up to the individual to set boundaries or for employers to recognize when someone is pushing themselves to the point of dire exhaustion and coming up with an action plan.

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— With files from Erica Alini, Global News

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