5 subtle signs you’re headed for burnout

Being tired all the time. Losing sleep. Feeling on edge. These are all common signs you may be headed for burnout. (In fact, if you’re experiencing these things regularly, you’re likely already there.)

Workplace burnout has become an increasing phenomenon since the pandemic, says Dr. Christopher Valerian, chief medical officer for Uprise Health, a digital mental health service provider. “Surveys have consistently reported that 50–70% of respondents show some signs of burnout during the pandemic,” he says. “While these statistics vary by industry and job function, they all agree that these data are increased from pre-pandemic levels.”

Once you stop ignoring them, these major symptoms are easy to spot. But there are more subtle signs that indicate you’re on the path to burnout. If you catch them early enough, you can take steps to minimize the impact. Here are five to look for.

1. Negative expectations

It’s one thing to be easy on yourself during a challenge, but when those thoughts turn into feelings of incompetence, you may be headed toward burnout, says Samantha Gambino, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist.

“You feel inefficient and start to lose confidence in yourself and your ability to do your job,” she says. “It is hard to complete tasks that are part of your role. Your productivity drops, and you do not feel like it is something you can turn around. All of this leads to feeling down on yourself, because you know this is not who you are and not who you want to be.”

Look for increased imposter syndrome, Dana Udall, PhD, adds, chief clinical officer for Headspace Health, a digital mental health and well-being platform. “Employees may question, ‘Am I capable of performing this work?'” she says. “Burnout can lead to a blow to one’s confidence, as well as reduced creativity and problem-solving. [You] may stick to less-complex tasks, all while filled with self-doubt.”

Negative expectations can also include cynicism, withdrawing, and blaming others for everything that’s going on around you.

“Cynicism refers to a callous and diminished connection to various aspects of one’s work including one’s clients, coworkers, or the work itself,” says Kira Schabram, a burnout researcher and assistant professor of management at the University of Washington. “In other words, thinking, ‘What’s the point?’ Our research shows that cynicism snowballs over time.”

2. Feeling underappreciated

Another subtle sign of burnout is starting to believe that your company or personal relationships don’t value you. You may believe your coworkers are being treated better than you are, or you might take offense if your contributions aren’t acknowledged.

“It is not uncommon to feel like you are overworked, underappreciated, and things are unfair,” says Gambino. “There is a general feeling of dissatisfaction. Anger and residence can build, which also compromises your desire to work and give of yourself. You start to feel bad about work and dread going into the office.”

3. Detaching from work

Most people strive to do well in their careers, but when you start to lose your drive and you can recognize it, it can be problematic. “You are numb to what is going on; you don’t care about the outcome of things; you are not invested in the decisions being made around you,” says Gambino. “As a result, you do not feel engaged or stimulated by your work.”

You may also have trouble concentrating, be more prone to procrastination, and lower your work standards.

4. Acting impulsively

In the later stages of unrecognized burnout, people can become more impulsive and feel less anchored by the routines and relationships that normally offer a sense of self and support, such as family, work, and faith, according to Dr. Tom Milam, practicing psychiatrist and chief medical officer of Iris Telehealth, a tele-psychiatry provider.

“They can more easily be drawn into activities and thought patterns they would not normally consider or be characteristic of their stage or status in life,” he says.

For example, you may start driving more carelessly or changing your appearance with radical haircuts, makeup, tattoos, or plastic surgery. You might be drawn to risky activities, such as mountain climbing, skydiving, or motorcycle riding.

“Any one or two of these things might seem normal or explainable, but the accompanying mindset of hopelessness, loss, numbness, and detachment can significantly impair one’s judgment and future orientation,” Milam says.

5. Being impatient

Another sign of burnout is impatience. You become less tolerant and easily frustrated by others, says Udall. “Employees who were previously even-keeled and able to engage in complex work may become frustrated more easily, which means their ability to problem solve, and to engage successfully with others, may decrease,” she says.

Addressing Burnout

It helps to step back and look at the entire picture, says Valerian. “Any one of the items in isolation may not be significant,” he says. “However, when symptoms are looked at in aggregate, and considering other things going on in one’s life, they may be significant.”

For example, Valerian says trouble concentrating is a common symptom of many mental health issues including depression and anxiety. “However, difficulty concentrating alone, without other symptoms or history, may be a sign of burnout,” he says.

When it comes to cynicism, Schabram found that engaging in acts of compassion toward other people can help. Even small [acts], such as leaving a nice note for someone, taking them out for coffee, or volunteering, made participants feel less cynical,” she says. “Individuals can reduce their own cynicism, even in the current state of the world, by focusing on positive ways to impact others.”

Implementing healthy workplace norms also reduce burnout. “Most workplaces have implicit norms, or even explicit policies, that discourage individuals from sharing negative, intimate, or vulnerable details about themselves,” says Schabram. “If exhaustion is discussed, it’s often as a badge of honor rather than in order to solicit help. These same workplace norms and policies also prevent individuals from inquiring about how someone else is doing for fear of prying or being seen as unprofessional.”

Left unaddressed, burnout can be contagious, since the same demands impact most employees, says Schabram. “The idea or pictures I see online all the time of one match being burnt out while the others are fine is a myth,” she says.

These subtle signs can be difficult to recognize as burnout in others, and it’s key to think about the behaviors that are impacting your daily life, says Valerian. “Personal awareness and self-reflection are important skills to monitor one’s own well-being,” he says. “Notting changes in thought patterns or routines are also things to consider.”

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