We all have those moments when we look around and realize the way we’re living and working…well, isn’t working. When we have that wake-up-call moment, we realize that we’d been missing some signs — be they physical, emotional, interpersonal, or professional — that something wasn’t right.
Burnout is a significant issue across most career fields, with dire consequences for individuals and businesses alike, according to a growing body of research. As we push through the whirlwind obligations of our busy lives, it can be hard to recognize the symptoms and signs of burnout before they reach a critical point and demand to be addressed.
That’s why we asked our Thrive contributor community to share the burnout symptoms they didn’t recognize and wished they had. Their stories highlight the many (and sometimes unexpected) ways burnout can manifest in our lives, and their advice provides important insight into what we can do to address these symptoms head on.
Making careless mistakes
“It was only in retrospect that I recognised that one of the signs of burnout was making the kind of stupid, careless mistakes that lead to minor irritations such as being locked out, leaving my laptop in the back of a cab, scratching the car, or getting the date wrong for an important family event. At work, I was (just about) keeping my head above the water. At home, it was all going to pot!”
—Louise Rodgers, public relations consultant, London
Losing your “voice”
“When I look back on the signs I was heading towards a burnout, the biggest one that stands out for me is the feeling of losing my voice. Not physically, but metaphorically. When I’m not taking enough care of myself my ideas dry up. I feel like I have nothing to say or share. Now, as soon as I start to feel this way, I immediately evaluate if I’m making time for me, and if not, I get right back to it. Personally, that looks like seeing friends and being creative through knitting or crocheting.”
—Lydia Di Francesco, wellness consultant and coach, Ottawa, Canada
Feeling like you’re always failing
“I realized I was starting to burn out when it started feeling like I was failing at my job. Everything I did seemed wrong, I constantly felt like I was incapable. I lost confidence. I lost all motivation to keep up with deadlines. I did the bare minimum just to get a pass for it. The worst part was that it affected other parts of my life and side projects as well. My anxiety occupied most of my mind, stemming from the fact that I felt behind in my job, but then didn’t care enough to get ahead. It was a never-ending spiral. I was just burned out.”
—Victor Ung, technical consultant, Seattle, WA
Taking everything personally
“I began to get really tearful and sensitive to conflict. As a manager I was always okay with confrontation, but then all of a sudden I started to take things really personally and get upset by peoples’ comments. Suddenly conflict was all about me. I gave up my job. I later realised it was burnout and although I don’t regret leaving my job, I do wish I’d realised it was burnout and gotten help, instead of quitting, as I would have been in a better financial position if I had.”
—Tina McDonald, leadership facilitator and youth career coach, Milton Keynes, UK
Exhaustion despite regular sleep
“My wake up call came when I realised that despite sleeping 8 hours a night, I was experiencing many of the symptoms of chronic insomnia! This realisation caused me to evaluate whether the stress was really worth it and made me think about my longer term goals. To improve things immediately, I started taking proper breaks, including having lunch away from my desk. I also booked a yoga course for Friday evenings, to get me out of the office earlier.”
—Yasmina Hedhli, lifestyle strategist and mentor, London, UK
Re-upping a bad habit
“I started smoking again at night to deal with stress from the day. It wasn’t until the morning that I drove to work, my head already pounding with stress, that I realized I was sitting in the parking lot of the job I quit 3 years ago. I didn’t realize I was stuck until I found myself crying in my car at the wrong job! I turned it around by prioritizing everything, including people, and I learned the word ‘no.’ It became my default answer for everything except the things that made me say ‘no way could I turn that down.'”
—Carrie McEachran, executive director of Sarnia-Lambton Rebound and founder of F.Revolution.org, Ontario, Canada
“When I over-focus on a perceived goal, I’ll miss the subtle signs of tension that my body sends me. I’ll work too long, too hard, and without healthy boundaries. The internal pressure builds, and mindbody pain results in a headache, leg pain or neck pain. To prevent this, I keep a timer on my desk and every 11 minutes it beeps to remind me to take a few conscious breaths and check in with my body. Do I need to accomplish what I’m aiming for now, or can I do it in bite sized chunks? Some now, some tomorrow?”
—Miriam Racquel (Meryl) Feldman, somatic healing, Chicago, IL
Inability to concentrate
“The effects of burnout were insidious. I lost the ability to concentrate. My thoughts worked more like a Twitter feed of ideas with no follow through. I no longer had patience for reading a long book or watching a movie. How did I fix? I taught myself how to learn again. Learning how to meditate worked better than the meditation itself. Learning how to write my first fiction novel worked better than just writing in my journal. Learning new things retrained my brain to concentrate. Once I could focus again, I finally calmed down.”
—AnnMarie Harris, emergency medical response, Denver, CO
Being constantly bored
“I realized I was nearing burnout when I was incredibly bored despite having never-ending tasks on my list of to-dos. No matter how hard I tried to muster up the motivation to complete work tasks, I just continued to put things off. I’m typically an overachiever and prefer to be prepared versus procrastinating. My list was stressing me out but I had no desire to check things off the list! I realized it was time to invest more time in activities that inspire me. For the time being, that means filling my time outside of work with things that bring me joy.”
—Taylor Bento, financial paraplanner, Knoxville, TN
“My dreams became thinner, less imaginative. I used to revel in the inventiveness and ideas of my dreams as I recalled them when I woke up and thought: Wow, my mind produced that! How wonderful! Losing these highly creative remembered dreams was probably the first sign of burnout — which I noticed only in retrospect.”
—Ayala Laufer-Cahana M.D., pediatrician and entrepreneur, Greater Philadelphia, PA
Frequent head colds (and worse)
“The wake-up call that worked for me was a heart attack when I was 28. For 12 days I felt unwell and when I finally went to hospital I had a 100% blocked artery and killed 40% of my heart muscle. It nearly killed me. I’d missed all the signs leading up to that point — frequent head colds treated with antibiotics and Sudafed so I could jump on the plane and ultimately keep my high-pressure job, the bloating and digestion problems (the antibiotics killed my good bacteria), the fatigue and chronic stress from running on adrenaline and pushing my body were all signs to slow down. I was mentally drained, physically exhausted and emotionally dry. I lacked joy and it manifested in the ultimate physical disease which I can never undo. It’s a lesson I do not take for granted and now live my life more purposefully.”
—Janelle Mason, business coach, London UK
Dizziness and headaches
“In March of this year I was hospitalized with high blood pressure and AFIB. For years I had been having symptoms: dizziness, headaches, and a bit of brain fuzziness. But I related it to being tired from my full-time job as a technical communicator and three part-time jobs as an adjunct college instructor. I told myself that I was building a nest egg for myself. However, what I really built was medical problems. Now I am on medication, trying to lose weight (did I mention I developed bad eating habits because of the overworking?), and cutting back on my work priorities.”
—Dr. E. Harris, technical communicator and adjunct instructor, Houston, Texas
Being hurtful to others
“One morning at a community event, a former student approached me and very politely expressed how hurtful I had been to her in my class. This young lady had struggled as a student, and because of my own angst over community politics and an uncertain future, I often lost patience with her. I thanked her for giving me the opportunity to apologize and did my best to show sincere remorse. We all have to grapple with pressure and frustration, but we have to be constantly on guard not to allow them to spill over onto others.”
—Yonason Goldson, ethics coach, St. Louis, MO
(If you recognize these signs in yourself and need actionable tips for how to recover from burnout, read this.)
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