The good news is, nearly 90 percent of workers in a recent survey say they are passionate about their jobs. The bad news? Nearly 80 percent say they’ve felt burnt out on those jobs. The causes of burnout are nearly equally split between unrealistic deadlines, having to regularly work excessive hours, and lack of support from management.  

The problem of burnout is not limited to knowledge workers. More than 60 percent of nurses often feel overwhelmed on the job. We see similar results among doctors, teachers, pastors, and dozens of other industries. Employee burnout seems to be on the rise. 

The following is not a scientific survey, but can serve as a useful guide to your own level of stress on the job. Ask yourself these questions: 

  1. Do you regularly feel stressed at work?  
  2. Are you often frustrated while trying to accomplish work tasks? 
  3. Do you regularly work more than 40 hours per week? 
  4. Do you answer emails and do other work during your off-time?  
  5. Do you respond to work emails and messages during weekends and vacation time? 
  6. Have you ever cried or experienced strong anger because of work issues? 
  7. Is your workload often too time-consuming to be completed during your scheduled work hours? (ie, can you finish all your tasks in 8 hours a day?) 
  8. Do you have limited time or no time for deep thought while at work? 
  9. Do you feel you are recognized or appreciated for your labor at home? At work? 
  10. Do you have the power to make substantive changes in your work environment or schedule?  

If you answered yes to five or more of those questions, you could be at risk for burnout. This means you could experience chronic stress that results in all kinds of negative health results: migraines, insomnia, heart disease, decreased social function, impaired cognitive skills, and can even change the neural circuits in your brain, making future neurological dysfunction more likely. In other words, experiencing burnout can make it more likely you’ll go through it again and again and again. 

It’s interesting that we use the term “burnout” to describe this phenomenon of chronic stress and anxiety, since recent research shows that those who suffer are on fire, to an extent. The cells of people who experience severe anxiety are often inflamed. 

When the brain begins to feel overwhelmed, it goes into fight-or-flight mode. The amygdala, the monkey brain, takes control and the human brain, the outer layer of our grey matter that includes executive function and higher reasoning, takes a backseat. We aren’t meant to remain in fight-or-flight mode for extended periods of time. The amygdala is supposed to take the wheel, steer us out of danger, and then give control back to the human mind. 

But when you’re burnt out, you’re in fight-or-flight mode all day, every day, for weeks or even months. Your instinctive monkey brain, that doesn’t reason things through or reconsider or engage in deep thought, is running your life and handling situations that require nuance and careful maneuvering. You will make more mistakes, you will make decisions that cause more problems, you will waste your time. All of which will heighten your stress and send you further into burnout.  

When you’re experiencing burnout, you make poor life choices and that includes the steps you take to reduce your stress. For example, people who feel overwhelmed might decide to sit at home watching Netflix or casually skimming Facebook instead of going out to dinner with a friend, not realizing that the brain does not make a distinction between social media and actual work. To your brain, that time spent scanning Instagram is not relaxing. You would have experienced real relief if you’d taken a walk in a park with no technology or met a friend for coffee. Authentic social interactions are very relaxing to the human mind, while digital interaction is almost always stressful. 

Often, our “solution” to burnout makes the problem worse. Putting in extra hours to try and get on top of your workload probably won’t help; research shows that those who work excessive hours are often the least productive, since the human brain can only sustain real focus for a few hours a day. Push it too far and you’ll start making errors, getting distracted, and spending an hour to complete a task that might take 10 minutes if you went home, got a good night’s sleep, and took care of it in the morning.  

If you really want to break the burnout cycle, you have to create boundaries between your work and home life. You need to allow your body and mind the time it needs to rest, by doing things that are unconnected with work. Keep in mind that the brain does not distinguish between the things you do on your tablet for yourself and the things you do for work. To the mind, your technology is work. That’s part of the reason burnout has become so widespread; our minds think we are at work all the time. 

So, set aside time to be tech-free. There’s no need to get rid of your smartphone or laptop, just leave them at home every once in a while. Go outside and look at trees and flowers; being in nature is naturally relaxing to our species.  

Most importantly, go and be among people. Our species has survived and thrived for some 300,000 years by relying on regular social interactions and strong communities. We are biologically designed to take benefit from talking with other humans, even if they’re strangers.  

When you’re stressed and anxious, it might be tempting to retreat to our caves and hunker down, but you’re better off if you go to a coffee shop or event and strike up a conversation with someone. Research shows that even a 10-minute chat will lower your cortisol levels, slow your heartrate, and actually improve your cognitive functioning.  

Burnout is serious. It’s not caused by the normal pressures of life and work, but by extraordinary pressures extended over time. Just because a lot of people are experiencing burnout, that doesn’t mean it’s normal. It means we have an epidemic on our hands.  

Take action to counteract burnout by taking no action and simply taking a break. Do something about it by doing nothing.  


  • Celeste Headlee is an internationally recognized journalist and expert on conversation and communication. She's a regular guest host on NPR and American Public Media, and the co-host of the PBS series "Retro Report." Celeste is the bestselling author of "We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter" and her newest book "Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving." She serves as an advisory board member for and The Listen First Project and received the 2019 Media Changemaker Award. She lives in the DC area with her rescue dog, Samus.