Burnout is more than just a feeling: In fact, the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) recognizes it as an official syndrome stemming from chronic workplace stress. Our always-on culture simply isn’t working: Research has shown that experiencing signs of burnout is becoming a constant across industries. Burnout is characterized by three key factors: “feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy,” according to W.H.O.
Let’s zero in on one of those factors: exhaustion. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know how stressful and taxing it feels to be constantly running on empty. That’s why it’s so crucial to be able to recognize when we’re nearing that point, so we can work toward a solution and prevent hitting a point of no return.
We asked our Thrive community to describe the signs that they were nearing — or had reached — the point of exhaustion in their own lives. Here are some hidden, and often surprising, signs to look out for.
Minor setbacks are overwhelming
“I knew I’d reached the point of exhaustion when everything I touched fell apart, including physical things like my blow dryer and less tangible things, like my son’s baseball schedule. I also knew I was beyond tired, when eight hours of sleep didn’t help. The good news is, I also know I can get through it, not by ‘powering through,’ but by taking some real time to unplug and reset.”
—Tracy Burns, CEO, Boston, MA
Small tasks are hard to focus on
“I know I’ve reached the point of exhaustion when I cannot focus or function. Nothing makes sense and even small tasks seem overwhelming. When this happens, I shut off my computer, and then my phone. I push everything aside until the next day or two, after I’ve cleared my mind.”
—Nazia DeFrank-Aibani, CEO, Lynbrook, NY
Social interactions feel like a chore
“The first thing I notice when I’m overtired is that I start to get resentful about social appointments. Instead of looking forward to them, I crave being in my bed. I also lose patience with the people I love. This is enough to get me to reorganize my time and recreate space for me. I believe if we give 15 minutes a day dedicated to ourselves, we won’t reach this point.”
—Susie Ramroop, mindset coach, London, England
Random physical symptoms appear
“Years ago, I had an anxiety attack at work in front of a few team members that I managed. I was flat out burned out, exhausted and overwhelmed. I had been ignoring all the warning signs: irritability, fatigue, lack of interest in anything, digestive issues, body pain, acne — you name it. I just patched it up and told myself to keep going and go to even harder. The anxiety attack was a frightening wake-up call that I am thankful for. At the time, I felt like a failure. I’ve had to learn over the years to shift my mindset, set boundaries and to listen to the warning signs instead of ignoring them.”
—Jenny Dempsey, customer experience, San Diego, CA
You feel anxious and apathetic
“When I reach the point of exhaustion, I get incredibly anxious, and feel apathetic about life. I start to question my work, my abilities, if I’m a good mom, and want to crawl into a hole. That’s when I know I need a mental health break. I will switch off my laptop, phone, and be with my family in nature. It’s a time for me to nurture myself without the demands of social media and work.”
—Kathy Haan, business coach and blogger, Denver, IA
You become less aware of your body
“I knew I was reaching exhaustion when I started finding bruises but couldn’t remember how I got them. I was bumping into things and generally was more clumsy and completely unaware of my body. I dropped things more frequently and stubbed my toes every morning on the same dresser. Now when I start noticing these patterns I know it’s time to take a break and reflect.”
—Devon Grilly, career coach, Boston, MA
You disconnect with nature entirely
“I realized I’d reached the point of exhaustion when I didn’t know how long it had been since I’d been outside. I was a full-time remote writer and started the day and ended it doing work at home. I knew I had to make a shift to include nature and exercise outdoors.”
—Stephanie Thoma, networking strategist, San Francisco, CA
You stop contributing to conversations
“Although I’m introverted at heart, I’m very extroverted and open with my loved ones. I know I’ve hit the wall of exhaustion when I don’t want to contribute to conversations with them. Even if it’s venting about what’s causing me exhaustion, I find myself choosing to stay quiet. Leaning on them for support brings me closer to them so when I don’t have the physical or mental energy to do that, this is when I know I need to recenter.”
—Melissa Muncy, content marketing, San Francisco, CA
You lose patience with others — and yourself
“I know I’m exhausted when I lose my patience easily while communicating with my kids; when I feel less accomplished even if I felt I was busy the entire day; when I feel I’m not good enough, and struggle with low self-worth.”
—Angela LY Tan, visual artist, Singapore
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