According to recent studies, burnout has been steadily rising, and workplace burnout is becoming an acute problem that employers must address in new ways. One Aflac study shared that more than half (59%) of all American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, which represents 2 percentage points higher than in August 2020, the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are numerous sources and causes of burnout, and each of us has different coping mechanisms and approaches for trying to deal with what feels overwhelming in our lives.

What Are The Physical And Behavioral Symptoms Of Burnout?

While burnout is often viewed as a psychological phenomenon, it can manifest in a variety of physical and behavioral symptoms that can be both concerning and debilitating.

The Mayo Clinic identifies several common signs of burnout, including:

  1. Headaches and muscle aches
  2. Upset stomach
  3. Fatigue
  4. Anxiety
  5. Irritability
  6. Lack of focus
  7. Changes in diet and eating habits
  8. Angry outbursts
  9. Social withdrawal and isolation

It describes the general root problem of burnout as this:

Humans aren’t programmed to go through life without rest, solitude or downtime. The past 18 months have brought multiple changes or stress-inducing situations, including the COVID-19 pandemic; economic strain; racial unrest; political division; and environmental disasters, such as wildfires and hurricanes. With everything going on, it’s easy to get blindsided by stress and burnout…It’s important to beware of symptoms and acknowledge when your responsibilities start to become too much to handle. ‘Burnout’ isn’t a medical diagnosis, but generally it is feelings of depleted energy or exhaustion because of continual stress.

Taken together, many of these situations feel unfamiliar and anxiety-provoking. Burnout can be caused by a myriad of events, factors and situations, including career stress, parenting challenges and anxieties, and other pressures from different aspects of our lives, where we don’t have the coping mechanisms, knowledge, learning, and network of support to address that type of continuous stress and mental strain.

Key Steps To Help Address Burnout In Your Life

In my time as a therapist and in working with thousands of professionals to deal with the new stressors they are facing, I’ve observed four instrumental steps allow us understand more clearly what is contributing to our burnout, and gain greater control of how we’re reacting to these pressures.

1. Gain Greater Awareness To Have Greater Choice

We can’t change what we don’t understand. Take a step back to think about what makes you most stressed, anxious (or depressed) right now. Try to identify what has shifted in your life in the past months, and how those changes have directly impacted you.

For stressors that generally feel outside of your control (such as climate change, war, political divisiveness, etc.), have you developed new coping habits and rituals that allow you to manage your anxiety and fear more effectively? If not, what can you try in terms of new, enriching activities that will give you some much-needed space, joy and relaxation?

For stressors within your control—such as how much work you’re trying to accomplish every day in your job—what steps can you take to address work overwhelm (such as: talk to your boss about the workload and deadlines, participate in your employer’s EAP program for therapeutic support, join a support group in your community, or take some time off to recharge your battery.)

2. Tap Into The Unique Language Of Your Body And What It’s Trying To Tell You

As a therapist, I learned that “your body says what your lips cannot.” Often our burnout comes from situations we simply feel unready to address or ashamed to face or talk about. But keeping silent and stuffing down our problems and pressures—and failing to take new action to address them—typically makes matters worse.

As a personal example of this, often when I’m engaged in a conversation and my heart starts beating very quickly, it’s a clear sign I’m getting angry and there’s something essential I need to communicate, but I’m finding it hard (or scary) to say. Now when that happens, I know I must speak up.

Dr. Neha Sangwan, CEO and founder of Intuitive Intelligence, and an internal medicine physician and author of Powered by Me: From Burned Out to Fully Charged at Work and in Lifeshared this about burnout:

Learn how to interpret the unique physical signals (e.g. heart racing, throat constriction, muscles clenching, stomach-turning, etc.) that your body is sending you. (Check out Sangwan’s body map tool.)

She adds a warning that it’s important to get any physical symptoms checked out by a medical professional first, then consider other potential causes.

3. Take The Reins On What You Can Control And Build Stronger Boundaries

I’ve seen a dramatic increase among my career and leadership coaching clients of a phenomenon I call “perfectionistic overfunctioning”—which is doing more than is healthy, appropriate and necessary and trying to get an A+ in all of it. This is a major contributing factor to burnout, hitting women particularly hard, and exacerbating the damaging “imposter syndrome” that a staggering 75% of executive women experience today.

This behavior often leads to unrelenting stress, exhaustion, anxiety, lack of confidence and burnout, and a feeling that no matter what we do, it’s never enough.

One key step to overcoming perfectionistic overfunctioning is to gain more confidence and strengthen our boundaries (the invisible barriers between you and your outside “systems.”)

Stronger, healthier boundaries ensure that you:

  • Experience greater self-recognition, self-mastery and self-appreciation
  • Understand and clearly articulate to others the healthy limits you’ve set for yourself
  • Determine with surety the actions you’ll take when your boundaries have been violated (and obtain outside help for this when you need it)
  • Separate yourself from your work in different ways (such as socializing with friends, engaging in fun activities with your family like seeing a movie or spending time in nature, and reconnect to hobbies you once loved), to remind yourself that you are not your job—you are much more than what you do for a living.

As a first step, take an inventory of where your boundaries need reinforcement now, and commit to having the one most important conversation that you’ve been putting off, that will help you assert a healthier boundary and make it clear what you need and deserve from others.

4. Build A Robust Support Community To Help

Finally, when we’re struggling, overwhelmed and exhausted, we typically can’t “fix” the problem all by ourselves.

As Einstein said, “We can’t solve a problem on the level of consciousness that created it.”

We need support from others to see our situations differently and gain access to new solutions and approaches we haven’t tried. And according to the longest study ever conducted about human happiness, the top finding was that close relationships and social connections are crucial for our well-being as we age. Having supportive and nurturing relationships is a buffer against life’s stresses and protects overall health.

Reach out today to good friends, relatives, mentors and others in your life who can offer help to ease your burden. And it may be time for some great therapeutic help that allows you to talk through your challenges and feelings of stress, depression and overload (and guilt or shame), to arrive at new solutions and perspectives.

Recognizing the key roots of your burnout, and identifying new steps to shift your approach to address your stressors more productively, can lead to a new way of living that values you and your health, and supports greater connection to others, with enhanced well-being in both life and work.

Kathy Caprino is a career and leadership coach, author of The Most Powerful You, and trainer helping professionals build confidence and impact.

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