Mental burnout, coined in the 1970s to describe the psychological effects of relentless work stress, happens so subtly that you can easily confuse the symptoms for other negative forces, like a bad cold or a bad boss. You’d think you’d know — or at least feel — the signs of burnout pretty quickly, right? Not always.
Here are seven red flags that you’re under serious mental stress — and how to fix them.
1. You’re overly cynical.
Finding you’re more sarcastic than you used to be? Mocking your pal’s (albeit over-the-top) bridal shower when she’s always been a kind friend to you? Check yourself to see if you’re going through tough stuff that’s making you more cynical. Being a Debbie Downer can be a common coping mechanism for stress.
2. You want to run away.
Do you crave throwing it all away and booking a one-way ticket to Bali? Fantasizing about going off the grid for good and relocating to a cabin in rural Canada? This temptation could just be a symptom of “worn-out burnout,” say experts. Avoidance is another coping mechanism where you try to distance yourself from your job or avoid it because you’re putting in too much effort to begin with in the misguided hope that it will accelerate your success.
3. You’re messing up normally easy tasks.
Making all kinds of slip-ups lately? From forgetting your anniversary to spacing out on that breakfast meeting, a sudden lack of attention to details is a warning sign of burnout. When you have a difficult time remembering things or keeping your mind on daily tasks, say Dutch researchers, it’s probably time to dial back on stress to feel less distracted.
4. You’re always tired.
Do you prefer to sleep away a gorgeous, sunny Saturday morning? That persistent sluggishness can be a classic cue, especially if you find that one day of “sleeping in” doesn’t eliminate lethargy. Emotional exhaustion is a telltale sign that you’re suffering from work dysfunction.
5. You’re always disgruntled.
At your wit’s end at work? Walking around claiming your bosses are bullies and your colleagues are catty? Sure, your characterizations of a gone-sour workplace can be true. But these sentiments may also be a symptom of “overload burnout.” To cope with being a “frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion,” according to the Association for Psychological Science, you just may start blaming your work culture (for no good reason) for your self-imposed frantic pace “to get to the top.”
6. You’re doubting yourself.
You’ve worked hard to gain traction in your field of choice, so why are you wondering lately whether what you do has any merit? This distorted feeling of “reduced accomplishment” is a classic symptom of burnout and can affect anyone who has been working too hard, from surgeons to elite athletes. Your mind starts to play tricks on you as a way to handle the constant demands of your job.
7. You’re sick all the time.
Got headaches that won’t go away? A tummy that gurgles all the time? How about a lingering respiratory affliction that nags at you? If the doctors can’t find anything, consider a closer examination of your work calendar, say scientists who have found plenty of links between physical health complaints and burnout. Sometimes work stress can even result in actual bodily harm. “Higher levels of burnout,” say one study’s authors, “led to a faster rate of deterioration in physical health,” from the common cold to heart problems.
How to Feel Better
If you said yes to any of the above, it’s time to step back and start making changes. Try one of the following:
- Intentionally book some time with friends who always put a smile on your face. That means you’re going to have to scale back on some of the work demands on your calendar, but that’s the point, isn’t it?
- Splurge on yourself with a little TLC. Whether this means booking a spa appointment or tickets to a hot show you’ve read about, it’s time to renew your appreciation of the world you’ve worked hard to build for yourself.
- Trim down your to-do list. When you’re letting important details slip through the cracks, chances are you have crammed more into your day than is realistically possible.
- Express work concerns to your bosses. It may seem counterintuitive to draw attention to your dissatisfaction to those you believe are to blame. But when you approach this conversation as an intervention, not a conflict, you may be able to remove the tensions at last.
- Reorganize your work goals to invigorate yourself again. The burnout connected to exhaustion can indicate that you’re not just tired, but tired of the same old minutiae of your day-to-day routine.
- Seek ways to take on new responsibilities in the same field to feel more engaged. Join an organization related to an aspect of your job that you’d like to gain more experience in.
- Book a vacation! It isn’t a cop-out to take leave. Think of it as doctor’s orders. A beach break might be exactly what you need.