Under capitalism, our senses of self-worth are very often tied to our jobs — our salaries, titles, and the status symbols they afford us. Corporations exploit this and encourage a culture of individualism, competition, and overwork. In this environment, work-related stress can feel overwhelming. Over time, prolonged stress can lead to burnout.
Burnout is a state in which you feel physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. Your work or other activities may start to seem completely meaningless. You feel unable to cope with life and may even start to question your sense of self.
Vulnerable workers — workers in precarious roles with little job security, workers who lack the bargaining power to defend their rights, and workers who face harassment and bullying — are most at risk of burnout. Yet they’re often the ones who are least able to access resources and support for help.
Of course, burnout isn’t only confined to the workplace. Activism can also burn us out. Activists tend to prioritize collective needs above our own and engage in unsustainable care work that drains our physical, mental, and emotional reserves. Continued injustices in the world can sometimes make us feel like we’re not making any difference and our burnout is coupled with grief and despair.
Signs of Burnout
It’s estimated that somewhere between 4–7% of the working population experience burnout. However, burnout is currently not yet included in clinical classification systems and there’s no agreement on the definition of burnout and its symptoms. Descriptions of burnout often overlap with other diagnoses such as chronic fatigue and depression.
Some of the observed signs of burnout include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Exhaustion and fatigue
- Low mood and irritability
- Loss of motivation and engagement
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Headaches, stomachaches and other intestinal problems, and muscle tension and pain
- Difficulties with sleep, such as insomnia
Causes of Burnout
There are varied dimensions of our work and life that can generate the prolonged stress that leads to burnout. Some of these factors include:
- Lack of control. When we feel like our lives are out of our control, torn by various pressures, assignments, timelines, and processes. For example, our work may be difficult to plan ahead. Important and urgent tasks may appear out of nowhere and we have to burn the midnight oil to get them done, while other times we may feel ready and energized to work, but there’s nothing to do.
- Unclear expectations. Exactly what we’re expected to do and how we and others will know if we did a good job seems vague and ambiguous. In my work, for example, there are few opportunities to receive consistent and timely feedback. I could write an article and one person will tell me it’s brilliant while someone else tells me it’s the worst thing they’ve ever read. This uncertainty has led me to overwork and over-achieve.
- Dysfunctional or toxic environments. Workplaces with high competition, incivility, and violence can create toxic environments that produce stress and burnout. Unfair treatment by managers and colleagues, especially when it’s perceived to target aspects of our marginalized identities (i.e., sexist, racist, heterosexist, ableist attacks) can be extremely damaging.
- Lack of support. Being expected to do more with less is a common trend in organizations continually seeking to increase profits and cut costs. If your organization refuses your requests for more resources and support without adequate justification, feelings of disappointment, overwhelm, and betrayal may exacerbate the stress of your workload.
- Lack of alignment with values. Working for organizations that engage in activities that contradict our personal values can also strain our psychoemotional health. When we’re expected to suppress our feelings and tow the company line, the ongoing inauthentic labor is an added emotional burden that can lead us more quickly to burnout. The misalignment with our values can be overt, for example, working for a tobacco company when you disagree with the company’s fundamental mission to sell cigarettes. It can also be more subtle, such as being disappointed in your company’s superficial commitment to diversity or witnessing its poor treatment of staff wellbeing in general.
- Work-life imbalance. Our experiences of stress and exhaustion are always happening in the context of our wider lives. Your work conditions and environment may stay the same, but you may feel burned out after you had a baby or started caring for your elderly parents. Work may seem manageable when it’s the primary focus of our lives, but other life changes and events can suddenly remind us that we have needs and responsibilities beyond work, and we exhaust ourselves when we need to make room for something beyond our jobs.
Psychological Treatments of Burnout
The psychological literature around burnout tends to focus on the individual’s traits and behaviors that lead them to burn out. For example, it suggests people with perfectionistic tendencies, pessimistic world views, and the need for control are more likely to experience burnout.
Psychological interventions at work include stress management and resilience training. Sometimes, these development programs are pitched at ‘fixing’ employees so that they’re able to maintain profitable levels of performance and productivity.
Although psychoemotional healing is vital to the recovery from stress and burnout, it’s important to recognize the sociological and structural causes of stress and burnout.
If you’re feeling exhausted, it bears remembering that many of us are facing immense societal pressures to be ‘successful’ in a time when traditional support networks and relational bonds are eroding.
You’re not weak or wrong or broken if you can’t cope with the demands of our capitalistic society. Please give yourself some grace. Do what you can to find relief and healing and never lose sight of the structural inequalities that contribute to your suffering.
My First Burnout
I experienced burnout first after starting a new job back in 2017.
I was eager to make a good impression and quickly got into the habit of working 50-hour workweeks, including most weekends.
My sleep completely deteriorated. The scheduling for my three subjects was set before I arrived, so I had one class that ended 9 pm on Wednesday night and I was back in the office at 8:30 am Thursday morning to deliver a lecture for another subject.
What made it harder to realize I was burning out was that, for the most part, I felt happy. There were, and still are, enormous parts of my job as an academic that I love. I was creatively inspired by the lectures I was writing and energized by my research projects.
So the physical signs of my burnout baffled me at first. I was getting debilitating migraines at least once a week and I found it really difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep throughout the night. I would wake up in my morning with my heart beating so hard it felt like it would burst out of my chest and my mind rushed through the hundred things I needed to do.
One morning, our cat Salmon seemed a little off and didn’t finish his breakfast (not like his food-loving self at all). We decided to take him into the vet on a hunch and after some tests, they came back positive for cancer. We put him on chemotherapy through a heartbreaking ordeal where I had to start working from home in order to give him his medicine and nurse him through the side-effects. He would pass away later that year.
Gradually, my mental and emotional state deteriorated. My life felt like an endless cycle of grief and it seemed like things could never get better.
Preventing Exhaustion and Burnout
Revaluate Your Priorities
Many of us may not have the power and privilege to negotiate changes to our jobs. However, if we can identify any immediate changes we can make to our work and life, we need to course-correct before burning out.
Learning to say “no” and set personal and professional boundaries is the first step to ensuring we protect our reserves. I’ve written a detailed guide about identifying when your boundaries are being breached and how you can maintain firmer boundaries for your psychological and emotional wellbeing.
Look at your commitments, both at work, at school, and/or at home. Which activities fill you with dread? Could you let it go or at least renegotiate the terms?
After I burned out, I approached my colleagues and admitted that I could no longer take on three subjects each semester. They supported me in letting go of my least engaging and rewarding subject and helped me coordinate the scheduling of my second-year timetable so that I no longer had consecutive late night and early morning classes.
Check Your Mindset
Notice the should’s and must’s you tell yourself.
Have you set high standards for yourself, whether about what you should do, how good that work should be, and how much of it you should be able to take on without needing rest or help.
To be clear, this is not about blaming yourself for your burnout. Many of these pressures would’ve originated from our wider capitalistic hustle culture. This reminder is about reflecting on these dominant ideologies and understand to what extent they influence the expectations you have for yourself.
For me, I had the assumption that good academics should be able to work all the time. I thought if I admitted my workload was too high or asked for help then I would let down my manager and colleagues. I also couldn’t understand my grief over Salmon. I didn’t realize how painful it would be to lose a furry friend.
In retrospect, none of these expectations I had for myself were ever expressed or reinforced by others at my work. It wasn’t worth burning out just to avoid feeling like I would be an inconvenience to my manager and colleagues.
Speak to a healthcare professional about your stress. Sometimes we need someone else to remind us that our health and wellbeing matters. Seeing someone else caring for us can be the powerful first step for us to start caring for ourselves too.
Your doctor can write you a certificate to take some time off work and give you a referral to a therapist. When it feels like you’re tunneling down the path to burnout, getting (and taking) sick leave can be a vital pause button on the stress and overwhelm.
The most beneficial way to take a break from work involves complete physical and mental detachment from work combined with low-effort relaxing and social activities.
However, taking time off on its own is rarely sufficient to address the causes of burnout. Where you can, you need to make changes to your work environment.
Talk to your manager or your human resources department about the issues with your workload and workplace. Most ethical organizations would take measures to accommodate your needs.
Again, I understand not everybody has the privilege to be able to negotiate conditions at work. If you don’t have that kind of power as an individual, consider joining your union and reporting the issues with your work conditions and environment to them. They usually won’t be able to make immediate changes, but if your concerns have been voiced by other members, it’ll move up their agenda.
More importantly, connecting with your union and colleagues is a vital way to combat the isolation and loneliness that usually come with burnout. When I’ve faced issues that couldn’t be addressed by my employers, my colleagues have often been able to suggest workarounds for arduous or tedious tasks as well as reality checks for my standards. Through conversations with colleagues, I’ve been able to see that I was doing too much in some areas and could reasonably ask less of myself while still delivering on my responsibilities.
If overwork is part of the wider culture of your organization or industry, you may find that socializing with colleagues reinforces unrealistic and unsustainable expectations for yourself. A sign of this is that your colleagues may brag about how much overtime they work or how busy they are. If that’s the case, seek social support outside your organization and reconnect with friends who can provide an outsider’s perspective.
In some cases, you may discover that your organization is indifferent or even hostile to your requests for support. You may then need to develop an exit strategy and move on to another organization that better values you and your wellbeing.
Care for Your Body
Prioritize your health when you return to work after burnout. Make caring for yourself a non-negotiable.
Maintaining regular physical exercise, a healthy diet, and adequate rest are essential for coping with stress.
Aim to move for 30 minutes every day. If you don’t have an exercise habit, start slow. Begin with a 10-minute walk or a gentle yoga routine like this one for stress relief from Yoga With Adriene.
Team sports can also be a great way to combine physical exercise with social connections. If you’re feeling unsupported or isolated at work, playing sports with others can be another way to rebuild a sense of belonging. Spending time with kind and supportive teammates can also remind you of the ways you’re valued by others outside work.
Use physical activity as an opportunity to practice detaching from unhelpful thoughts about work. While exercising, focus on the physical sensations in your body or listen to music or a podcast to begin cultivating the space and time where you can mentally detach from work.
Care for Your Mind
Almost all of us would have heard the benefits that meditation and mindfulness can provide. As someone who likes to be mentally engaged, I’ve struggled a lot with meditation when I used to believe that meditation is about forcing myself to not think. Over time, this misinformed notion of meditation even started to stress me out as I felt like I could never get it right and trying to silence my thoughts felt frustrating and pointless.
Dealing with stress and burnout in the last few years of my life has led me to explore multiple forms and practices of meditation. I’ve learned that meditation is not about emptying our minds of thoughts but learning gradually to emotionally detach from those thoughts.
Detaching from our thoughts allows us to take a step back and observe when regular thought patterns emerge like “I’m not good enough”, “everybody is depending on me”, or “I’m weak if I can’t handle this job”.
When we begin noticing our thoughts, we can also begin challenging them. Why don’t you believe you’re good enough? What does ‘enough’ look like to you? Where did you learn this idea of ‘enough’? What evidence can you find that says you are good enough? What would you say to a friend who told you they felt this way?
Journalling these thoughts and questions is an alternate approach if meditation feels too difficult.
I’ve discovered that what works best for me are short bursts of guided meditation no more than 10–15 minutes long. Apps are great ways to make meditation more accessible. Great guided meditation apps with free courses include Headspace, Smiling Mind, and Calm.
Currently, I’ve been using a really sweet, simple app (for iOS) called Melly. You can bliss out for a few minutes at a time to earn karma points that you spend on decorating a zen garden.
Develop an Ongoing Self-Care Plan
As long as we’re bound (even partially) within a capitalistic system, stress will likely remain a stalwart feature of our work.
For those of us who engage in social justice activism, the struggle can demand just as much from us as any corporation.
Care work, at home or in our communities, can overburden us, adding to already heavy physical, mental, and emotional loads.
For ongoing and sustainable wellbeing, you need to have in place an ongoing self-care plan. Your self-care strategy needs to be tailored to you and your circumstances. For some people, that strategy may look like being more assertive about your needs and enforcing firm boundaries at work. For others, it may include a daily exercise routine and making more time to spend with family and friends outside work.
It can start simple with just one helpful habit each day, such as a 15-minute meditation first thing in the morning. Then you might build on that simple habit with healthier meals, and then some more exercise.
Or you may find that you’re someone who responds better to a dramatic intention for transformation. You might prefer to spend one weekend plotting out a new daily routine and set the intention of ending a chapter of overwork and overwhelm and making a new start of balance and calm.
One valuable way of looking at your self-care plan is as a practice. Changing our mindsets and habits doesn’t happen overnight. They’ll likely require ongoing work with inevitable moments of slipping into old ways.
Be compassionate towards yourself during your recovery.
An important tool for me during my recovery from burnout was taking regular days off to deliberately detach from work and restore my body, mind, and heart. You can read my detailed guide for how to best prepare and design a self-care day that nourishes you.
My Relapse and Recovery
The structural changes to my job were relatively easy to make. Things became easier for a little while after the first year once I negotiated a lower teaching load and let go of a few more voluntary duties.
However, I never addressed my mindset and my over-achieving tendencies, so I quickly slipped back into old habits in 2018. Whenever I had a win — securing a grant, taking a sabbatical, and signing a book contract — I would redouble my efforts in order to feel worthy of it.
In August 2018, I had a second breakdown, but this time it came with a severe back injury I sustained from working too long at the computer and a grueling travel schedule. The back injury left me with chronic pain that would end up lasting over a year.
It may seem strange to admit this, but in hindsight, my injury was the best thing that could’ve happened to me.
I finally addressed my overwork problem at its root. I was fortunate to receive quick and holistic support. My family and friends rallied around me. I had an amazing doctor, two physiotherapists, and three psychologists who held me to account for prioritizing my health. With my psychologists in particular, I was able to begin addressing the ideological causes of my overwork and work on decoupling my identity and sense of self-worth to my job.
My recovery is still a work-in-progress. I’ve definitely gotten better at checking in with myself and noticing the signs of stress and exhaustion. I still regularly struggle with overachievement, setting boundaries, and negative self-talk, but being well is a priority for me now and I understand the value of changing my mindset around work.
I’ve been an engaged member of my union since 2017. I take the time to stay informed about my rights as well as changes at work, and I make myself available as a resource for my colleagues who struggle with their work.
Burnout is a painful and sometimes even traumatizing experience to endure.
In our capitalistic society, the demands to do more and be more can be ever-consuming and ultimately become a taken-for-granted part of our culture and everyday life.
Taking proper care of ourselves requires intentional commitment and ongoing practice. Self-care is necessary and non-negotiable if we want to continue being there for our loved ones and contributing to our communities.
I hope this detailed guide on burnout helps you recognize the warning signs of stress and exhaustion in yourself. More importantly, it gives you ideas for the range of ways you can begin addressing those strains at their root for long-term, sustainable healing.
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Featured image by Alex Green