Hidden signs you’re headed for burnout — and how to stop it

By Ingrid Fetell Lee

If you’ve ever been burned out, you know what it feels like. There’s a profound sense of disillusionment and disengagement with work that can’t be cured by a vacation or a weekend of sleeping in. You feel exhausted and your motivation has evaporated. Your days feel like an endless slog. You might also have problems with sleep, an inability to concentrate, pervasive anxiety, irritability, and unexplained headaches, stomach pains, or other physical complaints.

These feelings are clear distress signals, an impossible-to-ignore mayday call that your body and mind are over their limit. But what if we didn’t have to wait until we hit these low lows to recognize that something needs to change? What if we could identify the early warning signs of burnout and take action before it becomes a full-blown crisis?

According to a 2020 survey, 75 percent of employees have experienced burnout, and two-thirds believe that burnout has gotten worse as a result of the pandemic. Among college students, 87 percent felt overwhelmed by their workload. And according to researchers at Harvard and Stanford, burnout contributes to more than 120,000 deaths annually, and costs between $120 billion and $190 billion each year.

Burnout is now a diagnosable condition, having been added to the WHO’s International Classification of Diseases in 2019. But it’s interesting to me that the WHO reserves the term specifically for work-related chronic stress. It seems obvious that any sort of labor can lead to burnout, including unpaid labor. Stay-at-home parents can burn out on childcare. Adult children and spouses can burn out on eldercare. People with marginalized identities can burn out on the emotional labor of trying to avoid discrimination and aggression while trying to live their lives. (No surprise here that women and minorities, who are often juggling a heavier load of unpaid labor, are more likely to experience burnout in the workplace.)

A key factor in the WHO’s definition of burnout is work stress that hasn’t been successfully managed — think: unreasonable expectations, poor boundaries, lack of control over your work. And unpaid labor is especially prone to these conditions. (Babies have terrible boundaries, and don’t even get me started on the expectations of toddlers.) But because capitalism puts a non-value on unpaid labor, the “official” definition of burnout excludes these factors. I believe this is due for a rethink, so when I use the term burnout, I define it to be chronic stress caused by any type of labor — or a combination of types.

Catching burnout early is key because it’s much harder to recover from full-fledged burnout than it is to prevent it. The exhaustion and disengagement that accompany burnout are hard to resolve with extended periods of rest. If you’ve ever used your phone’s battery to empty, you know that there’s a period where it won’t even turn on until the battery has enough charge to function. The lack of energy and motivation you feel when burned out makes it so that even when you know what would help you recover, it’s hard to muster the will to do it. Burnout can also damage health and relationships, and derail career progress. If we can avoid getting there, why wouldn’t we?

But how do we know that we’re headed for burnout before it happens? It turns out that there’s an unexpected canary in the coal mine: a loss of joy. As we approach burnout, the stress tends to sap the joy we find in life. As we conserve energy for an overly demanding workload, we shrink back from the fun parts of our life, and our enjoyment begins to atrophy.

These shifts are subtle, and can be easy to miss. In a hectic life with many demands, we often normalize a lack of joy as “the way things are,” and so we lose the chance to make changes while there’s time to avoid burnout. To help address this, here are four early warning signs that can help you spot a loss of joy before it becomes a problem.

You’ve stopped doing hobbies or other activities you enjoy

One of the symptoms of burnout is exhaustion, but before we get to that exhaustion, we often curtail enjoyable activities because we’re too drained from work or we don’t feel like we have time. So we stop mountain biking, painting, or going to the theater, and instead we stay home, binge Netflix, and scroll. It’s not that those activities can’t be relaxing, but if you don’t feel like doing any active things that bring you joy, this is a sign that you lack the available energy to do them. This is your cue to look at what is taking all your energy, and see how can you free up even a little for some fun.

Critically, it’s not always hobbies that get cut back here. It might be spending time with friends or family. Or it might everyday activities — for example, maybe you find yourself making the same basic recipes over and over, instead of the adventurous ones you usually love to cook. When you don’t have enough energy for these things, the fun drains out of them, and they start to feel like obligations or chores.

You don’t feel fully present, even when things are really good

When stress comes and goes, our bodies respond with activation of the sympathetic nervous system, often known as “fight or flight.” But when stress becomes chronic, we’re increasingly likely to respond “freeze” behaviors, where we just sit tight and push through. After all, if we can’t flee the stress and we can’t fight it, our only option is to hunker down and try to weather the storm.

Some research suggests that there’s a relationship between the freeze response and dissociation, a phenomenon where we experience a temporary disconnection between our thoughts, feelings, senses, and surroundings. Dissociation may be a way of coping with intense stress because it makes distressing events feel less real, and is often a response to trauma. But in a more mild form, dissociation may make us feel detached and numb, like we’re not really there.

A weird side effect of numbing our difficult emotions is that it often makes it hard to truly feel joy. So if you’re experiencing something wonderful but have trouble accessing those good feelings, it may be a sign that something else is causing you to numb and blunt your emotions.

You say “I’ll be happy when…” but you don’t ever plan things to look forward to

If you’re overstressed, it’s tempting to think “I’ll be happy when I just get through this presentation” or “I’ll be happy when I finally get promoted.” Sometimes a big milestone can provide the validation or celebration you need to feel like your effort is worthwhile. But often, this way of thinking is simply an attempt to endure unbearable conditions by fantasizing about the future.

The problem comes if you find yourself deferring joy (postponing plans with friends to work late, saying you’ll read a fun book after you finish your big paper) but then never actually doing it. A telltale question: What are you looking forward to right now? Is there something you have actually planned to do that will bring you joy? Or are you avoiding joy in the present by telling yourself you’ll get to it eventually?

You’re partying a little too hard

Sucking down those margaritas at happy hour even though you know you’ll regret it tomorrow? Staying out late at a party even though you’re really not having a good time? Attempting to force joy can be a way of coping when life gets unbalanced. And turning to substances can be a socially acceptable way to numb painful feelings, a form of self-medication dressed up like fun.

It’s one thing to nudge yourself out of your comfort zone to try to restore balance if you’ve been working all hours or especially isolated in your work. This kind of festivity can be a healthy release or way to seek social support. But your socializing feels more like a desperate escape than recharging your batteries, it could suggest you’re compensating for excess stress.

So let’s say you’re reading this list and nodding along. What can you do to shift things up before you end up fully depleted? In most cases, it’s important to recognize that probably don’t have control over all the levers of change. We live in a capitalist society with a congenitally unhealthy relationship to work and a nearly nonexistent social safety net. The economic structures and the conditioning that come with this leave us with certain constraints.

I think it’s important to mention this because what I’m about to suggest is not a replacement for labor laws that protect workers from overwork or fixing a toxic workplace culture that demands 24/7 availability or shifting the gender bias in housework. We can’t design our way out of this alone. But we also shouldn’t feel helpless to do anything about our own situation while we work for systemic change.

The role of joy in combatting burnout is to restore your energy and reconnect you to the parts of your life outside of work that feel fulfilling, so you can pull yourself off the path toward burnout before you’re too depleted to do anything about it. Research shows that small moments of joy can trigger what psychologists call upward spirals, a kind of positive feedback loop where we become more energetic and open-minded, increasing the chances that we’ll take actions to further enhance our well-being. (Put more simply: when you feel good, you tend to keep doing things that make you feel good.)

The strategy here is to plan micro-moments of joy — small bursts that don’t take a lot of effort, but can help kick off those upward spirals. Here are three critical micro-moments of joy you can plan to stay connected to joy even when times are hard.

Lifesavers

Lifesavers are quick, active joy breaks you can take to help relieve pressure when you’re under a lot of stress. Research shows that small moments of joy can relieve the cardiovascular effects of stress on the body — lowering cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure. Think of them like a reset button for your day. The key with lifesavers is to choose something that is active (not passive) and feels truly enjoyable to you. A few examples:

  • Read three pages of a humor book
  • Jump up and down 10 times
  • Get out into nature for five minutes (if it’s accessible to you)
  • Put on a favorite song and dance it out (in a bathroom stall if you need to!)
  • Play blocks with your child

Mini-vacations

Mini-vacations are restorative activities that help recharge your batteries. Often the prescription for burnout is rest, because by the time we get to that point, that’s often a prerequisite for being able to do anything else. But sleep and naps are not mini-vacations, nor is binge-watching. Exercise is also not a mini-vacation unless you happen to really love doing it. Mini-vacations are play for adults.

Play is powerful because it absorbs us in the moment. Play is defined as an “apparently purposeless” activity. During play we become less self-conscious and often lose our awareness of time, which can be a helpful antidote to the time stress and productivity guilt that come with overwork. Play relieves stress, combats boredom, and lets us practice improvisation, a critical skill for adapting to change. Research also shows that when workers have hobbies unrelated to their jobs, they exhibit more creativity, have higher job satisfaction, and are at lower risk of burnout.

A mini-vacation can last anywhere from 10 minutes to a full day. Some activities that could be mini-vacations include:

  • Spending a lazy morning in bed with a stack of magazines
  • Taking a bike ride with your family
  • Playing frisbee for half an hour
  • Piecing a quilt, just for fun
  • Working on a puzzle
  • Wandering through a bookstore for 15 minutes
  • Having a game night

Hip Hip Hoorays

Hip hip hoorays are ways of celebrating little bits of good news in the everyday. When we take time to mark and share our small victories, it deepens and extends the joy we find in these moments. It doesn’t have to be anything big. Did you run two minutes longer than your last run? Hip hip hooray! Did your toddler pick out her own clothes and put them on by herself? Hip hip hooray! Did you get the last chocolate chip cookie at the bakery? A serious Hip hip hooray to that!

You can celebrate by yourself, but including others in your celebration (which psychologists call capitalization) can heighten your joy. And if your loved ones are especially enthusiastic and receptive, celebrations like this can improve your relationships over the long term.

Examples of hip hip hoorays include:

  • A weekly happy dance you do with your partner on Friday evenings
  • Letting the family member with good news choose what’s for dinner that night
  • Taking a joyful selfie the moment you get good news (I love this as a way to be able to look back on that moment and remember the genuine joy you felt)
  • Going out for ice cream when good things happen
  • Having a text chain with a small group of friends where you celebrate each other’s wins
  • Decorating a coworker’s desk with glitter garlands after a successful presentation

By thinking through a few activities in each of these categories, you’ll find it easier to build more moments of joy into your week, and avoid the slow slide toward burnout. Over time, you’ll find these small joyful moments begin to build on each other, making you more resilient in the face of stress.

What are your favorite lifesavers, mini-vacations, and hip hip hoorays? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

If you’re looking to recover from burnout, get out of a rut, or put some joy back into daily life, I hope you’ll join me for my new workshop series, Reclaim Joy. Sessions are live and available afterwards as recordings on demand. Get all the details and sign up here.

Image: Yoann Boyer via Unsplash

September 17th, 2022

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    Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Aimee on September 17, 2022

    A mini-vacay for me is walking out to our garden and checking out what’s blooming! Plucking out the weeds while I’m there can feel therapeutic, too. 

    Reply
  2. Carol Lewis on September 17, 2022

    Oh, thanks for this inspirational and well written article! Joy is a powerful tool as well as a wonderful experience. If you’re not familiar with Rick Hanson’s work, you might look him up (Resilience and Hardwiring Happiness are two of his books). He talks about looking for moments of joy and then teaches how to prolong and savor them so that the neural pathways become more inclined to joy. Interesting stuff!

    Reply
  3. Treehugger on September 17, 2022

    Jumping to touch the ceiling is something we use often—we can’t stop smiling and laughing. We are shorter and never quite make the ceiling. Great advice to jump. 

    Reply
  4. Rocio on September 18, 2022

    Thank you for this article! I’ve had a very tough year, I experienced the burnout just as you explained it and it has been a long way to coming back into a place where I can feel myself again. Worth to mention, I needed theraphy. What resonates with me the most is that I lost joy about my hobbies and I’m just getting back on track. But in the other hand, one hip hip hooray I put into practice this week, was taking a joyful selfie to celebrate that I got very good news.

    Reply

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