Even – and sometimes, especially – individuals with the strongest passion for what they do can fizzle out, and get “burnt out.” Burnout runs deeper than daily stress, as it’s typically the result of chronic stress that’s permeated into different areas of an individual’s life.

By understanding what burnout looks like, you’re empowering yourself to seek help if, and when, you need it.

What is burnout?

Burnout is an advanced degree of stress or fatigue. It occurs when we have experienced stress and fatigue for a longer time.

There are three different components to burnout, according to Dr. Christina Maslach, a social psychologist and pioneer in the field of burnout:

  1. Emotional exhaustion: Feeling chronic tiredness; being emotionally overextended; depleted; and/or lacking motivation.
  2. Detachment: Feeling less connected and less invested with work, clients, or bosses; increased irritability. This detachment can bleed into home life as well.
  3. Reduced personal accomplishment: Feeling less able to recognize and validate your work; lower confidence in yourself; reduced efficiency in your productivity.

People tend to notice their symptoms after many months, sometimes years, of feeling stuck and overwhelmed, because burnout creeps up on you. Especially if in a work environment where burnout is common, we ignore the signs, thinking they’re just part of the job. With thoughtfulness and training, we can learn to notice symptoms suggesting early signs of burnout as early as 2 weeks in and take steps to get more clarity on what you need (e.g., more dissatisfaction with your day, unable to get replenished by activities as easily).

The severity of burnout depends on the duration, the intensity, and the impact it has on your quality of life. When untreated, burnout can develop into anxiety and depression, so it is important to address it when you notice some of the symptoms.

What causes burnout?

Many different factors impact burnout. I typically categorize them between personal and systemic factors:

Personal factors that cause burnout

Within-person characteristics, such as your:

  • Approach to work
  • Stress levels
  • Problem-solving skills

Systemic factors that cause burnout

These factors are about the systems you negotiate, such as:

  • High workload
  • Workplace culture
  • Accessibility of adequate resources
  • Leadership style
  • Institutional discrimination or ignorance

Burnout vs. stress: What’s the difference?

Whereas daily stress is, typically, a short-term state with a clear end in sight (e.g., a work deadline, hosting your in-laws for the weekend), burnout is the culmination of chronically-building stress without release. Here’s how this difference breaks down in everyday life:

  • Stress/problem solving: When we feel stressed or fatigued, it’s easier to understand and address the stress or tiredness, which makes it easier to care for ourselves.With burnout, this is tougher because these symptoms have built up over time and are usually a combination of your environment and your responses to your environment.
  • Emotional impact: With burnout, you might also struggle to use your emotions, such as sadness, tiredness, or frustration effectively in problem-solving because your emotions aren’t just about one thing – these emotions are usually an accumulation of stress.
  • Recovery time: When stressed or tired, you might benefit from a nap, a dance session, or quick conversations with a friend. With burnout, it is a slower process of creating a realistic recovery and maintenance plan, which is actually a great investment in yourself.
  • Impact on self and others: The emotional weight of burnout can negatively impact the way you relate to others (e.g., avoiding your boss because you’re afraid of being given more work, showing more irritability than that particular situation calls for) and with yourself (losing sight of your accomplishments, feeling disconnected from the ways you try to motivate yourself, more negative self-image).

How to treat burnout syndrome

There are many ways to address burnout syndrome on your own and with a trained professional.

Ways to recover from, and prevent burnout in the future include:

  • Developing action items: Setting work boundaries, creating a stress reduction list, taking care of your body, and disconnecting from screens.
  • Practicing reflective thought exercises: Being patient with yourself through recovery, rewarding the effort rather than just the outcome, reflecting on potential systematic problems.
  • Professional support: While there is no mental health diagnosis for “burnout,” there is a lot of overlap between burnout, depression, and anxiety. A trained therapist can help guide you through the process of reflection and recovery.


This article was originally published on Zencare.co, a wonderful resource that makes finding a therapist a lot easier. Thanks for the opportunity, Zencare!