You got up this morning with a sinking feeling and now, on the way to work, there’s a still a sense of gloom hanging over you. Perhaps it’s guilt: For snapping at your kids, and then your partner, the previous evening. Or maybe it’s exhaustion: You were awake at 3am, a work to-do list cycling through your mind.
These are some of the signs that you could be suffering from burnout. The World Health Organization officially acknowledged burnout as a condition last month for the first time, defining it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” That doesn’t mean it’s an illness you come down with, like the flu. It also differs from other mental health conditions like depression. Burnout is a shorthand: A way of describing an interaction between our particular work circumstances and our individual ways of dealing with them.
It’s “a combination of the nature of your work environment, and what it demands of you, but also your relationship to your work,” explains Elena Touroni, a psychologist and founder of the Chelsea Psychology Clinic in London, where workplace stress and burnout are some of the main reasons clients seek help. “And your relationship to your work usually has a lot of layers.” Teasing those layers apart can in itself feel like hard work, but Touroni says, it’s worth it: “When you understand yourself, your choice about how to live your life is hugely different,” she told Quartz.
What are the symptoms of burnout?
Work can be stressful for anyone at times. Burnout, as the WHO definition helps clarify, is a description of chronic stress that’s not being managed. Most of the symptoms include work stress filtering into the rest of one’s life and, often, making even non-work time less happy and productive.
There are four indicators in daily life to watch out for, Touroni says. The first is sleep, which can be a “barometer” by which to measure emotional health. Disturbances can include finding it difficult to get to sleep, or waking in the middle of the night because of work-related worries.
The second period of the day to be aware of is the early morning. You may be experiencing burnout if you feel anxious on waking, or during your commute. Touroni says this could manifest as “a kind of tightness in [the] stomach, or waking up and not feeling particularly motivated to start the day or go to work.” Sufferers might also experience “a lot of rumination about work-related topics.”
It’s also possible that those sensations—a tight stomach, a morning feeling of dread—could feel unconnected to work. Our minds are good at latching on to explanations or triggers that are to hand: Perhaps you attribute your feelings of annoyance to an untidy room, or the rain, or the lateness of a bus. All those could be valid one-off reasons. But when the feeling becomes very common, it’s time to take note.
Now, imagine it’s the evening. You’d like to switch off and relax—by cooking dinner, for example, or watching TV. But you can’t. Maybe you’re actually having to attend to emails, or Slack messages, or complete other work; maybe thoughts about pending tasks take you away from the moment you’re actually in.
Finally, Touroni says, intimate relationships are likely to take the brunt of work-related stress. Irritability and a short fuse are early signs of feeling overwrought. “You’re not feeling quite robust in yourself. You’re not feeling resilient to deal with challenges,” Touroni says. This might manifest in more aggressive responses to your partner, a lack of patience with your kids, or a feeling of detachment from the people you’re closest to.
The UK’s practitioner health program, a support service for doctors and other health workers, developed a series of diagnostic questions that can be useful to ask yourself that seek to expose experiences or behaviors that might creep in to “normal” life unnoticed.
What can you do to combat burnout?
Depending on the severity of what a person is experiencing, Touroni might advise anything from self-care and mindfulness techniques to therapy.
As a first step, she says, she suggests listening to a short mindfulness track on first waking, during the commute to work, or even while at work. (There are plenty of these available for free online; Touroni suggests searching “three minute breathing space” and exploring the results.) You can pair this activity with something else “nurturing,” like drinking a cup of herbal tea.
Stressed people with packed schedules might balk at the idea of even a three-minute meditation during work hours. But if that’s our reaction, it could be a reason to check in with ourselves. Three minutes really isn’t a long time. A cup of herbal tea is not an indulgence. A walk, even a short one, can serve a similar function—so long as it’s mindful, too, and not simply devoted to churning over worries.
Mindfulness can lead to a sense of increased calm that can be an end it itself, but Touroni suggests it’s also a useful tool for shaking away confusion until some clarity emerges. “A lot of the time the problem might be that you’re experiencing all this stress, but you don’t fully understand what’s going on,” she says. “Mindfulness can help you begin to observe your mind…It can help develop insight.”
With a calmer mind, it can be time for some problem-solving, ideally with the help of a sympathetic manager. Perhaps, over time, your role has changed to the extent that it’s become unmanageable. Perhaps ambition has driven you to overextend; or a particular interaction with a colleague or manager has become fraught.
These steps are “a combination of self-care through the whole day, assessing the problem, and then trying to engage in as much problem-solving as is possible to implement by yourself, or with the help of a supportive employer,” Touroni says.
What if you’re still feeling burnt out?
To illustrate the complex nature of our relationship with work, Touroni describes an imaginary client. The person grows up in an environment where their parents constantly push them to achieve, but for whom nothing is ever good enough. As an adult, they unconsciously replicate the situation by choosing an incredibly ambitious work environment, in a highly competitive organization that exploits their need to do well. “You have a terrible, toxic combination there, where you are re-enacting a traumatic experience from your childhood that you haven’t made sense of, and you’ve chosen a work environment that fits with that,” she says.
The underlying causes feeding that kind of situation can be hard to find without professional help. Touroni—who, of course, has an interest in selling therapy—says stigma can get in the way. One barrier can be “the idea that if you need therapy you have in some way failed, or there’s something wrong with you,” she says. But she suggests reframing the idea of therapy as a way to maintain a healthy mind in the same way exercise and nutrition keep the body fit.
Seeking help can be both psychologically hard, and confusing, she admits, with hundreds of potential therapies and practitioners to choose from. She suggests a practical approach. Start with some research into the kinds of therapy that might be used for different problems. Then shop around: Ask to meet different therapists, or speak to them on the phone, before making a decision. Don’t feel pressured to commit until you’ve found someone you click with.
Disliking one’s work, caring deeply about it, or having a complicated relationship with it can all lead to the kind of chronic stress that can develop into burnout. Spending time figuring out how to work happily can’t be wasted.