Identifying Your Burnout Red Flags (and how to avoid crashing and burning)

Burnout can look like many things.

The warning signs of burnout, feeling like you’re on the brink, and how it can impact your physical health.

I’ve had burnout so many times, it’s amazing I don’t look like a used matchstick. Let my lessons be your guidebook, but sadly, you probably won’t listen. 

Life can be a relentless mistress, and sometimes once you’re hurtling around on that hamster wheel it’s virtually impossible to see how close you are to running yourself ragged.

If we take that used match image as the end point of burnout, instead of waiting until we see our charred reflection staring back at us hollowly one day in the mirror, it’s imperative to become aware of what is striking your match, and what  being ‘a little bit’ on fire feels like so we can catch it before we burn all the way down. 

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Burnout is categorised in three ways according to American psychologist Herbert Freudenburger, who researched it in the 1970s. 

These dimensions are:

  • Emotional Exhaustion: The feelings of being emotionally drained and depleted from caring too much for too long, often resulting from excessive job demands and prolonged stress. Individuals experiencing emotional exhaustion may find themselves lacking the energy or motivation to cope with work-related tasks and responsibilities.
  • Depersonalization (Cynicism): The creep of negative or cynical attitudes towards work, colleagues, or clients. It manifests as a sense of detachment or indifference, where individuals may begin to view others as objects rather than people with feelings and needs. This dimension can lead to a decline in empathy, compassion and interpersonal relationships.
  • Reduced Personal Accomplishment: This dimension reflects a diminished sense of achievement and efficacy in one’s work. Individuals experiencing reduced personal accomplishment may perceive their efforts as ineffective or insignificant, leading to feelings of incompetence and self-doubt. This can erode job satisfaction and overall well-being.

Picture this: you’re cruising through life, juggling tasks left and right, and suddenly, you start feeling off-kilter. Maybe you’re more tired than usual, finding it hard to muster up the energy for the day ahead. Or perhaps you’re getting a bit jaded about work, feeling disconnected from what used to light you up. Sound familiar?

Those little whispers from your body and mind aren’t just random noise because you’re a bit over it—they’re early warning signs of burnout, and it’s crucial to listen up.

You see, burnout isn’t just about feeling stressed or overwhelmed; it can take a toll on your physical health too.

When you’re pushing yourself too hard for too long, your body starts sending out distress signals. You might notice headaches creeping in more often, or maybe your immune system seems to be taking a hit, leaving you more susceptible to colds and illnesses. Even your sleep patterns go awry, leaving you feeling groggy and unrested, no matter how many hours you clock in bed.

Ignoring these signs won’t make them disappear. In fact, brushing them off can actually make things worse, leading to more severe symptoms down the line. That’s why it’s critical to take those early warning signs seriously and give yourself the care and attention you deserve.

So, if you’re nodding along thinking, “Yep, that sounds like me,” it’s time to take action. If you want to learn more about burnout and it’s effects, The Nagoski sisters have excellent things to say in their book, Burnout, and this great TedTalk. Start by carving out some time for self-care—whether it’s an afternoon off, getting more sleep, having better boundaries and saying “no”, a walk in nature, or simply curling up with a good book. Reach out to friends or loved ones for support, and don’t be afraid to seek help from a professional if you need it.

Remember, your health and well-being are your top priority, no matter how busy life gets. So, listen to your body, heed those early warning signs, and take steps to nurture yourself back to balance. 

Because no success in the world is worth sacrificing your health.