What’s Burnout, and How Can I Prevent It from Happening to Me?

“Don't let making a living prevent you from making a life.” - John Wooden

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@thenewenglandshop via Twenty20

A little over two years ago, I found myself sitting in my office, extremely frantic. My inbox had emails waiting for responses, I was tired from staying at work long after everyone else had left and my body hadn’t had a vegetable in weeks. I was living off Diet Pepsis and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos because they were conveniently in the vending machine. I was avoiding my phone because even the idea of responding to texts was too overwhelming, and my personal to-do list was getting as long as my work to-do list. I burst into tears.

This was a Saturday.

I was completely burnt out. If you’ve ever been in that position, you know how hard it is to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I knew my body was fighting me, but my only thought was: How am I going to get everything done?

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@tonymeyers via Twenty20

So what is burnout?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion, usually occurring after an extended period of being stressed or under extreme pressure. You might feel like you have to rise above the work demands by putting in longer hours at the office, taking your laptop home with you on the weekends, always being accessible through your phone at every waking (and non-waking) hour and taking on more challenging projects. You may feel guilty about not being as available to friends and family, so you overbook any moment you’re not at work with birthday parties, dinners, and outings, finding yourself always rushing from one event to the next. 

Although it doesn’t happen overnight, it’s especially dangerous to overachievers and peak performers because they rarely see the signs. 

What are the signs of burnout?

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@RLTheis via Twenty20

You are tired all the time.

Being tired is one of the more discernible traits of burnout. You might write it off as not getting enough sleep or eating right, and that’s probably true, but fatigue is your body telling you to slow down. Working longer, harder and getting less sleep isn’t just unsustainable, but it’s also counterproductive. Resting your mind and body have proven to boost productivity. Arianna Huffington even did a TEDTalk about the power of getting a good night’s sleep, and getting adequate sleep is linked to being more successful and effective.

You’re getting sick more often.

Burnout has been known to cause actual changes to your body that weaken your immune system. You can feel like you’re always getting sick since you’re now extra susceptible to catching colds or infections. You might also experience increased headaches, chest pains, heart palpitations and other physical ailments. If you feel like you’re under the weather, you could be experiencing burnout.

You feel anxious and depressed when thinking about work.

Feeling slightly stressed or a little downtime to time is normal and expected, but having panic attacks or feeling worthless is not. If you’re feeling nervous, tense, always on edge or irritable and like you never have any good days, you could be trying to cope with severe burnout and should look into counseling. Nothing affecting your mental health is ever worth it.

You’re experiencing a loss of motivation and fulfillment.

You once felt a sense of pride in your work, especially when you finished a challenging project or a difficult assignment. Now it seems like you no longer have any motivation, and it’s getting harder to care. You feel like you’re just going through the motions, and while that might not lessen how hard you’re working, the happiness or feelings of accomplishment are missing.

How do you stop burnout from occurring?

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@tcboncore via Twenty20

As a fellow, “I have SO much to do”-er, I understand the difficulty of taking a step back and accepting that you need a break. If you’re someone who prides themselves on their ability to get many things done, you may view this as a personal failure or that somehow you weren’t good enough. This is not the case. Let me repeat: You are experiencing burnout because you’re a hard and diligent worker, and you should not view this as a shortcoming. For all the times you’ve posted some nonsense like, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” let me clarify that if you keep this up, you’ll get there sooner than later.  

Listen to your body and take care of yourself. Here are some things that can help.

Say no.

There is no shortage of articles saying that you need to learn how to say no, and for good reason. Successful people say no all the time, as this frees them up to say yes to the things they really want to do. You can’t do it all, and it’s important to create boundaries. You could always make up an excuse, say that you don’t have any available time to do whatever they asked or say no. You don’t owe anyone anything.


I have found that many things can be solved with more exercise and water. Not all of them, but it’s always worth a shot. Exercise has been linked to many amazing benefits. It has been found to boost your mood, give you energy, reduce blood pressure and alleviate risks for many diseases, improve your sex life and your sleep and lower anxiousness. 

Diligently incorporate a work/life balance.

This one probably seems obvious, but you need to explore outside interests—as in interests that get you outside the office (ba bap ching!). If you can’t remember the last time you saw daylight, try signing up for an earlier gym class. Schedule drinks with friends, make plans to go out of town for the weekend or pick a decent time that you want to leave by, set the alarm on your phone and stick to it.

Take a break.

There is a ton of research that supports how beneficial taking breaks throughout the day can be. They actually increase productivity, improve memory, make you more creative, revive motivation and help prevent decision fatigue. Talk to a coworker, take a walk or get yourself a snack (my favorite break).

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