Burnout Is More Than Just Stress – Do You Have It?

Nip burnout in the bud before it's too late.

Burnout Is More Than Just Stress – Do You Have It?
Credit: Photo by Eutah Mizushima on Unsplash

If you’re feeling anxious, apathetic, and restless, you may be suffering from burnout – an epidemic currently plaguing the U.S. A whopping two-thirds of workers in the U.S. have the condition, according to one recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees: a side effect of unfulfilling and overly stressful workplace environments.

But even if you do have burnout, it may be hard to get a diagnosis – at least in the U.S. While countries that rely on the International Classification for Diseases, established by the World Health Organization, do consider it an occupational disease, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the predominant diagnostic manual in the U.S., doesn’t.

“Burnout has been one of those terms – a little bit like stress – that we talk about all the time,” explains Kevin Gilliland, Psy.D., CEO and Executive Director of Innovation 360 a treatment center for alcohol & drug addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar, family therapy, and life development. “It tends to be a common-man term rather than a medical term.”

Dr. Judy Ho, Triple Board-Certified Clinical, Forensic, and Neuropsychologist, explains that to add insult to injury, many people ignore the symptoms of burnout entirely.

“They say, ‘Oh, well, that’s just how everybody feels,’” she explains. “And so in some ways, it actually leads them to not go to seek help.”

Luckily, explains Gilliland, since burnout was first identified in the 70s, the medical community has been studying it more and more.

“There have been enough symptoms and characteristics that it’s been something that we can evaluate and study,” he explains. “If we can’t all agree on what the symptoms are, then we probably don’t need to name it something. Because we’re not going to be able to treat it accurately.”

While the diagnostic manuals in the U.S. have some catching up to do, medical professionals around the world agree: not only is burnout dangerous all on its own for mental health and wellbeing, it contributes to an over-production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can lead to adrenal fatigueinflammatory diseases, metabolic conditions, and heart disease.

“I always jokingly say, ‘We do have a diagnosis for burnout: it’s called cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and diabetes,’” says Gilliland. “That’s how we diagnose it now.”

Burnout is even linked to chronic pain – an unfortunate catch-22.

“It impacts our ability to exercise,” says Ho, “which of course creates a perpetual cycle because the less you exercise, the more burnout you might feel.”

Left untreated, burnout can even contribute to low levels of cortisol and result in even more adrenal problems, according to Parsley Health physician Ruvini Mijetilaka, MD.

“People who are completely burned out will have low levels throughout the day, which means their adrenal glands are not pushing out any cortisol—they’ve given up.”

3 Signs You’ve Got Burnout

Leaving burnout unchecked is a dangerous notion. Instead, keep an eye out for these three signs as an indication that something needs to change in your work/life balance.

1. Emotional and Physical Exhaustion

Burnout is linked to emotional and physical exhaustion, both at home and at the workplace. But fatigue and decreased energy are just one piece of this; another is something commonly referred to as “depersonalization” among professionals.

While Gilliland doesn’t love the term, he does note that it’s a common side effect of burnout.

“It’s this negative, cynical attitude and feeling towards coworkers or your boss,” he says, noting that depersonalization can lead to feelings of inadequacy, incompetence, and reduced efficiency.

This can be measured by something employers call presenteeism.

“You’re still at work,” he says, “but something that used to only take you two or three days is now taking you six or seven because you’re not as efficient, you’re not feeling as confident, which impacts how you do your job.”

2. Insomnia and Reduced Immune Function

If you’re tired all the time but when you get to bed, you can’t fall asleep, this might be a sign of burnout. Adrenal fatigue can throw off your circadian rhythm, only exacerbating the exhaustion you already feel – and contributing to increased instances of illness.

Gilliland notes that this is a common side effect of anxiety and stress disorders in cancer patients: their treatments are less effective because the immune system is suppressed by an overproduction of stress hormones like cortisol.

He notes that while, in and of itself, cortisol is not bad, “It becomes bad when we’re releasing it all day, every day.”

“Released in large quantities every day,” he continues, cortisol and other hormones, “become toxic to our system.”

“If you’re somebody who seems to catch the common cold every time it comes around, and you get sick three or four times a year, you should probably say… ‘OK… am I overly stressing my system? Do I have sort of a chronic low level of burnout?’”

3. Anxiety and Depression

Many symptoms of burnout can overlap with symptoms of depression, but prolonged burnout can actually lead to clinical depression and anxiety.

“When you look at chronic stress, worry, burnout ­– if they persist, they can transition into something like an anxiety disorder, a major depression,” says Gilliland.

This, he notes, is because burnout negatively impacts areas of your life that matter to your physical and emotional health and wellbeing.

“It starts disrupting your sleep,” he says. “You start eating poorly. You become irritable with friends and family. You stop doing things that you enjoy doing. You lose some of that balance in life.”

What Can You Do About It?

There are steps you can take to ensure that burnout doesn’t become permanently detrimental to your physical and emotional health, all of which begin with taking a close look at your work/life balance.

This doesn’t mean just taking a vacation, Ho notes. But Gilliland explains that burnout doesn’t necessarily mean you need to leave your job, either. What you do need to do is take the time and distance to take stock of what part of your work environment is leading to your burnout.

Our experts recommend relying on a trusted confidante to gain some perspective: Ho suggests a cognitive behavioral therapist, and Gilliland notes that even a trusted friend might be able to help you remove your emotions from the equation and see where the real problem lies.

“I worked with a young lady that was really talented and was struggling with some stress and burnout,” he recalls. While she was originally focused on the company itself as the source of her struggle, after spending some time talking with Gilliland, she was able to see the issue in a new light: the true issue was a boss, rather than the company, and armed with this knowledge, she was able to go to the HR department of her company and make a change that reduced her workplace stress significantly.

“It wasn’t the company. It wasn’t the job,” says Gilliland. “But when you start having burnout, you question all those things.”

Making the appropriate changes at work might be enough, but establishing a firmer work/life distinction will help too. After all, many of us don’t just spend all day staring at screens; we go home and do the same thing at night. Studies have shown that staying away from screens before bed does wonders for your sleep and stress – and reducing screen time will also allow you more time to be present and mindful in other parts of your life. Instead of watching Netflix or scrolling through your Instagram feed in the evenings or on weekends, consider developing a meditation practice, journaling, cooking a delicious meal with your family, going for a walk, reading a book, or spending time with friends.

For Ho, making these lifestyle changes – and above all, avoiding the excuse that you’re just too busy at work – is an essential part of ensuring that burnout doesn’t become a cyclical problem.

“I think recreational activity and social connectivity is a huge part of this,” she says. “Learning how to change your thought patterns about your work, and how to develop more meaningful social interactions and relationships as a way to prevent and curb burnout systems. I would recommend that as a first line.”

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Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco