Stress is part of everyday life—and, in small doses, it can even be a good thing, driving us to be our very best at work, at school, and at home.
However, in the past few years, the level of stress that many people have experienced has reached new heights. Coping with work stress alone has always been tough. But with everything else going on around us, the combination of it all can start to feel like something bigger. So, it’s no surprise that more and more people are using the word “burnout” to describe how they feel.
But what is burnout? Is it something you get after a single particularly tough week at work? Or is burnout something that takes months or even years to happen? And what should you do if you or a friend or loved one is experiencing it?
To learn more about burnout, we sat down with Gaurava Agarwal, MD, Chief Wellness Executive for Northwestern Medicine, and the Director of Faculty Wellness for Northwestern University. Dr. Agarwal (or “Dr. G,” as he is known) is an occupational and organizational psychiatrist who specializes in mental wellbeing in the workplace. He recently presented to the American Heart Association’s Science Advisory Coordinating Community on this important topic.
In the following Q&A, we capture his perspective from our discussion about what burnout is and, most importantly, what you can do about it.
Q: What exactly is burnout? How does it differ from stress?
Burnout is something more. It’s a form of chronic stress rooted in your relationship with work. The idea of burnout first emerged from what we call the caring professions: Doctors, nurses, teachers, and so on. Caring for other people all day takes a lot out of you, even if you love and are good at what you do. Over time, we’ve come to realize that people can experience burnout in just about any job.
Unlike depression and anxiety, burnout is not a clinical condition. But it is a very real phenomenon with very real consequences for workers and workplaces. One study suggested that as many as 1 in 4 employees experience symptoms of burnout.
Q: What leads to burnout?
Dr. Agarwal: Burnout is caused by prolonged periods of stress at work. It happens gradually, not overnight. Unrealistic goals, workloads, and expectations are big factors but not the only cause. If you don’t feel well supported at work, or if you feel powerless to control or change your situation, that can make things even worse.
Technically, the word burnout only applies to the workplace. But stress from other parts of your life—such as schoolwork, relationships, parenting, or caring for aging parents—can certainly contribute to burnout. That’s because stress is cumulative. Our brains can’t tell the difference between all those sources of stress, and eventually it can all become too much.
In many ways, COVID-19 brought burnout to the forefront. The pandemic changed our relationship to our jobs, as well as the expectations around how and when we work. But that work-related stress became unmanageable because extreme stress from all these other places in our lives hit us at the same time. For many people, the pandemic was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Q: What are some warning signs of burnout?
Dr. Agarwal: The hallmark of burnout is mental and physical exhaustion, that feeling that you just have nothing left to give to your work. In the early stage of burnout, you might find yourself feeling impatient or irritable. You may experience trouble sleeping.
As burnout progresses, you start to distance yourself from your work, which is your brain’s way of protecting itself. In addition to this cynicism, you may feel you no longer have a sense of purpose at work. You may even call out sick more often than usual.
From there, performance and creativity begin to suffer. And that’s when burnout starts to affect not only you but also your team and the people you serve and, ultimately, your company or organization.
Q: How can we cope with burnout — or better yet, prevent it?
Dr. Agarwal: Self-care can help build your resilience against stress and burnout. By that I mean getting enough sleep, exercising, eating well, investing in relationships, and practicing mindfulness and gratitude. Ironically, we tend to cut back on these healthy habits in stressful times, when we need them more than ever.
In addition to self-care, I encourage people to play an active role in improving where, when, how, and with whom you work. Talk with your supervisor about ways to adjust your schedule or responsibilities. I also encourage my colleagues to focus their energy on what they can control at work and to spend less mental energy about what they can’t control. I can’t overstate the importance of taking breaks, whether it’s 15 minutes or a long weekend. If you have paid time off, use it! That’s what it’s there for.
Sometimes burnout can lead to making a job change. But it’s important to remember that all jobs come with some amount of stress. As they say, the grass isn’t always greener. Self-care practices can really help for many without having to make such a big change.
Q: When should someone seek help for burnout?
Dr. Agarwal: If you find yourself losing your temper at work or otherwise acting unprofessionally, you should seek professional help. Another sign is if you’re frequently showing up late or unprepared or dropping the ball, which negatively impacts the people who count on you to do your job well. That’s your body and mind telling you the current situation is not sustainable.
You may not be able to beat burnout on your own and that’s OK. Find a mental health professional or a coach who can help you.
It’s also important to know that burnout can be a contributor to anxiety and depression. So that’s another reason to get professional help if burnout is affecting your behavior, to be assessed for those conditions and get treatment if you need it.
Q: What else do you want us to know about mental and emotional wellbeing?
Dr. Agarwal: You know, we tend to think of emotional wellbeing as a destination. People ask me, “How do you know when you get there?”
The truth is you never fully achieve it. Instead, think about your emotional wellbeing as a process of continual improvement. You need to continuously focus on practicing self-care, building resilience, and crafting a lifestyle that works for you.
And remember that work-life balance looks different depending on where you are in life. For example, your relationship to work when you’re fresh out of college will change years later when you’re raising a family. Wherever you are in your work life, remember how important it is to prioritize your mental and emotional wellbeing.
We thank Dr. Agarwal for sharing his expertise on beating burnout! Browse our blog archives for more tips on caring for your mental and emotional wellbeing.
Note: Since everyone’s health history and nutritional needs are so different, please make sure that you talk with your doctor and a registered dietitian to get advice about the diet and exercise plan that‘s right for you.