Are You Burned Out?

It’s more than just an occupational hazard. How to recognize— and relieve—this threat to your health

Symptoms of Burnout 

  • depleted energy
  • detachment
  • lack of motivation
  • increasingly cynical outlook
  • decreased sense of accomplishment
  • withdrawal from usual responsibilities
  • social isolation
  • procrastination, taking longer to get things done
  • change in appetite or sleep habits
  • headaches, muscle aches


It was my first job after eight years of training in medicine and psychiatry. This was my chance to finally break free from being a student, a supervisee. The job was at a private psychiatric hospital in Massachusetts, and I was in charge of both inpatients and outpatients.

Things started well, but as the weeks ground on and my job duties mushroomed, my mood changed from elated to irritable and exhausted. Too many patients, too much paperwork, unclear expectations, scant praise and frequent night and weekend on-call duties drove me first to anger, then to apathy.

I left the job behind, but the pit in my stomach lingered. It wasn’t until years later that I was able to put a name to the experience: a classic case of burnout.

Burnout isn’t a formal psychiatric diagnosis but rather a loosely defined psychological state with some room for interpretation. First described in the 1970s, it’s now part of our vernacular. Michael Leiter, Ph.D., one of the world’s foremost burnout researchers and a professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, defines it as “chronic exhaustion, [a feeling of] distance from one’s work and a diminished sense of efficacy.”

The more you look for burnout, the more you’ll find it. I was shocked at the responses of friends and colleagues when I took an informal survey. So many were burned out that I thought about starting a support group. “Day after day, you wake up in the morning and you’re already tired,” explains Dr. Leiter.

A New Jersey college professor we’ll call Patricia knows that feeling all too well. She’s been coping with a dictatorial chairman who has left her isolated in her department and without recognition or a feeling of control over her work. The results have been devastating: detachment, depression and physical ailments including back pain and stomach ills.

Burnout at work has also spilled over into Patricia’s personal life: “It makes it difficult for me to have the patience to deal with a rebellious teenager or even to do the housework,” she says. One way to describe burnout is to define what it isn’t. Although stress can lead to burnout, the two aren’t the same.

People are usually aware of being under stress, but burnout can develop insidiously and escape detection. Depression and burnout are like first cousins: the two share symptoms but are also distinct.

Depression is a mood disorder that results from the interaction between genes and the environment. It can arise “out of the blue” or in response to stressors and generally responds to medication and/or psychotherapy. Burnout stems from a specific situation and can usually be reversed by lifestyle measures or by leaving the bad state of affairs behind. Prolonged burnout, if left unaddressed, can turn into depression. It can also become a medical danger, contributing to lowered immunity, frequent illnesses, headaches, stomach ills and muscle pains. There is even evidence that it can increase the risk of heart disease and other inflammatory conditions.

Workplace burnout can result from excessive workload, lack of control or little or no recognition or appreciation for your efforts. Isolation, a paucity of fairness or respect and a job that conflicts with your values can also contribute. Although burnout appears to affect men and women in roughly equal numbers, their coping mechanisms may be different.

Naama Tokayer, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist in Montclair, says that “women may be more reluctant to directly address organizational problems at work” and may also be likely to remain in “stuck” situations longer than men. And in today’s economy workers of both sexes face a double whammy: expectations of “increased productivity,” i.e., companies squeezing more work out of fewer employees, and fewer available jobs to turn to as alternatives.


Burned Out on Life?

Although burnout has been studied mainly in the workplace, the syndrome can be generalized to other situations. Call it “life burnout.” People in the so-called “sandwich generation,” who care for both children and elderly parents, are likely to have at least some symptoms. Particular times of the year can also be problematic. “Holidays, for a certain percentage of the world, are a performance,” says Dr. Leiter, noting that they can eat up a lot of energy, especially for those with high expectations or unappreciative houseguests. Holiday demands, added to other pressures, can become the tipping point toward a case of burnout.

CONTINUE READING: How to Beat Burnout….



Relax, Recharge and Have Fun!

Burning out Burnout

So how does one prevent or relieve burnout? Says Dr. Tokayer: “We need to find a way to release the valve.” Caregivers for elderly relatives should keep open communication with other family members about sharing responsibilities and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for assistance from groups such as the National Association of Area Agencies on Aging (

Stay-at-home parents experiencing isolation should seek out local playgroups and ask their partners for “time off” to sleep and care for themselves. If work is the culprit, ideally you should seek another job that will give you a better work–life balance. Until you find one, do what you can to achieve this in your current position: Adjust your hours or arrange for flex-time, try to vary your tasks and/or delegate where possible, and challenge yourself creatively by accepting a new project.

Exercising regularly, eating healthily and communicating openly with co-workers can go a long way to keep you from burning out. Recovery is possible, but it will take time and effort. Having a good support system, re-evaluating priorities and taking breaks are vital parts of this process. Take a vacation, ask for a temporary leave of absence or, if this isn’t possible, take “mini-breaks” to walk or meditate during the day.

Focusing on your own needs may not come naturally at first but may be the key to greater well-being.


Preventing Burnout

  • Utilize creative outlets—take a class in a subject that interests you or take up a long-neglected hobby.
  • Learn stress-management techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, meditation or guided imagery.
  • Adopt healthy eating, exercise and sleep habits.
  • Take a daily walk, try to go to bed and get up at regular times and get a minimum of seven hours of sleep per night.
  • Create flexibility in your schedule if possible.
  • Set boundaries. Be honest with your supervisor about how much can be accomplished each day.
  • Use vacation time.
  • Work it out with others. Talk with coworkers or fellow caretakers about how to give each other a breather.  


Naomi Weinshenker, M.D., a former faculty member at the New York University Child Study Center, practices child, adolescent and adult psychiatry in Clifton.

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