Burnout at work: The 5 most common warning signs

November 15, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

Ruth Pearce spent months in a windowless room, working 60 to 80 hours a week with late night and early-morning meetings to finish a global financial project with too few resources. Over the course of three years, the North Carolina project manager seldom ventured outside, stopped exercising, ate on the run, and at night was left with such little energy that she’d drink to relieve stress and watch TV.  When a colleague hung a picture of a beautiful beach on the office wall and her husband begged her to quit, she knew she had officially hit burnout. “I had no energy,” she said. “It was killing me.”

Five years later, Pearce counsels other people facing chronic work stress as a professional coach at Project Motivator, and consistently tells people to listen to themselves before crashing and burning.  “I didn’t see the early signs of burnout until the words ‘project manager’ turned my stomach. It took six months before I could do any kind of work again,” she said. “I should have seen the signs and spoken up earlier.” 

If you feel like you’re banging your head against a wall at work, you’re not alone. The pandemic has ushered in a whole new level of exhaustion among today’s workers. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 70% of workers who transitioned to remote work said they worked weekends last year—with 45% working more during the week than they did before, according to a 2020 survey of 2,800 workers by Los Angeles-based staffing firm Robert Half. More parents juggle childcare responsibilities, too.  In response, millions of people have quit their jobs, in what’s been dubbed the Great Resignation. That has contributed to a labor shortage of 11 million jobs, which has left the workers who remain juggling even more work, especially in industries like hospitality and retail. Burnout is on the rise: More than half of workers say they’re experiencing burnout, up from 43% last year, and 80% of them say the pandemic has taken a toll, according to a 2021 survey by job site Indeed.  

“Not only does ignoring this pervasive and rapidly evolving problem claim too many financial costs, but the human costs are simply unacceptable,” says Jennifer Moss, author of the forthcoming book The Burnout Epidemic. If the burnout gets bad enough, people may quit their jobs or leave work for long periods of time or they may need pharmacological treatments or cognitive therapy.  In some cases hitting that place can be catastrophic, in terms of workplace violence, suicide, or fatal workplace errors, especially in the medical profession.  Moss said while recognizing the symptoms is key, it’s vital for the culture of an organization and leadership to create true change to avoid employee burnout.  

So how do you recognize when chronic stress will make you hit a wall?

1. You feel disconnected from your job and other interests.

Count how many times each week you’re asking yourself after endless Zoom meetings, ‘Why am I even doing this?” If you’re someone who is typically engaged or enthusiastic about work, and more and more you’re not, and or if you’re suddenly disengaged and it lasts for a week to 10 days, then pay close attention, says Pearce. That emotional distance from your job may be misdiagnosed as lack of productivity, but it’s a sign of stress.  You may also feel isolated or lose interest in activities outside of work.  “It’s that feeling like everyone else is firing on all cylinders and you’re stuck in quicksand,” Pearce said.

2. You stopped your routines.

Perhaps you once stuck to a healthy daily routine, whether it was a 10-minute meditation, eating a healthy diet, or exercising every morning—but now, because of work, you don’t. The long hours may have at first appeared to be acute or short-term, but now, as the pandemic stretches on, people have grown more accustomed to working 12-hour days in pajamas and answering emails before putting their kids to bed, said Moss.  As boundaries between home and work blend, people don’t always know how to stop working. For some, the thoughts and worries about work begin to interrupt their sleep, too. Sticking to a healthy routine, said Moss, is critical to preventing burnout.

3. You’ve become far more cynical and hopeless.

If you get to a place where you feel as if there is nothing you can do to make your job better, and that it’s never going to change, that’s a big warning sign, said Moss. You may be consumed with what is wrong with your career, whether it’s your colleagues, your boss, the workload, or how work is being done, said Pearce. You may be more irritable and short-tempered with colleagues, friends, or family.  “I myself became obsessed about annoying things at work instead of focusing on what I could do differently,” said Pearce. “I felt stuck.”

4. You’ve got brain fog.

That dull fuzzy feeling in your head? It’s a symptom of chronic stress, which leads to burnout. You may be making errors, forgetting words, missing appointments, or taking longer to get back to colleagues or clients. It may feel like a herculean challenge just to make simple decisions, and your house may feel messier than normal.  “Feeling muddled: that’s the number one trigger for me. It’s when I’m not paying attention when I’m driving or I’m losing my keys,” says Rick Grimaldi, a workplace attorney at Fisher & Phillips in Philadelphia and author of Flex: A Leader’s Guide to Staying Nimble and Managing Transformative Change in the American Workplace.

5. You’re physically and emotionally exhausted.

Chronic stress leads to burnout and for some there is an end point—where they are so physically and emotionally exhausted to the point they can’t continue. If you find yourself feeling physically exhausted at the end of the day, and this occurs two to three times a week or more, that’s a red flag. “It’s that feeling like you’re walking through cement to get out of bed and to the shower and to work,” said Moss. 

Identifying chronic stress and addressing it before burnout is vital—to both employees and employers. If you’re seeing signs of stress, talk to your employer about managing your calendar to ensure you’re taking breaks, refueling your body and mind, and setting clear boundaries between work and personal life. You may even take a step away from your job for a while to recharge. If your employer is not responsive or not showing signs of change, said Moss, then changing jobs may be the best option. 

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