Are You Experiencing Job Burnout or Something Else?

Tired man working on laptopAccording to a recent Gallup poll, 44% of full-time employees experience occasional burnout, with an additional 23% reporting frequent or constant burnout. A person’s desire to work hard, be productive, and succeed at work may come into conflict with their need for time with family and desire for a fuller life that isn’t just defined by work.

Most workers say work is more demanding today than it was a generation ago. Research consistently shows Americans face higher burnout rates than people living in other nations. This suggests burnout is widespread cultural problem, not just an individual struggle.

Burnout Basics

The World Health Organization now recognizes burnout syndrome as a clinical syndrome. Because burnout is closely related to working conditions, however, burnout may not get better until a person changes jobs or their workload becomes more manageable. While therapy can help a person identify burnout and work toward solutions, their distress may continue until their working environment improves.

A Gallup study looking at employee burnout identified five factors that best predicted burnout:

  • Unfair treatment at work
  • A workload that feels unmanageable
  • Poor communication and low support from a manager
  • Inadequate clarity about one’s job role or tasks
  • Time pressure and unreasonable deadlines

People experiencing job burnout may worry the problem is their inability to handle the workload or to fit in at work. The evidence suggests otherwise. Employer and management practices are a major predictor of job burnout. But sometimes, what feels like burnout is actually something else.

Depression vs. Burnout

Distinguishing depression from burnout can be difficult, because both cause emotional exhaustion, low motivation, and anhedonia (difficulty finding pleasure). Moreover, burnout is a risk factor for depression. So it’s possible to be both depressed and burnt out.

Some factors that may distinguish one from the other include:

  • Burnout is closely linked to work. So a person may feel better after a vacation or during less stressful times at work.
  • While burnout can affect motivation to do most tasks, a person is more likely to feel unmotivated at work. Depression affects motivation even to do tasks a person enjoys.
  • The negative emotions of burnout center around a person’s job. A person may feel cynical or frustrated at work, less effective in their role, or frequently feel angry about work.
  • Burnout symptoms tend to get worse during times of high work stress.

Anxiety vs. Burnout

Burnout can cause immense anxiety, especially when a pile of work accumulates and a person does not feel equipped to tackle it. When anxiety extends beyond work or does not get better when a person’s working conditions change, the culprit might be an anxiety diagnosis such as generalized anxiety or posttraumatic stress (PTSD).

Some signs that the problem might be anxiety and not burnout include:

  • The anxiety does not improve when a person’s workload gets more manageable or when they take time away from work.
  • The anxiety is not limited to work-related matters.
  • A person has a history of anxiety or trauma unrelated to work.
  • Anxiety causes problems at work, such as when a person is too anxious to say no to a request from a boss—especially if there’s no reason to believe the boss will react unreasonably.

When Job Burnout Comes with Company

Burnout is more than just frustration with work. It’s a serious affliction that can affect a person’s physical and mental health. Possible physical health effects of burnout include:

  • A weaker immune system
  • Insomnia and chronic exhaustion
  • Heart disease
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure

These symptoms can compound the stress of job burnout and may even make other mental health symptoms worse. Physical health issues may also make a person less effective at work. Symptoms can force people to take time off, potentially making the stress of a hefty workload even worse.

People experiencing burnout should know there is also significant overlap between mental health diagnoses and job burnout. A person with a mental health condition is more vulnerable to job burnout, and a person with job burnout is more likely to develop a mental health condition.

Mental health interacts with workplace challenges in complex ways. For example, a person with generalized anxiety may struggle to discuss unfair job expectations with their boss. A person with depression may be unable to take pride in workplace accomplishments.

Mental health is complex, with biological, social, psychological, and environmental roots. It rarely has a single cause. The more risk factors a person has for mental health issues, the more likely it is that burnout will lead to a mental health condition.

When to Get Help

It’s not always possible to leave a bad job. That doesn’t mean a person has to struggle with burnout forever though. Self-care strategies such as using the vacation time one has earned, separating one’s identity from work, doing enjoyable hobbies, and getting plenty of rest can protect a person’s mental and physical health.

A therapist can provide a healthy outlet, brainstorm solutions, and offer strategies that may help mitigate burnout. When a person is ready to leave their job, the right therapist can support them during their job search. A therapist can help with common job search challenges, such as impostor syndrome, anxiety, and low self-confidence.

People struggling with depression and anxiety may believe medication is the only option. Yet therapy can also prove invaluable. When a person uses medication, therapy increases its efficacy. And when a person prefers to avoid medication, therapy is a viable alternative that can help a person master new coping skills. Research shows therapy can even change the brain.

When burnout and other mental health issues collide, it’s even more important to get quality mental health care. A therapist can help a person sort through their emotions, develop viable solutions to workplace challenges, and steadily work their way out of the hole of burnout, depression, or anxiety.

GoodTherapy can help you find a therapist who specializes in burnout.


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