“Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.”– Michael Gungor
As I mentioned in last week’s roundup, I’m shifting the focus of this blog to be a space where we talk about health, wellbeing, and self-care for freelancers and small business owners. The general freelancing/writing/journalism mash-up wasn’t really working and I realised I needed a more specific direction. So here we are! Today we’re talking some common but lesser known symptoms of burnout.
I’ve suffered from burnout twice in the course of my career so far. The first time was after three years in a job with irregular hours and a high level of (expected and actual) emotional investment due to the nature of the work. The second time was towards the end of last year, when I realised I was working 60+ hours a week for my clients and still felt more like I was treading water than making progress.
Both times, burnout had a few common symptoms: exhaustion, depression, and an all-consuming sense of I cannot do this any more. But burnout doesn’t manifest in the same way for everyone. In fact, if you expect it to look only one way, you might be missing the signs even as you’re heading for the burnout cliff.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is a relatively new term, though not a new phenomenon. The first known usage of the word appeared in 1974, in the book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement by Herbert Freudenberger. Freudenberger defined burnout as, “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
In recent years, burnout has come to be conceptualised as the point at which chronic stress and/or overwork leads to exhaustion, detachment, or an inability to get things done.
Six Lesser Known Symptoms of Burnout
The thing with burnout is that it’s an insidious beast. You don’t just wake up with it out of nowhere. Think of it as like a fog that rises slowly. You might not recognise it until it’s swallowing you.
With that said, here are six lesser known but relatively common symptoms of burnout toy should look out for.
You Hate Your Job (When You Didn’t Before)
Contrary to popular belief, it is not inevitable that you will end up hating or resenting your job (even if you love it to begin with.) In fact, realising you truly hate a job you once loved, liked, or even just tolerated is a classic burnout symptom. As a freelancer or self-employed person, this might look like hating or resenting the business you were once excited about. Perhaps you’ve even considered throwing the towel in, closing your business and going back into traditional employment. Any of these might point to impending burnout.
Perhaps you’re usually an even-tempered person but lately you’ve found yourself suffering from erratic mood swings. Perhaps you’ve been snapping at your family, friends, partner, or children. Or maybe small things that used to wash over you have become sources of intense irritation.
Moodiness is often a symptom of high stress. When you’re managing chronic stress or overwork, you have less mental capacity left to be present for your loved ones or to deal with life’s small annoyances as they arise. If you’re moodier than before or those close to you say you’ve changed, pay attention to that.
Presenteeism is a phenomenon where people show up to work no matter what. Traditional workplaces and bosses often make the mistake of rewarding presenteeism – we’ve all heard about the employee who “never took a sick day in 20 years,” right? But presenteeism isn’t actually good for the worker or the business, and this is doubly true when you’re working for yourself.
Do you drag yourself to your desk even when you’ve got the flu? Does the idea of taking a personal day make you break out in a cold sweat? Do you drop everything when a client emails you, even if it’s the middle of the night? If so, you might be engaging in presenteeism. Feeling like you can never take a day off, even to recover when you’re unwell or handling something serious in your personal life, could be a sign that you’re in danger of burning out.
Misusing Alcohol, Drugs, or Food
Many of us enjoy a drink or two to wind down after a difficult day at work, and that’s not a problem in and of itself. But if you’re drinking more in an attempt to stave off work stress or to help you sleep, that’s potentially a big red warning flag. The same goes for if you’re misusing drugs (prescription or illegal) to cope with your stress levels.
A poor relationship with food is another burnout symptom you may not recognise. Many people suffering with burnout turn to comfort foods to cope. Again, eating some cake to make yourself feel better once in a while isn’t a big deal. But if you’re habitually binge-eating to comfort yourself, that’s a sign of something amiss. On the flip side, if you’re regularly skipping meals or restricting what you eat, that can also be a warning sign.
Diminished Executive Function
Executive function is a term for a collection of skills that enable us to plan, set and achieve goals, control impulses, and focus. One study showed that executive function is diminished during periods of acute burnout. If you’re suddenly really struggling to get things done, you might be suffering from diminished executive functioning. Tell-tale signs include trouble with starting/organising/completing tasks, low attention span, short-term memory issues, or difficulty processing new information.
All of this can be a sign that you’re heading towards burnout… or that you’re already there.
Rest Doesn’t Leave You Recharged
We all get tired, and running your own business or working as a freelancer is legitimately tiring. So being shattered when you fall into bed at the end of the day isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself. But have you ever been through a phase where you sleep, but you wake up feeling just as exhausted as before? Do you continually hit snooze in the morning, hoping that five more minutes of sleep will make you feel better?
When you’re suffering from burnout, a good night’s sleep isn’t enough to fix it. If you’re always tired no matter how much you sleep, it might be time to drastically change things up or take an extended break. Don’t forget to see your doctor, too – sometimes chronic exhaustion can have a physical cause and it’s a good idea to rule that out.
What to Do if You Think You’re Suffering from Burnout
The thing with burnout is that the kinds of people most likely to suffer from it are also the kinds of people most likely to push through it until they literally cannot any longer. It can be so tempting to ignore it and keep hoping it will get better on its own. But you can’t do that indefinitely, because it won’t.
If you recognise any of these symptoms of burnout in yourself, seek help quickly. If you’re self-employed or freelance, you might not have the benefit of a sympathetic boss, caring colleagues, or an employee assistance programme to fall back on. Speak to your GP, seek out a trained mental health professional like a psychotherapist, or
Most importantly, prepare to make a change. You might need to scale back some projects, outsource some work, change how you do things, or even take a break entirely. You cannot work your way through burnout. If you do, it will break you. It’s better to recognise the symptoms of burnout and take steps to mitigate it as early as you can.