Laura had reached her breaking point. Her company had gone through a massive layoff six months ago and she was one of the fortunate employees who got to keep their job. But she wasn’t feeling very fortunate these days.

Now saddled with the work of three people, she felt overwhelmed, unsupported and unappreciated.

Her stress was at an all-time high, evidenced by the constant pain she felt in her lower back, the poor sleep she got every night and her inability to “turn off” work when she wasn’t there. Laura didn’t see her friends or family as often and even when she did, she was exhausted and just didn’t feel like herself.

The worst part was that she didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel. It was as though she was trapped in the movie “Groundhog Day,” doomed to repeat the same draining workday over and over again. She thought about looking for another job, but she was already so tired and had so little time for herself. She felt burned out, stuck and desperate.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s to describe “the consequences of severe stress and high ideals in ‘helping’ professions” such as doctors and nurses. Today, burnout is used across all professions to refer to the end result of prolonged exposure to work-related stress.

While it’s important to be aware of the signs of job burnout and what we can do to overcome it, equally as important is understanding how it can actually be a gift, used as a tool for transforming our careers and lives.

How to recognize job burnout

Burnout usually starts subtly and builds gradually; therefore, it can be difficult to recognize it in our own lives until we’ve reached a breaking point. It often begins as a feeling of fatigue — physical, mental or emotional — which lasts increasingly longer.

Like the proverbial frog slowly boiling in the pot, little by little job burnout turns up the heat: weekends, vacations and hobbies no longer provide the same sense of renewal; we begin to withdraw from others, even those closest to us; we feel less engaged and less productive at work.

And when we do start to recognize the signs and symptoms, it can be easy to rationalize them: Once I finish this big project, I’ll feel better … After I win this client, things will calm down.

How can you distinguish a temporary bout of stress from something more serious? Look for the following signs of job burnout:

  • Emotional fatigue: While it’s normal to feel frustrated, angry or dissatisfied once in a while, when we’re caught in the burnout cycle, these emotions become our predominant reactions. Maintaining ourselves throughout the day becomes daunting and, therefore, small problems and conflicts feel overwhelming, eliciting stronger, more negative emotions than usual. Eventually, we may experience a feeling of emotional numbness. In more serious cases, severe mood problems (such as mood swings or destructive thoughts) may become evident.
  • Interpersonal problems: When we continuously feel drained, we tend to overreact, directing negativity toward others, ranging from impatience to hostility. In many cases, we also start to withdraw from coworkers, friends and family, and send signals — whether consciously or unconsciously — that we are less present and available to them. For this reason, others can often see the effects of burnout in our lives before we recognize them ourselves.
  • Reduced performance: In a state of burnout, it’s common to become increasingly disengaged in our work, which often leads to feelings of boredom, frustration, cynicism and disillusionment. We find it harder to concentrate and to harness our energy to produce the same quality of work that we once did. We may begin to question whether our work is meaningful and have difficulty seeing how things will ever change — we feel stuck and even hopeless.
  • Health issues: In additional to feeling exhausted, other physical symptoms may begin to appear and intensify, such as headaches, back pain, colds, rashes or hives, chest pains or palpitations, gastrointestinal problems and nervous tics. Sleeping difficulties are common, ranging from restless, fitful sleep to nightmares or early awakening with our first thoughts focused on the looming demands of work.
  • Addictive behavior: To cope with the chronic stress of the job, we may resort to substance abuse, beginning to use — or increasing our use of — caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, prescription medication and/or illegal drugs. An increase or decrease in food intake may also accompany job burnout. Even normal activities such as television or computer use can become addicting. These attempts at self-soothing, however, further compound the problem and fail to address the real issues.
  • Obsessive thinking: Even when we are physically away from the office, in burnout mode, our thoughts continue to center on work, with a focus on problems rather than solutions.

Take action: overcoming job burnout

While the road to burnout may feel like it’s paved with factors beyond our control, recognizing the things that are within our control is often a helpful first step. These strategies can help you prevent — or recover from — job burnout:

Set boundaries: It’s easy for other people to push our boundaries when we don’t respect them ourselves. If we tell our coworkers that we aren’t available on the weekends but we continue to answer their calls on those days, we’re sending a mixed message. The real challenge for many of us is breaking the people-pleasing habit, but learning to say “no” can help us gain confidence and a greater sense of control.

Nurture yourself: When our bodies are run down, we are more susceptible to burnout. It can be difficult to find the time to focus on caring for ourselves, but doing so often begins with accepting that self-care isn’t selfish.

Whether it’s fitting in a yoga class once a week, taking a walk during our lunch break or simply finding 10 minutes to meditate, whatever helps us relax and recharge will make us more effective during our time at work. But, as Dr. Freudenberger urged, “… never lose sight of the fact that you, as a human being, are more important than the task, no matter how crucial the task may be.”

Avoid isolation: When we are burdened with constant job stress, dealing with other people is often the last thing we want to do, despite the fact that developing closeness and emotional intimacy with others is one of our most effective ways of buffering ourselves from pressure. Closeness brings new insights and also decreases the negative effects of stress and depression.

Shift your perspective: Many people think stress is caused by external events or circumstances like a micromanaging boss, excessive work demands, or a lack of recognition and appreciation. While those certainly make work more challenging, they don’t actually cause stress. Rather, stress is a reaction to a perception of a threat, with the key word being “perception.”

Job burnout as a gift

Sometimes it takes reaching our breaking point to motivate us to change — and that’s where job burnout becomes a gift. The discomfort and desperation we feel in burnout help inform us that something is out of balance and that it’s time to reassess our work and our lives.

If you’re experiencing feelings and signs of burnout in your life, ask yourself these critical questions:

  • What are my overall life goals, including those related to work, finances, relationships, health and growth/learning?
  • What are my greatest values (e.g., autonomy, authenticity, creativity, honesty, kindness, security)?
  • What are my key interests (e.g., working with children, environmental sustainability, travel, social justice)?
  • How do I define work-life balance (e.g., leaving the office most days at 5 p.m., being able to work from home some days, being home for dinner with my family every night)?
  • Is my current work/career in sync with my goals, values, interests and definition of work-life balance?
  • If not, what specific areas are out of sync?
  • What steps can I take to bring my work/career into greater sync and who can I enlist to help me (e.g., a close friend or coworker, a career coach, a therapist)?

For some of us, overcoming job burnout may begin with engaging in difficult but important conversations with our boss or coworkers about our workload, schedule, boundaries, etc. For others, it may require bolder steps, such as changing work environments, jobs or companies.

And if you find that multiple areas above are out of sync with your current work, it could signal that you’re in the wrong career fit, as was the case with Laura.

In working with a career coach, she evaluated her goals, talents, values and interests and realized that while she enjoyed some aspects of her HR job, she craved more creativity and greater opportunities to utilize her strong writing skills. Through her own research and the support and insights of her coach, she was able to identify marketing as her best career fit.

Now, in her new marketing role, she’s found greater passion, fulfillment and balance. And as difficult as that period of burnout was, she looks back on it as a catalyst — one that changed the trajectory of her career and life.

Looking to dramatically reduce your stress and increase your energy? Tactical strategies fall short. Our Accountability Mirror™ and MindMastery™ workshop programs dig below the surface to help you explore the ways you might be standing in your own way.

Client names and identifying information has been changed to protect their privacy and maintain confidentiality.