8 Unusual Signs of Burnout

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Irritability? Weight Gain? Trouble sleeping? They can all be signs of burnout. 

When you think of burnout, you might picture someone who’s completely exhausted, with their feet up on the couch at the end of a stressful work week.

“Classically, we refer to burnout as the triad of depersonalization, emotional exhaustion, and feelings of cynicism, detachment, and a lack of accomplishment,” says Carol Bernstein, MD, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

Many definitions, including the one from the World Health Organization (WHO), specify that burnout refers to work-related stress. But burnout can result from nonwork stresses, too, and lead to less-obvious symptoms.

Burnout might be the result of a job or a specific set of responsibilities (like being the primary caregiver for a spouse or child with a chronic illness), but its effects tend to affect other facets of life, too, explains Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, PsyD, a clinical psychologist with Mindwell Modern Psychology and Therapy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “Usually, people feel a growing sense of feeling physically and mentally unwell and having difficulty coping with their everyday life,” she says.

So, symptoms of burnout can be quite varied, she says. Symptoms of burnout can overlap with symptoms of depression and other mental health issues, but burnout isn’t itself a medical diagnosis.

Because burnout can have such ranging and detrimental effects to health and well-being, it’s important to recognize it and do something about it. “Left untreated, burnout causes lasting physical consequences as well as weighs on your relationships and your ability to work,” Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry says.

Here are eight less common signs of burnout:

1. Lots of Pessimism – Someone experiencing burnout may adopt a critical and pessimistic view, not only of whatever’s causing burnout (a job or some other burden on them), but of the world around them. At work, this means they may have a more negative attitude toward clients and be more irritable overall. You may be annoyed or apathetic, Dr. Bernstein says, “like you don’t have a sense of purpose or meaning in what you do.” In the most extreme cases of burnout, a person might question whether life is worth living.

2. Trouble Sleeping – People tend to get less restful sleep when they start to struggle with burnout, says Anthony Wheeler, PhD, professor of management and dean of the school of business administration at Widener University in Chester, Pennsylvania, who researches employee stress, burnout, engagement, and leadership.

Restlessness and insomnia are two sleep-related issues linked with burnout, according to Penn Medicine. The lack of sleep can end up fueling burnout (in a vicious cycle), since you’re less able to think clearly when you’re not well-rested.

3. Stomachaches or Headaches – Dealing with a stomachache or headache and have no idea why? Burnout could be to blame.

Research involving social workers who reported experiencing burnout found that about 9 percent experienced headaches and 10 percent had gastrointestinal problems.

Burnout-related headaches are likely a result of psychological stress, according to a systematic review published in 2017. And stomach issues, such as pain, bloating, and nausea, tend to be more prevalent whenever you’re stressed. Stress can cause diarrhea or constipation as well.

4. Lowered Immunity – Catching more colds and feeling under the weather may be a symptom of burnout.

“The immune system becomes compromised,” Dr. Wheeler says. Stress can set off the body’s inflammatory response, and chronic inflammation can compromise the immune system and damage tissue in the body, according to research.

With your immune system weakened, you may experience more frequent colds and put yourself at risk of serious conditions such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

5. Weight Gain – People experiencing burnout may gain weight, Wheeler says. There are a few reasons for this. “It’s a combination of things — your body’s biological response is increasing the likelihood of gaining weight, plus reduced sleep, depression, and eating habits also change,” Wheeler says. All of those factors can contribute to weight gain.

The biological changes he’s referring to involve the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic stress (like the kind that leads to burnout) elevates levels of cortisol, and high cortisol levels have been linked to larger waist circumferences and an increased likelihood of being overweight and obese, according to a 2017 study.

 If weight gain becomes a problem, it can increase the risk of other health issues, such as stroke, heart disease, cancer, and arthritis.

6. Isolation – People who are burned out can feel like nothing they do is appreciated or makes a difference. As a result, they may isolate themselves from others.

Eventually, that can lead to relationship deterioration, Wheeler says. And it doesn’t help to pull you out of burnout: Social contact can relieve stress and is one recommended way to help you start feeling better.

7. Muscle Pain – Aches and pains can also be a physical sign of burnout. When you’re stressed, your muscles automatically tense up to guard the body against pain and injury. Usually this muscle tension lets up when the stress passes, but chronic stress causes the body to stay in that stressed out state and hold onto that tension. Typical places the body holds tension include the shoulders, neck, head, and back.

8. Using Food, Drugs, or Alcohol to Cope – In some cases, some people self-medicate to help cope with burnout, Wheeler says. Some may turn to junk food since it delivers instant gratification.

Others may turn to alcohol or drugs. A study from 2016 found that medical students experiencing burnout were more likely to abuse or depend on alcohol.

If you find yourself exhibiting these signs, it may be time to seek help from a licensed mental health professional. He or she can help you develop strategies to avoid or recover from burnout and can recommend prescription medication or counseling if necessary.


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Updated: August 16, 2017