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Observable Signs of Burnout

How do you know when what you're dealing with is burnout? How is it different from run-of-the-mill exhaustion or depression? And what are the signs to look for in others?

Research shows that there are three main categories of burnout symptoms: exhaustion/overwhelm, cynicism, and inefficacy, (in addition to a number of physical symptoms, many of which are tied to mental symptoms). Let's take a look at what some of those symptoms look like and what to keep an eye out for if you're worried about others.

Exhaustion and overwhelm

Burnout wipes you out physically. It's the kind of exhaustion that doesn’t go away after a good night's sleep or even a vacation. And it's not tied to one particular project or one imposing deadline. It's just this feeling that everything is adding up to more than you can handle. It's weighing you down mentally and physically. All you want to do is sleep -- and maybe you do, but it's not at the right time. You fall asleep in front of the tv, while commuting, or right after getting off work. So your overnight sleep is affected. You may experience insomnia or other sleep issues, or you may find that you're eating differently -- more food, less food, crappier food.

It's also likely that, as part of this cycle, you're getting more sick more often. This can include headaches, gastrointestinal changes (maybe from the food changes), and more susceptibility to the viruses of the tripledemic.

The exhaustion and overwhelm have side effects, too -- you're more irritable with coworkers, less patient, quicker to frustrate, and generally more likely to see only the negative sides of things.

Depersonalization and cynicism

Depersonalization is feeling detached and distanced from a job (or career or company). You no longer care about your work the way you did before, and sometimes you go all the way to feeling numb. You're less empathetic with coworkers and .

As part of the cynicism, you're questioning whether anything you are doing is making a difference, whether anyone is noticing how hard you're working, you're more skeptical about the organization and its leadership, and you likely determine that none of it matters anymore.

Now, some people operate this way all the time. I used to sit across from a guy who would mutter obscenities on the regular, and who would pound his desk out of frustration multiple times a day (which was *really* surprising the first week I worked there). But he had never been positive, connected, or optimistic about his role, so it wasn't likely symptoms of burnout for him (or I just met him way too late in the game).

When looking for symptoms of depersonalization and cynicism, you're looking for a change from the baseline, from how you (or that coworker) normally act.

Reduced efficacy

Reduced efficacy is essentially not being as effective and contributory as you used to be. Maybe you used to be really great at your job but you notice yourself slipping. Starting to miss deadlines (but not necessarily by much), having concentration issues, not being as creative or open as you used to be -- those kinds of things. These symptoms generally manifest as a lack of interest, motivation, and/or energy at work.

Or, and this has happened to me, maybe you're not slipping, but it takes more energy to maintain your previous levels of output and contribution. What once took you an hour to do now takes two. What you used to be able to recall easily now requires actual research.

This one can be really subtle – others may not notice it, but you do.

So what can you do?

When you see these signs in others, you can compassionately ask how they are doing. Really listen to what's going on for them. Don't try to fix or handle things off the bat; get a sense of the whole picture.

And (if I may be so bold as to make a prohibition) DON'T let the first thing you suggest be that they get help. That can be condescending and rude, and won't make you any friends!

(However, if they want to work with a coach, I'm a very good recommendation.)

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