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What Does Burnout Feel Like?

Burnout emerges from two main factors: resources and values.

Source: Mavo/Shutterstock

At 7:54 a.m., John wakes up, rolls over, and grabs his phone. He sees notification after notification from work, and, without addressing any of them, heads straight for TikTok for a half hour of scrolling before starting his day.

Some videos give him a laugh, and he scrolls through the rest until he can’t anymore: The guilt and self-contempt of doom scrolling forces him out, for a few hours, anyways. John feels tired. But it’s more than tired; it’s an infinite exhaustion that he can’t seem to shake.

Over the weekend, designated time for rest either makes him feel restless or so collapsed that he stares up at the ceiling from his couch, his TV blinking in the peripheral distance, before sleep, eventually, overtakes him.

In his working life, on the surface, John looks fine: He’s functioning, colleagues might say, he attends meetings and says hello as he walks by, though he isn't as friendly as he once was. But internally, John feels a void, and when he doesn’t feel numb by the forceful thought that his professional life is a concave journey of which peak he’s now passed, he feels a gnawing sense of resentment. He’s no longer engaged in any of his work tasks, despite being able to execute them for now, with each additional email quickly becoming a Sisyphean task.

On his drive home from work, John thinks about upcoming projects and the tasks he should do. At home, despite the exhaustion, John finds intrusive thoughts of work coming in—What email did he miss? What project is he behind on?

fotomacher_ch/ Pixabay
Source: fotomacher_ch/ Pixabay

A black cloud seemingly overshadows positive aspects of his life, and having one good day at work seems like an impossible feat: Why bother? He thinks. He’s too tired anyway.

Hobbies he enjoys like pick-up basketball with old high school friends help, but can also feel like a task he doesn’t have the energy for instead of a reprieve. While he has vacation days stored, John sees no purpose in using them: The underlying fear that taking even a few days off will only create more work for when he returns. It's enough to keep him from using any.

Worse yet, John worries that taking time off just might cascade into a yearning to finally admit to himself that a few days won’t help him recover. Maybe, he thinks, he never will.

Burnout is defined by the World Health Organization as an "occupational phenomenon" that is derived from chronic workplace stress and is characterized by (1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion, (2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job, and (3) reduced professional efficacy (WHO, 2023).

In the example above, John is emotionally, physically, and cognitively drained. He begins to feel resentful and trapped by his work and is increasingly behind on work. John is "burned out."

While hallmarked by the three main dimensions mentioned above, burnout is thought to emerge due to two main factors: resources and values.

Insufficient Resources

The first factor from which burnout is theorized to emerge is an imbalance between demands and resources at work: This might mean there is too much work; there are simply too many tasks and projects for one person to effectively manage. For instance, in the example above, if John is the only information technology (IT) person at a mid-sized company, and he is responsible for onboarding new employees, ordering new equipment, ensuring everyone's systems are routinely checked, putting together an IT security program, actioning one-off program requests, and answering daily help requests, the demands in his job are likely to outweigh his capabilities.

This says nothing of whether John is a capable and efficient employee, but rather that there is simply too much work for him to do. However, demands outweighing resources can also look like having a normal amount of work, but having insufficient coping skills to manage the stress associated with the work and workload itself.

For instance, if John has many people on his IT team, and his only responsibility is to answer a maximum of 10 daily help requests, he might still be at risk for burnout if he has not been trained properly and lacks time and stress management skills.

The second factor that is thought to contribute to burnout is that of values: If one’s values and those of the organization do not align, this could increase the risk of burnout.

For instance, if John has a deep respect for nature and feels strongly about environmental causes, but he works, even in a minor IT role, for an oil production or fast-fashion company, his values will continuously be at odds with the industry he contributes to daily, making it arduous to continue working.

Alternatively, if the values stated by an organization conflict with values that are displayed in action, this might contribute to burnout, as well. For instance, if John joined an organization in part because of the stated values of "collaboration," but he has found, daily, that his colleagues rarely deliberate and cooperate, he is more likely to experience burnout, as well.

If John’s story resonated with you, remember that you are not alone: Burnout is common. In a recent study of over 10,000 full-time desk-based workers, 48 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds said they feel drained compared with 40 percent of their peers aged 30 and up, and 46 percent of women reported higher levels of burnout compared to men (37 percent).

If you feel as though you are being tasked with too much, have a conversation with your manager about working on high-priority items exclusively or offering to swap projects for others that interest you more. If there are difficult meetings that are necessary but drain you, try to schedule them when you feel you’ll be more productive.

For these meetings, keeping an agenda will help move things along by keeping on task, and scheduling a short break afterward can also help ward off a snowball effect. If you find it difficult to take lunch or breaks at work, place a hold in your calendar, and, as hard as it can sometimes seem, take your vacation days.

If you feel as though you lack skills or coping mechanisms, speak to your manager: They may be able to more closely coach you or recommend some approaches or courses you can take.

Lastly, if you feel as though your values do not align with the organization, or that the organization’s stated values do not match those in action, you may consider “being the change.” Are there different ways the organization can be run that you can help spearhead, or initiatives you can create that help align different values?

If it seems too far-fetched, it may be best to look to work elsewhere at an organization that feels closer to your internal “home.”

Lastly, if John’s story resonates but you don’t know where to start, speaking to a mental health professional can offer a good sounding board that can help you sort through your feelings to find a new path forward.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


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