A Therapist Reveals How To Tell If You Have Burnout Syndrome & What To Do

by Carolyn de Lorenzo
Originally Published: 
Asian businesswoman in eyeglasses using laptop working about business and finance feeling stressful-...

No matter how much you love your job (and especially if you don’t) burnout can happen when the effects of cumulative stress become harmful to your well-being. If you’re burned out, you probably feel chronically exhausted, and your mood can be affected in serious ways. While burnout isn’t seen as a medical condition per se, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently classified burnout syndrome as an “occupational phenomenon” that can pose major risks to your physical and mental health. Now understood as a syndrome, or set of related symptoms, burnout is the result of “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed,” WHO writes. Signs of burnout syndrome include profound exhaustion, deeply negative feelings about your job, and compromised work performance, WHO says. Knowing how to tell if you have burnout syndrome (BOS) can help you identify when you need support.

“Exhausted is different than tired,” licensed marriage and family therapist Erica Curtis, LMFT, tells Bustle by email. “Overwhelmed by feelings of negativity is different than feeling stressed. With ‘diagnosable’ burnout — the intensity, frequency, and duration of feelings is greater."

While anyone can feel stressed, tired, overwhelmed, or anxious from time to time, Curtis says that how you manage your stress is crucial. "The question is, do you feel like your stress is manageable, and that you can positively change your situation. Can you get more sleep? Take a day off? Reframe upsetting situations at work as something you can learn from, grow from, or distance yourself from as needed?”


Depersonalization is a key feature of BOS, the American Thoracic Society (ATS) says, and includes “a distant or indifferent attitude towards work.” If you feel negative or cynical towards your job, boss, or colleagues on an ongoing basis, this is a significant red flag, the ATS says. Additionally, “Individuals with BOS may also develop non-specific symptoms including feeling frustrated, angry, fearful, or anxious,” the ATS writes. If you have BOS, you may also feel less happiness, joy, and pleasure overall, says the ATS. Additionally, you might end up managing physical symptoms such as insomnia, headaches, digestive issues, and muscle aches.

WHO’s new classification of burnout brings more clarity to both symptoms and the potential health risks associated with the syndrome, writes NPR. Elaine Cheung, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said in a statement that “There needs to be greater critical discussion on how we can more precisely measure and define this condition,” NPR reports. Cheung told NPR that WHO’s stance on burnout may help increase awareness of how the syndrome affects quality of life for workers and employees. “I think a lot of people have a lay definition of what burnout may be,” she said. “But I think by highlighting the specific facets of burnout — my hope is that it might create greater awareness.”

If you’re concerned about the effects of burnout on you or people you care about, know that self-care is a major mitigating factor. That said, using self-care as a way to lessen stress, while not adding to performance pressure, is key, Curtis says. Having friendships and community in the workplace, a manageable workload, and work-life balance are also important, Cheung told NPR.


“Most mental health professionals, such as counselors, therapists, and psychologists, can help you alleviate (or manage) burnout syndrome,” Curtis says. “Mindfulness meditation programs can also offer relief as well as teach new, life-long coping strategies. Sometimes employers offer programs to prevent or treat burnout symptoms. Finding more of a work-life balance that incorporates activities that are healthy or gratifying might also assist, but may not be enough. Often the symptoms of burnout prevent us from doing the very things we need to in order to recover from it. If this is the case, it is important to seek professional guidance.”

Mental health support is critical if you’re feeling burned out, so reach out. A qualified therapist can rule out other mental health conditions, such as depression or anxiety, and help you create a game plan for more effective stress management. No matter what the causes of your workplace distress might be, help is available. And if your employer or workplace environment is genuinely toxic, working with a counselor can help you identify those issues, and potentially draw up a management strategy.

If you or someone you know is seeking help for mental health concerns, visit the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) website, or call 1-800-950-NAMI(6264). For confidential treatment referrals, visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website, or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). In an emergency, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or call 911.

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