Burnout exists in all careers — it does not discriminate based on your job, schedule, race, pay, or length of tenure, although it is more common in women. Until last May, I had not personally experienced burnout and I attributed that to the fact that I love my job (I’m a college professor). But, after an excruciatingly long spring semester when I was in the thick of finalizing a divorce, trying to maintain changing relationships with friends and family, and trying to stay on top of work and life responsibilities, I found myself unable to do anything other than sleep. Thankfully, I have the type of job where I can do that after each semester, but for me, this was particularly unusual, especially as summer break was beginning. Then, it hit me: I was burned out — or so I thought.
Burnout exists in all careers — it does not discriminate based on your job, schedule, race, pay, or length of tenure, although it is more common in women.
The good news (depending on how you look at it) is that I was among the nearly 50 percent of the American workforce that is reportedly burnt out. There’s safety in numbers, right? But burnout is on the rise, causing researchers to wonder if burnout is actually burnout, or if it’s actually a symptom — possibly a manifestation — of another problem that extends beyond the workplace.
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a specific kind of work-related stress characterized by physical or emotional exhaustion, as well as a diminished feeling of accomplishment and a loss of sense of self. Symptoms of burnout include a loss of energy, irritability, and little motivation to get started on projects or finish existing tasks, which is exactly how this Everygirl felt when she was burned out. The Mayo Clinic further explained that burnout at work can be caused by uncertain expectations, a loss of control over your job and responsibilities, and unhealthy or difficult workplace dynamics, to name a few.
Burnout is problematic because people often don’t realize they are burnt out until they are mentally, physically, and emotionally drained to the point of total exhaustion. It can be very hard to identify burnout as it is happening. It really is a cumulative effect over time, and sometimes, as was the case with me, we wrongfully diagnose ourselves as burnt out, when burnout could be a symptom of another problem: loneliness.
The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a specific kind of work-related stress characterized by physical or emotional exhaustion, as well as a diminished feeling of accomplishment and a loss of sense of self.
Loneliness is a psychological state characterized by the perception that our social relationships are lower in quality and quantity than desired. Loneliness also has a very long list of negative health consequences including depression, diminished memory, increased stress, and even heart problems. Loneliness causes us such deep emotional pain, that our brains actually register the feeling as physical pain. Interestingly, loneliness has many of the same implications and characteristics of burnout and recent research is catching on to the fact that there is a strong link between the two. Much like burnout, loneliness does not discriminate based on age, race, socioeconomic status, and other demographics.
So how can you tell if you’re lonely or burned out?
This is sort of a chicken-and-the-egg question. It’s really hard to determine which happens first, loneliness or burnout. Regardless, if you’ve been trying to overcome what you thought was burnout without success, then you might be lonely instead. The upside is that both loneliness and burnout are not only reversible, but also preventable once you’re armed with the right knowledge and tools.
You might be lonely instead of burnt out if you’re experiencing high levels of stress, exhaustion, and feelings of isolation both within and outside of the workplace. Lack of social support can cause us to disengage from our lives both professionally and personally, we thrive on social interactions, even those of us that are introverts. So, when we check out of our relationships due to stress and exhaustion, our feelings of loneliness and burnout both amplify.
For me, I realized that I was displacing my feelings of loneliness with work burnout. I still loved my job and being at work did energize me. But given everything I had going on in my personal life, I was drained. Pouring time into relationships was exhausting to even think about since my biggest relationship (my marriage) dissolved. After catching up on sleep to the point where I felt like I could function again, which only took me a few nights, I was ready to get back to a healthy and fun lifestyle, which required me to get back in touch with my social skills and admit I was lonely and missed the human connection we require to survive.
I was ready to get back to a healthy and fun lifestyle, which required me to get back in touch with my social skills and admit I was lonely and missed the human connection we require to survive.
How to overcome it…
Whether you think you are experiencing burnout or loneliness, there are ways to overcome it. First, you can try re-engaging with your personal and professional relationships. Ask a co-worker to lunch, even if you feel too exhausted or busy because you and everyone else needs to eat, or plan a girls’ night in if you feel too stressed to go out. You can also think about picking up a hobby to reignite your creativity, or trying out a resolution refresher to end the year on the upswing.
The biggest takeaway is that we need to look inward to really determine whether the problem is solely related to our job, or if it’s more of a relational issue like loneliness before we can effectively overcome our feelings.