What Does Burnout Feel Like?

Workplace stress is more widespread than ever. How do you know when stress is becoming burnout?

portrait of Meg Embry
by Meg Embry

Published on June 7, 2022 · Updated on June 24, 2022

Edited by Jennifer Cuellar
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What Does Burnout Feel Like?
Feature Image: wundervisuals / E+ / Getty Images


Occupational burnout doesn't shout. It whispers. And if you're too overwhelmed and overworked to listen, you might not hear it coming for you until it's too late.

"It's easy to miss the signs. I certainly did," said Susan Melony, editor-in-chief of Product Diggers. "Burnout creeps up on you unexpectedly. It builds up gradually, slowly, until all that's left is a husk of the person you used to be."

"It's not as if you wake up one morning and realize you are burned out. You may not even realize until your world comes crashing down around you," said Jonathan Zacks, founder and CMO of GoReminders.

How Do I Know if It's Burnout?

Research has identified three primary dimensions of burnout:

  1. Exhaustion at work
  2. Cynicism toward the meaning of the work
  3. A sense of inadequacy at work

But in 2022, who hasn't felt all of those things at some point? According to a survey by Mental Health America, some 78% of Americans have recently reported workplace stress bad enough to affect their mental health.

So how can you tell if the stress levels you're experiencing are "normal" or a sign that you're on your way to burnout?

What Burnout Feels Like, From Those Who Know

We heard from over 60 people across industries who have experienced severe burnout. They told us how it felt.

I Felt Numb

"Three years ago, I was working on a project that I believed in so much. I worked on it day and night for months without time to enjoy any leisure activities. But along the line, I experienced complete mental burnout.

I lost interest in the project. I became numb and empty. I slipped into depression. For five months, I had no interest in anything productive. I had to seek professional help. Even after recovery, I never had any interest in that project again. Whenever I tried to proceed with it, I experienced a form of mental block."

— Maria A. McDowell, Founder, EasySearchPeople


I Felt Trapped

"Before I was able to identify that I was going through burnout, I used to spend my days feeling helpless, hopeless, and resentful — toward others and toward myself. I couldn't wrap my mind around how I allowed this to happen.

I felt trapped and defeated, and couldn't find motivation in anything that used to keep me going. It affected my work tremendously. My supervisors and coworkers noticed. I lost focus. My productivity dropped. I made reckless decisions. I felt like I was losing all the time even though I was working hard."

— Eduarda de Paula, CEO, Coupon Hunt


I Dreaded Going to Work

"I disliked my job because of the relentless pressure to hit unattainable targets. Gradually, everything in my life became robotic. My days became a routine of work, eat, sleep –– until even eating and sleeping became problematic. My only thought was that I must try harder to hit those targets. I fell asleep at night thinking of ways to do that.

Then one day, I realized it was all pointless no matter how hard I tried. I dreaded logging in for work in the morning. That escalated to not wanting to wake up at all. I couldn't eat; my relationships broke down; I had no interest in any of my favorite pastimes. I could see no end to it."

— Jonathan Zacks, CMO and Founder, GoReminders


My Behavior Changed

"I've been ill; I've been hurt physically and emotionally. But nothing felt as all-encompassing or soul-destroying as burnout. I was tired all the time, regardless of how much I slept. Just thinking about going to work terrified me. I'd burst into tears or start shouting at people without provocation and for no discernable reason."

— Jacquelyn Kennedy, Founder and CEO, PetDT


I Hated Everything

"I realized I was burned out the moment I thought, 'I hate this' about a job I once really enjoyed. It felt horrible, like an actual physical heat in my sternum. It manifested in physical ways: a heavy sensation in my body, a complete lack of energy. I was unable to complete basic tasks related to my position. Even now I sometimes notice residual effects, which usually means it's time for a break."

— Andre Kazimierski, CEO, Improovy


My Body Tried to Warn Me

"At first, I just felt tired all the time. I just chalked it up to being a bit overworked. But then there were these headaches: I'd wake up with headaches, go to bed with headaches, eat lunch with headaches. It was constant. I didn't realize it was burnout until the emotional symptoms began. I didn't want to get out of bed, I struggled to do the things I love. The business I was so passionate about started to seem like a waste of time."

— Adam Rossi, CEO, TotalShield


My Health Imploded

"I thought I was superhuman, so I was pushing myself beyond what was physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. Then one day while on the escalator at work, gripping the handrail, I knew I was going to faint. It was an awful feeling. I was used to being in control, but this time my body was screaming, 'No more!'

I fell on my face at the bottom of the escalator and woke up in the hospital. I felt like I'd been hit by a truck. The doctor told me I had high blood pressure, was in danger of a stroke, and had a brain cyst. He said I had to change my life or the next time I might not wake up."

— Kristina Shea, Founder, BlueSkys Beauty


If you face daily stress at work, don't let things get this bad. When it comes to burnout, prevention is much more effective than treatment strategies.

Frequently Asked Questions About Burnout

true What Causes Burnout?

Burnout is a psychological response to chronic job stressors characterized by mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion. It can have major negative repercussions for your work, relationships, health, and well-being.

Burnout researchers generally agree that stress/resource imbalance is at the heart of burnout: When you have too many job demands and too few supportive resources, you're going to end up in big trouble.

true What are the Signs of Burnout?

Over 60 people told us about their experience with burnout. These are the red flags they told us to look out for:

Mental

  • Exhaustion
  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Inability to make decisions
  • Brain fog and confusion
  • Forgetfulness
  • Loss of executive function

Emotional

  • Apathy about things you once cared about
  • Detachment
  • Social withdrawal
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Self-neglect

Physical

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Appetite loss
  • Headaches
  • Hair loss
  • Insomnia
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • High blood pressure
true What are the Twelve Stages of Burnout?

According to the World Health Organization, burnout doesn't qualify as a health diagnosis. Unfortunately, that means there are no formal criteria for determining whether you have it.

But researchers have mapped out twelve chronological stages of burnout which can help you determine where your symptoms land:

  1. A compulsion to prove oneself (excessive ambition)
  2. Working harder as a response to overwhelm
  3. Neglecting your needs (like sleep, exercise, relationships, hobbies, and nutrition)
  4. Blaming others for the stress you're experiencing
  5. Prioritizing work over all your other values
  6. Denial of the problem
  7. Withdrawal, lack of direction, cynicism
  8. Odd behavioral changes and psychological reactions (including irritation, rage, and uncharacteristic sadness)
  9. Depersonalization and loss of contact with self
  10. Inner emptiness, anxiety, and addictive behaviors
  11. Depression, feelings of meaninglessness, loss of motivation
  12. Burnout syndrome: full mental and physical breakdown