Workplace Burnout: Warning Signs and Recovery Options

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Feeling exhausted at work—or feeling exhausted because of work—is typically called burnout, and it’s a growing problem. Learn how to spot the symptoms and ways you can recover.

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Many people go to work each day feeling tired and unmotivated. They might feel physically exhausted because of the demands of their job, or emotionally exhausted because of unique stressors that contribute to workplace burnout. Feeling exhausted at work—or feeling exhausted because of work—is typically called burnout, and it’s a growing problem. A 2021 survey from Indeed found that 52 percent of respondents felt burned out [1]. 

Burnout tends to occur when you have experienced work-related stress over a sustained period of time. Some research has even suggested that burnout is work-related depression [2]. Fortunately, there are ways to overcome workplace exhaustion. In this article, we’ll go over how to identify what’s contributing to your low-energy and stress at work—and how to take action. 

What is workplace exhaustion? 

There are a number of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms associated with workplace burnout. They include [3]: 

  • Being overly critical at work 

  • Being irritable with coworkers or managers 

  • Feeling disenchanted about your career path 

  • Feeling less energy to be as productive as you once were 

  • Feeling a lack of satisfaction about your accomplishments 

  • Feeling dread about going to work

  • Having trouble concentrating on tasks that once engrossed you 

  • Sleeping less or poorly 

  • Using drugs, alcohol, or food to cope with negative feelings about work

If you have experienced one or more of these symptoms then you may be experiencing burnout. But there are ways to overcome it.

What’s causing your burnout? 

Begin working through your exhaustion at work by identifying the stressors contributing to your feelings of negativity. Perhaps it’s something related to the way you’re being asked to do your work, or the setting in which you work, or something to do with your time away from work, such as poor sleep. 

It may take some time to figure out why you feel exhausted at work, and there could be more than one reason behind it. Some common causes of workplace stress and exhaustion are:

  • Too much work

  • Working on tasks that no longer challenge you

  • High expectations without appropriate resources

  • Harmful work environment

  • Low workplace morale

  • Poor relationships, particularly with managers

  • Lack of sleep 

  • Lack of self-care

  • Demanding schedule 

  • Underlying health problem 

How to begin working through exhaustion at work

Once you know the reason—or reasons—behind your workplace exhaustion, there are a few different options you can explore. Let’s go over different approaches to burnout. 

1. Communicate the problem.

If your workload has grown beyond what you can reasonably handle or your workplace has become hostile, it may help to meet with your manager and discuss the problem. During this meeting, you should bring up the problem and present a solution. While the overall point of the meeting will be to address your concerns, it’s important to be part of the solution. That autonomy can help contribute to overcoming your burnout. 

For example, if you’re feeling overwhelmed because of your workload, you might suggest a better way to delegate projects or new software your department could purchase to help clarify each employee’s tasks. Asking to attend a workshop, conference, or online leadership course might help you overcome a lack of professional growth. If company morale is low, you might suggest creating an experience committee that develops team-building events for the company. 

2. Cultivate your social life. 

Feeling disconnected at work can make it harder to enjoy being there. Look for ways to connect with your colleagues, or network with people on a different team. See if your office has any professional groups or Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that might help you get to know others and strengthen your connection to the company. 

But don’t feel as though you’re limited to work. Take some time to interact with your friends, have dinner with family, or arrange a date night with your partner. It’s important to invest in your social life so your work life doesn’t pull all of your focus..

3. Protect your time away from work. 

Are you checking emails after dinner? Did you add to your presentation before you went to bed? It’s common to feel as though you need to put in extra hours, but establishing boundaries around when and how you work is healthy.  

Of course, you may have a competitive job where after-hours work is expected, but you can still set a cut-off time for work, such as after dinner. To work through burnout, you need the ability to “turn off” work and focus on other parts of your life.   

Learn more: 9 Ways to Set Better Boundaries at Work

4. Invest your time in a hobby. 

Make a point to invest in a hobby. When you’re overworked, your hobby can be the first thing you eliminate from your schedule because you don’t have the same time to devote to it. However, scheduling time for your hobby has positive impacts on your well-being. You’ll likely feel less stressed and less fatigued because you’ll be tapping into a passion, which can in turn bring more energy to your life. 

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5. Ask your network for help. 

Depending on the severity of your burnout, you may need some help overcoming your symptoms. If your exhaustion at work is caused by work stress, your supervisor may be able to help. But you may need to make more time for self-care too, which may involve asking a partner to take care of errands or chores so you can exercise, or looking into a professional service to take away a chore so you can have more time for a hobby or passion.  

6. Seek out professional help. 

If you feel as though your burnout can’t be treated by speaking with your supervisor, setting boundaries, or other means we’ve discussed, consider seeking professional help. Although burnout is not a recognized medical condition, it is real and there are professionals who can help you talk through the situation.  

It may be worth seeking a career counselor to discuss your career path and reevaluate your goals, or meeting with a therapist who can help you identify some of the more negative feelings you’re experiencing. You might even consider asking your HR department if there are resources you can use to deal with workplace stress. 

Learn more: Career Coaching: Finding a Coach That Fits Your Needs

7. Know when it’s time to move on.

In some cases, the healthiest option may be to find a new opportunity. To help you make that decision, consider beginning a new job search when: 

  • A solution can’t be reached at work

  • Working after hours is expected

  • Your workload is too heavy with no end in sight

  • Your work fatigue interferes with your personal life

  • A work-life balance isn’t obtainable

If you do decide to seek out another position, be sure to leave your current company on good terms even if your experience hasn’t been overly positive. 

Learn more: How to Write a Resignation Letter 

Tips for preventing future burnout 

Whether you work to make your day-to-day role more energizing or leave and seek out a new position, it’s important to keep work exhaustion from returning. Here are some preventative steps to take: 

Reevaluate your perspective. 

Your perspective often defines a situation, whether it’s good or bad. Developing gratitude for what you’re learning, or what your job is preparing you to move on to, or for the relationships you have with your coworkers (even if you don’t enjoy the work) can all help you shift your focus from the negative to the positive. 

Schedule your day differently.

As much as possible, schedule your day to meet your needs. For example, if you’re most productive in the morning, schedule your most pressing tasks accordingly. Consider taking a walk during your lunch break, workout before you go to work, or ask for “no meeting Mondays” to help improve your mindset and productivity.

Stay focused on self-care.

You should continue self-care routines even when you’ve alleviated work exhaustion. Try to keep a routine sleep schedule, don’t answer emails in the evening, and take advantage of any vacation time you’re offered. Being diligent about self-care will help stave off stress and tiredness. 

Look for growth opportunities.

Sometimes burnout occurs when we stop growing at work. Look for additional growth opportunities that you can take advantage of, such as conferences, opportunities to mentor others, or promotions. 

Be picky about your next job.

If you decide that it’s better to find another job, be selective to ensure you’re moving into a more energizing opportunity. Sit down and write out your ideal job description. What duties would it include? What kind of culture would it have? From that list, you can then begin identifying companies that align with your needs and look for relevant openings.  

Explore further

Learn more about the growing stress of work and how to develop better resilience to it with a course like Build Personal Resilience from Macquarie University or Foundations of Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania. 

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Article sources

1. Indeed. “Employee Burnout Report: Covid-19's Impact and 3 Strategies to Curb It, https://www.indeed.com/lead/preventing-employee-burnout-report." Accessed March 30, 2022.

2. CUNY Graduate Center. “Understanding Workplace Burnout as Depression, https://www.gc.cuny.edu/news/understanding-workplace-burnout-depression."  Accessed March 30, 2022.

3. Mayo Clinic. "Know the Signs of Job Burnout, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/burnout/art-20046642." Accessed March 30, 2022

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