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Burnout: How to Identify It and Overcome It

Burning the candle at both ends. Keeping your nose to the grindstone. Work hard, play hard. Sleep when you’re dead … Over the past few decades, high productivity has become something of an American virtue, with long hours, late nights and extra shifts viewed as part of the pursuit of success.

But all this activity can lead to a significant problem: burnout. Physical, mental and emotional exhaustion. And if it’s not addressed, burnout can take a significant toll on your health, your work satisfaction and your personal relationships.

We spoke with OhioHealth primary care doctor Laurie Hommema, MD, the medical director for provider and associate well-being at OhioHealth, who has been studying burnout in medical residents for nearly 10 years. She explains the causes and symptoms of burnout, and what you can do to recharge and restore your resilience.

What is burnout?

Burnout is characterized by three components:

  1. Emotional exhaustion – Feeling like at the end of the day you have nothing left to give. Not even to yourself.
  2. Depersonalization ­­– You begin to treat people as impersonal objects, and your interactions with them simply become tasks to check off your list.
  3. Lack of personal achievement – Finishing a day of work with the feeling that nothing you did mattered.

Hommema says you can experience any one of these symptoms in an episode of burnout, or all three. She adds that burnout often gets mischaracterized as simply being tired or working too much, but that’s not necessarily the case. “Burnout is caused by the environment where you live, work and exist. The length of time you work isn’t necessarily a clear indicator. You can work 10 hours a week and experience burnout just as easily as you could work 60 hours and be fulfilled and balanced.”

What causes burnout?

“Burnout is a chronic imbalance between the demands you face in your professional and personal life, and the resources you have to satisfy those demands,” says Hommema. It is now a recognized clinical diagnosis, and the amount of research around it is growing.

She identifies technology as one culprit in the rise of burnout, and the always-on culture it perpetuates in our work time and leisure time. “Technology, in my opinion, is outpacing our ability as humans to keep up with it. We’re expected now to always be connected, to be working off-hours, to be multitasking. And our brains have not yet adapted to it.”

What jobs have high rates of burnout?

Hommema says jobs that come with high rates of burnout usually involve some level of caring for or serving other people in one-on-one situations where the expectations are high, like:

  • Healthcare
  • Social work
  • Education
  • Law enforcement and legal services
  • Retail and food service

How long can burnout last?

Burnout can persist for a very long time, says Hommema. “If work is the source of burnout, people often quit or change jobs, or transition to another career. Extended periods of burnout can begin to affect your home life and, in some cases, lead to depression, anxiety, or increased illnesses.”

Can you prevent burnout?

Preventing burnout involves having the time and resources you need to do your job properly, as well as the time and resources you need to recharge away from work. “That means employers should be mindful of burnout and provide adequate support and staffing,” says Hommema. “We also need to set boundaries for ourselves, so we get enough sleep, eat properly, and find time for activities that allow us to recharge.”

Beyond the workplace, “Care partners can also experience burnout, which we see a lot, people who are caring for loved ones up to 24 hours a day with no respite, no time to themselves without thinking of that other person.” Hommema encourages care partners to involve other family members in their loved one’s care plan, or to explore care support services in their area. “It may feel like a selfish act to want time for yourself when you’re caring for someone else, but finding the opportunity to disconnect from your responsibilities and reconnect with yourself is so important.”

Are there professional resources to help with burnout?

“Any time you’re experiencing burnout, it’s good to have someone to talk to, whether it’s a psychologist, a counselor or coach. They are able to help you figure out the root cause of your burnout, and help you think of the next best steps to take,” says Hommema. “Sometimes you just feel so stuck when you’re burnt out, that you can’t even start to think of solutions. There may be other options that you can’t even see or consider in that state of mind.

Hommema stresses that resolving burnout is not something that can be accomplished through self-care alone. “A lot of the conversation around burnout is focused on personal resilience and all the things you can do for yourself. But when you tell someone who is truly burnt out from a challenging situation to consider yoga and mindfulness, and they take your advice and go to mindfulness classes, and eat well, and get their sleep, when they’re still miserable because their job is so challenging, it actually makes burnout worse. It perpetuates the idea in their minds that they’re not good enough, that they’re not doing enough. There’s not a medicine that can fix burnout. It’s your environment that has to change.

How can people change their workplace environment to address burnout?

  • Speak up for yourself – “I think we’re often afraid to ask for help with burnout because of our culture. We feel if we’re not tired and we’re not emailing at 10 o’clock at night and we’re not exhausted every morning drinking coffee to stay motivated that we’re not doing our jobs. We need to have the courage to raise our hands and say, ‘Hey, something’s not right, I’m not fulfilled, this shouldn’t be normal. I’m not happy. What else can we do?’”
  • Ask for help – “A lot of times people are surprised by what is possible when they ask for help. Finding a trusted person to talk with and brainstorm about what’s truly driving that burnout can make a big difference. There are often solutions we would never have thought possible before we brought the problem to someone’s attention.”
  • Build a plan – “Take the time to sort out the cause of your burnout with a trusted mentor or your boss. It could be a high volume of work, or insufficient staffing, or limited access to resources, or interactions with clients or customers that is driving the burnout. After you identify the cause, you can develop a plan with small, incremental steps that can improve your environment.”


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