Preventing Burnout

Our guide offers ways to cope when stress from work, school, or other life circumstances becomes overwhelming.

Last updated: May 20th, 2024
Metaphorical Burned Out Matches

Everyone experiences periods of stress and pressure that feel overwhelming. But sometimes, stress can become chronic and excessive, leading to increased hopelessness, disillusionment, and, ultimately, burnout. This can leave you physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted.

If you feel like you're experiencing burnout, it may help to know you aren’t alone. For example, a recent report on workplace trends found that over 80% of employees are at risk of burnout. And similar research on students discovered a comparable increase in burnout over the past few years.

To learn more, read on to discover exactly what burnout is (including symptoms and warning signs), how it differs from stress, and some methods to help you cope.

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What is burnout?

Burnout isn’t the type of stress that can be quickly cured with a nice vacation — it can take a significant toll on your mind and body. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), burnout is “physical, emotional, or mental exhaustion accompanied by decreased motivation, lowered performance, and negative attitudes towards oneself and others.” Excessive stress can zap you of energy and motivation, leaving you emotionally drained and resulting in burnout. The impacts of burnout can start to spill over into other parts of your life away from work, too, causing distress in your home life, relationships, and even in your physical health.

Burnout is a relatively new term for identifying this particular brand of stress; it was first coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in 1974 when he used “burnout” to describe the state of weary mental health workers in New York. The term is now widely used to describe this common phenomenon, and, as of 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) has included burnout as a syndrome (a group of symptoms that often occur together) in its International Disease Classification (ICD-11) compendium.

How is burnout different from other stress?

As contradictory as it sounds, some stress can be positive. It can motivate and challenge you when working on something you enjoy. However, too much stress for too long can drastically alter your attitude and exhaustion level. To that end, if you are experiencing stress along with dissatisfaction in the workplace, you are not alone. The APA’s 2021 Work and Well-being Survey revealed that 59% of employees experienced work-related stress that had a negative impact on their performance. But how do you know when stress has transitioned into all-out burnout?

Burnout surpasses feelings of stress and brings you to a point where you just do not care anymore; you feel disengaged and hopeless. We’ve broken down some key differences between the experiences of stress and burnout in the lists below.


  • Provokes action, hyperactivity
  • “I have so much to do!”
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Worried and anxious
  • Feeling a physical toll
  • “I’m so tired; I don’t have any energy.”


  • Causes disengagement
  • “I don’t care anymore.”
  • Feeling numb
  • Apathetic and cynical
  • Feeling drained emotionally and physically
  • “I’m so tired; I feel hopeless.”

Signs and symptoms of burnout

Burnout doesn’t happen overnight, although you may not realize it’s happening until you’re at the point of utter exhaustion. Paying attention to warning signs can help you address issues before they start to feel insurmountable. Also, it’s important to note that burnout can look a lot like depression; the key difference is in whether your negative thoughts are present in all parts of your life or are just related to work, school, or another stressor (like caregiving, for example). If you suspect your burnout might actually be depression, it’s a good idea to seek out professional help to find the guidance you need.

The WHO defines symptoms of burnout as:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
  • A sense of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment

However, in reality, burnout can present in many different ways — more than just the above characterizations. The chart below details some other signs and symptoms of burnout.

Emotional signs and symptoms

The emotional impact of burnout can be difficult to cope with. Feelings of depression and self-doubt can be crippling and exacerbate a lack of motivation in the workplace. People experiencing burnout can often feel trapped in their circumstances. Other symptoms include an increasingly pessimistic outlook and feelings of isolation.

Physical signs and symptoms

Fatigue is the most significant physical sign that you may be experiencing burnout. You may feel exhausted all the time. You may also suffer from gastrointestinal issues, frequent tension headaches, and changes in appetite. The chronic stress associated with burnout can even impair your immune system, causing it not to function as strongly, leading to increased infections.

Behavioral signs and symptoms

Burnout can make it hard to concentrate. Feelings of apathy can lead to procrastination or wanting to skip work altogether. You may also find yourself pulling back from responsibilities and seeking out coping mechanisms through food, drugs, or alcohol.

Risk factors for burnout

Most often, burnout happens to those with chronic stress due to school or a job. Employees in some careers are more prone to burnout, such as those in healthcare and shift work like firefighting or law enforcement. The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted workplace stress, with frontline healthcare workers arguably experiencing the worst of the fallout.

Sometimes, other circumstances can cause burnout, like long-term caregiving for a sick loved one. Regardless, burnout happens when your responsibilities exceed your ability to cope with the stress; feeling overworked and undervalued can put you on the fast track to burnout. Below, we’ve broken down some common root causes and risk factors of burnout.

On-the-job risk factors:

  • Overwhelming workload that is unmanageable, with little time for recovery
  • Lack of control over your work or ability to influence decisions
  • Insufficient reward or recognition for a job well done
  • Unclear job expectations
  • Chaotic or dysfunctional work environment
  • Mismatching values between the employee and the organization

Lifestyle and personality risk factors

  • Lack of support and trust in the workplace or personal life
  • Not getting enough rest
  • Work and home life balance out of sync
  • Unwillingness to delegate tasks to others
  • Perfectionistic, high-achiever personality

How to cope with burnout

Whether you find yourself on the way to burnout or you wake up one day and realize you’re already there, know that there are things you can do to find balance in your life once again. If you find that none of these methods provide you with any relief, it may be ideal to speak with a mental health professional.

Seek support from others

You don’t have to endure burnout alone. Humans are wired for connection; a good talk, or several, with a trusted friend or loved one can help relieve your burden. It can also be beneficial to seek help from a therapist. Having a safe, impartial person to talk to can have a positive impact on your stress level.

Eat well

Part of supporting yourself through stress is taking care of your body; this includes eating a healthy diet. While stress eating and indulging in excess alcohol, caffeine, or nicotine may give you temporary relief or distraction, the impacts on your health and the anxiety that settles in afterward likely aren’t worth it. It’s also best to avoid eating too many sugary snacks and refined carbs (like french fries or pasta).

A balanced diet, including some extra omega-3s from sources like salmon, can benefit both your physical and mental health.

Move your body

When you feel burned out, there’s a chance the last thing you want to do is work out. But exercise doesn’t have to look like an intense session at the gym; if you are running low on energy, even a 10-minute walk at home can be beneficial. Not only does exercise give you a mood boost, but it can also improve your sleep.

Try to aim for 30 minutes of exercise a day for a positive endorphin rush. Working out can take any form, from walking or swimming to yoga, dancing, or anything else that you find enjoyable and gets you moving. Focusing on the movement of your body and breathing through aerobic exercise can help reduce some of the stress you are feeling.


Getting enough rest is one of the most important things you can do when experiencing burnout. Your body and mind need time to recover when going through chronic stress. And establishing a regular sleep routine is key to a good night’s sleep.

If you are having trouble falling asleep, consider turning off your phone and devices for 30 minutes before you go to bed. Mindfulness exercises can also be beneficial for winding down; in addition to assisting with sleep, they have also been shown to improve the overall well-being of those experiencing burnout.

Evaluate your mindset and priorities

In certain cases, the best way to overcome workplace burnout is to change jobs. However, that isn’t always a viable option for everyone. Making small shifts in your mindset can make a difference when facing chronic stress.

Find your purpose

Adjusting your attitude toward what you do by noticing your impact and purpose can help you see your value in your work environment. Stepping back and noticing how your work affects the big picture (even through the little tasks) can be encouraging. Try to focus on the part of your job you do enjoy, no matter how small, to help reframe how you see your circumstances.

Set boundaries

As uncomfortable as it can be, practicing setting boundaries and saying “no” is an important step in reducing burnout. Try taking a pause to consider before agreeing to tasks and overextending yourself. Modern technology (and our accessibility 24 hours a day) can easily cause our work lives to bleed over into our personal lives. You may have to advocate for yourself and be firm about what hours you can be reached. Clear communication with your boss or manager can help you stay on the same page about the boundaries you need to maintain.

Take breaks

Incorporate small breaks into your daily schedule. This may include a simple break from technology, allowing yourself a moment to look away from screens. It can also be a good time to check in with yourself and evaluate how you are feeling and how stressed you are. And, if possible, use longer breaks (like lunch) to have a conversation with a coworker or practice some mindfulness exercises (such as deep breathing) before re-engaging with your workday.

Look for balance

Sometimes, we are limited in what we can do to change our work experience. In that case, focusing on what we enjoy outside of work can help us to find joy. Connecting with friends and family can provide you with some additional support.

Also, discovering a new hobby, doing something creative, or volunteering for a cause that is meaningful to you can provide purpose and a positive focus outside of a chronically stressful work environment.



Innerbody uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

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