What is Professional Burnout?

Most of us have periods in our careers and jobs where we feel stressed, or exhausted, and perhaps wished for something different. But when these feelings escalate over time, burnout may result. We define burnout as a state of complete emotional and physical exhaustion, caused by chronic anxiety, unrelenting stress, or a prolonged lack of returned gratification. The term "professional burnout" really means "emotional burnout" over our jobs and careers. When someone puts so much of their time, sweat, and tears into their work, only to receive back stress, emptiness, and little satisfaction in return, over time this can lead to overwhelming exhaustion. The individual suffering from professional burnout loathes the notion of "going to work", no longer has motivation, and desperately wishes there could be a way out....something better...anything.

Stress and Burnout Are Not the Same

While prolonged stress may cause burnout, it is not the same thing as burnout. When we are stressed, we feel overwhelmed as if too much has been "piled" on us. We feel life and the world "pressing down" on us and unable to keep up or cope. Stress is usually about too much, while burnout, on the other hand, is about not enough. Someone burned out has no motivation, is apathetic, doesn't care anymore, has feelings of hopelessness and emptiness. Stress often translates into physical problems, such as heart issues, while burnout translates into emotional problems such as depression and apathy. Stress on the job means we may be over-engaged, or have too much to do, or are over-involved. We are stressed because we want to get everything done, but our resources may be stretched too thin. Career burnout, on the other hand, means we don't care anymore, we simply lack desire, drive, and motivation to work hard in our jobs anymore, and yet may feel completely trapped in them with no where else to go. The work becomes meaningless and our "wells" are dried up, there is nothing left in the emotional reserves any longer to put back into our professional careers.

Lonely Railroad Track

You don't get to choose how you're going to die. Or when. You can only decide how you're going to live. Now. - John Baez

Signs and Symptoms of Burnout

Common signals of burnout include apathy, lack of desire for things we once cared about, lack of motivation, emptiness, hopelessness, feeling of being trapped, frustration, and emotional exhaustion. We dread the thought of going into work each day, yet what can we do? We have to go to work. "I am trapped!"  Even the thought of wasting our time in a room with four white walls is more appealing than going back to our jobs. If left unchecked, professional burnout spills over into our daily and family life, affecting relationships and our own individual health. I once heard someone tell me "I am an unhappy man, living in an unhappy house, in an unhappy town, working in an unhappy job, for an unhappy boss." Now there is someone who was utterly burned out.

What Causes Job Burnout?

There are several possible causes for burnout. You may relate to one or more conditions below. The more of them you can relate to, the higher the risk you will suffer professional burnout in your future, if not already.

  • A continual increase in job responsibilities, either without a raise, or beyond your ability to comfortably manage.
  • Having to put on too many faces for too many different people.
  • Working under a micromanaging boss
  • Chronic, repetitive, boring work- a job that requires little thought and creativity, one that rarely changes, and offers little challenge.
  • Required to work long hours to complete your tasks, frequently working more than 40 hour weeks.
  • Feeling "stuck" in a job or career that is not your ideal job or career.
  • Having a long history of loyalty to a company, but without receiving expected promotions or raises.
  • Being consumed by your job, so that your job goes home with you. You may even fall asleep thinking about work and have little or no outside life.
  • Being forced to work under an oppressive environment, either with difficult or harassing co-workers, or under strict company rules, or strict managers.

How to Deal with Professional Burnout

  • Get a handle on your stress. Exercise is one of the great stress reducers. Yoga, or deep breathing exercises are also great ways to reduce stress.
  • If you feel trapped in your job, consider this wonderful thought: you don't have to be there. No matter how old you are, you can still change your careers. Begin now, while you are still working your current job, prepare yourself for a career or job change. Once you begin taking steps towards a new career, you will find yourself infused with new vigor. See our career change article for more help in finding a new career.
  • Talk to your boss and ask for some changes to your work load or job description. Be forthright, you may be surprised.
  • Increase your social life. Join a community organization or find more social activities outside of work.
  • Share your feelings with those closest to you. Put focus on your closest relationships.
  • Take up a new hobby, or put some time into an old one. By adding some measure of satisfaction to your life, you will feel more motivated.
  • Refuse to take work home with you. Leave it at the door. When you go home, be present at home.
  • Learn to be a better communicator. People who do not communicate well are easier for others to take advantage of- such as piling on new projects or responsibilities.
  • If you are a "people pleaser" its time to stop! Learn to say "no". So often people take on more than they can handle at work because they are afraid of telling their managers the truth: "I am too overloaded to take this on."
  • Its time for an extended vacation. Take some unpaid leave to get away from work, such as a 6 week road trip with no destination, try a cruise, or how about 3 weeks doing nothing except lying on the beach in the caribbean. If you genuinely suffer from burnout, you can have a professional counselor or psychologist recommend to your employer for health reasons that this time is needed. If you cannot afford it, it is ok to pull the money out of savings or even a retirement account (if you do this, consider a 'budget' trip). A four to six week trip away is amazingly powerful medicine for burnout, and the benefits it could bring to your life right now are well worth it, even if it you have to pull a bit of money out of a long-term account. This is your life, and you live only once! We are certainly not advocating liquidating your retirement, but only that you consider taking a modest amount out (if you can afford it) to get away for a while. If you absolutely cannot afford this, then don't do it.

Counseling for Job Burnout

A values counselor is an excellent resource to help you prevent or treat burnout. Counseling will identify the causes of your burnout and walk you through restoring your life back. A counselor will help you with stress, or even help you find a new career. Maybe you want to change careers but are uncertain what you want to do? There are many standardized tests that help identify your talents and skills and match them to new potential careers. Counseling can also help you financially acheive an extended vacation or trip from work through budget planning and preparation.

For those who do not want to change jobs or careers, counseling can deal with communication and personality issues that contributed to the burnout, along with helping you best approach individuals such as your boss, coworkers, or managers in dealing with your difficulties on the job.

If you need a therapist to help you, we have a large selection of online therapists who are professional and licensed counselors, able to help you right where you are over the phone, via email, or webcam/messenger. If you prefer face to face counseling, please use our therapist directory and find a city close to you with a therapist who can meet your needs.


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