3 Unexpected Signs of Burnout

man holding lighter

Sometimes, even with a job that we truly love, feelings of stress and burnout can creep into our day-to-day. While you may be surprised to see signs of fatigue while working in a role in which you feel professionally fulfilled, burnout can happen to anyone.

The good news is that the sooner you are able to identify and address the symptoms of burnout, the sooner you can get back to feeling like yourself. The signs aren’t always so clear, however, so here are a few to keep an eye out for.

Are you a perfectionist?

High standards are great for your performance in the workplace, but perfectionism could lead to professional anxiety. We pursue perfectionism because it seems to offer us safety, but ultimately, it can overload our emotions and throw our mental wellbeing off balance.

If you learn to slowly let go of that perfectionism however, you may find yourself falling in love with your job all over again. If you’re a perfectionist looking to quit the habit, one way to go about it is through some simple list-making. The next time you begin to worry about whether your efforts are enough, try the 1+3+5 rule; that is one big task, three medium tasks, and five small tasks.

Here’s an example of how that may look:

Today I will accomplish one big task:

  • Finalizing the list of vendors for the spring fundraiser.

Today I will accomplish three medium tasks:

  • Getting signatures for tomorrow’s boss’s day card.
  • Updating the receptionist computer to Mojave.
  • Turning in my reimbursement receipts from last week.

Today I will accomplish five small tasks:

  • Setting up my out of office reply for next week.
  • Recycling duplicate papers.
  • Respond to Joe’s email.
  • Reserve the conference room.
  • Reorder printer paper.

The biggest task takes the highest priority followed by the medium and then the small tasks. And if you need to shift your smaller tasks to the next day, it’s not a big deal.

Do you focus too much on the future?

While planning can be good, thinking about what’s next all the time can be exhausting. When you’re constantly focusing on achieving your long-term goals, it’s easy to forget all the little things you’ve accomplished along the way. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you remember to appreciate how far you’ve come:

Keep a gratitude journal

Instead of general entries such as “Having a job,” use “I am grateful for/that…because…” For example, “I am grateful that I have this job because I have been able to master our content management system, and that is a valuable skill to have on my resume.”

You may also try to journal using what is called “the subtraction method” by considering what your life would be like without the thing or person you’re grateful for. For example, instead of writing “I’m thankful for Gena at work,” you could write “I’m thankful for Gena at work because without her, I wouldn’t have nearly as much fun.”

Reverse-engineer your future

Developing a clear plan for reaching your goal may help to alleviate some frustration. First, identify a specific career goal and the deadline. For example, “I want to be the major donations coordinator for a nonprofit in the next ten years.” Next, work backward and identify the key things that needs to happen in order to realize your goal. For example:

  • I will have five years of experience as a donations coordinator for an international nonprofit.
  • I will supervise a donation team of at least three for an international nonprofit.
  • I will pursue opportunities at the national level.
  • I will supervise a donation team of at least two for a statewide nonprofit.
  • I will pursue opportunities at the state level.
  • I will take on a larger responsibility for our quarterly donations drives.
  • I will raise and manage at least “X” dollars for our upcoming spring fundraiser.

Continue to work backward until you’re at the present day. When you find yourself thinking negatively about your job because you’re focusing on the future, redirect your thoughts to your present-day goal and remember that you now have a list of specific steps to get you there.

Do your emotions overtake you?

If you find that your emotional responses to what’s happening in the office are always a bit heightened—for better or worse—this may be another cause of workplace burnout.

Volatile emotions can affect your health, but even quieter emotions can have a long-lasting impact. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, can help mitigate some of the stressful effects of out of control emotions. Here are some ways to build critical EQ.

Mindfulness meditation

You have likely heard quite a bit about mindfulness, and hopefully, you’re ready to start integrating it into your work. If you’re unsure how to begin, consider downloading a mindfulness app—try Insight Timer or Headspace—for a library of guided meditations. Try to start with five to seven minutes every day.

Defining emotions

If you find that you’re influenced by the emotions of others, building awareness of your own emotions may be helpful. First, identify what emotion you feel and what circumstances led you there. For example, “I feel disappointed and guilty that we didn’t meet our ten-day goal for the spring fundraiser.”

Next, ask yourself “Is this mine?” If you have a reason to feel guilty because you didn’t do your best work, it may be better to create a solution instead of dwelling on blame. A solution could be: “I will ask my supervisor for feedback and create a plan for our next goal.” If there was nothing you could have done, it’s best to let that emotion go.

Burnout isn’t the end

Learning some of the early warning signs of burnout can help to keep you healthier and happier in your career. If it’s too late and you’re already there, you can still take steps to alleviate your exhaustion by recognizing the signs and then moving forward with an action plan.


Have you experienced burnout? If so, what were the signs? Share in the comments below.

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Elizabeth is a Nashville-based freelance writer specializing in expertise-building, pillar blog posts and white papers. She’s also a 13 year veteran of the ESL/adult language acquisition field.
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  1. Reply

    Hi Elizabeth Wallace
    Very nice content and thanks for sharing this.

    • John
    • February 4, 2019

    I am now out of work due to anxiety and depression. I am a perfectionist and struggle with negative thoughts. I have been with the same company for 12 years and at the end of 2018 I had to have surgery to remove a kidney stone. This caused me to be out of work for 10 days. During my time off, the outsource group that needed to handle the load, did not answer any tickets!
    Because I am the only person hired and handling the entire IT department, I started to feel stressed and overwhelmed knowing I was going to go back to a full Helpdesk without help.
    In 2017 we hired a new CFO, and I was helping the CFO with everything and was asked to take over creating student’s 1099. This was something I had never done. On top of that, the CFO asked me to send all the information to the FEDs. This was such a task that fear of messing up the 1099’s became a stressor that I could not get out of. Then, near the end of 2018, just before my kidney stone flare up, I was informed that I would be responsible for the 2018 1099’s as well. So, on top of everything else that I needed to finish by the end of 2018, I had kidney surgery.
    By the time I had to go back to work, I had so much anxiety, I was required to go to outpatient mental hospital for help. Now I am seeing a therapist and every time I think about my job, I start to have a panic attack! I was put on FMLA and Short-Term Disability. However, my FMLA will expire on the 29th of February and I still can’t fight my anxiety because I am afraid my employer will let me go based on what FMLA reports as a hardship if they bring me back. If they do this, I will not have a job to support my family! This adds more stress because we foster children and we have two that we are wanting to adopt! We have been in their life from their birth and now we may lose them. I am lost! Over the last 3 years I had been looking for a new job, however, out of the 80 plus applications I filled out, I only had 5 to 6 interviews, which out of these interviews, I only got 3 calls for a second. I could use any advise please!

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