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Exhausted and overwhelmed: Everything you need to know about burnout

Table of contents

Work-related mental health issues, also known as burnout symptoms, are becoming increasingly common nowadays. According to CBS (Statistics Netherlands), as many as 17% of people experienced work-related mental health issues in 2019. Work-related mental health issues can manifest as either overstrain or burnout. For the diagnosis and treatment, it is crucial to understand the distinction between these two forms. In this blog, we will delve deeper into what a burnout exactly entails, what it feels like, the symptoms and signs associated with it, and how it differs from overstrain and depression. Additionally, we will explore the causes of a burnout and provide information on its treatment and how to recover from a burnout. Of course, we will also offer advice on how to prevent a burnout. Let’s get started!

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What is a burnout?

A burnout is a severe form of overstrain characterized by exhaustion on both physical and emotional levels. In a burnout, there is a state of total depletion resulting from prolonged and intense exposure to excessive stress factors, particularly in the workplace. It is often described as an imbalance between a person’s load (the demands and responsibilities) and their capacity (the physical and mental ability to cope with these demands). This imbalance leads to mental symptoms such as feeling overwhelmed, reduced concentration, emotional instability, as well as physical symptoms like extreme fatigue, headaches, and muscle pain.

Symptoms of burnout, overstrain, and depression may overlap, so it is important to clarify the distinctions. Therefore, it is crucial to differentiate between the manifestations of burnout, overstrain, and depression, which we will discuss further in the blog. But first, let’s explore the symptoms associated with a burnout.

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What are burnout symptoms?

The symptoms of burnout are often diverse, encompassing both physical and emotional aspects. While burnout symptoms are frequently work-related, this is not always the case.

Common burnout symptoms include:

  • Extreme fatigue, even after a good night’s sleep – this symptom is prominent in burnout.
  • Reduced ability to concentrate on tasks.
  • Feeling constantly rushed.
  • Disturbed sleep patterns.
  • Intolerance to crowds or noise, or experiencing an overstimulated feeling.
  • Excessive worrying.
  • Concentration and memory problems.
  • Increased irritability and mood swings.
  • Physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle pain, and abdominal pa
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When the aforementioned symptoms persist for more than six months, it is considered a burnout.

Although both men and women can experience burnout, the symptoms may vary slightly. Research indicates that women are more likely to struggle with burnout symptoms related to workplace relationships, while men may experience symptoms more connected to competition and achieving results.

Do you recognize the feeling of getting up in the morning, but not feeling rested at all?

Differences between overstrain, burnout, and depressio

Now that you know what burnout symptoms are and when we consider it a burnout, let’s explore the distinctions between overstrain, burnout, and depression. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same.

 

Overstrain refers to a brief state of overload. It involves tension-related symptoms, such as feeling rushed or restless, poor sleep, and increased emotional instability. Individuals experiencing overstrain feel a sense of losing control, finding it challenging to resolve common stressful situations.

 

In contrast, burnout involves prolonged overstrain symptoms, where someone experiences these symptoms for more than six months, with fatigue and exhaustion taking a more prominent role than in overstrain. Additionally, burnout is often related to work, though not always.

 

Depression, on the other hand, is a condition that impacts all aspects of a person’s life. It involves a persistently low mood throughout most of the day, a lack of pleasure in activities that were previously enjoyable, and symptoms such as insomnia or excessive sleep, feelings of guilt, decreased appetite, and quick irritability or sluggishness.

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It is crucial to differentiate between overstrain, burnout, and depression, as each of these conditions requires a distinct approach and treatment. If you recognize these symptoms in yourself, it is advisable to discuss them with your (family) doctor to ensure the appropriate treatment and guidance are provided.

Causes of a burnout

As mentioned earlier, burnout is often work-related, while overstrain symptoms can result from various other causes. When overstrain symptoms persist for more than six months, with fatigue and exhaustion being particularly prominent, we refer to it as burnout.

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The cause of burnout is often multifactorial, meaning that it is not possible to pinpoint a single cause underlying the symptoms. Instead, there are multiple factors that collectively contribute to the aforementioned symptoms.

Burnout can be caused by a combination of factors, including:

  • High workload
  • Lack of autonomy and control over work
  • High expectations
  • Imbalance between work and personal life
  • Limited social support at work or in personal life
  • Personality traits such as perfectionism and a tendency to be overly involved
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Additionally, stressful situations in personal life can also lead to work overload. Burnout symptoms are more common in individuals who have previously experienced overstrain, those with a low socioeconomic status, individuals without a partner, and those with chronic or life-threatening conditions.

The duration of burnout varies widely and depends on the severity of the situation, the cause of the burnout, an individual’s resilience, and the time devoted to recovery. Overstrain symptoms may improve within a few weeks, while burnout, by definition, lasts longer than six months. Early recognition and intervention are crucial to promote the recovery process.

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What to do in case of a burnout?

If you have been experiencing prolonged symptoms of tension or severe fatigue, we recommend scheduling an appointment with your general practitioner. Through a conversation with your GP, they can assess whether there is an indication of overstrain, burnout, or possibly another condition. Also, discuss your concerns with your employer if you believe your symptoms are work-related. As an employee, you have the right to seek advice from an occupational health physician, which your employer should arrange. An occupational health physician can provide guidance on whether you should continue working, take a break, or work part-time. The occupational health physician has professional confidentiality and is not allowed to disclose your complaints to your employer.

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At Easly, we offer the Burnout Stress Test. In this test, we administer a verified questionnaire that distinguishes between overstrain, anxiety, and depression. Additionally, your blood is tested for cortisol levels. Elevated cortisol levels may indicate excessive stress.

Recovery from a burnout

Recovery from a burnout requires time and dedication. The duration of this recovery depends on the severity of your symptoms and the underlying cause of the issues.

There are several steps you can take to facilitate recovery:

  • Take rest and relaxation seriously, and establish clear boundaries for yourself. Continuous overstepping of your limits will prolong the symptoms. It’s crucial to rediscover a balance between the load and capacity.
  • Seek professional guidance; inquire about this with your general practitioner or occupational health physician. You may be referred to a psychologist, for example.
  • If you have taken sick leave from work, try to maintain a consistent daily routine; go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Schedule a daily physical activity, and ensure you have sufficient rest periods.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle: consume a balanced and varied diet, engage in regular physical activity, and ensure an adequate amount of sleep.
  • Rediscover hobbies and activities that energize you.
  • Learn stress management techniques, such as mindfulness and breathing exercises.
  • Discuss with a professional, like an occupational health physician, the reasons behind developing a burnout. Are there issues that need resolving? Were there situations that could have predicted these symptoms? Gaining insight into the cause of the burnout helps you be more alert and conscious of these triggers in the future.
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How to prevent a burnout?

Recovering from a burnout takes a significant amount of time, and you may even temporarily be unable to work. Therefore, it is crucial to know how to prevent a burnout. Even if you have experienced a burnout, it is important to discover how to avoid another one in the future.

Preventing a burnout begins with recognizing warning signs and taking measures to prevent a potential recurrence:

  • Create a healthy balance between work and personal life.
  • Communicate with your employer about potential stress factors (both at work and at home).
  • Learn to prioritize and delegate tasks when possible.
  • Seek social support from colleagues, friends, and family.
  • Invest in your own well-being and ensure sufficient relaxation. Engage in daily physical activity, maintain a healthy diet, surround yourself with people who energize you, and prioritize getting enough sleep.
  • A burnout often begins with tension-related symptoms. If you experience tension-related symptoms again, it is advisable to reflect on the underlying causes. Take steps to address the root cause to prevent further development of symptoms.