• What Symptoms of Burnout Sound Like In Therapy

    Symptoms of Burnout and What They Sound Like in Therapy

    I was thinking today about how, if we pay attention, we often get signs of things to come LONG before those same things are actually upon us. The bud comes before the bloom of the flower. The raindrop comes before the deluge. The eggshell comes before the baby bird breaks through. Can you tell it’s springtime?

    Similarly, long before burnout officially sets in, we can start to see glimmers of it sparking here and there, creeping in. Just like a flame doesn’t immediately engulf a building, we aren’t “easy breezy” one day and completely burned out the next. The three major arenas of burnout are the same – they flicker in our periphery before they become front and center in our awareness. As a therapist, I am always listening closely to the words of my clients, intently watching their expressions as they speak, and looking for those potential symptoms of burnout. Today’s piece will give you words and phrases to pay attention to in yourself or to draw attention to in colleagues (lovingly and respectfully, of course), in case you are contemplating whether or not you’re experiencing symptoms of burnout.

    The official definition of burnout that I expand upon below comes from the World Health Organization’s website.

    Symptom of Burnout 1 – feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion

    This symptom of burnout, unsurprisingly, entails language around a lack of energy and fatigue, and yet it is important to also pay attention to the fact that we are not necessarily talking about sleepiness or drowsiness. When someone experiences this symptom of burnout, they will likely make comments like the following: 

    “I’m just totally drained from all that I have to do. 

    “It doesn’t matter how hard I try, I can’t get excited about this project, and I was totally into it last year.”

    “Maybe I need to try to go to bed earlier because each day it feels like such a chore just to get to work.”

    When you’re going into each day with a sense of dread and your emotional and motivational energy tank is running on empty, this may very well be a symptom of burnout. It might help to take notes (I recommend the notepad feature on your phone) on when you find a lift in your energy or feel less depleted. Does lunch with a trusted colleague help? Do you feel less exhausted working from home rather than within your work environment? These notes can give you clues to your trajectory toward or away from feeling burned out.

    Symptom of Burnout 2 – increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job

    The next dimension of burnout is characterized as a phenomenon that we sometimes refer to as “depersonalization” when it comes to our work, and it is in effect, feeling more like a cog on an assembly line and like a thing, rather than an actual, you know, person who has meaning and value. This sort of detachment from others can also inadvertently treat others as less than human, especially if you work in a  human services-related field, which you can imagine is especially scary and dangerous, both for the person experiencing it AND for those served or the colleagues surrounding the person. This disconnect, in conversation, can sound like:

    “I know my patients are people who are struggling, but I’m having trouble listening and caring about all their issues.”

    “If it’s not one thing, it’s the next. I’m hoping my boss might just fire me.”

    “I used to care about the mission of this place, but now all that matters is that I get a paycheck.”

    Though we all find ourselves exasperated at times by work, if you are noticing that you have moved to a place in which you are having troubles even connecting to your colleagues, it might be time to consider this a symptom of burnout. Compassion fatigue, when our “empathy meter” is operating close to zero, has major ramifications to one’s health and mental well-being. Ask a trusted friend at work if you’ve seemed extra irritable or snarky about others.It doesn’t feel good to feel ugly toward others, so if you’re feeling more like The Grinch each day, it might be time to take a step back for a full scope examination of your burnout purview. 

    Symptom of Burnout 3 – reduced professional efficacy

    It only goes to reason that if we’re feeling like sh*t about our work, then the work that we’re doing is also likely, sh*t. It is pretty hard to operate from a place of low motivation and still crank out impressive results. Though I of course don’t want anyone to be doing poor work, as a therapist, I am more concerned about the toll that this symptom of burnout can take on your self-confidence, your sense of self, and your self-esteem. Especially if you are someone for whom your work has formerly been a sense of value and pride, being less effective can really wear on you from an emotional standpoint. Phrases to pay attention to that might mean you’re suffering this symptom of burnout may be:

    “I’m just dialing it in. What else can I do?”

    “I used to get so inspired to meet with my team, and now it’s the last thing I feel like doing.”

    “I’ve just settled with doing the bare minimum. No one cares anyway.” 

    You didn’t go from hero to zero in one day. And you won’t find yourself recovering from burnout without some rest, refocusing, recentering, and likely a handful of difficult conversations. But knowing how to recognize the words and phrases that might signify symptoms of burnout is a first step. If you want help with this one on one, I’m here to help. Counseling can help you to recover from burnout while giving you the skills to self-regulate and empowering your to advocate for your own needs, both at work and at home.

    Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women suffering from burnout. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters, determined to make the world a better place for tomorrow’s girls. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid. Leah is also the founder of online community, Unapologetically Unmarried, a sisterhood of divorcing moms.