Escaping the Trap of Emotional Burnout

  • Jul 24, 2019

    “I have been constantly overworking for three months already. I was generally 15-20 minutes late for work each day. No one said a word about it. However, if someone asked me to explain my tardiness, I felt that I would answer with a meme “I’m sorry, I was late because I didn’t want to come”. I had no will or desire to wake up in the morning and I put back my alarm clock for ten minutes 5-6 times. Of course, I had no time for morning stretching or meditation. I had lunch at my workstation, all while typing something or even talking on the phone. I left for home around 10 PM and always felt that I still had more work to do…”

    – Vera, 29, used to work with customer complaints.

    Have you been feeling tired or apathetic at work lately? Have those feelings been with you for a long time? Do you feel anxious about work and other everyday activities even after a long vacation, to the point that you are repulsed by the very idea of working? If you have answered “yes”, then you are probably experiencing emotional burnout syndrome.

    Emotional burnout is a state of physical, emotional and mental draining appearing as the result of prolonged stress and consistent disruption of work-rest schedule. [1]

    ICD-10 (International classification of diseases) classifies emotional burnout syndrome under “Problems related to life management difficulties” and is defined as “state of vital exhaustion”. [2]
     This syndrome is closely related to occupation, but it can affect other spheres of our lives: hobbies, relationships, and even health.
    Let’s talk about causes of emotional burnout and learn to recognize its signs. We will find out how to avoid extreme conditions and remain happy and productive.


    1. Signs of emotional burnout
    2. Causes of emotional burnout
    3. Stages of emotional burnout
    4. Test for self reflection
    5. Emotional burnout of mothers
    6. Fifteen ways to prevent emotional burnout syndrome 


Signs of emotional burnout

  • “One day I had to come to work earlier than usual. A deadline was approaching, and I had to finish my report. It was the time just before Christmas and many people were already relaxed and ready for parties, traveling and holidays. However, I had no plans and was not in a festive mood. My co-worker spoke, I looked away from my monitor to say hello.
     “Good morning!” said I absentmindedly.

    “Wow! Why are you so angry?” she asked me.

    I felt like she poured cold water over me. I realized that my face had become permanently tense. Even when I said nice words, people still took me for being angry. That was the day I understood that I couldn’t go on like that, so I gave my two-weeks’ notice.”

    – Vera, 29, used to work with customer complaints.

    Emotional burnout syndrome appears when a person spends all their energy managing every task they have and complying with requirements set by themselves and other people, all the while having a mistaken perception of their capabilities and resources. Such behavior keeps a person in a state of constant stress. As this stress accumulates, a person loses all motivation and interest towards their occupation, as well as losing the desire to work efficiently and productively. [3]

    So, how does this syndrome manifest itself? The signs of emotional burnout can be physical and psychological. There are also signs that appear during social interactions. 

    Physical signs of emotional burnout:

    • constant fatigue (not only in the evening, but also in the morning soon after waking up);
    • irregular sleep or insomnia;
    • drowsiness throughout the whole day;
    • sharp weight increase or loss;
    • frequent gastrointestinal upsets;
    • sense of physical drain;
    • general asthenization (reduced activity and energy, weakness, aggravation of blood biochemistry, changes in hormonal background);
    • constant headaches;
    • respiratory disruption after physical or emotional overload, labored breathing;
    • reduced internal and external sensory perception (decline of vision, hearing, senses of smell and touch);
    • cognitive problems (worsening of memory, poor comprehension upon reading or hearing).

    Psychological signs of emotional burnout:

    • sense of emotional drain;
    • passiveness, reduction in emotional tension, sense of frustration, indifference and boredom;
    • high anxiety and uneasiness;
    • nervous breakdown, bursts of anger or social isolation;
    • frequent irritability over trivial things;
    • constant and ungrounded negative emotions (shame, guilt, grudges);
    • exaggerated sense of responsibility, constant fear and anticipation of failure;
    • negative perception of future potential in life and work, conviction that any efforts are useless.

    Social and behavior signs of emotional burnout:

    • frequent laments to friends and co-workers that the work has become harder and more difficult to complete;
    • disruption of work schedule, increased or reduced work time;
    • difficulty in making decisions;
    • sense of uselessness towards society, reduced motivation towards work, indifference towards results;
    • abandoning priority tasks, getting stuck on the trivial;
    • tendency towards spending the majority of work time on simple and automated actions;
    • frequent leaps from one activity to another;
    • developing the habit of taking work home but not doing it;
    • critical attitude to other people’s behavior, deterioration of family relationships.

Causes of emotional burnout

To put it simply, burnout is the state of physical and emotional fatigue that accumulates due to disorganized work for prolonged periods of time. Day after day a person performs the same actions but does not feel any progress.

Doctors, teachers, and people doing manual labor are particularly susceptible to emotional burnout syndrome. According to Elena Rezanova, a career advisor and the author of “Nevertimes. Escaping the deadlock and finding yourself”, a specialist in any occupation faces the risk of emotional burnout. “I was consulting a photographer the other day. She is a well-known professional who earns big money and travels around the world shooting yachts. The best magazines print her photos. She has a wonderful husband, who also works in a creative job. They live by the sea. One day she realized she could not make herself work anymore. She simply had no energy to get up from her bed.” [4]

What causes this syndrome? Let’s look at several causes of emotional burnout.

  1. Triteness

This is when a person has to systematically perform tasks that they view in a negative light. This leads to mental exhaustion. As time goes by, any amount of rest is insufficient and stress is ever-present.

  1. Strict or irregular work schedule

A work schedule that requires someone to wake up early, leave work late, and work even during weekends is hard for any person. If the person has to force him/herself to solve schedule issues, this causes constant stress.

  1. Perfectionism and aiming for perfect results

This is where person demands higher standards from themselves and cannot accept a result that is less than perfect. Any result seems inadequate.

  1. Inability to delegate tasks

This kind of behavior is typical for people in management. This is where an individual is convinced that everything depends on them and no one can do the job better.

  1. Inability to assess personal resources

This is where a person gives themselves to work completely, they stop valuing their time and health, spend less time for themselves, neglect rest and halt interactions with friends and family.

  1. Rejection of feelings

This is where a person does not allow themselves to feel weak or tired, developing a certain mindset: “I cannot slack up”, “I must be strong”, “keep your head straight”.

  1. Highly charged relationship with management and co-workers

Any constant conflicts at work, even if the individual is not a part of them directly but has to witness them, can cause negative reactions.

  1. Worrying for other people’s health and well-being

This is a typical cause for burnout among medical workers. They desire to constantly show compassion to their patients, which drains their energy and ability to enjoy life. As a result, a person develops certain blocks in their minds, becomes coarse and indifferent towards others and, most importantly themselves.

  1. Creative and professional crisis

People working in creative fields, like writers, artists and performers, and also teachers, often experience this. Creative activity requires a lot of mental energy. Often such people feel the need to make any new project better and more successful than the previous one.

  1. Habit of overextending oneself

Whatever the conditions and circumstances may be, sometimes people have burnout simply because they cannot work another way. For example, Elena Rezanova admits that she has experienced professional burnout several times, even when she moved from office job to self-employment: “I opened my planner and saw what was going on in my life several months prior to the whole situation. I had an extremely tight schedule with no breaks from morning till evening. I was eating in front of a monitor, I barely took care of my child, even my husband started saying “hello-o, I exist”. I thought that I had to work extremely hard to make everything right. That simply meant that I had burnout not because I didn’t like my job or wasn’t suited for it. I had a burnout because I never learned to work without burning out. That’s how I always worked.”

Elena’s example, just like the experience of anyone who has ever felt themselves struggling at their limits, shows that emotional burnout depends a lot on personal mindset and behavior patterns.

Stages of emotional burnout

Emotional burnout is a consistent and dynamic process that in the end leads to termination of activities and emotional drain. Let’s look at three stages of emotional burnout to find out how we can stop this process before it reaches its extreme state. 


During this stage people experience an increase in enthusiasm towards work. This stage often starts at the beginning of a professional career. It can also occur after a change of occupation, position in a company or social status. A person feels the need to present themselves well. They don’t sense the limit of their resources. Such people want to do more and to take on more assignments. They do not pay attention to themselves, their feelings or health.


After working for some time in constantly stressful conditions (it can be from several months to several years, depending on an individual traits and character), a person can become irritated with their work, co-workers and even themselves. In each new task they see problems, without searching for ways and methods to solve them first. At this stage people experience procrastination, they delay decisions and abolish arrangements. As a result, their minds start to compensate and, in such cases, a person can become addicted to alcohol, food or compulsive buying in the attempt to escape negative emotions.


A person has no energy for experiencing emotions, they want to distance themselves from others and go into self-isolation. They have no desire to search for a better job or modify their working conditions to dovetail with their resources and values. People often get negative thoughts at this stage: “I don’t want to decide anything”, “I have no more strength left”, “leave me alone”.

Test for self reflection

There are specific test methods to diagnose the level of intensity and propagation of burnout syndrome. Psychologists in Russia often use an emotional burnout checklist created by Maslach. It contains groups of questions according to specifics of various occupations, such as medical workers, sales staff, law enforcement officers, and engineering staff. Respondents have to rate their answers on the scale from “never” to “every day”, with a total of seven stages of frequency. Such advanced method helps to determine the level of emotional burnout. [5]

Here we offer you a simplified version of this checklist for self-reflection, to find out whether it is time for you to pay attention to this problem. Choose the statement that best describes your behavior from each pair of statements. Note in which column you have marked more statements.

Typical for emotional burnout syndrome
Not typical for emotional burnout syndrome
I don't feel rested even after a long sleep
I feel refreshed and ready for a new day of work in the morning.
I always think about my work before going to sleep and cannot fall asleep because of this
I have no trouble falling asleep and I don't worry about tomorrow
Work feels boring
My work is very interesting
I work a lot, but I feel no significant results
I maintain my work schedule and produce significant results
I can sometimes lash out for no reason
I am usually calm and composed, I am rarely irritated
I avoid talking to people at work and during my free time
I like to talk to my friends and co-workers
I find it hard to concentrate on work tasks
I have no trouble concentrating and completing tasks in time
I often forget about small tasks and cannot find necessary items and documents
I control all the tasks and can organize my workspace
I am often ill yet I still continue to work
My immune system works perfectly and I rarely take sick leaves
I get tired from interacting with other people
I become energetic after speaking with others
My work does not bring satisfaction
I am satisfied and enthusiastic about my work
I prefer to watch TV in my free time
I devote my free time to hobbies and outdoor activities
I often feel that my work has no meaning or benefit
I sense my importance at work
I often have conflicts with co-workers and friends
I have good relationship with my co-workers and friends
I always check my inbox, think about work and never switch off my phone at the weekends
I devote my weekends to myself and my friends/family

If most of the statements you have chosen belong to the group typical for emotional burnout, keep your chin up. Emotional burnout syndrome is a psychological problem stemming from a pathologic behavior pattern. You can distinguish the mindset that leads to this emotional burnout and correct your own behavior. The 7Spsy behavior modification technique is one of the most effective ways to do so.

“Girls, I have no idea what’s happening to me, maybe it’s postpartum depression staying for too long. I am a bad mother, I am tired of my child. I want to abandon everything and just sit in my corner and do nothing. My son is crying all the time and wants me to hold him, I carry him around as he is teething. Maybe I should consult a neurologist. I am overwhelmed, even my husband doesn’t understand me…”

An anonymous post on a thematic forum

We need to pay specific attention to emotional burnout of women on maternity leave. Such women take care of their children 24/7 with no time off, so they can experience burnout quite quickly. Young mothers often lose themselves in a whirlwind of household chores and activities, without realizing that this leads to emotional burnout. They don’t know how to fight it.

If you know a young mother, support her, and tell her how important it is to find time just for herself. If that young mother is you, then you should definitely talk to your friends and family, share your feelings and find a way to organize even a short rest for yourself. If you have been experiencing a depressed state for a while, you should consider consulting a psychologist.

Fifteen ways to prevent emotional burnout syndrome.

“Doctors encounter emotional burnout all too often. I have been working in a private clinic and doing charity work for more than 10 years, and it’s hard to avoid overworking in this sphere. How can I clock off at six when I know someone’s life depends on some unfinished business of mine? I used to be able to cope with stress. I took on all the tasks and thought I could manage. One day I noticed that I hadn’t fulfilled my own desires for a long time, and nothing made me smile anymore. Should I go to a café or a cinema? Should I see a friend or a beauty counselor? Should I read a book or listen to music? Such simple questions, and I couldn’t answer any of them. Now I have learned to take care of myself and prevent stress. If I want to drink coffee from a porcelain cup by candlelight, then I will do this for no other reason. I find time for yoga and swimming just because I like these activities. So, what has changed? I simply understood: if I back myself into a corner, I will have no energy to help other people.”

– Marina, 43, doctor

Unlike Vera, Marina managed to notice the signs of emotional burnout and then paid more attention to her own state. People who are worrying about such symptoms will find the following advice on preventing emotional burnout useful. [6]

  1. Become more organized

Some people say that stress comes from an excessive workload. This is only partially true. Many people simply cannot properly organize their working processes. Within the same company there may be two people working a similar job. One of them is often late and takes the work home, while the other manages to complete the tasks within the allocated time, because they can properly distribute their efforts.

There are many methods for planning and time management. Study them and choose those that help you work more efficiently.

  1. Plan your rest

We tend to manage our daily, weekly and monthly work schedules more seriously than managing our plans to rest. As a result, we may easily abandon hobbies and other interesting activities when a work-related urgency comes up. Or we may take longer to complete everyday tasks because we know we can just stay after work and finish them. You should allocate some time in your schedule to read a book, watch interesting videos, talk to friends, have a walk etc. Strictly follow this plan and respect your off-time just as much as you do your work time.

  1. Take breaks during work

The optimum working schedule is an alternation between intense work for an hour and a half and taking 15 minute breaks. If you work without rest, in the afternoon and evening your productivity may take a dive. Include breaks in your schedule and do not neglect them. Have a stretch, go outside and do some exercises to help your eyes.

  1. Stop taking sleeping pills

Sedatives have short-term effects and long-term consequences. When affected by medication, your sleep phases get disrupted, and you are likely to  experience weird dreams or wake up without feeling rested. Such an artificial sleep pattern only supports burnout, whereas healthy sleep actually prevents stress.

  1. Listen to your body

You need to read the signs of your own body to maintain your physical and mental health. When you are angry, scared, or anxious, your body reacts with tremor, a fast heart rate and sweat on your forehead and back. In order to calm down, you need to find relaxing exercises for yourself and regularly use them. 

  1. Cut down on coffee

Coffee boosts our mood and energy and helps us concentrate on work. However, this effect is short lived. You will start to feel tired quite soon after drinking it.

Excessive consumption of coffee can lead to caffeine addiction, which is detrimental to your physical and mental state. Drink more water and tea during working periods instead.

  1. Break your ideals

Aiming for ideal results can only lead to disappointment in yourself and your own abilities. Remember that perfection is the enemy of good. Simply doing a good job is more than enough on most occasions.

  1. Put down your phone

Create some “digital detox” time for yourself.  Refrain from using devices for just one day when you are with your friends or family, so you are not interrupted. If you cannot allow yourself to do so, then simply switch off your notifications and stop yourself from checking your work inbox.

  1. Don’t be under the thumb of immediate decisions

When we are upset or exasperated, the first things that come to mind are often to be abusive, spill our anger and offend our opponent. Do not rush to solve the conflicts on the spot. Wait until you are calmer and more composed and thus ready for a productive conversation.

  1. Do some sports

Physical activity is essential for our emotional well-being. Go to the gym, do some swimming, yoga, or aerobics. This will help you to relieve tension. 

  1. Take deep breaths

Learn some breathing exercises. You will be surprised to find how they can refresh your mind and help in solving difficult problems.

  1. Write letters

Keep a diary of your thoughts and feelings. Analyze your failures and successes in writing and write letters to yourself. Sometimes simply putting your worrying thoughts on paper or even rewriting them in a positive manner can make the fears and negative emotions go away. 

  1. Interact with people

Do not isolate yourself from the world. Talk to your co-workers and spend more time with your loved ones.

  1. Try new things

Make yourself a rule to try something new each month. You could attend a trial dance lesson, go to a trampoline center, visit a drawing workshop of the style of your choosing – there are countless possibilities. New experiences will give you a boost of energy, and let you get to know new people. You may even find a fresh hobby to relieve your stress and inspire you.

  1. Change your behavior pattern

If you feel that your own mindset has interfered with maintaining a healthy attitude towards work and other activities, or if you feel that overworking has become a habit and left no room for your personal life, then it is time to think about changing your behavior patterns. Be prepared, for this will not be easy and you might need to consult a specialist.

If none of the methods above help you feel rested and energetic again, then you need to think about changing your job. Remember that the most important person in your life is you, and only you.

Information from this website cannot be used for self-therapy and self-diagnostics. 

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