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Burnout: 20 signs, causes, and how to prevent it

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia Martins
February 1st, 2024
6 min read
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Burnout happens when the stress or pressure from work reaches a tipping point—it either becomes too much or goes on for too long. While burnout is surprisingly common (71% of knowledge workers experienced burnout at least once in 2020), you’re empowered as a manager to prevent and reverse it within your team. Read on to learn about the signs of burnout, what causes it, and most importantly—how to prevent it.

As a team lead, the last thing you want is for a team member to feel burnt out. But burnout can happen to anyone, and sometimes, it can be hard to spot. 

With the right preventative measures and support, you can prevent burnout on your team before it even happens. Or, if team members already feel burnt out, you can empower them to regain balance. Here’s how. 

What is burnout?

Burnout is the feeling of emotional, physical, or mental exhaustion that happens as a result of overwork. When you’re overworked, you’re working too hard, too much, or for too long. 

Burnout can happen to anyone. According to the Anatomy of Work Index, 71% of knowledge workers experienced burnout at least once in 2020. Of those workers, nearly half of respondents (46%) cited being overworked as a key factor contributing to burnout. 

What’s the difference between burnout and stress?

Burnout isn’t the same thing as stress. Depending on your personality type, you may react positively to stress. In fact, some team members find that small amounts of stress helps them feel more productive and motivated. 

But too much pressure and stress can lead to burnout. In these cases, you’ve been so worn down by stress that you feel—as the name suggests—burnt out. While the benefits or detriments of slight stress vary from person to person, burnout is exclusively detrimental. 

Read: Feeling overworked? Strategies for individuals and teams to regain balance
Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between impostor syndrome and burnout

Burnout and impostor syndrome have historically been studied as two separate phenomena. In this report, we connect the dots to help leaders slow burnout and increase employee retention.

Get the insights
Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between imposter syndrome and burnout page banner image

Signs of burnout

Like stress, burnout manifests differently depending on the person. Even though we commonly associate burnout with emotional exhaustion, it can actually impact all areas of your life—including your physical health.

[inline illustration] Signs of burnout (infographic)

The effects of burnout can manifest in your life through mental, emotional, and physical symptoms. Common symptoms of burnout include:

Mental burnout

  • Dreading work

  • Lack of interest or motivation

  • Decreased sense of accomplishment

  • Uncontrollable procrastination

  • Feeling incapable of coping with new challenges

Physical burnout

  • Exhaustion

  • Chronic stress

  • Inconsistent sleep habits

  • Sudden, frequent health problems, ranging from headaches and colds to mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety

Emotional burnout

  • Cynicism at work 

  • Irritability or anger at work

  • Suddenly and intensely disliking your job

  • Feelings of hopelessness at work

  • Feeling like you should isolate yourself from others

What causes burnout?

Like the various signs of burnout, there are a variety of burnout causes. In general, each cause leads to a central tipping point: when work-related stress or pressure becomes too much or goes on for too long. This leads to burnout. 

In particular, you may be at risk of burnout if you have:

  • Little to no control over your workload.

  • Little to no recognition of a job well done.

  • Unclear job expectations.

  • Unreasonable or overly demanding job expectations.

  • High-pressure work environments.

  • Too much work—specifically when it leads to less time to do the things you enjoy outside of work.

The good news is, good leadership can prevent or reverse many common causes of burnout. That’s where you come in. Understandingthe signs of burnout is just one piece of the puzzle—if you lead a team, you can apply this understanding to action. 

Who can get burnout?

The truth is, burnout can happen to anyone. If you love or tolerate your job, whether you work from the office or work from home—if you work too hard or too long, you can experience burnout. 

And burnout doesn't just happen at work—you can get burnout in all areas of life. In fact, new parents and caregivers often report experiencing burnout. Although this article is focused on workplace burnout, some of the strategies listed below help to mitigate burnout in your personal life, too.

quotation mark
Unfortunately, burnout has been steadily rising since May 2020 and we have now hit a critical threshold. As it currently stands, people and organizations are being set up for failure, since high burnout leads to lower morale, more mistakes, and a lack of engagement with work.”
Dr. Sahar Yousef, Cognitive Neuroscientist, UC Berkeley
Read: Overcoming burnout in a distributed world
Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between impostor syndrome and burnout

Burnout and impostor syndrome have historically been studied as two separate phenomena. In this report, we connect the dots to help leaders slow burnout and increase employee retention.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between imposter syndrome and burnout page banner image

How to prevent burnout on your team

One of the most impactful things you can do as a manager is support your team and recognize burnout before it happens. There are a variety of tools, strategies, and conversations you can have with your team to take action against burnout.

[inline illustration] How to prevent burnout (infographic)

1. Be proactive

It’s much easier to prevent burnout than to fix it once it’s already happening—by the time you notice burnout, it’s hard to reverse. Instead, be proactive about your team’s workload. 

You can do this by: 

  • Frequently checking in on their capacity. Use capacity planning and resource management to get ahead of burnout and ensure team members aren’t overwhelmed.

  • Create realistic and attainable goals. Figuring out how a task contributes to a bigger initiative can take mental energy. Mapping out a clear set of goals for your team to work towards can reduce confusion or overwork. 

Read: If you like maximizing team impact, you’ll love resource allocation

2. Use a workload management tool

Talking to your employees is critical, but you can also be proactive by looking at their workload.

Workload management tools give you a bird’s-eye view of everyone’s tasks in one place. That way, you can get a sense of if anyone is overloaded and redistribute that work if necessary. 

[Product UI] Workload management in Asana (Workload)

3. Ask about capacity during 1:1s

Tracking workload is one thing, but make sure you’re also meeting with your team regularly and asking them how they’re doing. There may be instances where a task is taking them longer than expected, or they’re struggling with things in their personal life which is making them less productive. 

If you don’t already, schedule weekly or biweekly 1:1 meetings with team members to check in on priorities, capacity, and any other questions they might have. During these sessions, it’s also helpful to clarify how their individual work relates to larger team and company goals. 

Providing that clarity can help team members better prioritize their work. It can also increase motivation because team members understand how their work fits into the bigger picture.

How to find work-life balance

Great managers address and prevent burnout. But even if you’re an individual struggling with burnout, there are two steps you can take to reduce the impact: reversing burnout and building resilience. 

The first and most important step is to reverse the impact of burnout. Then, once you’re back on solid ground, implement strategies to build your resilience and prevent burnout from happening again. 

Step 1: Reverse

There are a variety of strategies to reverse burnout, and the one that works best for you depends on your situation and personality. Don’t just stick to one strategy, though. Try implementing these strategies in combination with one another for best results. 

To reverse burnout, try: 

  • Scheduling breaks. Burnout happens because you’ve been too stressed for too long. You likely have a lot of work to get done, and may be feeling a lot of pressure to do it. To start pushing back against burnout, schedule breaks throughout the day. These can be short breaks—five minutes to walk to the kitchen and make coffee, another five minutes to walk around the block and get some sunshine. If possible, disconnect from technology during these breaks to give your mind some time to relax. 

  • Setting boundaries. All of the causes of burnout have one thing in common: external pressure. One of the best ways to reverse burnout is to set boundaries for yourself. Choose a time to log off from work every evening, if you can. Or try turning off notifications on the weekends so you aren’t tempted to respond to messages. Juliet Funt, author of A Minute to Think, recommends setting physical boundaries, too. For example, at the end of the day, place all of your work-related items in a drawer or box. She says, “Tuck them in and let them slumber while you do.” 

  • Taking time off (if you can). This might not be an option for you straightaway, but taking time off is a great way to relax and recharge. Even if you only take a day or half day away from work, this is a chance to seek work-life balance. When you do take time off, make sure to confirm with your supervisor that you’ll be offline and unavailable. Or, if you do have to be available for some portion of your vacation, make sure you set boundaries about what that will look like. 

  • Taking care of yourself. More often than not, burnout happens because we’re dedicating too much of ourselves to our work. Instead, take some time for self-care. Do something you like, and see if you can avoid thinking about work for a whole hour, evening, or weekend. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep and spending time with your family members, too. If you can, try introducing more mindfulness into your day to day, through things like yoga or meditation. This can help you combat stressors and increase wellness.

Read: Sabbatical leave: How it works, key benefits, and FAQs

Step 2: Build resilience

Burnout can happen to anyone, and just because you beat burnout once doesn’t mean it can’t creep up on you again. 

To prevent that from happening, take the following steps: 

  • Build your work relationships. A lot of times, burnout happens because you’re isolated at work while simultaneously being under a lot of pressure. One way to build resilience against future burnout is to build your work relationships. That way, if the pressure does start to mount, you have friends you can turn to for support, even if it’s just a cup of coffee and a nice chat.

  • Align work with goals. While aligning work with goals doesn’t necessarily mean you won’t have a lot of work to do in the future, it does mean you’ll have a clear sense of why your work matters. When you understand what your work is contributing to, it’s easier to understand why the specific task your project you’re working on fits into the grand scheme of your organization’s plan. Additionally, if the pressure does build and you need to offload some work, you can effectively prioritize your most important tasks without worrying you won’t hit your goals. 

  • Balance your work life with your personal life. In addition to getting enough sleep and connecting with loved ones, make sure you’re dedicating time to your interests outside of work. Do things you enjoy, whether that’s reading a book, seeing friends, being creative, doing a sport, or something else. Think of it like diversifying your investments—but in this case, you’re investing in your interests. 

From burnout to balance

Burnout can fly under the radar. Given enough time, these symptoms can build up and impact the well-being of your team members. The best way to ensure your co-workers aren’t burning out is to spot it before it happens. That’s where workload management comes in.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between impostor syndrome and burnout

Burnout and impostor syndrome have historically been studied as two separate phenomena. In this report, we connect the dots to help leaders slow burnout and increase employee retention.

Anatomy of Work Special Report: The unexplored link between imposter syndrome and burnout page banner image

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