Emotional Burnout – How to Recognize on Time?

According to Buinickaitė, emotional burnout is not a disease but rather a phenomenon closely related to one’s . It is physical, emotional, or psychological exhaustion resulting from chronic stress, leading to diminished motivation, poorer work performance, and a negative self-image or outlook on others.

„It is crucial to stress that the mentioned conditions are long-term, lasting not a day or two, not for a week, but for months or even years. You feel physically exhausted all the time, you are feeling unhappy, prone to crying, struggle to concentrate, and find everyday tasks challenging,“ she explains.

Buinickaitė adds that individuals who suffer from burnout often endure persistent headaches, struggle to concentrate, and may even have digestive issues. In general, according to the psychologist, individuals suffering from emotional burnout have weaker immune systems thus fell ill more frequently, they are unhappy, feel worthless and get agitated easily.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

„Emotionally exhausted individuals often experience profound loneliness, feel disconnected from both work and personal life, lack the motivation that may encourage bad self-help choices, and they have higher risk of depression and heart disease,“ Buinickaitė outlines the primary and relatively easily recognizable signs of burnout.

Contrary to common belief, burnout isn’t solely caused by high levels of professionalism and hard work. Buinickaitė explains that an excessive workload is only one component contributing to emotional burnout, and other factors may also play decisive role.

„Burnout can also happen in our personal lives, or because we struggle balancing professional and personal responsibilities, we often fail at finding the right equilibrium,“ Buinickaitė observes.

What Do Scientists Say

According to the psychologist, researchers investigating the phenomenon of emotional burnout use a comprehensive model, known as the Job Demands-Resources Model.

„It clearly illustrates how burnout occurs and how to prevent it. Job demands – efforts and skills needed for the particular job and what the organization provides for this cause – include the workload (how much I have to do), work pace (how fast my tasks must be completed), interpersonal communication (with colleagues, customers, etc.), physical work environment, and shift work. Work resources, for which the organization is also responsible, consist of managerial support, feedback, rewards and recognition, workplace autonomy (how much autonomy the worker has), work tools and equipment, social contact/support, and job security,“ Buinickaitė elaborates.

Psychologist Gintarė Buinickaitė

The psychologist emphasizes another crucial element of the Job Demands-Resources Model: personal resources, and discusses them in detail.

„Self-efficiency (personal effectiveness – how self-motivated I can be, how effective is my performance), professional identity (one’s self-perception within their profession, understanding the accompanying values, behaviours, norms, motivations, and experiences), optimism, and the basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness). Thus, although we often mistakenly believe that solely the organization, we work for, is responsible for providing the resources necessary for job performance, this is not entirely accurate. In order to do our job properly, on time and maintain well-being, we have to combine the resources provided by the organization with our personal resources,“ Buinickaitė emphasizes.

According to the psychologist, various scientific studies have shown that when job demands, such as workload, pace, customer service, etc., outweigh available resources, employees are under pressure to give more than they receive, and when the employee depletes all his or her personal resources, such individual risks to burnout, especially if the situation persists over time.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

Explained the Factors Leading to Emotional Strain

As psychologist Buinickaitė notes, contemporary individuals experience stress right from the start of the day, and certain elements of our daily routine are to blame.

„The first thing we do upon waking up is reach for our phone. Even though I talk about it with my clients all the time, many still overlook this advice with a smile, and only a few opt to start the morning differently. When we wake up in the morning, our brains are very sensitive, we are woken up by the surge of stress hormone cortisol. By immediately reaching for our phone, we prevent cortisol level from naturally dropping and prevent our brains from calmy starting the day, and we immediately subject ourselves to a moderate dose of stress – checking on others, perusing posts, and suddenly we feel irritated. As we scroll, our eyes are constantly moving across the screen and we make our brains work very hard. Remember: the day has just begun; it is still morning. Too much information in the morning can affect our brain’s cognitive function,“ explains Buinickaitė.

Furthermore, similar behaviours persist throughout the day.

„The same patterns are observed in the evening: we can’t put our phones or other devices down, even when we go to bed. The artificial light from these devices prevents the brain from going into sleep mode, disrupting our natural sleep cycle. Numerous studies have found excessive use of phones, computers, and tablets – abusing them throughout the day – increases depression and anxiety. Poor sleeping habits directly impact our work performance, making us feel tired and lethargic, so we cannot perform our tasks effectively; and in the long run this may become a burnout triggering factor,“ notes Buinickaitė.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

However, excessive reliance on smart technologies is not the only habit possibly leading to burnout.

„Another habit worth consideration is workplace distractions. Whether it’s a chatty colleague dropping by or long phone calls, notifications, or scrolling through social media – if it distracts me, I lose track of what I was doing and it may be hard maintaining focus and be productive. The more frequently we are distracted, the less effective we become. Additionally, procrastination plays a significant role in fostering bad habits that may contribute to burnout. The more I procrastinate, the more challenging it becomes to do what I have to do; leading to feelings of ineffectiveness and exacerbating the risk of burnout,“ explains the psychologist.

Fatigue and Burnout – How to Distinguish?

As the psychologist points out, sometimes individuals experiencing fatigue may mistakenly assume that they are experiencing burnout. However, according to Buinickaitė, burnout is a long-term consequence of prolonged stress and tension. Some concrete examples may help in distinguishing between these two states.

„If I’m tired after work today or the whole week was tough, maybe it is just a busy time. Thus, it is crucial to understand the specifics of your work. For example, individuals of certain professions work days, evenings, sometimes nights, weekends, and after a month or a few months, they are just very tired. They may say: it is hard to even pick up phone, I’m exhausted, everyone makes me nervous, but I’m going to finish this project and take some time to rest. The motivation is still there, the individual still loves his or her job and wants to do it. This person understands the particularities of the job or profession. In other professions, there may be an increase in workload quarterly, maybe every few years. Then, it is natural to feel tired, but this fatigue is not burnout,“ explained Buinickaitė, offering more examples.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

„Another important aspect when trying to distinguish whether I am tired or burnt out is understanding that work and personal life are interrelated. If I have some problems at home, I bring them to work and I might feel sad, unmotivated, ineffective. In such cases, it has nothing to do with work, it is because of the personal things I’m going through at the moment,“ the psychologist says.

In general, according to Buinickaitė, burnout has as many as 12 different stages, which gradually lead toward complete breakdown.

„It starts with our desire to show how competent and professional we are; we want to prove we are capable of anything. So, we start working harder and harder, we can’t stop because of the need to prove ourselves and others that we can do it, that we can be trusted. When working this hard, we start to forget ourselves and our own needs – from sleep and food to our relationships with others. We give up our favourite activities because of professional ambitions. It is important to realize here that this is not necessarily a demand from the organization we work for. It is an expectation that we place on ourselves – to become the best employee,“ explained Buinickaitė.

The next stage of burnout is when the individual cuts off from reality, rejects problems, starts seeing others as a threat, becomes irritable and angry, which makes working with him or her a challenge for others.

„We sacrifice everything to work: ourselves, our family, we abandon our values and beliefs for the sake of work. And because everyone around seems getting in the way and becomes a problem, we become angry and finally dissociate, isolate ourselves, become afraid of any social contact. Such behaviour falsely looks like a way of escaping the stress at work. This change in behaviours, prolonged depressed mood, distancing from family and friends, anxiety, changes in sleeping habits (maybe for me it is difficult to fall asleep, or I want to sleep all the time), cynicism, reduced interest in favourite activities, and general deviant behaviour that people around us notice and try talk about, is a warning sign of possible burnout,“ the psychologist says.

Psychologist Gintarė Buinickaitė

Finally, an individual experiences depersonalization – the subjective feeling of detachment from familiar reality, as if everything he or she does no longer makes sense.

„We get very anxious and start thinking very badly of ourselves: I’m useless and worth nothing. This feeling often stems from a deep-seated feeling of helplessness, shame and guilt,“ Buinickaitė notes.

If the stage of inner emptiness is reached, the burnout becomes very intense.

„The feeling of inner emptiness is manifested by the fact that we feel like we do not have any feelings, no meaning, feel like an empty shell. This stage may lead to depression, the inability to even get out of bed or do other necessary tasks. Finally, if we can no longer get out of bed and still feel that we have to work, we are burnt out and burnt out completely. This manifests itself as a complete inner emotional void, a physical and psychological collapse,“ explains Buinickaitė.

So, according to the psychologist, burnout definitely affects an individual’s emotional state, thus, it is crucial to be able to help yourself from the very beginning.

Young people: Potencial „Victims“ of Burnout?

Although it might seem that burnout, which is associated with workaholism and the desire to prove one’s competence, is more likely to affect young individuals just entering the labour market, psychologist Buinickaitė says that it is not necessary the case.

„If we say that nowadays young people are more prone to burnout, does that necessarily mean that they work more? Let’s remember how life was before; let’s take an example from the Soviet era – a young couple with children who want to have a better life, maybe build a house, live in the countryside, have livestock, and have day jobs. This means that they get up at 4 a.m. and do farm work, then wake up the children, make them breakfast, drop them off at kindergartens and schools and rush off to their own jobs: maybe work as a teacher, maybe as a manager, maybe as a driver, maybe as a salesman. After work, they hurry home to feed hungry children, then farm duties are waiting, and then it’s just sleep. That’s how life goes, day after day,“ she says.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

Buinickaitė admits to having witnessed such life experiences herself.

„When talking to people having similar experiences, I often hear: there was no time to think about my feelings and state I am in because I just could not stop. If I stop, everything falls apart. Nobody cared about psychological states. Talking to psychologists was regarded as a shame, and there was no way to change something unpleasant in a workplace – one word and you could lose your job. Nobody stood up for you and nobody would have helped you,“ Buinickaitė notes.

According to the expert, today we know a lot more and have many more options, and that actually serves as protection against burnout.

„An individual has rights, is respected, can have his or her demands and expectations on organizations, not just they as employers. We do not want to live the way people used to live. We do not want to be used and abused, without being able to defend ourselves,“ she adds.

Additionally, according to Buinickaitė, it is not only the desire to show one’s competence and value in the labour market that drives young people to burnout. The psychologist emphasizes the role of social networks.

„Today, young people are under pressure from social networks, of FOMO (fear of missing out), from the desire to show how cool, competent, and successful they are. If they miss the early signs of burnout I mentioned, they can really face the risk of burnout. These signs include neglecting their own needs, obsession with work, disconnecting from their family or friends because of their work,“ she reminds.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

Buinickaitė shares another interesting observation.

„Remote working also increases the risk of burnout because, as I mentioned, an important professional and personal resource is the relationship with colleagues. Working remotely means less human interaction, thus increases the risk,“ emphasizes Buinickaitė.

In general, according to the psychologist, as strange as it may seem, older people are more prone to burnout.

„My own research during my MA studies and review of other researchers’ work on burnout in Lithuanian organizations have shown that the older workers are most prone to burnout. Additionally, the risk of burnout is higher in certain professions: medical, social workers or teachers are more vulnerable. Moreover, according to the research, women are more likely to suffer from burnout, especially women in management positions. Women who work and have young children are more likely to suffer from burnout,“ says Buinickaitė.

Holidays Alone Won’t Help

According to the psychologist, burnout is a serious problem that needs to be addressed, and its causes need to be identified and eliminated. According to Buinickaitė, burnout can lead to depression, panic attacks, and serious addictions such as alcohol or other psychoactive substances.

„Unfortunately, burnout can lead to suicidal behaviour, so getting help is essential. When I notice that my behaviour has changed and this process does not stop, when I realise that I am no longer able to change things on my own, when I feel lonely, empty, meaningless, when I have thoughts that I would like to disappear – the first thing I have to do is to gather the last of my strength to get help,“ says Buinickaitė and advises where to seek assistance.

The First Signs That You May Be at Risk of Emotional Burnout

„First of all, seek help form your relatives, as they are the quickest to react. Then, schedule an appointment with a doctor or psychologist. Emergency numbers are really helpful in the most difficult moments – the people there are always willing to listen. It is important to remember that you are not alone. Better still, write down the people and phone numbers on a piece of paper and hang it in a visible place,“ the psychologist advises.

It’s also important to understand that burnout is not simply daily or weekly fatigue, it is a long-term condition, so holiday and stepping away from work will not help. According to Buinickaitė, if you notice a problem, you need to take more serious action.

„A holiday can be a good start for a person making a plan of action: how to resolve the problem of over-involvement in work, whether by my own initiative or by organisation’s pressure. From the perspective of the model of work demands and resources I mentioned, we need to assess whether the workload is really that high, whether do I really need to work that fast? Is it genuinely a requirement of the organisation, or is it a requirement that I have made for myself? Do I have all the resources I need to do the job? Does my manager support me? What about my relationship with my colleagues? Am I trying to build and maintain that relationship with them? Do I have the skills to do the job myself? Do I still feel able to motivate myself, work effectively, and not be distracted?“ says the psychologist.

The fact is that such analyses may not necessarily provide the answers an individual seeks.“

„It is possible that an individual finds himself or herself in such situation because of the desire to please or pure perfectionism. Perhaps he or she failed to communicate his or her priorities to the manager. It could also be fear – fear of losing the job, fear of appearing incompetent. Facing our fears can be extremely difficult. It is one thing to be able to admit them, but it is another thing to take action, as it means that I might really be unlikable, I might really lose my job,“ concludes Buinickaitė.

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