Everyone Is Talking About Burnout, But What Is It Really?


Burnout has been a significant topic of conversation in the past few years, especially for those newly working from home due to the pandemic or in healthcare. But, like any term that hits the mainstream zeitgeist, the actual meaning has become blurred.

WebMD defines burnout as “exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped.” At the same time, the National Institute of Health describes it as “a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job.”

Still, it can be difficult to distinguish between feeling burnt out and simply feeling depressed or stressed. The key factor here is that suffering from burnout is a symptom of chronic stress often caused by a job, though other life factors, such as caregiving, can also play a role.

Are burnout and depression the same thing?

In short, no. Burnout and depression are not the same. However, burnout often shares similar symptoms to depression which can be confusing. It’s also possible to suffer from both depression and burnout simultaneously.

However, it’s important to note that burnout is not a medical diagnosis, while depression is. And while depression can have many causes (or seemingly no cause), burnout is caused by being overloaded, often at work, for an extended period. The NIH notes, “When this kind of overload is a chronic job condition, there is little opportunity to rest, recover, and restore balance.

Stages of Burnout

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term burnout in the 1970s. And in doing so, also outlined the different stages you may go through while suffering from it. In his work, he outlined each stage as such:

  1. An obsessive need to prove yourself through work (or in other areas of life)
  2. Increasing your workload to achieve that desire
  3. Your needs become neglected as a result
  4. Continuing to ignore your needs or conflicts around you
  5. Dedicating all of your time to your goal/work
  6. Denying any issues that may result from working too much
  7. Withdrawing into yourself, becoming cynical, or lacking direction
  8. Suffering behavioral changes or changes in your psychological reactions
  9. Losing yourself
  10. Feeling empty or feeling an increase in anxiety. Self-medicating as a result
  11. Losing interest in activities you once loved. Feeling meaningless or empty
  12. Physical exhaustion

Due to a lack of extensive research, each person’s experience of burnout will look different. Still, the above stages give insight into what you may feel and should look out for.

If you see yourself in any of the above stages, don’t hesitate to reach out. Check out Health for Life Counseling’s contact page to learn more about how we can help.

Symptoms of Burnout

Symptoms can show themselves in a myriad of ways. However, the NIH states that “All definitions of burnout given so far share the idea that the symptoms are thought to be caused by work-related or other kinds of stress.”

That being the case, symptoms of stress and burnout are fairly similar. The NIH outlines that the most common burnout symptoms are exhaustion, distancing yourself, and reduced performance. Conflict within personal and professional relationships is also common.


Whether you’re stressed or already burnt out, feeling exhausted is not uncommon. This could manifest as physical exhaustion, brain fog, low emotional tolerance, or a general lack of motivation. Exhaustion may also include physical symptoms such as pain or gastrointestinal issues.

Distancing yourself from work or work-related activities

It’s fair to say that you may not always be excited to show up to work every day. Still, if you find yourself showing up late regularly, dreading team meetings, calling out, or becoming uncharacteristically frustrated at colleagues, it might be time to slow down. Feeling numb towards work is also not uncommon when suffering burnout.

Reduced performance

One of the most notable signs of burnout is reduced performance. You may find it hard to concentrate, leading to a lack of creativity and a negative outlook toward your tasks. All of these symptoms make it difficult to perform at the same level you are used to, which can also lead to increased anxiety.

Issues with your personal and professional relationships

Feeling exhausted, suffering from brain fog, and being unable to concentrate can strain your personal and professional relationships. You may find yourself lashing out or unable to keep to deadlines, leading to conflict between you and others.

How to Recover From Burnout

The first step is to identify what is causing you to feel burnt out. As mentioned previously, work is the most common reason. However, it’s important to look deeper into what part of your job or occupation is causing the issue. Is it long hours? Is it workload? Perhaps you haven’t taken a vacation in a while. Step back and examine what may be causing you to feel burnt out.

Better boundaries and asking for help

Once you understand the issue better, creating stronger boundaries is a great first step toward recovery. This may involve a conversation with your boss if the issue is job-related. If the problem stems from being a caregiver, enlisting the help of others and establishing boundaries when it comes to responsibilities can be highly beneficial.

Time away and frequent breaks

No matter how much you love your job, you must take time away to avoid burnout or recover from it. If vacation time isn’t offered or if you’re not in a position to take it, consider setting strict hours for when you’re available. You may think sending a quick email on a Sunday morning isn’t a big deal, but over time, this can increase stress and cause you to overwork yourself.

Creative outlets

Taking time away from responsibilities allows your mind and body to heal and rejuvenate your creativity. American researcher Brené Brown states in her book The Gifts of Imperfection  that “If we want to live a Wholehearted life, we have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.”

Play can be any form of creativity or activity that isn’t seen as “productive.” This could be fishing, reading, hiking, or anything that brings you joy for the sake of joy.

Accountability partners and therapy

Healing from burnout isn’t something you should have to figure out on your own. Enlisting the help of friends and family to help hold you accountable to boundaries and new routines can help you feel less alone and get you back on your feet.

Seeking the help of a therapist can also be greatly beneficial. In fact, the NIH suggests involving a psychiatrist to evaluate your workload regularly. This, combined with ongoing therapy, will help you heal and reduce the risk of becoming burnt out again.


Just because burnout isn’t a medical diagnosis doesn’t mean it should go untreated. Because definitions aside, burnout is difficult to go through and recover from. If you’d like to learn more or schedule a therapy session with the therapists at the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids at Health for Life Counseling, contact us on our contact page or call us at 616-200-4433. If you would like to work online with one of counselors and are not in the Grand Rapids, MI area, you can work via telehealth with our therapists if you live in the State of Michigan.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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