Preventing burnout involves implementing self-care practices and setting healthy boundaries. It also involves regularly assessing and adjusting one’s workload to maintain a sustainable balance between work and personal life.

Although people primarily associate burnout with something healthcare professionals experience, everyone can experience what the World Health Organization (WHO) labels an “occupational phenomenon.”

In clinical psychology, burnout can also apply to nonwork situations. According to clinical psychology, it is possible to experience burnout due to stress that stems from personal circumstances as well as work-related stress.

This article takes a look at preventive measures against burnout as well as the warning signs someone is experiencing burnout and when they should consider seeking help.

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Stress manifests as a biological response to demanding situations. When a person is stressed, their body may send signals such as:

  • a nervous or upset stomach
  • cold or clammy hands
  • headache
  • clenched teeth
  • tense muscles

Stress may present itself differently in each person. The quicker a person can learn to recognize their body’s signals, the quicker they can act.

Regularly practicing stress-relieving strategies, such as going for walks and keeping a diary of their thoughts, can help prevent a bout of acute stress from turning into chronic stress.

Learn more about stress and how to manage it.

Boundaries are personal limits that someone establishes according to their sense of what is acceptable, appropriate, and comfortable. They help other people know what that person needs and expects.

Feeling unable to establish clear and firm boundaries can lead to an unmanageable workload and eventual burnout.

Learn more with our guide to setting boundaries.

With a healthy work-life balance, people can better manage their work and personal lives without sacrificing one for the other.

Additionally, as research shows, striking a healthy work-life balance can lead to increased productivity and job satisfaction.

This is because people feel more motivated and energized when they have time for activities beyond work.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes self-care as taking time to do things that improve physical and mental health and promote overall well-being.

Self-care activities look different to each person. For example, eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and getting enough sleep are all acts of self-care.

Other ideas include reading a book, listening to a podcast, and spending time with friends.

Prioritizing activities that bring a person joy, stimulate their mind, and nurture their bodies can help them manage stress and improve their energy.

As the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases points out, staying active helps people to manage stress and have more energy for work and play.

Exercise does not have to mean high intensity workouts. A 2019 systematic review found that yoga may help manage stress and burnout in healthcare workers.

Meditation and mindfulness techniques may help lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, and combat insomnia.

A 2018 systematic review and meta-analysis of nine studies on mindfulness-based programs for workplace stress found that the programs may help improve stress indicators.

Read more about getting started with exercise, meditation, and mindfulness.

Short breaks throughout the day can help a person relax and recharge and may also be a good time to engage in some mindfulness techniques.

Longer breaks throughout the year, such as a few days of personal leave or a vacation, can help people to recharge and return to their responsibilities with a fresh perspective.

Having a strong supportive network means a person has family members, friends, or work colleagues with whom they can share feelings and experiences.

Even if these people do not always share the same experiences, they can provide understanding and encouragement during challenging times.

The WHO characterizes burnout using three dimensions:

  • exhaustion, or feelings of depleted energy
  • feelings of negativism, cynicism, or mental distance from one’s job
  • decreased professional competence

Someone experiencing burnout may develop depressive symptoms. However, clinical depression and burnout are not the same things.

Learn more with our guide on burnout vs. depression.

The following are frequent questions about burnout.

Who experiences burnout?

Anyone regularly exposed to high levels of stress, whether work-related or not, can experience burnout.

Some examples include:

  • healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses
  • police officers and other emergency responders
  • social workers
  • teachers and students
  • parents and guardians
  • caregivers

Why might burnout occur?

Typically, burnout is the result of chronic, unmanaged stress, which can appear from various sources and situations.

Burnout is a complex issue that often results from a combination of internal and external factors.

Some common reasons a person may experience burnout include:

  • work-related stress, including heavy workloads, high-pressure environments, and unrealistic or unclear expectations
  • a toxic or unsupportive workplace culture
  • feeling unfulfilled or dissatisfied with their work or career
  • exposure to traumatic experiences, especially among healthcare workers, police officers, and emergency responders
  • lack of control over their work or career and decisions that affect them
  • poor work-life balance
  • personal factors, including financial stress or caregiving responsibilities
  • perfectionism and a fear of failure that drives them to push themselves excessively
  • lack of supportive relationships and networks

How might a person cope with burnout?

Coping with burnout involves adopting strategies that help reduce stress, restore balance, and promote overall well-being.

Learn more about strategies to recover from burnout.

What are the stages of burnout?

Typically, burnout develops gradually and progresses through several stages.

The number of stages depends on the source, but a person may experience the following stages:

  1. Honeymoon Phase: The person feels motivated, energetic, and dedicated to their work.
  2. Onset of Stress: A person begins feeling stress as they notice an increase in work hours, responsibilities, and pressure.
  3. Chronic Stress: At this point, they have felt stress for a longer time period. They may feel overwhelmed and fatigued, and physical symptoms such as headaches and digestive issues may arise.
  4. Burnout: By now, the person is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted. They may lose interest in their work, experience a decline in productivity, and become cynical toward the job.
  5. Chronic Burnout: When the person does not address the initial burnout, they may develop a significantly impaired ability to function at work and home. Physical and mental health issues may worsen.

Note that not everyone progresses through each stage, and the severity and duration of each stage may vary from person to person.

Someone may want to seek support as soon as they recognize they are experiencing burnout.

Their doctor or mental health professional can provide guidance on coping with the symptoms of burnout as well as ways to prevent it in the future.

It is advisable to seek support when:

  • coping mechanisms no longer help
  • they experience persistent exhaustion that does not improve with rest
  • stress begins manifesting as physical symptoms

Additionally, it is important to contact a doctor when the person experiences symptoms of clinical depression, including:

  • low self-esteem
  • feelings of hopelessness
  • suicidal thoughts

These symptoms are not typical of burnout and may point to something else.

Even though burnout research is ongoing, there are potential methods to prevent it and ways to cope with it.

Recognizing the onset of stress, practicing self-care, and maintaining work-life balance are just a few ways someone may avoid burnout.

If burnout does set in, it is a good idea to seek help with coping mechanisms sooner rather than later.