Burnout: When “Just Breathe” is a Bust

It’s been a tough few years for a lot of people.  We faced a global pandemic, supply chain challenges have complicated simple tasks, inflation makes it hard to make ends meet, new technology and turnover force constant changes at work, and worker shortages stretch us both as providers and consumers.

And advice abounds on how to react.  Breathe!  Exercise!  Eat smart!  Sleep!  Be more resilient!  Take a break!

Sometimes, it’s all a bit much.

Understanding and Recognizing Burnout

We all have tough spells, but when continual stress and emotional, mental and physical exhaustion become overwhelming, it can cross the line into burnout. How do you know you are there?  For many, normal tiredness at the end of the day becomes continuous and chronic; there is a gradual detachment from tasks and activities that were previously interesting and challenging; and performance may drop.  This can be accompanied by feelings of cynicism, frustration, a sense of failure or a lack of care.

Burnout may also have been reached when the usual coping tools no longer work. Breathing, which helps decrease our stress response, doesn’t seem to change much for our bodies and minds. New tasks at work are consistently seen as burdens rather than fresh opportunities.  Exercise becomes one more thing to do, and one more source of deflation.

Here’s a quick checklist to see if burnout may be an issue for you.

  • Physical Signs. Chronic fatigue (tiredness), sleep disturbances (lie awake, wake in middle of night, wake too early, nightmares), headaches, muscle tension and changes in appetite.
  • Emotional Signs: Feeling worn out, drained, emotionally overwhelmed and having difficulty dealing with day-to-day tasks.
  • Cynicism and Detachment: Developing a negative or cynical attitude toward work or personal responsibilities; feeling detached from activities and a lack of meaning.
  • Reduced Performance: A decline in work performance (you may notice it yourself, or you may get feedback from a supervisor or peer), decreased productivity and an inability to concentrate or focus.
  • Lack of Personal Accomplishment: Feeling ineffective, unsuccessful, or unproductive; experiencing a decrease in self-esteem and self-worth; unable to see one’s achievements as being important.
  • Increased Irritability: Becoming more easily frustrated, short-tempered – wanting to snap at people or actually doing so, and experiencing changes in mood.

When coping skills no longer work, it is not a sign of weakness or a lack of motivation – it means that a real change is needed.

Workplace Factors: Burnout Drivers

Before reviewing how to address burnout, it is good to pause and deconstruct the drivers. Addressing burnout takes personal actions and it is important to take actions that have the most impact. Understanding the biggest factors contributing to your burnout helps you plot a path forward.


  • Excessive Workload: Want something done? Give it to a busy person! Well, if you are that person – the one who gets given projects because you always deliver, it can lead to an excessive list of tasks that seems like it will never end. Feeling consistently overloaded with work with not enough time to complete tasks can lead to burnout.
  • Lack of Control: Do you have an unpredictable boss with high needs, seemingly random requests and a lack of understanding of how much work their asks might be? Employees who feel they have little or no control over their work or decision-making can feel helpless, leading to burnout.
  • Insufficient Reward: In times of inflation and tight budgets, some organizations cut back on training and awards. A lack of recognition or reward (financial or otherwise) makes employees feel undervalued and unappreciated, contributing to burnout.
  • Lack of Fairness: Over time, it can become clear that there is differential treatment across employees. If employees perceive favoritism, bias, or unfair treatment in the workplace, it can lead to feelings of resentment and burnout. Why bother if the system isn’t predictable or even?
  • Lack of Community: Working from home or frequent telework is one way of addressing tough commute times, but for some people it feels like a loss of community at work. Poor communication is made worse by distant relationships, a lack of support from colleagues or supervisors and a sense of isolation which contributes to burnout.
  • Conflicting Values: You want to make the world a better place, but the boss just seems to want that bonus and the bottom line. If your personal values and beliefs conflict with those of the organization, it can lead to dissatisfaction and burnout.
  • Job Insecurity: This industry can’t find enough people to fill core jobs. Some industries which were offering bigger salaries are now laying people off. A job seeker’s market can quickly change to being an employer’s market, leading to uncertainty. Constant worry about job stability can lead to chronic stress, which can result in burnout.
  • Poor Work-Life Balance: Do email notifications keep going off around the clock? Do you feel like all you do is dig out of email, and keeping one eye on it during TV time is the only option? When work consistently encroaches on personal time, employees may struggle to relax and recharge, leading to burnout.
  • Lack of Personal Development: While too many tasks can lead to burnout, a lack of challenge can as well. If employees feel they are not growing or learning new skills, it can lead to frustration and burnout.
  • Toxic Workplace Culture: Are people rude, or is there that one bully that no one seems to be able to or care to control? A workplace that tolerates or encourages harassment or other negative behaviors can lead to high stress levels and burnout.

Understanding sources of burnout helps you figure out what you specifically need to talk with your boss about, or whether changes in your workplace are truly possible.

Actions to Consider

Breaking free of burnout means breaking patterns and habits – this may require asking leaders at work to change some ongoing dynamics.  Here are some options to consider:

  • Take a Break: If possible, take some time off to get away, clear your head and regroup. If you have the leave stored up, build in the time to take it. This could be a vacation, a staycation or just a few days off work.
  • Set Boundaries: Learn to assess how much time different tasks take; practice saying no and try to not take on more than you can handle.
  • Practice Self-Care: The breathing thing? It works as a part of a broader plan. There’s a reason people point to eating healthy, exercising, sleep and hobbies as ways to combat burnout. These actions may not be sufficient – but they can help.
  • Seek Support: Talk to someone about your feelings, such as a friend, family member, or a mental health professional. They can provide advice, support and a fresh perspective.
  • Meditation: Clear your head using structured mindfulness exercises to break or change internal scripts. These practices can increase your ability to cope with work demands.
  • Prioritize Tasks: Focus on completing the most important tasks first, and actively communicate with your leadership to manage expectations. If you have too much on your plate, actively work with your team to explore options to let go of projects or to redistribute work.
  • Find Balance: Find balance between work and your personal life. If you need to put on an out-of-office message to let people know you won’t respond immediately, and to manage the pace on busy days, consider trying that so you can spend a healthy amount of time with loved ones and friends.

Looking Ahead – When a Real Change Is Needed

Sometimes, it’s best to reevaluate your goals and priorities, and burnout is a sign that it really is time to move on. Perhaps you tried to make changes at work, and no one would have it – or perhaps, it is just time for a change. Maybe your current path isn’t what’s best for you, and that’s okay.

Here are some steps that can propel you forward or break the cycle that may be contributing to burnout.

  • Network: Networking is crucial when it is time to explore new options. Reach out to colleagues, attend industry events or training, and join professional organizations. You never know who might be able to help you in ways you have not considered.
  • Update and Tailor Your Resume: Updating your resume helps you step back and reflect on the successes you have had – and increase your feelings of achievement and confidence. If you are applying for new jobs, tailor your resume for each job you apply for.
  • Consider a Career Coach: A career coach may help you evaluate new lines of work that may be intriguing as you look ahead. They can also help you identify your strengths – which again, helps build your confidence.
  • Keep Learning: Consider taking courses or earning certifications that make you more marketable. This may help you learn new skills, break old patterns and stay current with industry trends.
  • Prepare for Interviews: Once you land an interview, make sure you’re prepared. Research the organization, practice answering common interview questions, and think about how you can demonstrate your skills and experiences.

While a job search may be stressful, it is a chance to break patterns – and to look ahead for new possibilities.  Remember that talking to people you don’t usually connect with offers new insights and relationships, and every job search, application and interview is a learning experience.

Related Training

Ongoing professional training provides new skills and perspectives – here are some Pryor trainings that can help you avoid or mitigate burnout:

Stay hopeful: burnout could lead you to a new bright light down the road!