Is My Job Stress Causing Burnout?

We’ve all had days where we feel like a salmon swimming upstream: we exert maximum effort, only to be swept back by forces beyond our control. To make matters worse, we all know what happens to the salmon at the end of that journey. But what if your entire job starts to feel like an ill-fated upriver struggle? This week, by request from listener Liz L.  from Boston, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen explains the three signs of burnout. Next week, we’ll cover how not to end up dead in the water.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #78

Burnout has been around as long as there have been professions, but no one actually named it until psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term and wrote the classic 1980 book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement.

At first, Freudenberger theorized only those in a helping profession—nurses, teachers, social workers (and, yes, psychologists)—were prone to burnout.

But over the last 30 years, jobs have intensified. Demands from clients, patients, or customers, not to mention the corner office, have increased, often without sufficient personnel, resources, or space to meet them.  

In addition, organizations and employees are increasingly uncommitted to one another and each side is left trying to wring as much out of each other as possible.

For all of us who check work email in bed, it’s become increasingly obvious that anyone can get burned out, from students to stay-at-home-moms to hedge fund managers.

So what exactly is burnout?  In the United States, burnout isn’t a diagnosis, though it is in Sweden and the Netherlands. Regardless, there are three core symptoms: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment.  

So let’s walk through the triple threat of symptoms.  

Symptom #1: Emotional Exhaustion

You feel empty, like something vital has been drained out of you. You feel unmotivated and perk up only when you fantasize about quitting in a dramatic fashion (“What if I just drove past my work and kept going?” “What if I stormed into my boss’s office and yelled “I quit!”).  You dread going to work and count the minutes until you can leave.

And even though the symptom is called emotional exhaustion, there’s a heavy physical component as well: you’re always tired, no matter how much rest you get. It’s a chore to peel yourself out of bed on the mornings you go to work.  

Symptom #2: Depersonalization

The idealism that once drove you has slowed to a trickle because it is too painful, too draining, or too unrewarding. In fact, that old idealism has morphed into cynicism. Humor has mutated into sarcasm.

The people you work for—students, patients, clients, or customers—seem like a parasitic burden; you used to feel for them, now you just resent them. You grow bitter and impatient.  “No one appreciates what I do for them.” You feel like you’re not making a difference, so you start believing they’re not important anyway. You stop caring.  


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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