I see a lot of “burned out” (or “flaming out”) employees. People who are emotionally, relationally and physically worn down. Responsible individuals that have “given all they’ve got” (usually in multiple areas of their lives) and don’t have much, if anything, left to give.

Being “burned out” doesn’t have much to do with what type of work you do. Burned out employees exist everywhere: medical settings, schools, law enforcement, insurance companies, long-term care facilities and hospices, financial institutions, mining companies, and intercity social service agencies just to name a few.

How can I tell they’re worn out? Here are the symptoms:

  1. A general lack of energy. They look tired, they act tired. They sigh a lot. If they sit down, they look like they would love to stay there for hours (or go take a nap if they could)!
  1. A sense of frantic busyness. Even though they are tired, they tell you what they have been doing (usually a lot) and they tell you how much more they have to do—but that they don’t have the time to do everything they need to.
  1. They apologize a lot. They apologize for being late. For their house or office being a “wreck.” It often isn’t (but sometimes it is)! For not getting “x” to you earlier. For forgetting to bring something to the meeting. For not being able to help out more.

(NOTE: Many burned out people are overly responsible individuals who take on more and more tasks in multiple areas of their lives. While they do get a lot done, they wear themselves out doing so.)

  1. Have physical problems or a general lack of well-being. They look tired and sometimes disheveled. They have gained weight. They are out of shape and have quit exercising; often as a result, they are having other medical issues—diabetes, sciatic pain, shortness of breath, chronic pain in their extremities.
  1. Problems managing their emotions. This looks different across individuals. Sometimes it is irritability, frustration, or anger. For others, discouragement, apathy or depression is evident. While others can get sad, anxious, or feel lonely—there are lot of variations.

How do I know so much about people who are burned out? Well, I’ve been there before—and still visit “Burned Out Land” occasionally.

What can you do?

What can you do to re-energize? Here are some initial steps to take:

  1. Acknowledge it. You are running too fast and have been for a long time.
  1. Share you observation and get affirmation from those close to you. It is helpful to acknowledge your struggles with those in your daily life so they can understand what you are experiencing and help support steps you want to make things better.
  1. Take one step back. Don’t try to change your whole life. It won’t work (yet). But do something for yourself—something small that will rejuvenate you some. Take a walk over lunch. Take a long bath. Get together with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Whatever gives you a little energy (preferably not food or alcohol), do this for yourself.
  1. Stop and observe how good it feels to do something for yourself. This is a critical step just like eating or sleeping which rejuvenates our body’s energy. We need to replenish our emotional energy and this should be a normal part of our lives.
  1. Think of one more action you could do for yourself and determine when you will do it (this coming week). Making progress is a result of a series of steps. The first step is good, two steps are better.
  1. Repeat steps 4 and 5 (repeatedly). Becoming “burned out” is usually a slow process that occurs over time. Digging out of that hole is also a process of small steps over time.

Will these steps resolve the imbalance between the responsibilities you have taken on and the emotional resources you have (or don’t have) to deal with them? Probably not, but these actions will give you the mental bandwidth to start to think about and address the actions you need to take to get back into balance. It is a start—and a good one. Try it.


Dr. Paul White

Paul White, Ph.D., is a psychologist, speaker and consultant who "makes work relationships work". He is the co-author of Rising Above a Toxic Workplace, The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace, and Sync or Swim.

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