Steering Clear Of Work Burnout: How To Spot The Subtle Signs Before It’s Too Late

23rd September, 2022Mindset, Storytime

For the past decade I’ve kept a journal. On a daily basis it sometimes feels like I’m just recording mundane, pointless details. But on the longer time-frame, when I view these entries on a macro level, I’m often grateful I took the time to write those summaries of my days. I get clarity about an event (or a series of events) that might’ve been otherwise lost. Hindsight, after all, is 20/20 vision.

Like one time, I was trying to recall something from a period of my life that I remembered as an especially hectic and tiring one. Living through it had felt like hiking up the side of a mountain but never getting the chance to stop and catch your breath for more than 45 seconds. It felt as if every time one crucial problem or dilemma was dealt with, here was another one. No time to rest.


Maybe it was just circumstances or perhaps I’d loaded up too much on my plate and this was the inevitable result? It wasn’t until going back through those entries in my journal a few years later, that I could view all the daily goings on with the clarity of hindsight:


What stood out was that (if I’d kept going as I had been) I was probably a few months away from burning out completely. The gratitude that I’d managed to journal this time was replaced with a sense of relief that I hadn’t kept pressing on before it was too late. Maybe some of it was foresight, but at least a part of it was luck.

Burnout is a deadly thing- it can creep up without you even recognising until it’s too late. As a result, you can sabotage weeks (even months) worth of productivity and inspiration from missing or ignoring the warning signs. There are plenty of articles that go into more detail about the symptoms of burnout and some of these early warning signs:

Signs You Might Be Experiencing Burnout And How To Regain Balance In Your Life

Job Burnout: How To Spot It And How To Take Action

Stress And Burnout Symptoms And Causes

Burnout And Chronic Stress

What Are The 5 Stages Of Burnout?

Remaining at your peak is critical- yet so is productivity. So how do you find that ‘sweet spot’ and how do you avoid burning out?

While the articles above list plenty of common signs of burnout, there are some lesser-known ones as well. These are cases where it might be nothing, but it’s worth double checking just in case. You can stay alert to the signs of burnout if you check for a few of the key indicators, we’ll call them Amber Alerts and Red Alerts. An Amber Alert is something vaguely suggesting burnout. A Red Alert means it’s worth taking time out to stop and reevaluate, at the very least:


(Amber Alert): The Days Run Into One Another

During the festive season, it’s typical to forget what day of the week it is. You’re in this strange no-man’s land where, in place of “business as usual” there are only family commitments or social gatherings to concern yourself with for the most part. Your usual work commitments and appointments are mostly put aside and so knowing the day of the week isn’t too important. But during the regular months of the year when business is in full swing, losing track of one day from the next could be an indicator of overload, compounded by working long hours.


(Amber Alert): You’re forgetting things you wouldn’t normally forget

During that period of my life I described earlier, I lost my car one day at a big shopping mall. Returning to one of the car parks, I looked around but couldn’t find my car anywhere. I looked a second time, but still nothing. I realised that I’d completely forgotten where I’d parked my car- apart from knowing I’d left it in one of the car parks. I’d come to the mall solo, so until I remembered it (or stumbled upon it by chance) I was stuck here with two carry-bags of groceries. In the end, tired of traipsing around car parks and doing laps of the mall, I slunk into one of the couches on a boardwalk and gave up. I ended up staying nearly 2 hours longer at the mall than I’d intended. In the end, of course, I found my car- by dumb luck more than anything else. But there was more to come…

A month or so later, I parked in the city overnight and (returning the following morning) was convinced my car had been towed. I rang the towing companies but none of them had my car in the lot. I was about to call the first operator a second time to make sure they hadn’t missed my registration, when, walking up a street, I stumbled upon my car- parked a whole block away from where I thought I’d left it.

Thing is, I always remember where I’ve left the car. Yet twice, in the space of a couple of months, I’d completely forgotten. If you’re competent at remembering certain things and you find them slipping from memory or struggling to recall a procedure you can normally do on autopilot, it’s another sign that your conscious mind is so overloaded and stressed that you’re drawing blanks as a result.


(Amber Alert): Old routines are vanishing

This often ties in with the days running into one another. If your normal routines are disappearing, chances are it’s either because:

a) You keep on forgetting them or

b) You’re consciously forgoing them because you just don’t have time

It’s ok to adjust routines based on a changing schedule, but if you’re increasingly running out of time then that’s also a sign it’s time to do a mental check. How much longer are you going to have to make this routine sacrifice? What is filling your time in its place? How are you managing that?


(Amber Alert): ‘Down Time’ Habits done to excess

Your actual down time might be shrinking, but what are you doing with that down time still available? It could be any number of habits or activities, but the warning sign is if you feel a need to squeeze every last drop out of those habits, to compensate for all the time and energy you’ve normally spent “at the wheel”. This can lead down some destructive paths if we don’t stop and evaluate exactly why we’re feeling a need to go all-out on these habits or past-times every second we have to do them.


(Amber Alert): Uncharacteristic mistakes

This ties in somewhat with forgetting things you normally remember: if you start making errors in certain activities or procedures you normally do with ease, that’s another sign of possible overload.


(Red Alert): No time for time off

Adamant you’ve got no time to take time off or even to schedule it? If you find yourself in this position, the inevitable conclusion is that you keep on going and going and going, with the mental/ physical/ emotional efforts of each day piling up and increasing the load. It’s fine if you’re in the middle of a traditionally busy period of time (like the festive season for retail) or are currently working on a project that requires abnormal sacrifices in terms of working hours, effort or travel. But there has to be a definite end point to this. Failure to do so is the equivalent of continuing to drive when you’re feeling drowsy at the wheel: how long can you push on without stopping? Inevitably, you’re going to crash. If you haven’t arranged to take time off, it needs to become your priority ASAP.


(Red Alert): Everything, even the normally enjoyable stuff, feels like a task

Is everything you do (even the stuff you typically enjoy) feeling like it’s a frustration or something that requires a special kind of effort? This is an indicator of mental overload, with little space to put your mind at ease. When your thinking power is over-invested in work, little energy is left for anything else. Without a clear end in sight or action taken to reconfigure your time/ energy investment, this leads to a downward spiral and (long-term) can cause far more disruption and damage to ourselves, our relationships and also our work- than we might foresee…


Last December, I touched down at Heathrow and greeted my awaiting parents in arrivals. We sat down for coffee and then hopped into the car to head back to theirs. I was looking forward to the Christmas period- seeing family, the festivities, checking out new sights. On the trip back to my parents’ place, I recalled the previous few months and what I’d been up to as I put the finishing touches on the year, in preparation for this holiday break. As I recounted the goings-on, I lamented that I’d just signed off on one of the busiest periods of my life to date. And yet- I’d managed. It was a time I recalled fondly. I got through and always found my car with ease! My previous experience had helped me keep an eye out for those warning signs, making sure I made enough time for myself to keep on track…

Like taking a car in for servicing, we all require a healthy amount of downtime, R&R, time taken away from the task/s at hand to check we’re on the right path and thinking to the best of our ability. Keeping an eye out for these (often) subtle signs of burnout and acting on them if required doesn’t just make us more content and return clarity to our thinking- it also makes us more productive at the given task that’s already demanded so much of us.

So look out for these signs of burnout- and stay at your peak.

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