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9 signs you need a break

Author: The Simple Bit

Category: Science

Burnout is real. The first step is spotting it. The second step is having a break.

The simple bits:

  • The symptoms of burnout can disguise themselves as other things
  • But it’s handy to know when you’re pushing yourself too hard
  • Keep an eye on the warning signs
  • And try to pop some proper time off into your diary

Stress from work can come in waves. But if that stress goes on for too long, it might result in burnout. Here are some warning signs that might mean you’re overdue for a decent break.

Like Queen Rihanna says, some of us are all about the work work work work work. And fair enough, too. With an uncertain economy, rising housing prices and increasing cost of living, it makes sense to grab opportunities with both hands. But for some of us, this can come at a cost.

That cost is burnout.

According to clinical and coaching psychologist Dr Jo Mitchell, burnout is “the result of being exposed to chronic work stress – or a slow boil – that places the body and mind under duress and leads to the kind of physical and emotional exhaustion you might experience at the end of running a marathon.” Or as one of her clients puts it, “burnout is a wild beast.”

Burnout can manifest in a number of ways, but Dr Jo characterises it as: “Activities or challenges that used to bring energy and motivation instead become overwhelming and you are no longer able to function effectively professionally or personally.”

The good news is that you can take action to prevent burnout if you are experiencing any of these possible warning signs:


Does anyone smell burning? Image by Victoria Heath.


  1. Fatigue:

To begin with, a lack of energy and tired feeling. In the latter stages, you feel physically and emotionally exhausted, drained, depleted, and you may feel a sense of dread for what lies ahead.


  1. Sleep:

In the early stages, you may have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. In the latter stages, insomnia may turn into a nightly ordeal; as exhausted as you are, you can’t sleep.


  1. Memory and attention:

Lack of focus and mild forgetfulness are early signs. Later, the problems may get to the point where you can’t get your work done and everything begins to pile up.


  1. Physical symptoms.

These can include chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, gut pain, lightheadedness and/or headaches that increase in frequency and duration.


  1. Appetite:

Your weight can go up or down, either because you crave more sugar and fatty foods, or you lose your appetite, skip meals and eat less.


  1. Mood changes:

You might find yourself feeling more anxious  or on edge. This can lead to irritability and anger, or snappiness. It can also manifest as feelings of sadness, lack of interest or enjoyment in your usual activities, hopelessness, guilt or worthlessness. At the more severe end, this mood change can develop into an anxiety disorder or episode of depression.


  1. Detachment and isolation:

A general sense of feeling disconnected from others or from your environment. That might mean avoiding social interaction or even work responsibilities. You might ghost on a lunch date, take a sickie, or avoid making phone calls or returning emails.


  1. Illness:

Chronic stress weakens your body’s immune system making you more vulnerable to coughs, colds and even physical injury like pulled muscles.


  1. Performance:

You might end up being less effective or productive at work. People will often respond in the early days by working longer hours to “catch up” or “stay ahead”, which just results in increased stress and likelihood of burnout.

Image by Tim Gouw.

Does this sound like you?  It might be worth speaking to your GP, psychologist or a friend or family member you trust. “Getting a second opinion can help you see things more clearly,” says Dr Jo.

If you are experiencing burnout then remember that this is a genuine syndrome. Burnout is unlikely to resolve on its own without you making some significant lifestyle changes. Start by talking to people in your life who can help you reduce the work stressors and build in rest and rejuvenation. At a minimum take care of your basic physical needs –safety, sleep, exercise and nutrition – and your basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence and relatedness.

And as hard as it may seem to stop and take positive action it is the only way forward when it comes to taming the wild beast that is burnout. And maybe a long overdue break is in order.


Sections of this article were first published by psychology community The Mind Room. Find more about them here. 


If you or someone you know needs urgent psychological support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or see your GP or psychologist.