8 Red Flags You're Not Just Being Lazy, You're Burnt Out

In today's fast-paced world, it's easy to fall into the trap of labeling yourself as lazy when you struggle to muster the energy or motivation to complete tasks. However, there's a critical distinction between laziness and burnout. According to a review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, burnout is recognized as an occupational phenomenon that happens when stress from your job builds up over time, leading to a progressive reduction in levels of engagement and enthusiasm that end in apathy and disengagement, affecting various aspects of our physical, mental, and emotional health. In fact, it is one of the biggest work-related problems in today's society because, although initially considered specific to professionals working in care-related fields, it is now known that it can develop among all types of professions and occupational groups.

Unlike burnout, laziness occurs when a person is unwilling to exert the effort needed to complete a task despite being fully capable (via Psychology Today). It is characterized by a lack of motivation to carry out tasks, often driven by factors such as fear, hopelessness, or a disconnect between a job and its purpose. Understanding these distinctions is crucial for recognizing when it's not just a matter of lacking drive or discipline but instead facing a severe threat to your overall well-being. 

In this article, we'll explore eight red flags that distinguish burnout from laziness, helping you identify when it's time to prioritize self-care and seek support to prevent further deterioration of your health and happiness.

You're physically and emotionally exhausted

Unlike laziness, burnout can lead to a state of profound physical and emotional exhaustion as a result of excessive job demands, personal stressors, or continuous pressure, leaving you feeling drained both mentally and physically. In fact, according to the Scholarly Community Encyclopedia (SCE), emotional exhaustion is one of burnout's three key dimensions, and, per the BBC, it can make you feel utterly incapacitated as you're unable to muster the energy to perform even the most basic tasks, which is very different from the underperformance that comes from not wanting to trouble yourself with a task or chore.

According to the BBC, burnout-induced exhaustion is unlike any other form of fatigue, and it actually categorizes it as the highest level of energy depletion on the exhaustion spectrum or scale. Per the SCE, research has even highlighted the detrimental effects of emotional exhaustion, linking it to a myriad of health problems while also contributing to a loss of feelings of community and connection, both of which are of significant importance within an organization.

You feel disconnected at work

As opposed to laziness, which may primarily affect your productivity, burnout can have profound effects on social dynamics within the workplace. In this case, we're specifically talking about the consequences of depersonalization, another dimension of burnout, which appears as a coping mechanism in response to the immense stress typical of a burnout crisis (via Learn Do Grow).

According to the site, depersonalization can make you feel disconnected and distant from the people around you. It may extend beyond your coworkers and affect how you interact with clients or even friends, to the point where you might start seeing relationships in a negative way, as if you can't relate to others anymore.

Per Psychology Today, signs of this type of disconnection include a loss of enjoyment in previously enjoyable activities, a negative or pessimistic attitude, and a growing sense of isolation. This means that you'd prefer to be left alone rather than participate in group activities, which is likely what differentiates it the most from laziness, seeing that a lazy person would seize any opportunity for a distraction. While these symptoms may seem harmless from afar, recognizing these warning signs early on can be crucial in taking proactive steps to address burnout and prioritize your mental and emotional well-being.

You don't feel professionally successful

Burnout's third dimension (known as reduced personal accomplishment) can profoundly affect your attitude toward work, reaching a point where you may start questioning your effectiveness in fulfilling your job responsibilities (per Lean Do Grow). Thus, contrary to laziness, which may lead you to butcher your work performance presumably by choice, burnout causes a negative self-assessment, with feelings of failure even when you don't want to underperform. This can throw you into a downward spiral where feeling like you're not doing a good job negatively impacts your motivation and drive.

Besides leading to feeling less interested in your tasks, dealing with reduced personal accomplishment can result in wanting to quit your job as a way to escape the perceived failure. Moreover, it may also lower your self-esteem, affecting not just your work but also other aspects of your life. If you want to look out for the telltale signs of a sense of lack of accomplishment related to burnout, you should pay attention to how easily irritated you become when dealing with simple or unimportant things, whether there's a clear drop in how much you get done during your day, and if you get a general feeling of dissatisfaction toward your work (via Psychology Today).

You're feeling more anxious or depressed

Studies have consistently shown a strong link between burnout, anxiety, and depression, highlighting the intricate relationship between these mental health issues. For example, according to a review published in Frontiers in Psychology, depression often overlaps with burnout, creating doubt as to whether burnout might be a risk factor for developing depression. Yet, what sets the two apart is that, unlike depression, which can be long-lasting and manifest regardless of the circumstances, burnout is specifically tied to a person's working environment, making it a situational form of distress.

Similarly, the connection between burnout and anxiety is noteworthy. In this scenario, the review suggests that occupational stress may act as a risk factor for anxiety symptoms, with aspects such as high job demands, excessive effort, and non-reciprocal over-commitment having been identified as potential anxiety triggers. Furthermore, per the review, studies have found that people who experience any of the three dimensions of burnout (emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and inefficiency in their work) are more likely to experience symptoms of anxiety. This indicates a complex interplay between work-related stress, burnout, and mental health issues, illustrating how, contrary to laziness, burnout can serve as a driver for more severe mental health problems. This distinction is vital, as it suggests that employers and employees can take proactive steps to promote mental well-being by identifying and mitigating occupational stressors.

You're having trouble concentrating

According to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, evidence suggests that burnout can have significant effects on how your brain works, often causing trouble with mental functions that make it harder to focus, remember things, and make decisions. Moreover, the study determined that burnout patients tend to perform worse than healthy people on tasks involving attention span, working memory, learning, and episodic memory. For example, people with higher burnout scores have increased brain activation when performing tasks that need attention. This means they are using more brain resources to complete cognitive tasks, which may indicate either a mental overload or a compensatory mechanism.

However, the study explains that given that burnout is derived from chronic work-related stress, these deficits in mental functions are not surprising. Instead, it warns about the detrimental effects of chronic stress on the brain in the long run. As a matter of fact, there seems to be an explanation behind these effects. As Amy Arnsten, a professor of neuroscience at Yale School of Medicine, explained via CNN Health, burnout-induced stress can lead to the thinning of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain crucial for the aforementioned functions. This weakening of brain matter is believed to cause trouble with these mental functions, significantly increasing the risk of mistakes and affecting your overall performance.

You're having trouble sleeping

Burnout and insomnia often go hand in hand, creating a cycle of exhaustion and sleep difficulties, meaning that as burnout increases, so does the likelihood of experiencing sleep disorders. As psychiatrist Dr. Catherine Carney explains via Psychreg, having trouble sleeping is one way to identify a burnout crisis because chronic stress or anxiety makes it more challenging for the brain to unwind at night. This happens because stress causes your body to release hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. In other words, it activates your fight or flight response, which can keep you from relaxing and falling asleep easily. According to Sleep.com, this negative effect of stress and work exhaustion on sleep is called "sleep reactivity," which is described as a condition that makes it harder to fall and stay asleep.

While burnout is mainly associated with work-related problems, it can happen to anyone. On that note, a study published in Springer Plus shares a different perspective. The study explains the detrimental effects of burnout on students by stating that when overloaded with academic demands, students often resort to sacrificing sleep to extend their study time. However, this lack of sleep only worsens their exhaustion, contributing to a seemingly endless cycle of burnout and sleep problems. In essence, burnout creates a perfect storm for insomnia, with stress, fatigue, and emotional strain all contributing to sleep difficulties.

Your appetite might change

A clear red flag of burnout, differentiating it from laziness, is noticing changes in your eating habits. As researcher Dr. Jeanette M. Bennett explains in the NY Times, some may find themselves eating less due to being too caught up with work. In contrast, others may turn to comfort foods as a way to seek temporary emotional relief. In any case, any potential changes in appetite or hunger levels due to burnout come from the effect of stress hormones on your body.

Appetite regulation involves various hormones, notably ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin, known as the appetite-stimulating hormone, is the one in charge of making you hungry. In contrast, leptin is the one that tells your brain that you've had enough to eat (via the Cleveland Clinic). According to LiveScience, ghrelin typically goes down when dealing with acute stress, but increases in the face of chronic stress. Thus, in theory, this means that burnout should lead to overeating. However, this doesn't seem to be a strict rule. Scientists suggest that animals and potentially humans as well can develop "ghrelin resistance," meaning that some people may not respond to the hormone's effects (a.k.a. the hunger cues) even when its levels rise.

You have other physical symptoms

Burnout significantly increases the likelihood of experiencing multiple stress-related symptoms, which can affect several of your body's systems. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research, burnout has been linked to more than 130 different symptoms, including neck and back pain, tingling or numbness, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory problems, sleep difficulties, and increased pain sensitivity. These symptoms may reflect stress-related changes in the endocrine, immune, nervous, and digestive systems, and may be linked to burnout's association with feelings of anxiety and depression.

In addition, a review published in Plos One includes heart disease among the main physical consequences of burnout and explains that it could be due to various potential mechanisms, including metabolic syndrome, problems with the body's stress management system, inflammation, a weaker immune system, changes in blood coagulation, and the fact that many may turn to unhealthy coping habits, such as smoking or sacrificing exercise when feeling overwhelmed by work. Moreover, impaired immune function in people with burnout increases their likelihood of infectious diseases, such as the common cold or gastroenteritis. Lastly, the review found that burnout might be a predictor of suicidal intentions. Overall, burnout significantly impacts physical and mental health, manifesting in a wide range of stress-related symptoms that can have serious life-threatening implications.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.

Identifying burnout types and triggers

According to a review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, burnout can be classified into three main variations, depending on a person's commitment to their job. The first subtype, known as frenetic burnout, is common in work environments characterized by work overload or an expectation to work until exhaustion, which results in people suffering from overwhelming stress. On the other hand, under-challenged burnout is typical in professions with repetitive or monotonous tasks that leave workers feeling like their jobs are unfulfilling and dull. Finally, the worn-out subtype makes people feel like they've had enough and can't control what happens at work anymore.

Regarding burnout triggers, the review classifies them into two categories: organizational factors and individual factors. Organizational factors stem from the nature of tasks, work organization, and relationships within the workplace. These factors include unbalanced workloads, lack of autonomy, role ambiguity, inadequate supervision, perception of injustice, lack of social support, and poor working hours. In contrast, individual factors are related to personal traits or coping strategies that protect or predispose individuals to burnout in certain work environments. Traits such as neuroticism and type A personality can increase vulnerability to burnout, while openness to experiences and problem-focused coping can protect you from it. Identifying the different types of burnout and understanding their triggers might help you take proactive steps to prevent and manage it effectively.

Tips on how to prevent burnout

Preventing burnout requires both organizational and individual efforts. Per a review published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, organizational measures should be the first line of defense, aiming to eliminate risk factors in the workplace. In this regard, the review suggests providing workers with clear roles and responsibilities, ensuring they have manageable workloads, humanizing schedules by providing flexible working hours and allowing for breaks throughout the day, and using rewards and incentives beyond financial compensation, such as recognition programs and opportunities for advancement, all of which can enhance motivation and job satisfaction, ultimately contributing to a healthier work environment.

However, once the first signs of burnout appear, the focus should shift toward preventing further escalation. In this case, the actions are performed by the workers themselves and include exercising regularly to reduce stress and improve mood, practicing mindfulness techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing exercises, to promote relaxation and mental clarity, journaling to identify and monitor signs of burnout, and managing time effectively to prioritize personal activities and rest. Finally, seeking support from a professional can provide valuable coping strategies and emotional support. By implementing these preventive measures, both organizations and individuals can work together to create healthier, more sustainable work environments and prevent burnout before it becomes a serious issue.