I'm walking down the street in Washington, DC on the phone. Despite me trying to suppress the sobs, my father picks up on the fact that I'm crying.

"Quit," he says succinctly. "Just  quit and come on down here."

As soon as he says it, I feel a massive wave of relief. The idea of actually quitting my job, letting go of this tremendous, enormous sense of responsibility, makes me lightheaded with joy. You mean I could live without this constant, oppressive weight?

"I'm just--I'm not sure I'd be making the right choice," I say. "Shouldn't I try sticking it out? Isn't that more responsible?"

He is silent for a moment. Then: "Your job isn't supposed to make you this unhappy."

"It's not? You mean this isn't normal?"

"No." he says firmly. "Get out of there."

Looking back, that conversation was a turning point. It took me another six weeks to pluck up the courage to actually quit a job that was destructive to me, but that conversation with my father was the first time I had shared openly just how bad the situation had become.

Just how badly I was suffering from burnout.

Burnout is now defined as an "occupational phenomenon" by the World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO, burnout results from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Notably, the guidelines stipulate that the term burnout, when used as a diagnosis, only applies to work-related stress (not personal stress).

In other words, one of the preeminent health organizations on the planet now recognizes burnout as a very real health issue--one that can lead to gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, stress-induced migraines, and more. 

According to the WHO handbook, medical practitioners should look for three specific symptoms when diagnosing burnout:

  1. Lack of energy or exhaustion 
  2. Feeling mental distance from one's job, or feeling negativity or cynicism related to one's job
  3. Reduced professional efficacy

That's the impersonal list. The more personal list includes things like:

  1. Experiencing physical dread on Sunday evening, knowing you have to go into work the next day (i.e. knots in your stomach, tense shoulders, headache)  
  2. Questioning whether to wear mascara that day, because you know you'll probably cry at some point
  3. The nameless, constant, and relentless anxiety that plagues you even when you're "off" (a term that isn't very meaningful, given how you still think about emails even on weekends, knowing they're coming in at all hours ... and if you wait to check your inbox, you'll only suffer more on Monday) 

According to chief medical correspondent for ABC News, Dr. Jennifer Ashton, signs of burnout can include respiratory problems, apathy, irritability, insomnia, chronic fatigue, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, and more.

How do you know if you're suffering from burnout? Ashton says to ask yourself four questions, rating each on a scale of 1-4 (1 being never, 2 being sometimes, three often, and 4 always):

  1. How often are you tired and lacking energy to go to work in the morning?
  2. How often do you feel physically drained, like your batteries are dead?
  3. How often is your thinking process sluggish or your concentration impaired?
  4. How often do you feel emotionally detached from co-workers (or customers) and unable to be sensitive to their needs?

Total your points from all four questions. If you scored less than nine, you're not suffering from burnout; if 10-12, you're on the verge of burnout; and at 13-16, you're suffering from burnout.

So what do you do if you do suspect you may "have" burnout? (Is that the correct term now, like catching the flu?)

According to therapist Joree Rose, one of the root causes of burnout is unrealistic expectations or timelines. "There's an expectation that in this day and age, we want instantaneous results and that means that we are connected at all times to our work," says Rose. "There is no such thing as work/life balance anymore - it's really work/tech balance." 

So one thing most people who study burnout talk about is limiting time with your device.  

Rose also points out the cost to personal relationships: "We used to be able to keep work at work, but with owning multiple devices in which we can access our work, it's easy (and common!) for people to lie in bed and get to back to emails instead of connecting with the person next to them." 

That particular example makes me sad. The idea of lying next to your partner while they're on their device ... is there anything lonelier?

For as common as it is, burnout is an intensely personal situation. It can make you question your worth as a person, compromise your ability to think clearly, and even have you question the point of going on.

Of course everyone has to evaluate their situation and make the best decision for them. But I'm happy to report that my own story has a happy ending. I quit that job that was causing me burnout and took about a month off (and yes, I did fly down and spend a lot of that time with my dad). 

Then I got another job where I was clear from the beginning that I would not work evenings or weekends. My boss was someone who had witnessed my anguish in my previous position and was all in on supporting that kind of work/life balance.

I was a lot happier in my new role. I felt valued and significant, and I also felt well-rested on Mondays. I loved my coworkers and was excited to get up in the mornings and do my thing. I started smiling every day instead of crying.

I went from feeling burned out to filled up, and never looked back. I wish the same for you.

Published on: Oct 9, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.