When Barbara Exposito, CEO of Stellar Synergy and You Retreat, started having frequent chest pain, heaviness, and shortness of breath, her doctor determined she was healthy — and that her problems were due to stress: In short, she was experiencing key signs of burnout. “I recall thinking, ‘This cannot be my life,’ and how living with continual stress affected my professional and personal appearance in the world,” she tells TZR in an email. “I was aware that I desired something different and was willing to cast a light on myself and look within.”
If you, too, are feeling physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted — plus, less motivated and not performing at your best — you may be on the road to burnout as well. In fact, the 2021 American Psychological Association (APA) Work and Well-being Survey (of 1,501 U.S. adult workers) found that 79% of employees had experienced work-related stress in the month prior to the survey. Almost three in five employees reported negative impacts of work-related stress, which included lack of interest, motivation, or energy (26%) and lack of effort at work (19%). And even more reported exhaustion — cognitive weariness (36%), emotional exhaustion (32%), and physical fatigue (44%), a 38% increase since 2019.
Sarah Robb O’Hagan, CEO of Exos, knows all about burnout, too. “My third child was born at the height of the 2008 recession,” she tells TZR in an email. “Just two weeks after giving birth, I was taking ‘emergency’ conference calls while experiencing what I later realized was postnatal depression.”
Like many executives, she worked more than a full-time schedule. “But I was running on fumes — working non-stop to save a business in crisis, yet also cratering under a load of breastfeeding and broken sleep. After about three months, the wheels fell off my bus. I met with my doctor, broke down in tears, and finally asked for help.”
The prescription? A forced time-out. “I took a desperately needed vacation — a real vacation — stepping completely away and slowly beginning the process of putting myself back together, with new rules for myself around prioritizing my own needs and well-being.”
But, this may be easier said than done. If your job is not as accommodating with the boundaries you try to put into place, you may have to leave it altogether.
“Working in corporate positions, I experienced burnout while attempting to climb the corporate ladder,” Sharhonda Ford, licensed clinical mental health counselor and CEO of Beyond the Mask Trauma and Wellness, tells TZR in an email. “I consistently tried to exceed goals, increase achievement statistics, and position myself for the next promotion. What I recognized is, it became harder to exceed the goals — and I became more exhausted with every additional effort.”
And the cycle only continued. The higher she went in the company and position, the more effort, energy, and emotional exhaustion she experienced. “I realized the burnout by not wanting to get up and go to work, and not enjoying doing the things that I had previously enjoyed,” she explains. “I went from loving the job and the work that I did to just chasing the dream of growing in a company that had no loyalty to me. It was a vicious, unrewarding cycle.” Instead of staying in that job, she pivoted and changed careers altogether.
Ahead, experts share why admitting you’re burned out is so challenging and stigmatized — and what you can do if you’re experiencing key signs.
Why It’s So Hard To Admit You’re Burned Out
“It is easy to overlook being burned out because we become so comfortable in our discomfort,” explains Ford. “As individuals, we're so used to striving and grinding — and going further and doing more. Companies expect people will continue to do more with less, and burnout is more prevalent among people whether they are enjoying the things they do (or not).”
Exposito adds, “As a society and as women, we have worked so hard to sit at the table professionally that we have been leading our lives with a masculine spirit that is very action-oriented and emotionally distant.” She says all this comes at the expense of our professional and personal tranquility. “This affects how we present ourselves, how we respond, and how we develop sensitive relationships with others around us, even our closest friends and family.”
“It is easy to overlook being burned out because we become so comfortable in our discomfort.”
In her case, Exposito says she was yelling at the top of her lungs that she was not OK and that her life was coming apart, but in reality, everything was falling into place. “Admitting that you are not OK is a monumental task in a world where everyone is expected to be flawless,” she says. “I became comfortable sharing my story, assuming my own identity, and being kind to myself along the way.”
Ford adds that many people likely don't admit burnout due to shame or feeling like they are somehow defective when feeling overwhelmed. “When we do clients’ assessments at my practice, we learn so many people are burned out — they just haven't understood what it is or learned how to articulate what they are feeling,” she says. “I also believe women are hesitant to bring it up, particularly because there is this superhero complex women feel the need to subscribe to.”
She says this is due to women being expected to be wives, mothers, caretakers, and nurturers, and then still run companies, be leaders, and pillars of the community — without incident or fatigue. “In a leadership role, I believe women are afraid to be honest about what they're experiencing, for fear they will lose the respect of those they lead,” she says. “Or, that they will lose their actual leadership position to someone that does not look like them — specifically, someone who is not a woman.”
Exposito agrees, saying women are often compared with, and contrasted to, males. “When you are a female employee or leader who must leave early to pick up your children, you are ridiculed for working part-time,” she says.
Research, too, shows that burnout varies depending on one’s gender. For instance, among physicians, women may face stressors such as challenges of dual-career couples, salary discrepancies, and higher rates of sexual harassment. And, as far as stigma around burnout, studies have found that stigma affects mental health — it increases the risk of someone developing anxiety and depression. Plus, others may perceive burned out people as less competent.
Ford agrees, saying there seems to be no margin of error, and an abundance of judgment, where women are concerned. “We are not exempt, and we have to learn to support, uplift, encourage, empower, and build one another up so we are not ashamed or marginalized,” she says. “This way, we can live with the freedom to be unapologetic and authentic. As women, we want to feel comfortable asking for help and articulating the need for support.”
O’Hagan adds that, for most of us, it can be a very awkward and vulnerable conversation to say you’re burned out. “I’ve noticed that whenever I venture into topics like this, they are often met with silence — not because people don’t care, but because they don’t know what to say,” she says. “It’s especially hard in the workplace, and if you have this awkward silence experience once, you’re probably never going to try it again. That said, it’s a very personal experience.”
She believes that, for many, the space to recover alone, or away from work, is critical. “I think it’s important we not only understand that, but respect it, as well,” she says. Her company, Exos, even launched The Game Changer recently, a coaching program which helps teams expand the value they create, at both work and in life. And O’Hagan says it has been proven to reduce burnout for 70% of people so far.
What To Do About Burnout
“A person may start engaging in escapism behaviors (drinking, using drugs, overspending, and so on) to reduce the emotional toll of being burned out,” Keischa Pruden, therapist and owner of Pruden Counseling Concepts, tells TZR. “Instead, the most important step is to first realize that burnout exists for you. Then you can start the process of examining your life to see what areas have been affected and what steps you can take to reduce whatever triggered your feelings of overwhelm.”
She says while therapy can be very beneficial in helping people sort both their feelings out and establish boundaries to prevent future burnout, talking to their significant other, a friend, or other accountability partner can also help. “However, if someone is experiencing intense emotional distress, then professional assistance would be more appropriate,” Pruden says.
Ford adds that burnout is easy to reach when you are not taking appropriate breaks and not adding appropriate self-care into your life and daily routine. “Overcome burnout by creating your own internal life/work balance — vs. work/life balance,” she says. “It is something that I am intentional about every day, making sure that my life is first, and work comes next. I am intentional about filling my cup and making sure I have what I need to help others as a business owner, therapist, mom, wife, daughter and every other role I play.” She says she now chooses to prioritize life and is not allowing work to consume, absorb, debilitate, or paralyze her in a manner that does not allow her to serve herself and those she loves.
As a psychotherapist and group private practice owner for mental health professionals, Ford ensures that her therapists, and staff, practice a life/work balance, too. “We avoid burnout by practicing my mantra, ‘We don't make ourselves sick to make other people well.’ Try it!”
“Once we learn — as a society — that we don’t have to be present to every event, say yes to every request, or be involved in every sport/activity/you name it, we can then value down time, alone time, and true rest.”
When Exposito felt burned out, she decided to focus more on herself, which included working with a therapist, delving into her spirituality, and discovering skills to help her calm her thoughts, navigate through her concerns, and shift her energy. “I also did journaling, meditation, reiki healing, and exercise, and discovered activities that brought me joy and happiness — both with and without my children,” she says.
Based on personal experience, O’Hagan recommends taking a “time-out” when you’re feeling burned out. “At the time, I could not imagine taking a step away from work, but I knew I had to do it to save my mental and physical health,” she says. “I also worked with a therapist — who helped get me through postnatal depression — which was life-changing. When I felt like I’d gotten back to a healthy baseline, I returned, and re-established the norms I needed to take care of myself, and put my own oxygen mask on first, so to speak.”
Setting boundaries was critical to her success. “I set the expectation that I would stick to the boundaries and encouraged my colleagues, and family, to do the same,” she explains. “To this day, I have those same daily non-negotiables to protect my health: working out in the morning, eating well, and ensuring I get at least seven hours of sleep. Choosing to ‘let go’ of the mom guilt — and prioritize my needs first — was monumental, as well.”
How To Prevent Burnout
“In our society, we have been socialized to say yes to everything,” says Pruden. “Loose boundaries and overexertion has led to burnout for both adults and children. Once we learn — as a society — that we don’t have to be present to every event, say yes to every request, or be involved in every sport/activity/you name it, we can then value down time, alone time, and true rest.”
Ford adds that burnout is avoidable with the proper self-care, wellness, and mental health tools. “It is critical, essential, integral, and important to ensure self-care, periods of time to rest and reset, and moments of reflection regularly to identify if — and when — you're doing too much,” she says. “Taking time to delegate tasks, ask for help, and to rest and reset are critical components of wellness, and essential for avoiding burnout.”
She says you must look inward to assess the situation. “It is important to understand what outcomes you’re choosing — what you hope to gain by doing specific tasks, being in specific positions, holding different roles, and different jobs,” she says. Ford teaches her clients to use this construct: When you set a goal without a desired outcome, you reach the goal, yet may not achieve the level of satisfaction you desired. This is because the goal did not align with the desired outcome. “However, when you determine a desired outcome, you can go back and structure your goals to help you reach the outcome — which yields more satisfaction,” she says. “Then there will be less opportunity for burnout.”