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Worn Out or Burnt Out? Recognizing the Differences and Finding Solutions

Recently a friend was talking to me about her relationship with her boss, and how she thought he was burnt out. We talked a little about what it might mean to be worn out versus burnt out.


It got me thinking about my experiences of both of these things. So I thought I’d share some personal reflections/observations. Please note that this blog mentions suicidal ideation.


You know all the right things to do, to look after yourself right? Eat well, sleep well, do physical activity, don’t drink too much alcohol or smoke. Make sure you spend time with people you care about and lift you up.


Well if you’re worn out, these things can be hard to prioritise. And if you’re burnt out, they can feel like they’re nigh on impossible.


Some people say “go on holidays!”.

If you’re worn out, a good holiday might help you to recalibrate. But if you’re burnt out, a holiday is the tip of the iceburg. A holiday won’t help – at best, it’s a pause on your emotional, mental and physical states of poor health.


There are some similarities between being worn out and burnout though. For me, it was things like:

  • The Sunday Scaries being very real every night of the working week (hear the inner ten year old bleat, “I don’t wanna go to work tomorrow”);

  • Getting snappy and impatient quickly, and a lot;

  • My problem solving capacity weakened (usually becoming knee jerk problem solving rather than thoughtful, calm problem solving).


And some of the major differences for me were:

  • In burnout, I isolated myself – I would literally retreat to a 15min walking distance from my home. It meant I would see a couple of local friends only.  Normally, I have quite an active social life and see lots of friends one-to-one or in trios/quads. There’s usually some kind of social connection every week. That’s my normal. But in burnout, I avoided this as much as I could.

  • In burnout, I found no or little pleasure in favourite activities – I slowed down on what I read or I didn’t read at all; I wouldn’t go out for dinner with friends; I wouldn’t go to the cinema; I wouldn’t take myself out for a walk in nature; it felt like a chore to go out with my DSLR camera. I was too exhausted for these things.

  • In burnout, I had suicidal thoughts, a lot. This is a long time ago now, and it took years of therapy and anti-depressants to come out the other side. But I would frequently wish that the world would stop. That I wish I were dead so I didn’t have to do ‘this’ anymore. I didn’t really want to be dead, I just wanted it to all go away. Getting professional help was crucial to my recovery.

a cartoon image of a professional woman walking on a path, with her hand bag in one hand. The path has warning signs and her face is sad.


Burnout is what we used to call a breakdown. We shut down on the things that we can get away with, and keep the treadmill going on the things we simply have to – like going to work, running a household (perhaps doing the bare minimum), looking after others (before looking after ourselves).


You might not have suicidal thoughts or feelings. But you could still be in burnout.


What I do need you to know is that being worn out is the road to burnout. If you don’t spot your warning signs early, you will tread the path to burnout.


If your weekends and holidays aren’t enough to top your energy levels up in readiness to go back to work/study/caring/volunteering each week, then you’re moving steadily to burnout. This can happen over years.


Here are some ways to spot your warning signs:


1.      Internal barometers – for me reading is my internal barometer. It’s a measurement of my internal weather. What I feel like reading, and for how long every day, tells me how I’m doing. I know that I must read every day. I learnt this during burnout.  So, now I have ways to ‘dial up’ what I read and ‘dial down’ what I read, so that no matter how I’m feeling – I read every day.


What’s the thing you must do every day? And how do you make it flexible so that you can do it, no matter how you’re feeling or how frantic life is?


2.      Connection – feeling connected with others (humans or animals) is core to being human. We are social creatures, albeit in varying degrees. And so we need to be flexible in being social creatures – again, we need to know how to dial up connecting with others and how to dial it down. There is no ‘all or nothing’ with connectedness, but what it looks like is very individual.


When do you give yourself permission to say no to a gathering? When do you make yourself go out and spend time with a friend who you don’t have to explain yourself to?


3.      Other warning signs – when you just want to ‘run away’ you’ve not noticed your warning signs early enough.  I am confident that you have every day things in life that give you joy, that top up your energy fuel tank. And you will also have internal monologues and mantras that are signs of your internal weather. One of my mantras is “I can’t be bothered”. When I hear myself saying it frequently, that’s one of my warning signs.


What are your warning signs - those things aren’t giving you joy anymore? What joyful activities are you slowing down on, or have stopped doing at all? What are your negative mantras that reflect your internal weather.


It’s normal to have times when we need our world to be small, and times when it feels good for our worlds to be bigger. The trick is learning how to flex from one end to the other, hover in-between, and not stay in one mode for too long.


If any of this resonating with you how you’re feeling at the moment, it’s time to write down your own warning signs, your mantras. Start noticing during the next week - what is giving you joy and what is missing that used to feel joyful? These don’t have to be big, grand gestures. Often, it’s the small things that are the big things.


And it’s time to start thinking about how to dial up and dial down the activities (and people, and places) that give you joy. Being flexible about all of these things that are individual to you, is your road away from burnout.




If you’re not sure about being worn out or burnt out, and wonder if a thinking partner could help you consider your warning signs, then please reach out. You can book a free, 30min discovery call on my website. In that call, we can discuss what’s going on for you right now, and how coaching or mentoring might help you. No obligations at all.

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