Like a tomato, which could arguably be a fruit or a vegetable, burnout can arguably be a diagnosable disorder or not. While it’s not recognized as a disorder in the U.S., it is in Sweden and it makes an appearance in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) as a “state of vital exhaustion.” 

Regardless of whether you call it burnout or vital exhaustion, it’s a state known to many of us, and it ravages the body, contributing to everything from hypertension to substance abuse. Therefore, while we’ve talked about burnout on the podcast before, namely here and here, it demands another look.

To review, burnout has three hallmark symptoms. First, there is emotional exhaustion, which also bleeds over into physical exhaustion. With this symptom, dragging yourself to work takes heroic effort and being productive is out of the question. 

Next is reduced personal accomplishment, which is exactly what it sounds like. It takes more effort to get less done, and you wonder what the point is anyway. Even successes feel like the equivalent of a dead-eyed, slack-jawed sarcastic confetti toss. 

The last symptom, depersonalization, is being cynical, critical, and resentful with co-workers and clients. If you frequently mutter, “What is with these people?”, “Idiots!”, or any number of NSFW labels, you may be on your way to depersonalization.

All of this may sound eerily similar to depression, but burnout is distinct in that it’s constrained to the domain of work. Folks who are depressed will still be depressed sitting on a tropical beach, but those with burnout often feel better once they’ve taken time off and are surrounded not by demanding customers and autocratic supervisors, but by palm trees, a stack of novels, or woodworking tools—whatever floats your boat. In other words, in depression, the little black raincloud follows you everywhere, but in burnout, it stays squarely over your work station. 

And while it’s normal to have ambivalent feelings about work, look at job listings over your lunch break, or fantasize about taking a baseball bat to the unruly printer (“PC load letter?!”), you know you’ve crossed a line if burnout symptoms interfere with your best efforts to function.

So what causes burnout? Some of the contributors are intuitive: a never-ending avalanche of tasks, a toxic work environment, or all work and no life. It makes sense that you’d feel drained by a boss who tells you to work through pain, a coach that sprays angry spittle in your face, or a colleague who has loud phone conversations about her sex life while you pick up the slack.

But the other factors aren’t so clear. This week, we’ll walk through 5 surprising causes of burnout. 

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