Those with burnout tend to have a combination of all three symptoms, but depending on the nature of your work and your point of view, you might experience one more than another. For example, a nurse might not be as likely to lose sight of the meaning of their work, but could easily fall victim to exhaustion — which Lotte Dyrbye, MD, senior associate dean of faculty and chief well-being officer at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, describes not as tiredness, but as “having nothing left to give… You’re emotionally empty.”
Of course, the source of exhaustion for those in professions like health care can’t begin to compare with that of those in creative fields. But for creatives, the same feelings of emptiness can manifest as a loss of the flashes of inspiration that allow them to capture powerful images or compose catchy rhythms that enhance our world. “When we talk about creative professions, what we’re talking about is work that is useful but unusual,” says Dr. Schabram. “My argument would be that burnout doesn’t affect that useful part. Often, people are really vested in still doing good work. It’s the ‘unusual’ that can be really difficult, especially if you are feeling exhausted.”
If you’re particularly passionate about your work — as creatives tend to be — research shows you may actually be more burnout-prone than your less enthusiastic counterparts. Dr. Schabram describes a study she conducted with people who had worked at animal shelters (which have notoriously high employee-turnover rates) for 10-plus years. The aim was to determine what had kept them there for so long. Her hypothesis: It was their passion for and commitment to the job.
However, “we found the opposite,” says Dr. Schabram. “When you come into a profession and you care about it [but] you don’t care about it with this burning flame, it means that you go home at five and you tend to have other hobbies.” That’s not to say your work shouldn’t make you excited, but that excitement may be more likely to peter out in the long run if your job becomes the sole focus of your life.
Christina Maslach, PhD, a researcher (and coauthor of the aforementioned book) who is widely considered one of the foremost burnout experts in the world, says as much without speaking a word: An emailed request for a phone interview is met with an automated out-of-office reply that reads, “I will be traveling this month and will not have regular access to email. I will read your message later.” No return date, no contact number; a public display of boundary-setting at its finest.
Self-Care Can Prevent Burnout — To an Extent
Obviously, ignoring your inbox isn’t always a realistic option. So if you thought this was the part where we’d tell you to take a few minutes to meditate each morning or draw a bath at night, you’re not wrong. But before you roll your eyes, know that Dr. Schabram has conducted studies on the effect of practicing mindfulness and unearthed fascinating results. “If you’re suffering from exhaustion, those acts of self-care that we make fun of sometimes, like slapping on a face mask or getting a pedicure, [actually] work,” she says.
For hairstylist Adir Abergel, who spent the past three months away from home, hopping from campaign shoots to movie sets to red carpet events, a hotel room with a bathtub is a must. “A bath, for me, is self-care,” he says. Makeup artist Daniel Martin makes it a point to practice Pilates twice a week, even if it means squeezing in a remote session. “The passion that you have for [your work] can only go so far if you don’t take care of yourself,” he says. “And if you don’t take care of yourself, you truly can’t take care of other people.”