Learn / Burnout is a Serious Mental Health Condition That May Require Rehab: Here’s Why

Burnout is a Serious Mental Health Condition That May Require Rehab: Here’s Why

Kayla Gill
 July 25th, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Burnout is more than exhaustion. This term gets tossed around a lot—so much that you might not realize it’s a serious mental health issue. People with burnout may feel exhausted and negative, for a longer time than usual.

Stress serves a purpose. In the short term, it keeps us safe from danger. It can also be motivating. But long-term stress leads to burnout, and burnout can damage your health. It can even cause physical side effects. Fortunately, burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. When you reach your limit—or even before then—you can ask for help. And you can even attend residential rehab for burnout.

What Is Burnout?

Burnout is a mental health issue caused by ongoing stress. People with burnout feel chronically tired, apathetic, and detached. Over time, those feelings can get in the way of living a healthy life.

Rates of burnout and stress are on the rise. The WHO now classifies burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.”1 In other words, burnout is a very serious concern,2 but not a disease. The results of a recent survey paint a clear picture:

  • 52% of respondents said they feel burned out.
  • 27% of all workers feel “unable to unplug from work.”
  • 31% are working “much more” than they were 2 years ago.

Signs and Symptoms

Burnout is so widespread, it’s becoming socially acceptable. Because of this, it can be hard to know when you have a serious problem. Experts define these key components of burnout:3

  • Chronic exhaustion can make it hard for you to complete daily tasks. If you have limited energy, you may focus on work over other things you enjoy. And doing that can increase your stress levels.
  • Apathy can be debilitating. If you feel like life is meaningless, it’s hard to take pride in what you do. And on a neurological level, apathy can lead to addiction.4
  • Feelings of incompetency or inadequacy get in the way of recovery. When you lose faith in yourself, it’s hard to approach a new challenge. But there is joy in this healing process. With the right treatment, you can learn to love your life again.

Scientists measure these feelings with the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI).5 This scale was first developed by psychologist Christina Maslach in 1981. And while the MBI focuses on work-related burnout,6 that’s not the whole picture. “Sometimes the problem of work overload turns out not to be the most important,” Maslach said in an interview with the New York Times. Familial or financial issues can be equally stressful.

Causes of Burnout

Burnout is associated with stress.7 The term usually refers to job-related stress, but not always. More than most other mental health conditions, burnout is a behavioral issue. That doesn’t mean it’s your fault. But it does mean that you can recover by changing your daily habits.

In modern-day “hustle culture,” the pressure to work harder can be overwhelming. And even if you love what you do, working too much can drain the joy right out of your life. But there’s a bright side—burnout doesn’t have to be permanent. With the right treatment, you can find a healthy balance.

Treatment for Burnout Means More Than Therapy

Burnout is a complex condition8 that can affect all areas of your life. To get to the root of the issue, you may need to combine a few treatment methods. In rehab, you can start to restructure your life in a healthy way. Your providers may teach you some of the following strategies.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)

In MBSR, patients use mindfulness techniques to manage stress.9 Mindfulness involves purposeful and nonjudgmental focus on the present moment. In this practice, you might meditate, do yoga, or do focused breathing exercises.

Studies show that mindfulness can treat burnout and improve emotion regulation.10 These practices are a core value in many holistic rehab programs. You can also learn these strategies in several types of therapy. Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) both teach these techniques.

Physical Health Habits

There may be a link between burnout and diet.11 One study found that people with better nutrition were less likely to show signs of burnout. This research is still in its very early stages, but you don’t have to wait to improve your eating habits.

Getting good sleep, exercising, and eating well reduces exhaustion. This lowers your stress levels, and fights the effects of burnout.3 Improving your physical health can also build confidence. And that confidence can empower you to make lasting changes.

Social Support During Recovery

If you have a strong community, you’re less likely to burn out. That’s because people with more social support are better at handling stress.12

This is an emotional issue, but it’s also a chemical one. Neurotransmitters play a role in decreasing stress. When you’re around trusted friends and family, your brain releases oxytocin. This hormone has a calming effect. These relationships are crucial for your ongoing mental health.

Healthy socializing can also help you change your behavior. Preliminary research has linked peer accountability with better mental health outcomes.13 One study even linked social support with “gainful employment, housing, and psychiatric stability.”

Changing Work Habits

Restructuring your work habits is one way to lessen burnout symptoms.3 Note that this is a behavioral strategy, more than it is a mental health treatment. Even so, it can make a huge difference.

If you can change your schedule, that’s a great place to start. Research shows that working fewer hours can boost job satisfaction. Of course, not everyone can afford to take time off. But you can still make big changes. And you have the legal right to alter your work habits for the sake of your mental health.14

In the U.S., workers are protected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Under their regulations, you have “a legal right to get reasonable accommodations.” For example, you can change your break schedule, get written feedback from your boss, or ask to work from home.

Companies are not required to employ someone who can’t actually do their work. If you can’t lift 50 pounds, you might lose your job at a warehouse. But you can likely ask for time off for recovery. And you don’t have to tell your boss the details. The EEOC recommends saying “that you need a change at work because of a medical condition.”

The Long-Term Effects of Chronic Stress

If you don’t find ways to mitigate stress, burnout will undermine your physical and mental health.3

Physical Health

Burnout often follows a cyclical pattern. It leads to an unhealthy lifestyle, and an unhealthy lifestyle worsens burnout. These are some of the physical effects associated with that spiral:

  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • gastrointestinal issues
  • muscle tension
  • high blood pressure
  • sleep issues

These symptoms can be very severe. In one 10-year study, burnout predicted industrial workers’ hospital visits. And chronic physical ailments can damage your mental health.15

Mental Health

Burnout can cause long-term mental health issues.3 For example, burnout is commonly associated with depression. According to one study, the two issues can come in cycles. When this happens, a depressive episode predicts burnout, and vice versa. Despite this connection, burnout and depression have very different causes. Specifically, “burnout is job-related and situation-specific,” while depression is “context-free.” The two should be treated as two separate issues, with a complex interplay.

Burnout is also related to higher levels of anxiety.16 Data shows that high anxiety increases emotional exhaustion, which is a primary symptom of burnout. This suggests that burnout and anxiety may have a reciprocal relationship, much like depression and burnout. Anxiety causes burnout, and in turn, burnout causes more anxiety.

The Relationship Between Stress & Addiction

Stress increases your risk of addiction.17 And if you’re already burned out, and looking for ways to cope, drug use might be tempting.

There’s a clear neurological reason for this. Both excessive stress and drug abuse can damage the brain’s reward system.18 This makes it hard to feel a sense of achievement. And drug use can seem like a simple way to change that.

Like burnout, addiction is a vicious cycle. Maybe you’re working harder and harder to try and finish your to-do list. Or maybe you’re taking drugs to try and feel better, and then feeling worse instead. In either case, you can only break free by changing your behavior. For many people, inpatient rehab is the best place to start that process.

Healing From Burnout on Your Own Terms

By definition, burnout is overwhelming. And the idea of recovery might feel like yet another burden. But healing can be joyful. With the right treatment, you can learn how to live a fulfilling and sustainable life.

After chronic stress, rehab can be a welcome respite. Break free of this stressful cycle by connecting with a treatment center. Visit our directory of burnout recovery programs to learn about their amenities, specialties, available types of treatment, and more.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. Burn-out an “occupational phenomenon”: International classification of diseases. (n.d.). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-phenomenon-international-classification-of-diseases []
  2. Employee burnout report: Covid-19’s impact and 3 strategies to curb it. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.indeed.com/lead/preventing-employee-burnout-report []
  3. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2016). Understanding the burnout experience: Recent research and its implications for psychiatry. World Psychiatry, 15(2), 103–111. https://doi.org/10.1002/wps.20311 [] [] [] [] []
  4. Kirschner, M., Rabinowitz, A., Singer, N., & Dagher, A. (2020). From apathy to addiction: Insights from neurology and psychiatry. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry, 101, 109926. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pnpbp.2020.109926 []
  5. Maslach, C., & Leiter, M. P. (2021, March 19). How to measure burnout accurately and ethically. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2021/03/how-to-measure-burnout-accurately-and-ethically []
  6. Tugend, A. (2013, November 29). Dealing with burnout, which doesn’t always stem from overwork. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/your-money/a-solution-to-burnout-that-doesnt-mean-less-work.html []
  7. Burnout and stress are everywhere. (n.d.). Https://Www.Apa.Org. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/2022/01/special-burnout-stress []
  8. Wiederhold, B. K., Cipresso, P., Pizzioli, D., Wiederhold, M., & Riva, G. (2018). Intervention for physician burnout: A systematic review. Open Medicine, 13, 253–263. https://doi.org/10.1515/med-2018-0039 []
  9. Worthen, M., & Cash, E. (2022). Stress management. In StatPearls. StatPearls Publishing. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK513300/ []
  10. McFarland, D. C., & Hlubocky, F. (2021). Therapeutic strategies to tackle burnout and emotional exhaustion in frontline medical staff: Narrative review. Psychology Research and Behavior Management, 14, 1429–1436. https://doi.org/10.2147/PRBM.S256228 []
  11. Penttinen, M. A., Virtanen, J., Laaksonen, M., Erkkola, M., Vepsäläinen, H., Kautiainen, H., & Korhonen, P. (2021). The association between healthy diet and burnout symptoms among finnish municipal employees. Nutrients, 13(7), 2393. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13072393 []
  12. Pilcher, J. J., & Bryant, S. A. (2016). Implications of social support as a self-control resource. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 10. https://www.frontiersin.org/article/10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00228 []
  13. Lewis, S. E., Hopper, K., & Healion, E. (2012). Partners in recovery: social support and accountability in a consumer-run mental health center. Psychiatric services (Washington, D.C.), 63(1), 61–65. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ps.201000512 []
  14. Depression, ptsd, & other mental health conditions in the workplace: Your legal rights. (n.d.). US EEOC. Retrieved from https://www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/depression-ptsd-other-mental-health-conditions-workplace-your-legal-rights []
  15. Chronic illness and mental health: Recognizing and treating depression. (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Retrieved May 31, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/chronic-illness-mental-health []
  16. Papathanasiou, I. V. (2015). Work-related mental consequences: Implications of burnout on mental health status among health care providers. Acta Informatica Medica, 23(1), 22–28. https://doi.org/10.5455/aim.2015.23.22-28 []
  17. Ruisoto, P., & Contador, I. (2019). The role of stress in drug addiction. An integrative review. Physiology & Behavior, 202, 62–68. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2019.01.022 []
  18. How addiction hijacks our reward system. (n.d.). Dana Foundation. Retrieved from https://dana.org/article/how-addiction-hijacks-our-reward-system/ []

Return to Resource Library

Our Promise

How Is Recovery.com Different?

We believe everyone deserves access to accurate, unbiased information about mental health and addiction. That’s why we have a comprehensive set of treatment providers and don't charge for inclusion. Any center that meets our criteria can list for free. We do not and have never accepted fees for referring someone to a particular center. Providers who advertise with us must be verified by our Research Team and we clearly mark their status as advertisers.

Our goal is to help you choose the best path for your recovery. That begins with information you can trust.