Health And Wellness

Here's How To Know If You're Really Burned Out Or Simply Worn Out Instead

Photo: Drazen Zigic /
mom tired on couch

2020 was a rough year, and the hits keep coming in 2021.

Many of us are experiencing overwhelm for a host of reasons, and with that overwhelm comes a common question: “Am I burned out?”

Here’s my answer: possibly, but you could also just be worn out.

RELATED: 3 Simple Steps To Live Happily When Life Feels Like A Chore

How to know if you're really burned out or just worn out.

We need to discuss a few things before we can get an answer to that.

First off, please allow me to empathize with those who are wondering if they are burned out. I know this question well because I’ve experienced it a few times in my own life.

For example, it happened when my wife was in a car accident that resulted in a head injury, the loss of her job, and months of physical therapy, speech therapy, and counseling (for both of us).

Sometimes there are days that I realize I’ve lost my passion for a job that I previously loved and don't know what that means for my career.

After weeks of medical tests because of a prolonged illness that was diagnosed as stress-induced, I was getting tired of it all.

Here’s the deal. There is a difference between burnout and worn out, and that difference will determine what you do next.

To tell the difference between the two, start by imagining a car engine.

When that engine runs out of fuel, what happens? Generally, it may sputter a bit, but then it stops. It needs to be refueled in order to restart.

Let’s compare that to when that same engine runs out of oil.

When that happens, the machine can keep running for a while because there is enough residual oil that allows the engine to function for a bit. Eventually, the engine does damage to itself while running. If that goes on long enough, the machine destroys itself.

In both cases, the engine runs out of what it needs to do its job. 

In the first case, the car engine stops when it has run out of the resources it needs to function. In the second case, the car engine keeps going, even though it damages itself in the process.

Running out of gas is like being “worn out.” Worn out means that your next step is to focus on rest and refueling.

You will feel better afterward. So the first step to answering the question “am I burned out?” is to find a way to rest and refuel.

“But wait,” you say. “I’m too busy to stop! I can’t take a week-long vacation to some island resort.”

The good news is that you don’t have to. Just like there are numerous gas stations and mechanic shops on the road, there are multiple options to include “rest and refueling” in your daily schedule.

A few suggestions could come in the shape of turning off your phone during your lunch break, making sure your business calendar includes meetings with people who energize you instead of only people who drain you, making sure you get enough sleep at night (this one's important), giving yourself permission to slow down, or even just taking 30 seconds to breathe.

Also, be sure to distinguish between “resting” and “numbing.” The test is how you feel afterward.

If you find yourself feeling rested, refreshed, and/or energized, then you experienced rest. Congratulations!

If you're still worn out, you may simply have distracted yourself from what’s making you tired.

For example, watching an episode of your favorite TV show on Netflix can leave you with a smile afterward. Watching the entire season in one sitting can leave you feeling like a slug.

The first option was rest. The second was numbing.

Drinking a glass of wine with friends at the end of the day to slow down and enjoy their company is about rest, drinking the whole bottle by yourself is about numbing.

RELATED: 8 Warning Signs That You Are Mentally Exhausted

Now, let's talk about burnout.

Let’s say you’ve taken my advice to rest and even went on a two-week vacation.

When you return to work, you are just as exhausted and disconnected as before. This could very possibly be burnout.

Think of burnout as a dial rather than an “on” or “off” experience. Better yet, think of it as three dials that together represent burnout.

As pointed out by research going all the way back to the ’80s, and recognized by the World Health Organization, burnout has three dimensions.

The 3 dimensions of burnout

Emotional exhaustion is first. Think of this as a mix of overload, overwhelm, and the persistent feeling that you simply don’t have the resources needed to meet the demands of the day.

Depersonalization comes next. This one is more about experiencing cynicism. Think of it as having a robot-like daily experience with no connection to people or purpose.

Last but not least, lack of personal accomplishment. This is about feeling ineffective. You are on the hamster wheel - continuously running and with nothing to show for it.

If high levels of all three are present, then you should consider yourself “burned out” and not simply “worn out.”

To address this, you still want to start with rest, but you will also want to get help with the other dimensions of cynicism and ineffectiveness.

While we are starting with a “self-care” approach here, there is more to burnout than self-maintenance alone.

Some environments make burnout worse because they don’t provide the resources necessary for people to stay engaged.

If that is the case, then you will have some more significant changes ahead of you.

Either way, burned out or worn out, you’ll want to start with self-maintenance. After all, if you are willing to refuel your car and change its oil, why wouldn’t you provide the same basic level of service for yourself?

RELATED: Why Am I So Tired? 8 Common Causes Of Chronic Fatigue And How To Stop It

Dr. Stanley J. Ward is a leadership coach and author of How to Beat Burnout for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Team - now available as an audiobook courseContact him to learn more about how leaders can beat burnout.