The One Way To Know If You're Burned Out — Or Just Worn Out

Knowing the difference helps decide if you refuel or repair.

Last updated on Jan 07, 2024

Put in bed Matthew Henry | Unsplash 

Many of us feel overwhelmed for all the reasons, and with that overwhelm comes a common question: “Am I burned out?”

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

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

Here's how to know if you're really burned out or just worn out.

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 that goes back to the 1980s and recognized by the World Health Organization, burnout has three dimensions.

There are 3 dimensions of burnout:

1. Emotional exhaustion comes first.

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

2. Depersonalization comes next.

This one is more about experiencing cynicism. It is like having a robot-like daily experience and no connection to people or purpose.

3. 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.


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



I empathize with those who wonder 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, I realize I’ve lost interest in a job 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.

Knowing the difference between burnout and worn-out will determine what you do next:

1. 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 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 to allow the engine to function. Eventually, the engine does damage to itself while running. If that goes on long enough, the machine destroys itself.


2. 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”. Being worn out means 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.



3. “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 you don’t have to. As 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), permitting yourself to slow down, or even just taking 30 seconds to breathe.

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

If you feel rested, refreshed, or energized, you have 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.

RELATED: 8 Warning Signs That You Are Mentally Exhausted

4. The first option was rest. The second was numbing.

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

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 be burnout.

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.

self love at sunrise


Photo: Hector Roqueta via Shutterstock

5. 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, you will have 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.