The Pervasiveness of Burnout and Languishing —And What You Can Do About It

Do you finish work feeling mentally exhausted, and struggle to find the motivation to do the things you enjoy? Left to fester, these feelings can rob you of creativity and good health. Something needs to be done. But first, you need to figure out what’s wrong. Chances are, you’re suffering from burnout. And you’re not alone. 

A recent survey found that 75% of workers have suffered from burnout. The COVID-19 crisis accounted for about 40% of those numbers as people working from home found it difficult to draw the line between their work and non-work life, all of which were happening in the same space. 

So how does burnout happen? 

The 5 Stages of Burnout

According to Winona State University, there are five stages of burnout. These stages start before any signs of burnout are present, referred to as the honeymoon stage. Things are good; there is a high level of satisfaction and energy at work. As difficult situations arise, you develop coping mechanisms. If these coping strategies are adaptive and positive, it is theoretically possible to remain in this honeymoon stage. That rarely happens, though. 

Instead, you begin to lose a bit of your optimism and positive attitude. Stage two is marked by observations of job dissatisfaction—everything is no longer perfect—and you begin to become inefficient at work, avoid making decisions, and develop general feelings of fatigue and escapist activities. 

As these occasional symptoms develop into chronic symptoms, you’ve entered stage three, where the feelings from stage two intensify and develop into exhaustion, anger, and depression. 

Stage four is when things come to a boiling point, as your feelings intensify. This often leads to obsessive thoughts about your workplace frustrations, and pessimistic thoughts of self-doubt become pervasive. 

Stage five is typified by your symptoms becoming such a large part of your life that you are more likely to be diagnosed as having emotional or physical problems than being classified as “burnt out.”

This sounds dire but left unchecked, burnout can do more than rob you of your creativity. It can have serious effects on your health, both physical and mental. Identifying symptoms of burnout and addressing them before you reach stage five is essential to your wellbeing. 

At the same time, the pandemic helped create a similar but different emotion that sufferers have described as a general feeling of emptiness: languishing. 


Sociologist Corey Keyes coined the term “languishing” to counter ‘flourishing.’ Languishing encapsulates these feelings of stagnation and emptiness. 

And it’s uncomfortably common. The term has entered the public lexicon, and articles about languishing are popping up on major newspapers and large mainstream magazine websites, in addition to blogs. The New York Times explains it as being different from burnout since the author still has some energy left.

But these aren’t the feelings of hopelessness that come with depression. It’s just a lack of joy and a certain aimlessness. It’s languishing. 

Though not quite as severe as burnout or depression, languishing can still impact your creativity, motivation, and the drive needed to keep pushing ideas forward. If life is a river, we’re all collectively stuck in an eddy. And like getting out of an eddy, it takes a strong push forward to break through into the flow again.

Luckily, there are ways to interrupt the cycle and move toward a state of flourishing once more. 

How to Break the Cycle

Whether you’ve identified burnout or are struggling with languishing, one of the best ways to counteract feelings of not wanting to work is to stop working. Although it may sound counterintuitive, working every day has proven to be an incredibly unhealthy practice, leading to increased chances of depression and heart disease. 

Granted, you might not have the flexibility to control your schedule. If you’re an employee, you might ask your supervisor for a “mental health day” or half-day off. 

But if you’re a knowledge worker, freelancer, entrepreneur, or executive with work schedule flexibility— you might be culpable of over-working, too. 

So take two days a week to do things that have nothing to do with work. In other words—whether you have workweek flexibility or not—give yourself a weekend. You’ll find yourself feeling refreshed and ready to work again. 

If you find yourself still having trouble feeling invigorated, reassess your evening routine. Do something that puts you in a good mood as you go to bed. The night before affects the way you feel when you wake up, so going to bed in a good mood raises the chances you’ll wake in a good mood. Approaching the day with a positive mindset can go a long way toward battling feelings of languishing.  

The same approach can work throughout the day, as well. Step away from your desk for breaks. When both our work and entertainment happen in front of the computer, taking breaks by catching up on social media or surfing your favorite sites will leave you feeling like you’ve done nothing but work at the end of the day. Going for a walk or even just standing outside can help you to clear your head and refocus for the next burst of productivity. 

When you’re back at work, aim for uninterrupted blocks of work, which can help give you a sense of progress. This can, admittedly, be difficult when working at home, especially if you have children learning from home as well. Setting aside a specific area for work and making an effort to not multitask or mix house chores with work can help. 

On a broader scale, look for ways to see progress in your work. Whether it’s setting small, achievable milestones or taking note of steps toward larger goals, you’ll see an improvement in your approach when you track accomplishments that keep you moving forward. 

Sometimes, you just need to be able to walk away to see the bigger picture. In this new age of remote work, where personal and professional life blends almost seamlessly from day to night, erasing any sense of downtime between, it helps to press pause and recoup with a new strategy. With practice, you can find renewed meaning in the work you produce, encouraging yourself to stay motivated, more productive and allow space for creativity.

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