As it is with so many things, burnout is both simple and not simple at the same time. Absolutely you can either be burnt out, or not burnt out – and to be honest that’s where a lot of people end the conversation. But the truth is there are actually four subtypes of burnout and they are related to the four different kinds of energy that we have.

You can either be exclusively experiencing one form of burnout, a combination, or a grand slam with all four subtypes. Knowing which subtype or combination of subtypes of burnout you’re experiencing can make a huge difference in helping you recover and prevent it from ever happening again.

The four different types of burnout

Before we can talk about the different subtypes of burnout, we have to start with looking at our energy in a more granular way. On the surface it would seem that we either have an abundance of energy and can do whatever it is that we need or want to do. Or we have a complete lack of energy and aren’t able to do what we need or want to do. Usually we fall somewhere on that spectrum.

However, energy, like burnout, has four subtypes:

  1. Physical energy – what we typically associate with our day-to-day energy levels
  2. Mental energy – our ability to make good decisions, solve problems and stay focused
  3. Emotional energy – our ability to feel connected to our work, to each other, and to be able to handle difficult situations whether we’re experiencing them ourselves or holding space for someone else to share what they’re going through
  4. Fulfillment energy – this is the kind of energy that we get from a job well done, knowing that what we’re doing has a purpose and is making a difference

Some of our daily activities and experiences will drain one type of energy, while recharging the other. For example, when I am speaking on a stage or giving a virtual workshop on Zoom, it recharges a lot of fulfillment energy while draining physical, mental and emotional energy.

A walk with my dog drains physical energy, while restoring mental and emotional energy.

Dealing with nit-picky details and frustrating situations? Drains everything across the board.

Feeling like I’m just spinning my wheels, completing tasks but feeling like I’m getting nowhere? Sucks all the energy out of all four tanks.

As we discussed in this article, burnout is an experience of complete or near complete exhaustion. Looking at our energy in this way then allows us to see the four different types of burnout:

  1. Physical Burnout where your physical body is exhausted and unable to function at the level you need (or at any level sometimes if the burnout is severe enough). This is where you need a pep talk to get up off the couch to go get yourself a drink of water or go to the bathroom. Even the smallest tasks seem to require an inhuman amount of energy and no matter how much you sleep you rarely wake up feeling rested.
  2. Mental Burnout where you feel like everyone seems to want a piece of you, to ask you questions, get your opinion and you feel so irritated by this when normally you wouldn’t be bothered by it – in fact you likely used to enjoy mentoring others. Decisions like what to have for dinner, what to wear, or what task to get started on first take you a long time and you often default to something “easy” that requires very little effort. The most frustrating thing often is word-finding, where you can’t seem to think of the words that you want and end up either avoiding communication or resorting to charades to try and figure out what the word you’re looking for is.
  3. Emotional Burnout where you are either quick to shut down, quick to get angry, or quick to tears over things that normally wouldn’t have elicited such a strong response from you. You find a lack of joy in your life and don’t really find satisfaction in the activities that you used to look forward to. You find that you’re lacking patience or the ability to hold space and listen to others vent about their struggles – something that you used to pride yourself in being able to do.
  4. Fulfillment Burnout can be characterized by the character Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh: “what’s the point, nothing I do matters anyway…” This is where you feel like your efforts are either going unnoticed, or are entirely unhelpful. Make-work projects, busy-tasks for the sake of being busy, or dedicating a lot of time and effort into something only to have the project scrapped, undermined or redone by someone else. 

Why it’s important to know your burnout subtype

Now you may be thinking, “that’s all well and good but why does it matter?”

Great question!

Understanding our burnout subtype not only helps us know where to focus our Recovery and Optimization efforts by identifying which energy tank needs the most attention. Identifying our burnout subtype also helps us build our own Red Flag Warning System to help us recognize when we’re heading down the path towards burnout so that we can put the brakes on before we go too far down the stress curve.

This is key. 

It’s rare that we go right from peak performance into full blown burnout across all four energy types. Usually it starts with one, maybe two, and then progresses taking more and more out of you until all of your energy is drained across the board which leaves you in a pretty epic burnout experience. If you can catch it early when you’re only experiencing burnout in one or two energy categories, then your recovery time will be faster and the impact that burnout has on your life may be much, much less.

Not sure which kind of burnout you’re experiencing? Worried that it might be in all four categories of burnout? Take my free Burnout Self Assessment to figure out which combination of burnout you are experiencing and get specific recommendations for how to start your recovery process.

One last quick note – if you’re experiencing burnout to any degree across any or all of the categories, the last thing you want to do is add anything else to your busy to-do list. I know you’re a high acheiver and want to jump right in and overhaul your habits to follow the ‘better plan’ (whatever that means for you). However, I cannot stress enough how important it is to make small shifts. 

Small. Shifts.

Instead of setting your alarm clock for 5 am to have your “miracle morning” with a strict routine and list of things that must get done – choose one recovery strategy and implement it in the shortest time possible. There’s a reason why our yoga classes are 15 minutes and we have a bunch of 60 second guided meditations in the Productivity Partner App.

Small shifts, my friend. Small shifts. You’ll be surprised to see how quickly they start making a difference.