Three Signs of Burnout: Why Caregivers Need to Care for Themselves

Caregivers must understand and recognize the signs of burnout to keep going.

I hear these two terms a lot as a disaster psychologist: compassion fatigue and burnout. When disaster strikes—whether it’s a tornado, hurricane, or wildfire—there’s often a set of helpers who rush in. Usually, they are well-trained, passionate, and reliable people. When I train professional helpers, I remind them: “remember, you’re not superhuman.”

When I became a stage IV colorectal cancer survivor, I noticed the cancer community shared many commonalities with the disaster community. When I became my own “walking disaster,” I took note of the many caregivers supporting me: nurses, doctors, family, and friends. I had to remember what I’d found in my research and training, that not one person has the unlimited capacity to meet all of my needs. 

When we face a situation where the demands on the body, mind, and heart exceed the resources, and the situation continues for a long time, then we are at significant risk of burnout. This is true for disaster work, and it’s also true in cancer.

What is Burnout in Caregivers?

Caregivers carry physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual demands that hit them hard. If caregivers don’t care for themselves, they may struggle to offer the care they intend to give.

Burnout is a state where someone reaches physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion caused by a depletion of the ability to cope with the environment; it occurs when perceived demands outweigh perceived resources.

For professional helpers, like those in nursing and other healthcare roles, facing burnout can bring feelings of being overworked and stressed—which may then lead to discouragement, career changes, missed shifts, and even the search for a new calling in life. For family and friends, caregiver burnout can lead to feelings of guilt, shame, or resentment, or a downplayed sense of personal achievement.

In whatever role a caregiver finds themselves playing, burnout can result in feeling tired, rundown, overwhelmed, and irritable. 

Evaluating Signs of Burnout

It’s not easy to know when to take a break from helping efforts, especially when it feels like someone’s life is your responsibility. The needs of survivors can take precedence over all other responsibilities—including self-care—yet when this happens, caregivers are most likely to burn out and lose the ability to care for others.

Nobody gets into caregiving with the hope to burn out and quit. Being a relentless champion of hope as a caregiver includes recognizing, preventing, and treating burnout as a condition, and forming strategies for healthy coping.

Signs of Caregiver Burnout

Three ways to group the signs of burnout are physical, emotional and behavioral.

1. Physical Signs of Caregiver Burnout

  • Chronic fatigue
  • Low energy
  • Low immunity
  • Frequent illness
  • Poor or changing appetite

2. Emotional Signs of Caregiver Burnout

  • Sense of failure
  • Constant self-doubt or questioning
  • Flat affect and lack of enjoyment in things that usually make you happy
  • Sense of defeat and discouragement

3. Behavioral Signs of Caregiver Burnout

  • Procrastination or avoidance of responsibility
  • Withdrawal or isolation of yourself from others
  • Turning to excess food or drugs
  • Lack of discipline in your self-care habits such as exercise, hygiene, or grooming

Additionally, there are spiritual signs of burnout that can include disconnection and isolation from a caregiver’s spiritual community if they were once practicing.

What To Do if You’re Facing Caregiver Burnout

You must remember there is no one “right” way to address caregiver burnout. Burnout is a valid condition that needs to be addressed. Therapists, social workers, faith leaders, and other mental health professionals can provide assistance to caregivers facing burnout. The most important person who needs to address burnout is the caregiver themself. Caregivers must remember: caring for others includes caring for yourself. 

See my practical tips for addressing burnout. 

For more on burnout, listen to the Fight CRC podcast about Caregiver Burnout with Jeanice Hansen, LCSW, OSW-C 


Do not hesitate to call Fight CRC’s toll-free resource line (1-877-427-2111) to speak directly with a counselor. The line is staffed by licensed mental health professionals and resource specialists from the Cancer Support Community who are experts at providing information and referrals to local, regional and national resources, distress screening, decision-support counseling, and short-term counseling services. The line is available from 9am-9pm Eastern Time, and is available in English and Spanish. The line also offers medical translation services in over 200 languages.

Jamie Aten, Ph.D. (counseling psychology) is a Hurricane Katrina and stage IV colorectal cancer survivor. He is the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute and Blanchard Chair of Humanitarian & Disaster Leadership at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). His latest book is A Walking Disaster: What Katrina and Cancer Taught Me About Faith and Resilience. In 2016 he received the FEMA Community Preparedness Champion award at the White House. Follow on Twitter at @drjamieaten or visit his website jamieaten.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *