Caregiver Burnout: Signs, Causes, & Coping Tips

Published on: 27 Mar 2017
Clinically Reviewed by Meaghan Rice PsyD., LPC
daughter taking care of sick mother

Updated 1/18/2023

Caregivers offer those they care for physical, emotional, and sometimes even financial support, often asking for little to nothing in return. There’s a risk that comes with this dedication, though. Burnout. 

Burnout was originally coined in the 1970s, describing what healthcare workers and others in “helping” professions experience as a result of long hours, lack of sleep, and intense emotional and physical demands. Now, however, it’s a common term used to describe a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion for anyone. Caregiver burnout can be devastating. It can cause anxiety, fatigue, and depression, preventing you from helping the people who need you most. 

Understanding signs of caregiver burnout is essential if you’re taking on the responsibility of caring for someone special in your life. Keep reading to learn more about what it means to have caregiver burnout, what causes it, its signs and symptoms, and how you can overcome it with online therapy before it’s too late. 

What Is Caregiver Burnout?

Caregiver burnout is a common occurrence that caregivers experience when they don’t get enough support in their roles. It typically happens after a long or persistent period of self-neglect and, for many people, presents as a state of exhaustion — mental, physical, and/or emotional exhaustion. It can result in anxiety, stress, depression, or other changes in attitude. Caregiver fatigue and intense feelings of guilt and caregiver burden are not unusual, and they can be debilitating symptoms.

According to research conducted by AARP, an estimated 48 million people in the United States are unpaid caregivers for a child or adult in their life. Unfortunately, at some point, burnout is a reality for many family caregivers.

What Causes Caregiver Burnout?

There are many causes of caregiver burnout, but a lot of people don’t recognize them in the beginning. 

“Caregiver burnout can result when there’s the perception or reality that you’re doing everything by yourself. Feeling as though you’re the only one holding up the world can make you feel overwhelmed while at the same time feeling guilty for having those feelings.” – Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

Lacking control in a caregiving situation

Any time we lack control in a situation, it leads to frustration which can result in burnout. This can be very true for people in informal caregiver roles. Not having control or lacking resources to be able to care for someone properly can be exhausting.

Role confusion

If roles aren’t carefully defined and understood, there might be confusion about what’s needed and expected. When a caregiver’s role isn’t clear, the result can eventually give way to burnout.

Unrealistic expectations or workload

It’s not uncommon for caregivers to have unreasonable workloads. Anyone in a caregiver role can tell you that sometimes there aren’t enough hours in the day. When expectations don’t allow for reasonable limitations, it can lead to caregivers being under so much stress that they quickly burn out.

Physical demands and emotional demands 

Most people who take on the role of a caregiver are incredibly emotionally invested in their job. That said, the demands they face from the care receiver can be understandably overwhelming and daunting. Further, it can be disheartening to come to terms with the idea that in some cases, no matter how much they give, the outcome is rarely optimal.

Unclear policies

Caregivers can become disheartened about the lack of direction they’re receiving when policies aren’t clear. Equally as distressing can be when policies and procedures actively work against a caregiver, preventing them from doing their job.

Signs and Symptoms of Caregiver Burnout 

There are multiple caregiver burnout symptoms to be aware of if you suspect yourself or someone you know is experiencing caregiver burnout. 

Withdrawal

When burnout sets in, a caregiver might begin to appear withdrawn or detached from their role and responsibilities. They even find it difficult to just show up each day with the passion they once had for their work.

Loss of interest 

Beyond just seeming withdrawn, burnout can present through a general lack of interest in a caregiver’s role. They may start finding it challenging to function every day. They might start to struggle with emotional exhaustion and feelings of apathy as they try to fulfill their role to the best of their ability. In general, a depressed sense might become more and more obvious as burnout increases and takes over.

Changes in lifestyle behavior

Caregiver burnout can result in effects that stem far beyond the job. The caregiver’s stress and sense of being overwhelmed can begin to filter into other aspects of life, even after a caregiver has finished their job for the day. 

They may find they don’t have the energy to socialize like they once did. They might begin shutting out friends and family members as they grapple with the stress they’re facing. They may even sink into the beginnings of a depression, where simple daily tasks like self-care and other normal adult responsibilities, such as grocery shopping or paying bills, might be something they just can’t manage to face. Be sure you know the difference between burnout vs depression so you can identify what you’re experiencing.

Dealing with Caregiver Burnout 

It’s important to know how to deal with caregiver burnout before it becomes an issue. The following tips can be useful if you or someone you care about is starting to experience family caregiver fatigue and burnout. 

Prevention tips

When it comes to how to avoid burnout, the following tips can help:

  • Be realistic about what you can do 
  • Set reasonable goals for yourself
  • Confide in someone you trust
  • Ask for help if you need it
  • Look into respite care services, which can offer a small break for caregivers
  • Make sure you practice self-care
  • Eat well and stay hydrated
  • Keep a healthy sleep habit
  • Be realistic about what the future has in store
  • Acknowledge and honor your feelings
  • Find a support group

“Making sure you can put together a team and delegate certain tasks that would usually be done by you is essential. Some of that time that’s freed up can be spent filling your tank. You can not give from an empty well. Make self care a priority.” – Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

How to cope with burnout

If you’re seeing caregiver burnout symptoms, that’s OK. There are tools you can use to change the path you’re on. Take advantage of the resources available to you. They can help you with managing caregiver burnout so you can feel stronger and more capable. 

Resources for coping with caregiver exhaustion include: 

  • Nursing homes / senior living community
  • Adult daycare
  • Assisted living facilities
  • Home health services
  • Group therapy 
  • Support groups
  • Individual therapy

“Oftentimes, when we hold in our feelings about the stresses of being a caregiver, it can show up in our behavior and physical health. There can be great benefits to having a neutral party like a therapist to listen without judgment.” – Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

Therapy can be hugely beneficial and effective as you navigate how to overcome caregiver burnout. Your job as a family caregiver is important, but you can’t do it well unless you’re taking care of yourself and your mental health along the way. The right therapist can help you learn to accept your limitations while offering skills to ensure you’re taking care of your own needs just as successfully as you take care of the needs of your loved one.

Talkspace is an innovative therapy platform that offers convenient online therapy. As a busy caregiver, the last thing you need is to add one more thing to your plate, so getting help shouldn’t be a burden. Online therapy through Talkspace can be the turning point you’ve been seeking and can help you learn how to recover from burnout. Don’t wait to reach out, better mental health is just a click away. 

Sources:

1. Depression: What is burnout?. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK279286/. Published 2020. Accessed September 29, 2022.

2. Skufca L, Rainville C. 2021 Caregiving Out-of-Pocket Costs Study. AARP. https://www.aarp.org/research/topics/care/info-2016/family-caregivers-cost-survey.htm. Published 2021. Accessed September 29, 2022.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

Articles contain trusted third-party sources that are either directly linked to in the text or listed at the bottom to take readers directly to the source.

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