Burnout hurts. When you burn out at work, you feel diminished, like a part of yourself has gone into hiding. Challenges that were formerly manageable feel insurmountable. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from engagement. The engaged employee is energized, involved, and high-performing; the burned-out employee is exhausted, cynical, and overwhelmed.
Research shows that burnout has three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. When you’re emotionally exhausted, you feel used up—not just emotionally, but often physically and cognitively as well. You can’t concentrate. You’re easily upset or angered, you get sick more often, and you have difficulty sleeping. Depersonalization shows up in feelings of alienation from and cynicism towards the people your job requires you to interact with. One of my coaching clients summed it up like this: “I feel like I’m watching myself in a play. I know my role, I can recite my lines, but I just don’t care.” What’s worse, although you can’t imagine going on like this much longer, you don’t see a feasible way out of your predicament.
It’s this third dimension of burnout — reduced personal accomplishment — that traps many employees in situations where they suffer. When you’re burned out, your capacity to perform is compromised, and so is your belief in yourself. In an insidious twist, employers may misinterpret an employee suffering from burnout as an uncooperative low performer rather than as a person in crisis. When that’s the case, you’re unlikely to get the support you desperately need.
Research shows that burnout occurs when the demands people face on the job outstrip the resources they have to meet them. Certain types of demands are much more likely to tax people to the point of burnout, especially a heavy workload, intense pressure, and unclear or conflicting expectations. A toxic interpersonal environment—whether it shows up as undermining, back-stabbing, incivility, or low trust—is a breeding ground for burnout because it requires so much emotional effort just to cope with the situation. Role conflict, which occurs when the expectations of one role that’s important to you conflict with those of another, also increases risk of burnout. This might happen, for example, when the demands of your job make it impossible to spend adequate time with your loved ones, or when the way you’re expected to act at work clashes with your sense of self.
If you think you might be experiencing burnout, don’t ignore it; it won’t go away by itself. The consequences of burnout for individuals are grave, including coronary disease, hypertension, gastrointestinal problems, depression, anxiety, increased alcohol and drug use, marital and family conflict, alienation, sense of futility, and diminished career prospects. The costs to employers include decreased performance, absenteeism, turnover, increased accident risk, lowered morale and commitment, cynicism, and reduced willingness to help others.
To get back to thriving, it’s essential to understand that burnout is fundamentally a state of resource depletion. In the same way that you can’t continue to drive a car that’s out of fuel just because you’d like to get home, you can’t overcome burnout simply by deciding to “pull yourself together.” Rebounding from burnout and preventing its recurrence requires three things: replenishing lost resources, avoiding further resource depletion, and finding or creating resource-rich conditions going forward. Many resources are vital for our performance and well-being, from personal qualities like skills, emotional stability, and good health, to supportive relationships with colleagues, autonomy and control at work, constructive feedback, having a say in matters that affect us, and feeling that our work makes a difference. Try these steps to combat burnout:
Prioritize taking care of yourself to replenish personal resources. Start by making an appointment with your doctor and getting an objective medical assessment. I encourage clients to take a lesson from the safety briefing provided at the beginning of every commercial flight, which instructs passengers to “secure your own oxygen mask before helping others.” In other words, if you want to be able to perform, you need to shore up your capacity to do so. Prioritize good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, connection with people you enjoy, and practices that promote calmness and well-being, like meditation, journaling, talk therapy, or simply quiet time alone doing an activity you enjoy.
Analyze your current situation. Perhaps you already understand what’s burning you out. If not, try this: track how you spend your time for a week (you can either do this on paper, in a spreadsheet, or in one of the many apps now available for time tracking). For each block of time, record what you’re doing, whom you’re with, how you feel (e.g., on a scale of 1-10 where 0=angry or depressed and 10=joyful or energized), and how valuable the activity is. This gives you a basis for deciding where to make changes that will have the greatest impact. Imagine that you have a fuel gauge you can check to see what level your personal resources (physical, mental, and emotional) are at any moment. The basic principle is to limit your exposure to the tasks, people, and situations that drain you and increase your exposure to those that replenish you.
Reduce exposure to job stressors. Your condition may warrant a reduction in your workload or working hours, or taking some time away from work. Using your analysis of time spent and associated mood/energy level and value of activity as a guide, jettison low value/high frustration activities to the extent possible. If you find that there are certain relationships that are especially draining, limit your exposure to those people. Reflect on whether you have perfectionist tendencies; if so, consciously releasing them will lower your stress level. Delegate the things that aren’t necessary for you to do personally. Commit to disconnecting from work at night and on the weekends.
Increase job resources. Prioritize spending time on the activities that are highest in value and most energizing. Reach out to people you trust and enjoy at work. Look for ways to interact more with people you find stimulating. Talk to your boss about what resources you need to perform at your peak. For instance, if you lack certain skills, request training and support for increased performance, such as regular feedback and mentoring by someone who’s skilled. Brainstorm with colleagues about ways to modify work processes to make everyone more resourceful. For instance, you might institute an “early warning system” whereby people reach out for help as soon as they realize they’ll miss a deadline. You might also agree to regularly check in on where the team’s overall level of resources is and to take action to replenish it when it’s low.
Take the opportunity to reassess. Some things about your job are in your capacity to change; others are not. If, for example, the culture of your organization is characterized by pervasive incivility, it’s unlikely that you will ever thrive there. Or if the content of the work has no overlap with what you care about most, finding work that’s more meaningful may be an essential step to thriving. There is no job that’s worth your health, your sanity, or your soul. For many people, burnout is the lever that motivates them to pause, take stock, and create a career that’s more satisfying than what they’d previously imagined.