What is burnout?
Technically, burnout is a psychological syndrome caused by prolonged exposure to chronic interpersonal stressors, aka human interactions that act as causes of stress (Maslach, 2016).
Being in a stressful environment (high demands and low control; high effort with little reward), combined with limited support, for a long time, without effective recovery or breaks, leads to burn out. It can also be caused by the feeling that things are unfair or that you are being forced to do something that is not effectively aligned with your values (stress created by a values conflict).
See below the core drivers of burnout, as identified by academic researchers in occupational health psychology, in equation format.
There are three main dimensions to burnout.
- A decrease in perceived (and often actual) effectiveness.
You can have severe burn out (aka the feelings are highly frequent/constant) even if you only experience burnout on one of these dimensions. On the flip side, when you have all three dimensions of burnout, all the time, it’s the worst.
Burnout is a slow burn - no pun intended. It usually starts with feeling overworked and under-resourced. You may feel like you are always tired and/or stressed. Feelings of cynicism about your work may crop up - which could show up as jadedness or active anger. Eventually, your body goes into a semi-permanent state of arousal from stress, leading to adrenal fatigue. Alternatively, you may get panic attacks, have a nervous breakdown, or collapse in physical exhaustion. At this point, you’ll likely have no choice but to take time off from work, in order to recover from the physical and mental repercussions (rumination, lethargy, digestion issues, pain).
The good news? Burnout has obvious warning signs, is totally possible to fix, and is also easily preventable. Read on to identify the signs of burnout and how to easily prevent it for yourself!
A recipe for top performance without burnout
1. Do a reality check
First - check in with yourself. Read the statements below, and rate yourself on a scale of 0-6, based on the frequency with which you identify with these statements.
0 = Never, 1 = A few times a year, 2 = Once a month, 3 = A few times a month, 4 = Once a week, 5 = A few times a week, 6 = Every day.
- I feel burned out from my work.
- I have become more callous toward people since I took this job (alternative: I worry that this job is hardening me emotionally).
- I have accomplished many worthwhile things in this job.
These three statements have been validated by researchers as single-item measures of the burnout dimensions of emotional exhaustion, cynicism (also known as depersonalisation), and inefficacy, respectively.
If you’re high (close to 6) on question 1 and 2, and low (close to 0) on question 3, you are likely experiencing burnout on all three dimensions. As it turns out, just asking yourself ‘am I feeling burned out’ is a pretty darn good indicator of whether you are feeling emotionally exhausted, and thus experiencing that dimension of burnout, if not all three.
2. Identify your biggest risks
Next up, identify your biggest risks. The tasks, actions or behaviours that are most likely to tip you into burnout territory.
To do this, consider the below list of ‘burnout drivers’ and try to identify the specific things that may contribute to these feelings in your life.
Remember the simple equation.
Take a moment of time to review your current situation at work, and identify your risks on each of the factors listed in the equation above. There are specific academic questionnaires that can help you identify your position on each, but for a quick start, you can apply a bit of common sense and (again) self-reflection.
Go step by step through the equation, asking yourself the question: ‘Do I have high demands in work?’ or ‘Do I have high or low control?’.
Be as specific as possible. Instead of writing “I have high demands on my time”, you should write “Prepping for our quarterly investor meetings feels like a big burden”.
You are looking for specific tasks, behaviours or actions in your life that make you feel as ift:
- You have high demands (relative to your resource). You are always on, you have long hours of work, you have to respond quickly, you have to work fast, your work stretches your personal capacity or skills, and/or work is frequently emotionally intense and requires emotional energy.
- You have low control. You have limited latitude in how/when/where you do your work, you have limited influence over your work environment, goals or what you do, your work frequently gets disrupted or changed, and/or you get limited visibility on your impact (no feedback).
- You have little support. You have limited instrumental support (you don’t have people to call on for help, whether that’s for information or to do a task), you have a limited budget and/or team, and limited psychological sense of being supported (lack of community).
- You have mismatched effort and reward. You (perceive) that for your effort you are underpaid, insufficiently recognised, not receiving the professional development opportunities you wish for or deserve, or your job is insufficiently psychological rewarding.
- Not fair/values not aligned. You feel like decision-making and/or resource allocation is unfair (this could be within your company, or by investors, or among your team), you feel a lack of meaning in your work, or you and/or another person have an active values conflict.
- Not enough rest/recovery. You are not getting enough inter-day breaks to rest, or enough post-work recovery (including non-work activities, passive recovery like reading or listening to music, and sleep), whether physically, emotionally, or mentally. While holidays help, research has concluded that daily recovery on all dimensions of your work is actually what is critical.
Try not to downplay your situation by telling yourself ‘It’s not so bad’ or ‘Everyone else also [x]’. Regardless of if you’ve gotten used to stress, or it feels like other people have more work than you, this is about reflecting on what is working or not working for you, as an individual person. The burnout process, after all, starts with how you personally perceive your situation (that’s the psychological element). This is what leads to the related stress response and/or lack of recovery that triggers the physiological effects.
So go with your personal instinct. If you feel like something might be an issue, it probably is.
Once you’re done, keep this list with you, as you’ll need it later, so you can start to address your risks through a lean self-management process. Read on.
3. Create a personal routines ‘template’
You can kickstart prevention by creating personal routines that mean you achieve what you want, in the way that works for you, while getting that work-recovery balance.
To prevent burnout, create a personal portfolio of routines to ensure you
- Stay on top of your health, work, and recovery
- Stay connected to what you find fair and value in life, and
- Surround yourself with people who are personally supportive and professionally valuable
This addresses six of the major risk factors (high demand, low control, lack of fairness, lack of values alignment, lack of community or support, limited recovery).
So, how do you find your routines? If you take a few minutes to think back, you probably already have a list of things that you like to do that keep you feeling good. Ask yourself: Outside of work, what do I love and get a deep emotional/ psychological/ physical benefit from? What are the things that I feel really stressed without? Among these, you should note the activities that you would call ‘non-negotiable’ (make sure one includes sleep: we all need that!).
Write down an ‘MVP’ portfolio of routines which combine the 3 to 4 things that are non-negotiable for you. If you can, try to be specific about the frequency and duration, or intensity, of these activities, also. These might feel quite personal, but that’s good! The weirder the better.
Example non-negotiables you might write:
- 6.5 hours of weeknight sleep (ideally 7.5-8)
- Cardio/HIIT, up to 4-5 times per week
- A solid healthy diet that includes lots of protein/veg
- Big night out at least once every 2-3 weeks (I love music, so a good music gig is a must for me)
- Having at least 3-4 hours per week of long chats/heart to hearts with my friends & family
The objective is to have a short set of routines that support your personal sanity, relationships and overall physical/mental/emotional health. These should be frequent and intense enough to let you balance out your interests and actively recover. Intensity is important, because work will be very intense daily.
4. Plan your week. Build measure learn (yes, the lean/agile way) on an ongoing basis
As much as you try, you can't "do it all". At least for not any prolonged period of time. Instead of trying to strategize it all in, apply a lean and measured approach to organising your work-life to keep on top of your work AND your health.
To get started, do a quick sense check on how you spend your time during the week. Get your calendar out and block out time for those routines. Block in regular periods for high powered work. Then move things around to create a rough pattern of breaks and enough downtime for rest and recovery. Then check to make sure you have not missed out any other critical (e.g. family) obligations. If you need to, add them in and move everything else so it fits.
If your schedule looks reasonable for both work and routines and rest, you are golden.
If not, that’s fine. Start putting the strategy for week planning (below) into practice, and test and learn until you have a rhythm that’s basically right.
Block out 10 to 15 minutes on Friday morning every week to review your current state, and layout your time blocks and actions for next week, on an ongoing basis. In 15 minutes you can do so much good. You will surprise yourself!
STAGE 1: CHECK-IN
- Check-in with yourself. How are you feeling? (burnt out? well-resourced? How is your mood, energy, motivation, stress?)
- Sense check: Are you making great progress in work and getting enough recovery/sleep? Note if you need to shift time from work into recovery.
- Non-negotiables: Mentally tally whether you did your routines (if not, no problems; next week plan you’ll ahead)
STAGE 2: PLAN AND OFFLOAD
- Plan ahead: Open your schedule for next week, and block out personal routines time, plus blocks for rest/recovery and work, and any other critical obligations.
- Extra credit: Do a brain dump of anything causing you stress in life or work, and add it to your list of ‘risks’ for burnout you created before
STAGE 3: MANAGE BURNOUT RISKS
- Pick 1 thing from your ‘risks’ list to address. E.g. the one you are most ruminating on or find most draining.
- Schedule in 40-50 minutes to fix it. Block some time out to brainstorm and then implement one small action. You don’t have to fix everything at once. Small steps are better than nothing at all.
STAGE 4: REWARD AND REPEAT.
- Mentally reward yourself for something small you did. If you have any activities you enjoy doing, also make sure to schedule those in.
- Plan next Friday’s reflection time
TOP TIP: Self-management is a real thing, and is positively linked with higher engagement at work, and avoiding burnout. Self-management includes observing yourself (what’s my current state?), reviewing your progress against your goals, and cueing yourself up for what to do next. Self-rewarding and self-enforcing when things go well or poorly is also a must.
In conclusion, burnout can creep up on you. But it’s detectable and preventable.