These are my Top tips for preventing burnout, with some background on why and how burnout happens in the first place.
Why You’re Burned Out
Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. You might feel like you just woke up burned out one day. But more likely, you just “woke up” to the reality of being burned out. The definition of burnout — a syndrome resulting from chronic, unmanaged workplace stress — hints at why & how burnout happens.
REASON ONE: A TOXIC WORKPLACE
For starters, you need to know that you are not the problem or the reason for your burnout.
I’m not saying you have no role in it and you can’t do anything about it — you do, and you can (as I’ll discuss below). The thing is, people tend to blame themselves for experiencing burnout, but it’s actually problematic environments that lead to burnout.
The World Health Organization’s (2018) International Classification of Diseases for Mortality and Morbidity Statistics (11th ed.; ICD-11) is very clear in identifying the workplace as the source of burnout. Research on burnout since the 1970’s supports this (Maslach et al., 2001).Not all workplaces cause burnout. It’s toxic workplaces — ones that are harmful to your well-being — that create the conditions needed for burnout to exist. A major sign of a toxic workplace is when demand outweighs resources.
Unfortunately, lots of work environments are like this today. Look at the field of healthcare in the U.S., especially between 2020-2021 during the global pandemic. We’ve seen news stories and videos of healthcare professionals communicating that they do not have the resources (personal protective equipment, etc.) to manage the demands of their job. In reality, many medical facilities didn’t have the resources they needed before the pandemic, so things have only gotten worse.
REASON TWO: WORK STRESS
Sometimes people mix up stress and burnout. They’re related, but different. Stress is a precursor to burnout. In other words, you can’t be burned out without first being stressed. However, you can experience stress without it turning into burnout.
The words “chronic” and “unmanaged” in the definition of burnout are important. These words tell us how stress develops into burnout. It has to do with the body’s stress response cycle being over-worked due to persistent stress (Nagoski & Nagoski, 2020). More on this below.
The Burnout Cycle: How Burnout Happens
The two main ingredients for burnout are a toxic work environment and work stress. But how do these ingredients combine to make burnout?
It’s a 3-part feedback loop I call The Burnout Cycle:
- Encounter Work Stressors
You face a number of stressors at work — e.g., conflicts with co-workers, poor leadership, or the workload itself.
- Experience “Fight or Flight” Stress Response In Body
These stressors trigger a stress response in your body. I’m talking increased heart rate & blood pressure, sweat production, shallow breathing, and so on. (This is the “fight or flight” response you might have learned about in school. It’s meant to prepare you to deal with stressors in your environment.)
- Insufficient Resources ➞ Poor Coping
You don’t have enough resources to effectively manage work stressors or the accompanying stress response in your body.
A NOTE ON INSUFFICIENT RESOURCES
There are usually two kinds of resources lacking.
First, you lack the environmental resources you need (e.g., time, training, and tools) to meet the demands of your job. That’s the crucial element of burnout I mentioned before (demand > resources), and it’s a stressor. Often you don’t have much control over environmental resources, which is frustrating. This can lead you to disconnect from or feel negativity toward work, one of the three symptoms of burnout.
For a number of reasons, you may also lack the personal resources you need (e.g., emotional capacity and problem-solving) to cope with stress. Your personal resources are the ones you have a bit more control over, which is good news. You can improve your ability to cope with stress, and therefore fend off burnout, by strengthening your personal resources.
When Work Stress Turns Into Burnout
Your unmanaged stress has an additive effect as can be seen in the diagram above of The Burnout Cycle. I can’t tell you exactly how many cycles through this feedback loop it takes for burnout to occur, but I can tell you that if you continue to cycle through this process without interrupting it, burnout is almost inevitable.
Each day that you return to a toxic work environment, face stressors, feel stress in your body, and are unable to manage that stress, you feel a little bit worse and get a little bit closer to burnout.
“FIGHT OR FLIGHT” IN OVER-DRIVE
You feel worse over time because of that “fight or flight” response I mentioned. Your body was not designed to be in “fight or flight” mode non-stop. You don’t need an increased heart rate, shallow breathing, and other heightened bodily reactions to help you manage a difficult situation at work (like you would have needed to literally fight off a predator in ancient times). “Fight or flight” is an important bodily process that’s gone into over-drive for many of us in today’s stressful world.
To put it simply, over time, your body tires out from being in a state of chronic, unmanaged stress. Eventually, you notice that you feel kind of like a piece of burnt toast.
I don’t know if that’s what U.S. psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberg had in mind when he first coined the term “burnout” in 1974 (Maslach et al., 2001), but the analogy works well.
I began this article by explaining that you are not to blame for your burnout. Now you know this is true, because you saw above how a toxic workplace and work stress lead to burnout. The reason I stress the fact that you are not the problem is because the #1 thing I see as a therapist who helps people recover from toxic workplaces, is people becoming “stuck” in their burnout due to self-blame and shame.
But it would be inaccurate to say that you have no role in your burnout. You absolutely have personal agency. You have the ability to prevent or stop the progression of the The Burnout Cycle, as well as the ability to worsen it, based on your actions.
HOW TO STOP BURNOUT [5 TIPS]
- Tune into bodily sensations that might be signaling stress.
Your body holds onto your unmanaged stress. If you slow down and listen, it will tell you before you reach burnout (and when you’re already there). Oftentimes, physical symptoms that can’t be otherwise explained are a manifestation of stress.
- Identify current work stressors and what is within your control to change.
Since work is likely to be the cause of your burnout, it’s important to get clear on what stressors you can and cannot change. The things that are within your control should be prioritized and dealt with first.
- Seek additional support both at work and at home.
Some examples: Find out if there’s a union at your job and/or reach out to Human Resources. Let loved ones know what you’re going through so they can take some things off your plate at home. Consider professional help, like therapy (a place to talk about what’s on your mind without worrying you’re a burden).
- Consider how well your current coping strategies for stress are working.
You are living and breathing, which means you are coping with your stress. But, if you’re not coping effectively, your stress will continue to build. Take a moment to think about how you’ve been managing your stress (what sorts of things you do when you’re not at work), and identify what changes are needed. Be sure to give yourself credit for things you already do help!
- Make sure you’re tending to the basics — diet, sleep, exercise.
These are your lifelines. It’s probably been drilled into your head since you were young, but as a grown adult hustling to make a living in this world, you may have forgotten how vital these things truly are. Above all else, sleep is the #1 thing you should seek to improve if it’s lacking. Poor sleep negatively affects every other area of your life.
WHEN TO SEEK PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT
It can be hard to heal burnout on your own. If you feel consistently stressed out or overwhelmed, or if stress/burnout is impacting your ability to function in your daily life, it’s a good idea to reach out to a mental health professional who has knowledge about what you’re going through.
I provide online therapy for Florida residents struggling with burnout, perfectionism, and self-criticism. You can read more about my services on my website at https://drsamantharae.com/specialties.
- If you’re working in a stressful or toxic workplace day after day, and the demand exceeds the resources you have to manage your workload, you’re likely carrying stress home with you.
- You aren’t alone if your coping strategies aren’t working. Many people struggle to manage stress in a healthy way due to lack of personal resources, like emotional capacity. Eventually, this leads to burnout — that feeling of being completely “tapped out.”
- Understanding how chronic, unmanaged stress leads to burnout can help you to prevent or stop The Burnout Cycle. Start by trying my Top 5 tips above!
SOURCES CITED IN THIS ARTICLE
- Aron, E. N. (2020). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Citadel.
- Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. Annual Review of Psychology, 52(1), 397–422. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.psych.52.1.397
- Nagoski, E., & Nagoski, A. (2020). Burnout: The secret to unlocking the stress cycle. Ballantine Books.
- World Health Organization. (2018). International classification of diseases for mortality and morbidity statistics (11th Revision). Retrieved from https://icd.who.int/browse11/l-m/en