Burnout is a hot button organizational topic, even outside the realm of the fast-paced tech startups of Silicon Valley. However, there are also a lot of misconceptions about it, what causes it and what to do about it. So this is my attempt to summarize the more useful and credible information I was able to find about this important topic.
Let’s start with a more accurate definition: burnout is a syndrome that results from applying ineffective coping strategies to dealing with stress. It’s most common mental and physical symptoms are exhaustion, cynicism and professional inefficacy. A recent study elaborates further:
- Exhaustion is the feeling of not being able to offer any more of oneself at an emotional level
- Cynicism represents a distant attitude towards work, those served by it, and colleagues
- Inefficacy is the feeling of not performing tasks adequately or being incompetent at work.
To understand burnout, we need to start by understanding stress.
Stress is our physiological response to an environmental condition that we unconsciously perceive as a threat, often also referred to as the “Fight of Flight” response. Our sympathetic nervous system and our adrenal glands (by secreting cortisol hormone into the bloodstream) prepare out body to take action to respond to the threat:
While stress was evolutionarily designed as a survival mechanism, moderate levels of stress, often referred to as eustress, have a positive impact on performance:
Problems arise when the level of stress exceeds our physical and mental ability to deal with it. Experiencing this unsustainable level of distress for long periods of time eventually leads to burnout.
While burnout can be more clinically diagnosed using the Maslach Burnout Inventory Test, there are many leading indicators on the path for burnout. Herbert Freudenberger the psychologist who first identified burnout as a unique syndrome and gave it its name, identified a 12-stage process which, without effective intervention, eventually leads to full burnout syndrome:
Once burnout reaches a clinical stage treatment requires clinical intervention. But often times burnout can be avoided by more gentle interventions prior to that. The interventions that can be applied once symptoms start manifesting themselves can easily be considered also as effective preventative strategies if turned into healthy habits:
- Make self-care your #1 priority, before work: eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, taking time off in meaningful chunks (several days) and investing in your closest social relationships. Consider adopting more of a segmentor approach to managing your work and non-work time.
- Proactively manage your workload: deliberately and ruthlessly prioritizing your work, which also includes learning how to renegotiate pre-existing commitments and learning how to say no the right way.
- Strengthen and reflect on your motivation for doing the work — do an Immunity To Change exercise and uncover the hidden commitments that lead you to overwork. Design safe experiments to start loosening the hold that these commitments have on your life. Motivation is driven by both meaning (the work that we do here matters to me) and impact (the work that I do here, matters to others) and there can be disconnects on both fronts. Build deliberate reflective spaces into your routine to identify what they are and work to resolve them.
- Invest in developing mindfulness and self-awareness — in the context of managing stress and burnout the benefits are two-fold: i) tactically, in situations that trigger the “fight or flight” response, identify the sensory triggers that tell you that you are in that state and take deliberate action to diffuse them, and avoid staying in that mode more than you absolutely have to. You’re essentially increasing your capacity to deal with stress effectively ii) More strategically, identify the symptoms that suggest that you’re on track for burnout sooner rather than later and take corrective action.