A guide to burnout: what it is, and how to overcome it

otter

It’s common to feel tired after a long day at work or to need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new feature. But sadly it’s also common to feel tired all the time. To lack enthusiasm about your work. To feel cynical and disengaged from what you do.

These are all symptoms of burnout, which is becoming more common as our work lives become busier, more demanding, and more stressful.

In this post I’ll explore what burnout is, what causes it, and how we can overcome it.

What is burnout?

The term “burnout” was coined in the ’70s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. The term was taken from an analogy of a burned-out house:

If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.

Freudenberger says, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burnt out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”

But what exactly is burnout?

Researchers say burnout can be broken down into three parts:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Inefficacy

Exhaustion from burnout could lead you to be easily upset, have trouble sleeping, get sick more often, and struggle to concentrate.

Cynicism is sometimes called depersonalization in this context, because it’s categorized by feeling alienated from the people you work with and lacking engagement in your work.

Finally, inefficacy refers to a lack of belief in your ability to perform your job well and a decrease in achievement and productivity.

But how do we get into this sorry state? It’s not as simple as overworking.

How is burnout caused?

It’s a common misconception that burnout is simply a result of working too hard or for too long, according to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science.

“Ultimately,” writes Michel, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”

APS Fellow and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach, has been studying burnout since the 70’s. Maslach and her collaborators came up with six components of the workplace environment that can contribute to burnout:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

We end up with burnout when one or more of these areas of our work don’t match our needs.

It’s not a rare condition, either. Research by Gallop recently found that 2.7 million workers in Germany report feeling symptoms of burnout. A different survey in 2013 found nearly 30% of UK-based HR directors surveyed believe there’s widespread burnout in their companies.

And the effects are serious. Michel says burnout is “not just a state of mind, but a condition that leaves its mark on the brain as well as the body.”

burnt-out bunny

Burnout takes a serious toll on both the brain and body.

The risks of burnout

Being tired and lacking engagement in your work is no fun, but the risks of burnout run even deeper.

Research has shown that the chronic psychosocial stress that’s common in people suffering from burnout can impair personal and social functioning as well as overwhelming your cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems.

Over time the effects of burnout can lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems.

One study also found burnout sufferers may have accelerated thinning of the brain’s front cortex—a part that’s essential for cognitive functioning. This section of the brain thins as part of the natural aging process, but the thinning effect was more pronounced in participants who’d experienced burnout.

It’s not just the brain at risk, either. A study of nearly 9,000 workers found burnout significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

This is all sounding rather grim, so let’s move on to something more positive: how to overcome burnout.

Overcoming burnout

So you’re feeling the effects of burnout or you’re worried you’re at risk. What can you do? Psychologists suggest looking for ways to make your workload easier to manage—delegating more, saying “no” more often, and writing down what’s making you feel stressed at work.

But burnout isn’t just about workload stress. To overcome burnout, you also need to find ways to relax and enjoy life again.

Focus on your daily care

It’s easy to forget about looking after yourself when you’re burned out. You’re feeling stressed, you’ve got too much on your plate, and the last thing you have time for is looking after yourself.

But according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, that’s exactly what you should be doing. Carter says making sure you eat well, stay hydrated, exercise, and get plenty of sleep is critical when you’re facing burnout.

Carter also recommends remembering what you like doing to relax, and finding more time for those activities.

Do what you enjoy

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer believes burnout is caused by something simple and easy to fix: a feeling of resentment toward your job.

Burnout is the result, according to Mayer, of work getting in the way of workers’ lives. She says people “will become resentful if work makes them miss things that are really important to them.”

To avoid this resentment turning into burnout, Mayer says it’s important to know what you care about most and schedule time for those activities.

Software developer Kent Nguyen agrees. He says burnout comes from “not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly.”

In Nguyen’s case, he started feeling burnt out when he was spending more time on his management duties than on writing code.

Nguyen thinks of periods of time spent coding like checkpoints, each one staving off burnout for a little longer. He has small daily checkpoints and bigger weekly and monthly checkpoints so there’s always a new bout of the thing he loves to do coming up. And when he misses a checkpoint, he makes sure to schedule another one as soon as possible so he never goes too long without doing what he enjoys most.

Add something new

This will probably sound strange, because it’s a very counterintuitive idea, but James Sudakow, author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, actually added to his hectic schedule to help him avoid burnout.

Sudakow admits his schedule was hectic. Between his family duties, work, and the hours he spends writing every week, there wasn’t much wiggle room.

But Sudakow did what few of us would—he added piano lessons to his schedule. 30 minutes per week for the lessons and an hour to practice every day meant more than six hours per week of extra commitments.

But here’s the strange thing: it actually worked. That extra commitment helped Sudakow stave off burnout.

The trick, he says, was choosing something that helped rejuvenate his energy. Playing piano at night made me feel better when he went to sleep and when he woke up the next day. That daily rejuvenation seeped into his work and made him feel better overall.


While adding to your schedule or even finding more time for something you already enjoy doing might seem impossible when you’re facing burnout, looking after yourself is a great place to start. Simply focusing on sleep, eating well, and getting a little exercise every day can help you avoid the worst of burnout while you get back on track.


How to clear out the digital clutter and get your focus back

computers

I spend most of my day on a computer. When I’m not working I spend my spare time programming or blogging. When I take a break I spend it looking at my phone.

One of the problems with all this time spent looking at screens is the amount of digital clutter these habits have created in my life.

I don’t just mean files cluttering up my desktop or a Facebook account full of friends I barely know. I mean the intangible clutter: the accounts I have on every social network; the abandoned to-do lists left behind in every to-do app I’ve ever tried; the people I’m always comparing myself to or trying to beat.

Spending so much time online every day leads to a cluttered life. One where you don’t stop and think before grabbing your phone during any moment of downtime. One where you start feeling obliged to post on social networks twice a day because your followers expect you to and you forgot to ask yourself if it even matters what people expect.

It’s so easy for these habits to creep up on us that we never get a chance to ask ourselves if this is how we want to spend our time. Before we notice anything changing it just feels normal to fill up our time—our lives—with screens.

But once we realise how cluttered our lives have become with screens, social media, and expectations, we can look for ways to simplify that mess.

Transition to digital minimalism

Professor and author Cal Newport is well-known for his ideas about productivity—in particular, finding the time and space to do real, important work. So when Newport suggested quitting social media, people took notice.

We’ve all heard of social media sabbaticals, where someone quits social media for a short period of time, but Newport also has a suggestion for a more lasting approach than the yo-yo of quitting and rejoining social media over and over: digital minimalism.

Digital minimalism, says Newport, is focused on the idea of removing digital clutter and spending our time only on what adds value to our lives.

Digital minimalism, he says, “is a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

Newport’s philosophy is based around the idea that we can improve our lives by “intentionally and aggressively clearing away low-value digital noise, and optimizing [our] use of the tools that really matter.”

Of course, to adopt a philosophy that requires us to prune our use of (and reliance on) digital tools, we’ll inevitably have to face FOMO—fear of missing out. Newport says one of the key beliefs underlying his digital minimalism philosophy is that missing out is not bad. We have to come to terms with the idea that we will miss out on some things, and that that’s okay. FOMO is only holding us back by giving us an excuse to stay chained to the digital clutter we’ve accumulated.

So if we admit we can’t keep up with everything anyway and let go of our FOMO, what’s next? How do we actually clear out the digital clutter that’s built up in our lives?

Newport suggests two alternatives for making the transition to digital minimalism. The first is a subtractive approach. This involves removing each digital tool, service, or associated behavior that you find doesn’t add value to your life. One by one, survey each element of digital clutter you’ve accumulated and ask yourself if it deserves to stay. If not, remove it.

The other approach is an additive method. It involves removing everything initially, and adding back only those tools, services or behaviors that do serve your values.

With either of these approaches, you could use RescueTime to show you which distracting tools and services take up most of your time. If you use the subtractive approach, your RescueTime data could also show you how much more productive you are when you cut out everything you can do without, and how that changes as you start adding things back into your life.

Either way, the most important thing, says Newport, is to make sure you’re choosing the best tool or service in each case, not just whatever will do the job.

Choose the best tool for the job

tools

Many of us fall prey to the easy option of finding value in every digital tool we use. It’s not hard to make an argument for spending time on Facebook or having a Twitter account. You could even argue the merits of Snapchat—no one would begrudge you having fun with friends.

But Newport points out that we rarely take the time to find the best way to get the value we’re looking for. Instead, we try a new tool, find some value in it, and decide that’s a good reason to keep giving it our attention.

Newport suggests another way of approaching the digital clutter in our lives. Whether you use his subtractive or additive method from the previous section, he recommends starting by thinking about your values. What is it that’s important to you? What do you want to achieve from how you spend your time?

When you know what your values are, Newport says, you can focus on finding the best tools to help you live out those values.

For example, if you previously found scrolling through Twitter every few minutes useful because it helped you stay on top of news, and one of your values is to be informed about local events, you could then evaluate whether Twitter is the best tool for staying updated on what’s happening in your local area. You might find that a local newspaper or the RSS feed of a local news website is a better tool to help you live out this particular value.

Protect your time

clock

One of the inevitable effects of digital clutter is that it makes us busy. Filling our time with email, social networks, and mindless scrolling through other people’s updates leaves us with little time to get real work done. Our lives are taken over by busy work.

As writer and entrepreneur Scott H. Young points out, this is a problem because we associate being busy with being productive, but they’re not the same. When we spend all our time on busywork, therefore, we entertain the idea that we’re being productive while all along we’re neglecting our most important work.

Although it can be difficult to escape from the cycle of busyness, doing so opens up time for hard, important work.

Young suggests cutting back on your commitments to leave more room for big projects. Newport similarly advocates doing fewer things better, rather than spreading yourself too thin.

But Young also suggests being disconnected or hard to reach on purpose. The more available and responsive you are, the more easily other people can clutter up your life and eat up your time with their own priorities.

Our own CEO Robby Macdonell tried drastically cutting back on his social media activity because it was becoming overwhelming:

About a year ago, I got into a rut where I was completely bogged down with checking news and social networks. I had so many streams of information to monitor that keeping up was really draining. I got totally burnt out on it and decided to quit most of it cold turkey, cutting my time spent on social media by about 90%. I uninstalled everything from my phone and made a point to stay logged out of sites on my browser. The awkward feeling of being cut off from everything was real, but it passed after a few days.

A year later, Macdonell says the change was worth it:

Getting away from the noise I had been wading through felt great. The best part of it is the quality of my offline time is way up. I’m more present, and ‘catching up’ with my friends is generally now a focused conversation instead of skimming over a bunch of status updates.

It might sound extreme, but not having an account on every social network, not leaving your status as “available” in chat programs during work hours, or even not sharing your email address could open up huge chunks of uninterrupted time for real work. By making it harder for other people to contact you, you’ll ensure only very important messages will reach you, and you’ll protect your time from busywork and time-consuming requests.

Of course, the problem then becomes what to use as an excuse when you avoid the hard work anyway…


It’s never easy to go against the grain, but in doing what seems normal we’re doing ourselves a disservice. Our “normal” has become a harmful habit of accepting all new, available technology into our lives, regardless of how much value it really brings us.

Taking the time to re-evaluate the tools we use and how we spend our time can be an eye-opening experience. And if we regularly evaluate our choices and protect our time and attention, we may just be able to avoid falling into that trap again.


What makes us happy at work

computer on desk

It’s a new year, and I’ve just started a new job. Since joining the team at RescueTime I’ve been researching and writing about how people work and how we can work more effectively.

This has all got me thinking about the inherent joy some people find at work, and the lack of it so many people feel these days.

What is it that makes us happy at work? And how can we make sure it happens more often?

Making progress in meaningful work

According to researchers Teresa Amabile and Steven J. Kramer, “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

Amabile and Kramer have spent nearly 15 years looking into what affects people’s moods, motivation, and happiness at work. In all their work they found one particular element that made the biggest difference on how employees feel about their work (and in general): whether or not they feel like they made progress in meaningful work.

They call this the progress principle.

And the more often employees experience that feeling of progress, Amabile and Kramer have found, the more productive they’ll be in the long term.

The progress principle hinges on two main findings: firstly that a central driver of productivity in creative work is the employee’s inner work life—that is, the emotions, motivations and perceptions they experience throughout the workday. The second finding is that making progress in work we care about affects all three parts of our inner work life positively.

Amabile’s and Kramer’s research showed employees who made progress were happier, more intrinsically motivated, reported more positive interactions with colleagues, and perceived more positive challenges in their work.

Those who experienced setbacks, on the other hand, felt more frustration, fear, and sadness. They felt less intrinsically motivated, but also responded less to recognition from peers as extrinsic motivation, and perceived their colleagues as less supportive. They were also more likely to feel that they lacked the freedom and resources needed to succeed in their work.

Inner work life doesn’t just affect how much work you get done today, either. It can affect your work performance the following day, too. But if your inner work life is good, you’re not only more likely to be productive—you’ll be more committed to work and more collegial to others, too.

The good news is you don’t have to make huge strides for the progress principle to take effect. Amabile and Kramer say even small wins can boost your inner work life, so long as they’re part of meaningful work. In fact, 28% of incidents reported in their research had a minor impact on the related project, but a major impact on how the reporting employee felt. We tend to have outsized reactions to small events, say Amabile and Kramer.

Which means focusing on making small gains in our most important work every day is a solid approach to improving our happiness, commitment, and productivity at work.

Feeling good about our company’s mission

According to Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell University, one of the most important parts of job satisfaction is simply how an employee feels about the company’s mission. This may relate to the progress principle, as mentioned above, since caring about our company’s mission likely makes us feel like our work has meaning, and the progress principle only holds for meaningful work—making progress on work we perceive as menial doesn’t make us feel good.

In a survey of Cornell senior students about to enter the job market, two hypothetical jobs were on offer. Both jobs had identical pay and working conditions. One was helping to discourage smoking at the American Cancer Society. The other was working with the tobacco industry to encourage smoking.

With all else being equal, 90% of the survey respondents chose the American Cancer Society job. That makes sense, right? If you’re not losing anything, why not take the job that gives you warm fuzzies as well?

But even more than choosing that job, when asked how much higher the tobacco industry job salary would have to be to encourage them to change their answer, the average response was: 80% higher.

Gratitude

A much smaller, simpler aspect of our happiness at work is simply how appreciated we feel. Saying “thank you” to your employees might seem like a small thing, but it can have big effects. One study found people who were explicitly thanked for their work were 50% more productive afterwards—even if the gratitude came from a distant supervisor rather than their manager.

In a survey of 2,000 American workers, the results showed this isn’t subconscious, either. We seem to know that gratitude makes us feel better, and desire more of it.

81% of the survey’s respondents said they’d be willing to work harder for an appreciative boss, and 70% said a thankful boss would make them feel better about themselves and their work.

Sadly, only 10% of the survey respondents said they regularly show gratitude to their colleagues.

The good news is, it’s easy to start showing gratitude to your employees or colleagues. And the effect should last longer than other rewards, according to Wharton professor Adam Grant:

Extrinsic motivators can stop having much meaning—your raise in pay feels like your just due, your bonus gets spent, your new title doesn’t sound so important once you have it. But the sense that other people appreciate what you do sticks with you.

Not only will that feeling last, but it can affect that person’s behavior into the future. An experiment that showed this effect had students send cover letters to people who were paid to offer feedback. After receiving feedback on their letters, some students replied with a simple email to acknowledge receipt of the feedback. The rest of the students sent very appreciative emails in response to the feedback they received.

The researchers had students send out a second cover letter and request for feedback later, and found that people who’d been thanked in the first round were twice as likely to help with the second round of letters.

But here’s the best part: they weren’t just twice as likely to help the same student. They were twice as likely to ask any student who asked for their feedback.

So while thanking someone could improve their productivity at work and how they feel, it could also increase the likelihood of them being helpful again in the future—and not just to you. Thanking people, then, is an easy way to make your entire office a better place for everyone.

Feeling good about our position in life

Sometimes, when you’re trying to figure out what works, it helps to look at what doesn’t work, too. In terms of happiness at work, this translates to looking at what makes people quit their jobs. Knowing when and why people leave can help us figure out how to improve the workplace so people won’t quit.

Brian Kropp works for CEB, a best-practice insight and technology company that researches why employees leave their jobs. But the why isn’t the most interesting part of Kropp’s work. The why is fairly obvious, since the same reasons have held steady for years: not liking your boss, not perceiving any opportunities for growth, or being offered a better job or higher salary elsewhere are all common reasons to quit.

What’s really interesting about Kropp’s work is not the why but the when:

We’ve learned that what really affects people is their sense of how they’re doing compared with other people in their peer group, or with where they thought they would be at a certain point in life.

So it’s not always the job itself that triggers an employee to think about quitting—it’s how they feel about their life as a whole.

Kropp says particular types of events trigger this kind of evaluative thinking in employees. Job hunting jumps 6%, for instance, after anniversaries of joining the company, and 9% after anniversaries of moving roles. Birthdays bring on the evaluations even stronger, with a 12% jump in job hunting just before birthday. And after class reunions we tend to job hunt 16% more.

The most important lesson from Kropp’s work is that what happens at work isn’t the only input into an employee’s happiness with their career. How our jobs fit into our lives as a whole is a big concern when it comes to being ready to move on, which bad bosses or offers of more money giving us the final reason to take the leap.


Whether you’re a manager responsible for other employees or not, it’s useful to understand the underlying reasons we find meaning in our work (or not). Knowing that particular anniversaries or birthdays can trigger an evaluation of our circumstances and that simply saying thank you more often can make people feel better about their work can help us avoid surprise resignations—from our staff or ourselves.