Burning out isn’t worth it: how to avoid it and recover from it

It’s kind of remarkable how we haven’t figured things out yet. No matter how many articles or listicles or podcast clips get created about the importance of work-life balance, and restraint, and rest—how getting enough rest literally will improve our work and lives in immeasurable ways—we still spend so much of our days and lives doing just the opposite.

In fact, we often find ourselves grappling with an issue on the other end of the spectrum: instead of doling out appropriate time for napping and restful activities, we’re near collapse. Having pushed ourselves so hard that our bodies and minds begin to actively break down—so desperate for a reprieve that we can conceive of no other option than shutting down completely.

This is burnout. This is when you’re so tired you can’t see straight, but you’re also depressed. When your body hurts all over, and you don’t really know why, but you also totally know why. And when you start to question your career and life choices amidst a torrent of apathy and motivation issues.

It’s important to note that burnout is not your fault. It happens to the best of us.

But it is, however, now your responsibility. And it’s a fickle and mysterious beast. It’s so hard to tell when it’s coming, when it’s here, or when it’s already too late. It’s too easy to confuse with, I don’t know, just being really tired. It’s like someone with no psychological training trying to decipher and diagnose: are you depressed, or just really, really sad?

You may be burning out literally as we speak! And neither of us would have any idea until it was maybe even too late! Can you avoid it before it happens? See the signs?

Thankfully, there are things we can do. Knowledge is power. The fundamentals will carry us far. And we can rest easy knowing that we know a lot more about our own bodies than we might realize. We know when something is up. We know when we’re more than just “a little tired.”

So, because we often make things more complicated than we need to, we have to do a little homework before we talk more about healthy productive habits. Let’s talk about how to save ourselves from burning our souls to a crisp.

What is burnout?


The term “Burnout” was coined in the 1970s by a man named Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. It’s one of the most specifically evocative terms we have in our productivity and mental health vocabulary—it brings to mind images of a house, or a stretch of farmland, burnt to ashes. The caption might read “This is your brain on too much work.”

To continue belaboring the metaphor: imagine a burned-out house. The bones might stay standing—the frame and structure of the house. But the inside is charred, reduced to cinders. Your inner resources—your heart, your mind—those are what are really in danger. That’s what is at risk of real devastation.

But what happens to us that makes all these scary side effects happen?  How is it different from just being really, really tired? How do you even know if you’re burned out?

Researchers break it down into three main components:

  1. Exhaustion: The obvious one. This manifests as heightened irritability, aggressively bad sleep problems, and difficulty focusing. One lesser-known but almost more terrible side effect: increased susceptibility to illness. Your immune system can actually get knocked out and decommissioned, leaving you one unwashed hand away from losing a week to the flu.
  2. Cynicism: Another name for this phenomenon you might have heard is depersonalization. Beyond just acting and feeling like a jerk with anyone you interact with, you might also feel numb, apathetic, or positively misanthropic—disconnected from your colleagues, and disengaged with work. In other words, you turn into someone you wouldn’t want to hang out with.
  3. Inefficacy: It involves doubting one’s competence, leading to decreased productivity and a sense of underachievement.

Basically: take a bad feeling or state of being, and multiply it by ten. That’s burnout. The worst version of everything—in some cases, so bad you didn’t even know it could get that bad.

But how do we end up in this state? It’s not just about working too much (otherwise the whole country would be suffering all the time). Unfortunately, the causes are frustratingly multifaceted.

Why does this happen to us?


Many believe that burnout stems solely from excessive work hours or effort, but according to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science, this is a misconception.

Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science, explains that the idea of burnout stemming solely from excessive work is a misconception. In actuality, burnout seems to occur the most when the demands of work, including deadlines and stressors, outweigh the rewards, recognition, and opportunities for relaxation.

Christina Maslach, an APS Fellow and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, has extensively studied burnout since the 1970s. Together with her team, Maslach identified six key components in the workplace environment that contribute to burnout: workload, control, reward, community, fairness, and values. When these aspects of work fail to align with an individual’s needs, burnout can result.

Burnout is not an uncommon phenomenon. Recent research by Gallup revealed that 2.7 million workers in Germany experience symptoms of burnout. Similarly, a survey conducted in 2013 found that nearly 30% of HR directors in the UK perceive widespread burnout within their organizations.

The consequences of burnout are significant, as Michel emphasizes that it affects both mental and physical well-being, leaving a lasting impact on the brain and body.

The risks: why it’s not worth it


Feeling exhausted and disengaged at work is tough, but the dangers of burnout go beyond just that.

Studies have highlighted that the ongoing psychosocial stress associated with burnout can not only affect personal and social functioning but also overwhelm cognitive abilities and neuroendocrine systems.

Over time, the repercussions of burnout can manifest intensely in the form of memory lapses, attention issues, and emotional disturbances. Additionally, research indicates that individuals experiencing burnout may undergo accelerated thinning of the brain’s frontal cortex, a critical region for cognitive functions. While thinning of this brain area naturally occurs with age, it appears more pronounced in those affected by burnout.

Moreover, burnout doesn’t solely impact the brain. A study involving nearly 9,000 workers revealed a significant correlation between burnout and an elevated risk of coronary heart disease.

But even though that sounds scary (seriously—it’s some of the scariest stuff we’ve written on this blog) there’s still hope: strategies for overcoming burnout.

How to feel like yourself again


Feeling the strain of burnout or sensing you’re on the brink? Wondering what steps you can take? Psychologists advise tackling your workload head-on—this might mean delegating tasks, learning to say “no” more often, or jotting down what’s stressing you out at work.

However, beating burnout isn’t just about managing your workload; it’s also about rediscovering joy and relaxation in your life.

Prioritize Self-Care

In the whirlwind of burnout, self-care often takes a backseat. Yet, according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of “High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout,” self-care is paramount. Carter emphasizes the importance of maintaining a balanced diet, staying hydrated, exercising regularly, and ensuring ample sleep when facing burnout.

Carter also advocates for reconnecting with activities that bring you joy and relaxation, making time for them amidst the chaos.

Pursue Your Passions

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, attributes burnout to a fundamental issue: feeling resentful toward your job. She believes burnout occurs when work impedes on life’s important moments, causing resentment to build.

To combat this, Mayer suggests identifying your priorities and scheduling time for activities that matter most to you.

Software developer Kent Nguyen shares this sentiment. For him, burnout arises from neglecting activities he loves. Nguyen mitigates burnout by setting checkpoints for his coding endeavors—daily, weekly, and monthly—ensuring he consistently engages in what he enjoys.

Embrace New Endeavors

James Sudakow, author of “Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World,” found an unconventional solution to his hectic schedule: adding piano lessons. Despite the initial strain on his schedule, Sudakow discovered that this additional commitment rejuvenated his energy and staved off burnout.

The key, according to Sudakow, is choosing activities that replenish your spirit. For him, playing the piano brought a sense of renewal, enhancing his overall well-being and resilience against burnout.

You don’t have to burn


So, with all this extra knowledge and context, we have a better chance of being able to protect ourselves. Moreover, we have a greater understanding of how important it is to do so. You don’t want to be miserable—especially if you don’t have to. And you don’t want the scary side-effects of heart palpitations and brain erosion.

Even though it might feel overwhelming to consider adding anything more to your plate or carving out extra time for activities you already love amid burnout, prioritizing self-care is an excellent starting point.

Just directing your attention to basics like ensuring you get enough sleep, maintaining a balanced diet, and incorporating some physical activity into your daily routine can go a long way in mitigating the effects of burnout as you work toward recovery.

We’re gonna be okay. It doesn’t have to be so scary. And it doesn’t have to burn so hot.

Robin Copple

Robin Copple is a writer and editor from Los Angeles, California.


  1. Is there a form of burnout that comes from a greatly unbalanced life outside of the workplace. While my workload can get a little crazy sometimes, there are also times when it is rather slow. But I have a crazy strict schedule in my private life, that sometimes feels like it is getting too much. We own horses, so they (obviously) need to be cared for 7 days a week, 365 days a year. In order to find the time to work out, I get up at 4:30 during the week. Then go for a run, off to the barn, off to work, to make it to work at 9:30. I also have a longer commute, so I’m not home before 7:30 and on three days a week I go to the gym and am home at 9:30pm. On the weekend it’s get up at 5:30 and then off to the barn. Now as I do understand this is obviously self inflicted, it is also nothing that I can just stop. For once, when you have animals you have a responsibility to treat them, the way the deserve and on the other hand it is a general lifestyle choice that came from the love of animals, that I generally stand behind, but it is getting out of hand. I think what makes me feel like burning out sometimes is the fact, that it just never stops. It’s literally like being caught in a hamsters wheel and there the good things get mixed up with the bad until it is all one large grey area.
    So why did I write all this – I’m not sure myself, but I think my question is, can too much chores outside of work also lead to burnout and what could I do to prevent that?

  2. So many young people strive for success in their careers. Everyone is pushing to the limit and due to this the limit increases for every one. Then those top pushers are just dumped with burnout.
    Probably they are successful but usually not happy.

  3. This article fails to address the systemic underlying cause of burnout, which is our contemporary economic model: capitalism. This reads more like a basic SEO piece which adds nothing of value to the conversations surrounding burnout, or to those already suffering from burnout, or ways to mitigate the potentials of burnout for those who don’t.

  4. This is one of the best blog articles I have read in some time. Thank you for pointing out that fighting burnout does not have to mean walking out on your job!

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