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

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 syndrome, 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.

Before we dive in… Time management is our greatest tool in the fight against burnout. Download our free Guide To Managing Your Time And Fitting More Into Every Day here

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.

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    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.

    Belle B. Cooper

    Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.


      1. I haven’t read any personally, but you might want to try the one by Sherrie Bourg Carter mentioned in the post.

    1. I literally just quit my job because of burnout, but I didn’t identify it as that until I read this article. Thankfully I now have the tools to avoid the same situation in the future.

      1. Jane, I’m so glad this article was helpful for you! Sorry to hear that you’ve experience such terrible burnout, but I hope it won’t happen again.

    2. this is a valuable article.
      I would also recommend this article: https://ssir.org/articles/entry/five_myths_that_perpetuate_burnout_across_nonprofits —
      in the Standord Social Innovation review, highlighting burnout syndrome in the nonprofit sector. I have experienced the reality of a serious type of burnout that actually travels with a person to a new position in a different organization. Clearly in the nonprofit sector, the demands, challenges, lack of resources, and barriers are similar from one organization to another, so it does make sense that the burnout can become cumulative, one scenario building upon the other. I am finding that over time, over a number of similar roles in various settings, that this cumulative effect is very damaging.

      Is this true as well in the private sector?

      While I seek a healthier life style for myself, I remain committed to advocating for healthier work situations and to help create them, albeit through different avenues that are less harmful to me personally.

      I think this is a crucial issue of our times as workers are being stretched to their breaking points.

      thanks again, good article.

      1. Hi Rhonda,

        You make a great point that burnout doesn’t necessarily end when you leave a position or organization. It’s definitely worth keeping this in mind when evaluating whether we’re struggling with burnout and looking for ways to overcome it.

      2. I think it’s not limited to non-profits but to career types. I work in environmental management and it’s definitely a theme. I imagine healthcare workers would face similar issues. Basically any job that is either technically or ‘socially’ difficult (if not both!) that is underappreciated or seen as something that’s just a ‘supporting’ function of the ‘real work’ probably has a lot of burn out. I think the conversation needs to move on from ‘just find another job’ and be more towards how to identify companies or careers that are more likely to induce burnout and what to do about it and how to find supportive workplaces that are less likely to result in burnout. It has to be a combination of tips on the organisation and the immediate team as I think if one of these isn’t right then it doesn’t matter if the other one is, burn out will be inevitable.

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