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Video Session

Prefer getting advice through video? Go here for a quick summary of “The Five Steps to Fixing Burnout.”

Evidence-Based Insight

Topic: Everything You Need to Know About Fixing Burnout

What is burnout?

There are many definitions of burnout out there in the infosphere, but the one that I would encourage everyone to use is as follows: burnout is a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job, and is defined by the three dimensions of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. This is the definition as presented by Christina Maslach and colleagues, which is the basis for the most popular and well-validated measure of burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory. This burnout inventory has been used in hundreds of studies, so there is a great deal of accumulated knowledge stemming from this definition of burnout.

To fully understand what burnout means, it can be helpful to think through each of the three dimensions. The first dimension, exhaustion, is typically what people think of when they are talking about burnout. This is the emotional exhaustion aspect of burnout; the feeling of being drained or fatigued. And although exhaustion is arguably the most fundamental component of burnout, it isn’t the only important aspect of the concept. When exhaustion is tied to actions to distance oneself—emotionally and cognitively—from one’s work, this is more representative of the gestalt construct of burnout. Said differently, it’s more than feeling worn out from work, it’s also about an unfortunate orientation towards work because of the feeling of exhaustion. This is where the other two dimensions play a role.

The second dimension, cynicism, typically involves attempts to engage in depersonalization of colleagues or customers, and having an overall cognitive orientation of indifference to one’s work and work relationships. This cynical mindset is the brain’s attempt to cope with the exhaustion stemming from the demands of work. When experiencing the cynical dimension of burnout, employees are likely to become more callous towards others, be emotionally unavailable, blame others for problems, and express that they don’t really care what happens to others or the organization.

The third dimension, inefficacy, is a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. Work that is continuously and relentless overwhelming causes individuals to feel like they are ineffective and incapable. When experiencing the inefficacy dimension of burnout, employees are likely to be uptight, overreact to obstacles, fail to consider how others think and feel about a situation, and have an overall negative attitude about work.

Is burnout really all that bad? Should I just “suck it up?”

Our mind and bodies are like machines. They also need maintenance. They need rest. They need recovery. If you want to perform at a high-level, you need to take care of your equipment. This is why burnout, even at lower levels, is something we need to acknowledge and address. If you just “grin and bear it,” something is going to eventually break.

And why is burnout so bad? The health-related outcomes of burnout are bleak. The physiological correlates of burnout mirror those found with other indices of prolonged stress. Further, some research goes so far as to illustrate that the symptoms and etiology of burnout significantly overlap with the symptoms and etiology of depression.

Burnout is also associated with a host of performance-related outcomes, which is problematic for employees and their employers alike. Burnout is associated with several forms of job withdrawal, including absenteeism and actual turnover, both of which are expensive problems for organizations to deal with. For those employees who do try to stick it out, burnout is associated with lower productivity, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment. Worse yet, burnout tends to have “spillover” effects, such it can lead to conflict with team members and negatively impact employees’ home life.

In sum, failure to address burnout is a bad idea. When you feel burned out, your mind and body are trying to tell you something. And if you don’t go into maintenance mode, there will be health- and performance-related implications. And if organizations don’t acknowledge that their employees are burned out, it will come back to haunt them in terms of lost productivity in the short run and reputation in the long run.

What are the main causes of burnout?

There are many different causes of burnout, but the best framework for understanding and categorizing burnout predictors is what’s called the Job Demands-Resources framework. Burnout occurs when there are too many job demands and/or not enough job resources. The most popular forms of job demands in the burnout literature are things like work overload, time pressure, role conflict (i.e., conflicting job demands), and role ambiguity (i.e., not enough information to do the job well). The most popular forms of job resources in the burnout literature include things like autonomy, feedback, and social support (e.g., coping resources or problem-solving resources).

The examples within the Job Demands-Resource framework are very much social-structural in nature. There is also a psychological predictor of burnout, namely, violation of psychological contracts. This is when employees believe that their organization has failed to fulfill one or more obligations associated with perceived mutual promises. At the core of the psychological contract is the notion of reciprocity. Employees assume that they will offer their time, effort, and skills to their employer. And in kind, employees inherently expect some degree of career opportunities, job security, and fair pay from their employer. If this is thrown out of balance and the psychological contract is breached, burnout is one of the outcomes.

What should I do if I am feeling burned out?

There are five things you should do when you are experiencing burnout, and I’d suggest that you start with the first one and then work their way through each stage.

Stage 1: Physiological Recovery

The focus here is on physiological factors. While this won’t completely fix burnout, it’s an important piece of the puzzle that can help create the energy necessary to implement the remaining suggestions. When you’re burned out your body is signaling an overload, and it’s time to recharge. Getting good sleep, eating healthy food, and getting exercise is a good first step. We tend to eat unhealthy when we’re stressed, and we tend to exchange time spent exercising or sleeping for more work. You can’t work your way out of burnout. That makes it worse.

Stage 2: Psychological Recovery

The second suggestion is more psychological in nature. In the organizational behavior literature, there is a phenomenon called “psychological recovery,” that can also help reduce burnout. There are four dimensions of psychological recovery, including psychological detachment (i.e., the subjective experience of leaving work behind), relaxation (i.e., the experience of low activation), mastery (i.e., the experience of learning or achieving), and control (i.e., the experience of deciding for yourself what to do with your non-work time). When we do finally have an opportunity to stop working, the goal should be to hone in on one or more of these four factors. Research clearly illustrates that recovery in the evenings can reduce next-day burnout. Figuring out what helps you recover, whether it be spending time with friends, working out, crafting, etc. is key. Everyone is different. Plus, you don’t have to spend your entire evening or weekend doing recovery activities. As long as you get into the ritual of purposefully and mindfully engaging in activities that help you detach, it will help the mind get the reprieve that it deserves.

Stage 3: Evaluate, Systematize, and Prioritize

The third thing employees should do is create a system that helps them prioritize what they can handle (i.e., demands) and what they need to help make it happen (i.e., resources). For some employees, it might simply be a one-week “stay-cation” to get one’s life organized. For others, it might be spending money on services that free up one’s time (e.g. dog walker, house cleaning, food delivery, childcare, etc.). You can’t fix burnout unless you really take stock of where it’s coming from. To the degree that employees can get a better handle on this, the higher the likelihood they can make better decisions about solving the problem.

Stage 4: Communicate our Limits

The fourth suggestion is specific to how we interact with others while at work. Burned out employees need to communicate with their manager and their colleagues about how they are feeling. The goal here is not to be a complainer or bad-mouth the organization. Instead, the goal is to be logical and realistic. Sometimes our manager and colleagues simply don’t understand how their requests are affecting us. Being clear with our availability, workload, and conflicting deadlines can ensure that we’re taking productive steps towards accomplishing work tasks, but in a way that respects our well-being.

I’ve seen employees that really take this concept to the next level by creating an online cueing system of daily, weekly, and monthly deliverables, and then proactively sharing it with colleagues and/or their manager. Anytime someone asks them for something that will take a decent amount of time, they share this information so that the other party can see their current set of priorities. From there, it leads to a discussion where both parties can logically discuss and negotiate when and how something will be completed. This is an extreme example, but the mindset is still impactful. Being organized, communicative, and disciplined about our work with others can ensure that we are setting the tone for balance.

Stage 5: Customize our Work

The fifth and final suggestion is specific to the job and the organization at large. Assuming you’re already worked your way through the first four suggestions, the last step is enacting substantive job changes. There’s a phenomenon called “job crafting” that may help explain this suggestion. For the most part, we’ve assumed that work should be designed by our managers, or our manager’s manager, etc. But over the last few decades, there has been a surge of interest in best practices regarding how employees themselves can make proactive changes to the design of their work. This ability to successfully job craft is important because it helps employees decrease demands or increase resources in ways that allow them to not only minimize burnout, but increase performance as well.

Job crafting entails making changes to one’s tasks and/or work relationships in ways that make one more fulfilled. Some of the most common examples include asking managers for more discretion or autonomy around work methods, processes, and decisions. This frees up employees to engage in work in ways that make them feel more comfortable and without the pressure of doing something how others think it should be done. Another common example is that employees take more ownership of who (or when) they interact and/or work with certain colleagues. Interestingly, many times there are specific relationships that are causing an overwhelming amount of stress. Coming up with solutions to work around such stressors can help free up this energy for more productive endeavors.

A related concept to job crafting is the surge of employees making customized work arrangements with their organizations. These “idiosyncratic deals” help employees work outside the traditional system, which rarely aligns with employees’ needs at work or at home. We’ve reached the era of work where being proactive is becoming the norm. If something isn’t working, it’s up to you to figure out how to change it. And if all of these job crafting and/or idiosyncratic deals have failed (and you’ve tried the remaining four suggestions) and you are still burned out, it might be time to move on to a new job or organization.

What are the most common mistakes regarding mitigating burnout?

When we’re feeling burned out, our default is to do nothing. Unfortunately, doing nothing will just make it worse. We can’t give up or give in when we feel burned out. Instead, we need to proactively engage in one or more of the five suggestions for reducing burnout, as described above.

A related problem is that sometimes employees get confused about the source of their burnout. I’ve seen many employees move to another industry, organization, or job, only to feel just as burned out, if not more. The contextual conditions for burnout are everywhere—switching for the sake of change won’t necessarily solve the problem. It’s, therefore, important to take a deep dive into what exactly is causing the burnout and try first to solve the problem from the inside.

The Self-Leadership Experiment

Blog Post 64: First impressions at work. The two dimensions everyone is subconsciously evaluating.

We’ve all heard the phrase - first impressions matter - but what exactly is being evaluated when we first meet others while at work?...

Blog Post 65: Who spilled the tea? The paradox of workplace gossiping.

Don’t act like you haven’t done it too. You’re talking to a colleague and you start spilling the tea, even though you know it might not be the most upstanding thing to do.

Why do we do that? Interestingly, from a sociological perspective, gossiping can beneficial…

Next Steps Good luck out there!


Scott Dust, Ph.D. is the Raymond E. Glos Associate Professor of Management at the Farmer School of Business, Miami University. He is also the Chief Research Officer at Cloverleaf, a technology platform that helps organizations build amazing teams.
Copyright © 2021 Scott Dust, All rights reserved.

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