Burnout Guide: Symptoms, Causes, and Prevention
Length: • 24 mins
Annotated by Jerry
Table of Contents
Burnout is real. But it's also preventable. Before someone gets totally burnt out at their job, there will be warning signs.
This comprehensive guide on burnout will help you identify those signs, and help you prevent burnout early enough that you hopefully won’t be affected by it. Or if you are already burnt out, this guide will cover everything that we currently know about recovering (and as you’ll soon see — it turns out that we don’t know a lot).
Why does this guide exist? There are already many articles written online about burnout but many of these are primarily anecdotal. These stories of burnout are important! They tell us what it looks like in real life. But if we want to stop burnout early, and deal with it before it affects us in our careers, anecdotal accounts aren’t good enough. We also need to examine the research.
This guide aims to fix that by summarising the best scientific studies on burnout (links provided, of course). After all, we don't want to base our understanding of any topic on purely anecdotal accounts.
Who is this guide for? We think this guide is best read if you think you’re interested in preventing burnout or if you’re currently affected by burnout, at whatever stage of career you're at.
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What Is Burnout?
Burnout is a psychological state caused by prolonged stress from a job.
There are three key characteristics of burnout:
- Overwhelming exhaustion.
- Feelings of cynicism.
- And a sense of ineffectiveness.
Originally, researchers believed that burnout was a problem of the individual. But our current understanding of burnout is that it is a stress experience within a social context.
What does this mean? As psychologist Jacinta Jiménez puts it: “a big contributing factor [of burnout] is a social environment in which a person works in...” Burnout pioneer Christina Maslach writes: “this three-dimensional model (...) clearly places the individual stress experience within a social context and involves the person's conception of both self and others.”
The three characteristics of burnout — exhaustion, cynicism, ineffectiveness — form a measurement known as the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI). The MBI is a widely recognised measurement that was based on comprehensive psychometric research. It has been validated in many different languages.
The MBI is crucial in understanding what burnout is because it shows that there are multiple factors before you are considered burnt out. You can be physically and mentally exhausted, but not burnt out, because you don’t feel cynical, or ineffective at your job.
For example, Mary might hate her boss, and repeated fights with him leave her feeling exhausted for weeks on end. However, her job is meaningful, and she continues to be effective at accomplishing her goals. If you meet Mary after a series of exhausting work battles, you might think that she looks horrible, or that she might not last in her current job. But the reality is that she is far from burnt out. Exhausted, perhaps. But not burnt out.
(However, if the battles don’t let up, Mary may become cynical about her job, or may begin to fail at some of her responsibilities. If this occurs, we may say that she is at higher risk of burnout. This is what burnout progression looks like; we will examine the stages of burnout later on in this guide.)
Traditionally, burnout was considered an occupational hazard in more people-oriented professions, like doctors, nurses, and teachers. People in these roles face problems more commonly associated with service-oriented jobs, but also suffer from a general expectation of dedication that most other vocations do not. For instance, doctors and nurses are expected to work long hours for their patients (and they may have to deal with death on a regular basis). Teachers are expected to go the extra mile and give their students the best education they can get. In fact, an 1981 story stated that almost every single use of the word ‘burnout’ was preceded by the word ‘teacher’.
But that has changed — burnout can occur in any vocation. A good example of this is the fact that COVID-19 has uprooted all facets of life. It has made burnout more commonplace, leading to the terms pandemic burnout, creator burnout, and Zoom burnout. And our change in vocabulary might have made things worse. Today, we need to ‘work’ in all areas of our lives. We need to work on our marriages. We should work on raising good kids. We might even need to work on our relationship with God. (A New Yorker piece on burnout observes that even Christian websites now ask “Are You at Risk for Christian Burnout?”).
What Does Burnout Look Like?
Now that we have a preliminary understanding of burnout and its symptoms, let’s colour that in with a handful of stories, to illustrate what burnout can look like in real life.
Johnny Rodgers’s Story
Johnny Rodgers was in the midst of two major projects. It was January 2014, and he was one of the eight people building Slack for a public release the next month. Everyone on the team was heavily committed and moving fast — intimidatingly so. He was also launching a side project called Give. It was an app, three years in the making, that allowed music fans to give money directly to their favourite artists.
He would work nine to ten hours a day on Slack, go home, and work another three to four hours on Give.
I wasn’t sleeping much, and was ignoring the signs of stress that I should have recognized: headaches, anxiety, and persistent self-doubt.
I was learning a ton and proud of the work, but I was stretched to the breaking point. I accommodated this by ignoring my health, drinking more coffee and working harder.
It culminated in a Friday at work where Rodgers started feeling pain in his stomach. Eventually it got so bad that he had to go to the emergency room. He spent the night there, with tubes down his throat, as the doctors tried to figure out what was wrong. After an exploratory surgery, the doctors discovered that his intestine was completely obstructed. It took three operations and another seven days before he could leave the hospital.
It is possible that I would have ended up in the hospital that night without work stress. But in hindsight, it’s clear to me that my body was pulling rank on my brain and stopping the line. I had gone way past my limits and paid a steep price for it. I was restricted in my diet and mobility for months.
Michael Stephens’s Story
Michael Stephens was a Creative Director of Marketing at Virgin Atlantic in London. He worked long hours and juggled many big projects. On top of this, he had a long commute and part of his job was to make teams redundant, which didn’t feel great. In his personal life, he was going through a breakup during the same period. All of this tipped him “over the edge”.
It manifested in subtle ways to begin with. I had insomnia, and I self-prescribed medication for that, which meant I could sleep, but eventually I realized I couldn’t sleep without the pills. Then other symptoms crept in and became more prominent – IBS and eczema. Gradually my neck started to hurt. One day I woke up and couldn't move it. I had to go to the GP. And she immediately told me that I needed to take time off. I told her, “Ok. I just need to go in today and make four people redundant.” And she said, “No. You really have to take a break now.” I think at that point I called my boss. I cried down the phone to them because it all suddenly became real. I took a few weeks off, but because of the stigma around it I didn’t feel I could really share my experience with others. So, I didn’t really get three weeks off; I was still replying to emails and taking calls, just from home. I had this realisation that I’d have to change things drastically if I went back to work. Or I’d have to kind of go and take a long time off. I did the latter. And for the first time ever I focused on my mental and physical health ahead of my career ambitions.
Paula Davis’s Story
Similarly, Paula Davis was a fast-charging lawyer. She was doing well; she closed several multi-million dollar deals each month in 2008. But inside, she felt exhausted, cynical, and ineffective.
I was exhausted, and it was a different kind of tired than I had ever experienced. Getting out of bed to go to work had become exceedingly difficult, if not emotionally painful. My pop out of bed, ready to start the week, had become a slow drop and thud. Weekends weren’t long enough to fully recover (even when I didn’t work), and vacations, when I actually took them, provided only temporary relief. Every work or life curveball, no matter how minor, became a major deal. I remember my mom calling and asking me to pick up some groceries on my way out to her house, and I had a level 10 reaction to her very basic request. That was not my personality, and it was a red flag.
Second, I had become cynical, even by lawyer standards. People generally just started to bug me and rub me the wrong way. I remember working with clients, and when they came to me with a legal issue, outwardly I was very professional, but inwardly I would roll my eyes and think, “Really? You can’t handle this on your own?” Or “Didn’t we already talk about this?” Disconnecting from people was unusual for me, and I just wanted to be left alone in my office.
Third, I started to feel ineffective. I never lost confidence in my ability to be a good lawyer, but I stopped seeing a clear path for myself through the legal profession. I had worked at a small, boutique firm, then at a large law firm, and then in-house. All of those progression boxes had been checked. Now what?
Davis eventually left her job, recovered, and then founded the Stress & Resilience Institute.
Nurhaida Rahim’s Story
Nurhaida Rahim had her dream job. She was an aid worker in the UN who worked in “hardship duty stations” like South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. She said that she craved the ‘high’ when she was out in the middle of nowhere, working 10-hour days, and drinking expired beer in her container housing.
But she grew exhausted, unfulfilled and snarky. This was despite the fact that she had her dream job! So she got pretty good at telling herself every morning to ‘suck it up’.
The main culprit? The work was relentless:
... work was a cycle of endless meetings that led to more meetings, proposals were written to bring in as much funding as possible, and colleagues were juggling multiple functions. There was a sense of exasperation at the slow progress of projects, and exhaustion was the only currency we all collectively recognize. To walk away is almost akin to saying I wasn’t cut out to do this line of work. And because I’ve always dreamed about working in international aid, I wasn’t about to give in to this burnout BS (emphasis added).
Rahim eventually suffered from bronchitis for two months after a steady diet of “smoking, fast food and convenience store wine”. Again, she felt that she couldn’t complain. As an aid worker, she saw people in the community who were “actually dealing with the real trauma of war and conflict”. When placed against their plight, her troubles seem middling by comparison.
It was only at a friend’s urging that she started on the road to recovery. She got professional help, switched jobs, and permanently changed the way she now takes care of her mental and physical health. She took a long time to heal.
What Is the Opposite of Burnout?
Now that you’ve seen what burnout looks like, it’s probably worth it to talk a little about the opposite of burnout. The opposite is interesting because it gives us something to aim towards. You don’t want to just avoid fast food, after all. You want to know what healthy food is, so you can eat more of it. Similarly, it’s useful to talk about something positive, instead of just burnout avoidance.
Some burnout researchers believe that the opposite of burnout is something called ‘work engagement’, or simply ‘engagement’.
The exact definition varies among different burnout researchers. One way to think about engagement is to reverse the MBI. It has three dimensions, so Maslach’s conception of engagement also consists of those same three dimensions, but inverted. Thus, a highly engaged individual would have:
- A state of high energy.
- Strong involvement.
- And a sense of efficacy.
Since engagement research is fairly recent work — even more so than burnout — there remains no clear consensus on the model of engagement. It’s something that continues to be debated. But the engagement model that is most often referenced in scientific literature is the Utrecht Work Engagement Scale (UWES).
UWES’s definition of worker engagement is based on three factors:
- And absorption.
UWES is a 17 question measurement that employees (and even students) may take online. Its effectiveness has been tested across different nationalities, races, and jobs with minimal differences.
To have a real life example of someone who would score highly on the UWES, let’s talk about William:
William loves his work and can talk about it really enthusiastically. Every day he feels driven to excel and he throws himself into work passionately. He finds his job challenging, exciting, and enjoyable, and does much more than is requested, just for the fun of it. William has the autonomy to be creative, and has the feeling that he learns new things all the time. Although he is always busy and is usually completely immersed in his work, he rarely feels tired or exhausted. Instead, work seems to give him energy, and every day he feels happy to start working again. Even if he sometimes faces difficulties, William persists. He is really dedicated to his work and finds that he deals with interesting and important issues. Nevertheless, he can relax and dis-engage from work and he knows how to downplay his work. Although he often gets totally absorbed by his work, there are also other things outside work that he enjoys to the fullest. William’s motto is: work is fun!
You and I are probably not experiencing what William is experiencing, but we can get there! To enhance work engagement we can:
- Collaborate. Enhancing work engagement is something you do with someone, not to someone. Leaders should attempt to build a process that encourages work creativity and enthusiasm.
- Establish an ongoing process. Work engagement is an ongoing process, not a one time event. Leaders should understand that it requires constant monitoring, adaptation, and action.
- Know your target. Engagement has taken on many meanings, but what does it mean in your case?
- Be creative. There are no hard-and-fast rules for building work engagement. Systematic research is still unfolding and every company is different, which will determine what works to some extent. Adapt to your situation.
- Evaluate. Gather feedback on the impact of work engagement initiatives, evaluate them and improve on it.
- Share. Provide progress reports on work engagement.
For more details, you may find the six points for enhancing work engagement below.
In short, employers and employees should understand that engagement is something worth measuring and aiming for. Many researchers believe the higher the engagement, the lower the chance of burnout.
The Development of Work Burnout
It is not enough to have an assessment model of burnout. In order to act, we also need a developmental model — that is, a framework for burnout progression. The development of burnout is often described in sequential stages.
A very simplified model of how burnout develops is to take the MBI and to talk about which dimension develops first. Maslach writes that exhaustion usually develops first, perhaps in response to a high workload. Exhaustion then leads to cynicism, which takes on the form of detachment and negative reactions towards their work and to their colleagues. Then, finally, a person becomes ineffective at their job.
However, we can get more precise about how burnout develops. Today, the two most accepted developmental models of burnout are the Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) model and Conservation of Resources (COR) model, both of which are more granular than the simplified MBI-based stages above. We’ll take a look at each model in turn.
The Job Demands-Resources (JD-R) Model
The JD-R model classifies every occupation into two general categories: job demands and job resources. Job demands are physical, psychological, social or organisational aspects of the job that require effort and come with a cost. These could be long work hours, high work pressure, and demanding interactions with bosses. But these factors are not necessarily negative! Instead, they can become negative if they don’t let up and prevent the employee from getting adequate rest.
Meanwhile, job resources are physical, psychological, social or organisational aspects of the job that help the employee achieve their work goals, reduce their job demands and costs, and stimulate personal growth. The more job resources one has, the more job demands can be safely put on you.
This theory has been tested across multiple studies, and the results of these studies are fairly consistent. Figure 3 and 4, for instance, were taken from a 2006 study that tested employees from two home care organisations. The researchers found that home care workers were more resilient towards exhaustion and cynicism when they were given job resources like high levels of feedback and autonomy, even in the face of high levels of physical engagement and patient harassment. Figure 5 and 6 were taken from a 2006 study of Finnish teachers working in elementary, secondary, and vocational schools. Those researchers found that teachers were better able to cope with pupil misbehaviour when they were supported with high levels of innovation orientation and appreciation in the work culture (by ‘innovation orientation’, the researchers meant that teachers were able to give suggestions and were encouraged to put forward new ideas to improve their work (Bakker et al. 2006)).
Both these graphs, along with other studies cited in Bakker et al’s review paper, show that high job resources under conditions of high job demands help ameliorate the effects of burnout.
It’s probably worth it to take a few seconds and skim through the various job demands and resources that are cited in the Bakker review paper below. These should give you an idea of the job demands and resources that might be available at your workplace.
|Job Demands||Job Resources|
|High work pressure||Salary|
|Unfavourable physical environment||Career opportunities|
|Emotionally demanding interactions with clients||Job security|
|Supervisor and co-worker support|
|Participation in decision making|
|Home care organisation employees|
|Opportunities for professional development|
|Finnish teachers in elementary, secondary, and vocation schools|
|Pupil misbehaviour||Supervisor support|
How Do We Use This?
As an employee, if you have constant high job demands that never seem to let up, you need to take advantage of the job resources that are available to you.
More specifically, you need to be given autonomy in your job, you need to receive fair and effective feedback, and you should have social support and high-quality relationships with your supervisor. The primary caveat here is that you do not have full control of the job resources available to you, since this is a function of your direct manager, company leadership, and the work environment.
If you are an employer, understand that your employees can have high job demands and not be at risk of burnout if you provide them with high job resources. Build a better work culture that includes more feedback loops, allow employees to work autonomously, and dedicate time to cultivate a high quality relationship with your employees.
The Conservation of Resources (COR) Model
The Conservation of Resources (COR) model offers another explanation on how work burnout develops. The COR model theorises that individuals “strive to obtain and maintain that which they value”, which it calls ‘resources’. When work prevents people from obtaining or maintaining those resources, stress follows, which eventually leads to burnout. More specifically, stress accumulates when:
- Resources are threatened.
- Resources are lost.
- And when people invest resources and don’t reap the expected benefits.
Resources may be defined as:
- Objects — nice clothes, cars.
- Conditions — employment, marriage, social status.
- Personal characteristics — public speaking skills, networking ability.
- Expendables — time, energy.
Occasionally, people invest resources like their time and energy in the pursuit of higher prized resources like power and money. If they invest such resources and don’t reap the expected benefits, this is also considered a loss.
When these personal resources are lost and the employee is unable to recoup those losses, the employee becomes at risk of burnout.
Given that the JD-R and COR models are so similar, you might ask: what’s the difference between them?
The difference is that the COR model acknowledges the primacy of loss. In other words, it recognises that loss is more salient than gain. People who lose resources will need a higher amount of resources gained to offset the loss.
In some ways this is a more realistic theory. For example, if you have a lot invested in a project and management decides to kill the project, you are likely going to need a period of recovery in order to offset that loss.
Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS)
This brings us to a newer, less-established, but perhaps more actionable model. The Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS) is a measurement created by Michael Leiter and Christina Maslach based on the burnout literature over the past two decades. It is a tool designed not just for academic researchers but for practitioners as well.
When Leiter and Maslach reviewed studies of burnout and job stress, they identified six key domains that placed someone at risk of burnout.
This is the most obvious and commonly discussed area of worklife. People who have too much to do in too little time, with too few resources are at risk of burnout, particularly on the exhaustion dimension. Again, not all high workloads lead to burnout. High workloads are manageable if people are given opportunities or resources to recover.
This area represents the “employees perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job.” Employees who have little control in their work are at risk of feeling ineffective at their job (one of the three dimensions of MBI).
The most obvious reward is monetary, but this area of worklife also includes social and intrinsic rewards. Lack of recognition (social reward) can devalue the work and the workers. It is closely associated with feelings of inefficacy. Intrinsic rewards, like pride in doing something important and doing it well, should be cultivated too.
Community represents the “overall quality of social interaction at work, including issues of conflict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team.” Today’s work community, with permanent or hybrid remote work schemes, can look very different from that of pre-COVID times. Regardless, a lack of social support or chronic conflict with coworkers remains a key factor in causing burnout.
Fairness represents the “extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being fair and people are treated with respect.” In the workplace that can look like fair hiring and promotion processes. Even if the outcome is unfavourable to a particular employee — like a promotion that was passed up — as long as that employee believes that the process was fair, they will be okay. Mass layoffs and corporate restructuring, like those that happened during the worst of the COVID-19 lockdowns, can reveal to employees the inherent fairness or unfairness at their workplace.
Values “encompasses the ideals and motivations that originally attracted [the employee] to the job.” It goes beyond money or advancement. It is the alignment of company values and actions with the employee’s personal set of values and actions. If misaligned, the worker is at risk to all three dimensions of burnout.
Here’s a summary of what we’ve covered:
|Area of Worklife||Definition||To reduce the risk of burnout|
|Workload||The number of things one needs to get done in a set amount of time with a set number of resources.||Give employees enough opportunities to recover at work or at home after busy periods.|
|Control||Perceived capacity to influence decisions that affect their work, to exercise professional autonomy, and to gain access to the resources necessary to do an effective job.||Give more control to employees so they have more (or feel more) autonomy at their job.|
|Reward||Monetary, social, and intrinsic rewards at work.||Recognise employees for good work and build a culture where they are proud of the work they do.|
|Community||The overall quality of social interaction at work, including issues of conflict, mutual support, closeness, and the capacity to work as a team.||Prioritise personal and workplace support structures and reduce the number of chronic workplace conflicts.|
|Fairness||The extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being fair and people are treated with respect.||Implement fair hiring and promotion processes.|
|Values||The ideals and motivations that originally attracted the employee to the job.||Align the company’s actions with its stated values.|
Leiter and Maslach propose that the greater the mismatch between the person and the job in the six areas of worklife, the greater the likelihood of burnout. The opposite is true too: the greater the match, the more engaged the person. However, there is a complex interrelationship between the six areas. For example, you can’t make changes to reduce your workload if you have no control in the first place.
Therefore, Leiter and Maslach have hypothesised the model below, known as the Mediation Model, that illustrates the relationships between the six areas of worklife and the three dimensions of burnout. The Mediation Model is an organisational change model — meaning that it is intended to serve as a guide for leaders who want to reorient their organisations against workplace burnout.
Instead of a simple additive model — where a mismatch in any one of the six Areas of Worklife domains contributes to a higher chance of burnout — Leiter and Maslach propose a more complex interrelationship. They hypothesise that because ‘control’ is so central to the employee’s ability to influence the people and processes that determine their quality of work life, it is treated as the starting point in the Mediation Model. Control affects their ability to influence other areas like ‘workload’, ‘reward’, ‘community’, and ‘fairness’. Then the area of ‘values’ integrates and mediates between the six Areas of Worklife (except ‘workload’) and the MBI. Within the MBI, it’s hypothesised that exhaustion predicts cynicism, which in turn predicts inefficacy. And all three dimensions of the MBI predict the ‘outcome of evaluation of change’ — which the researchers take to mean whether employees perceive the organisation as changing for the better or worse.
How to Prevent Burnout
If you only read about burnout via mainstream sources, it may seem like there are many options to prevent the three dimensions of burnout at an individual level. But this is misleading.
Maslach points out that “there is very little research that has evaluated the efficacy of any of these approaches in reducing the risk of burnout. Especially rare are studies modeled even loosely on randomized control trials.”
Something that becomes clear the more you read burnout literature is how much the researchers emphasise that burnout is not solely an individual phenomenon; it is also caused by social and organisational factors. This means that many proven strategies are rightfully focused on an organisational context instead of an individual one.
This makes intuitive sense: as an employee, there is little you can do if you are burning out at a bad company; whereas if you are a manager, you have more power and therefore more ability to change things.
Nonetheless, here are some strategies to prevent the three dimensions of burnout.
- Moderate workload demands
- Work less — not always doable, but most people need recovery periods after periods of high output and stress.
- Take more breaks
- Avoid overtime work
- Get better sleep
- Exercise — physical activity may reduce burnout.
- Nutrition — consider reducing the intake of highly processed foods and red meat while increasing the intake of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.
Cynicism relates more to the employee’s alignment of personal values with the workplace.
- Improve civility at work — at an individual level this is not easily accomplished, but moving teams or taking a remote assignment may help. At an organisational level, this demands a cultural change.
- Strengthen support from coworkers and supervisors — implementing management best practices such as regular one-on-one meetings would help with this.
- Build a work culture where accomplishments are recognised and celebrated.
- Ensure that performance evaluations are done according to a fair scale.
As per the Mediation Model from the Areas of Worklife Scale (AWS), there is one catch to implementing these strategies in preventing burnout. An employee first needs to have control in their work life. It is the foundation which allows the employee to take action in order to prevent burnout.
What Burnout Prevention Looks Like
At this point, it may be helpful to walk through two anecdotes of individuals who seem able to prevent burnout in the real world. Read these anecdotes with the burnout models above in mind — one question you might want to ask is: do any of them lack for control or job resources?
Marissa Mayer’s Story
Marissa Mayer was a former CEO at Yahoo and Vice President at Google (where she was employee number 20). Her days at Google were extremely long, clocking over 130 hours a week. She said “it was a lot of hard work,” and that she pulled “an all-nighter every week.” Although she had to deal with this for her first five years at Google, she was careful to avoid burnout by “finding her rhythm”.
Mayer believed that we all have “one activity that matters so much that we can’t afford to miss it.” If we miss it, we start becoming resentful, and this contributes to burning out. That non-negotiable activity could be a movie night every Friday, a dinner with family every Sunday, or going to the gym three times a week. She argued that this was different for everyone, but once you found it, you should never skip it. An Entrepreneur magazine article describes her philosophy like so:
Step 1. Watch for signs of resentment.
”Burnout is about resentment," Mayer told the audience at 92Y. “[Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you're giving up that makes you resentful."
Her assessment is right on target. "The question is whether you can replenish your energy when you get tired," says Michael Leiter, professor of psychology at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. If you can't restore your energy or resolve your values conflict with your work, you feel exhausted, cynical, and discouraged — the hallmarks of burnout.
Step 2. Find your rhythm.
Mayer's theory is that you need to figure out what your "rhythm" is, meaning the activity that matters so much to you resentment sets in when you can't do it. In Leiter's words, it's the activity that restores your energy. That might mean sleeping eight hours a night, practicing yoga daily, or getting out in nature once a week. Whatever it is, it's essential to your satisfaction, so don't skip it.
"People — particularly entrepreneurs — can put in huge amounts of energy and time," Leiter says. "Overwork doesn't burn people out per se, but it's doing that without knowing the things that replenish you."
Step 3. Grant employees one must-have freedom.
When Mayer suspects an employee might burn out, she asks them to find their rhythm. They've come back with, "I need to be home for Tuesday night dinners," or "I need to be on time for my daughter's soccer games." She grants those needs — no exceptions.
"You can't have everything you want," Mayer cautions. "But you can have the things that really matter to you. That empowers you to work really hard for a long period of time on something that you're passionate about."
“Find your rhythm and make it non-negotiable.” This strategy worked for Mayer, but it’s worth noting that she had strong autonomy in her role, to offset the equally extreme job demands placed on her. It may work for her, in her context, but it may not work for you.
Cal Newport’s Story
Cal Newport is a computer science professor at Georgetown University and a New York Times best selling author. He also writes for a variety of outlets like The New Yorker, for his blog, and he started his own podcast in 2020. As such, he has to deal with a very high workload and still strike a balance between work and family life as a father of three kids.
In a podcast with Lex Fridman, Newport explained his method for preventing burnout. Newport’s trick is to operate in seasons across different time scales. What that means is that he cycles between high and low intensity periods of work. During the low intensity periods, he’ll get more time to rest. And this is applied across different time scales — quarterly, monthly, and weekly. If Newport goes hard at it for one semester, then he’ll take it easy the next semester. If he spends his mornings and afternoons doing deep work, he’ll put a hard stop on it by 5PM. Sprint, rest, and repeat.
Again, notice Newport’s degree of control over his work life, and the implicit job resources available to him. To some degree, Newport chose this job due to the autonomy it afforded him — in So Good They Can’t Ignore You he wrote that he chose a position at Georgetown University due to the higher autonomy it would give him.
How to Recover From Burnout
Here’s the bad news: we know very little about recovering from burnout. What we do know are two things:
- Individual interventions don’t work — and by individual interventions we mean interventions while the person continues to be at the workplace that caused the burnout.
- If you remove yourself from that working environment, you will recover.
Let’s repeat that again, with more force: most studied individual interventions do not work. Mindfulness doesn’t work. Meditation doesn’t work. Qigong doesn’t work. The only thing that works is to remove yourself from the environment that is causing burnout, and then taking the time off to recover. The good news is that recovery is guaranteed. One meta analysis that examined fourteen different burnout intervention studies in 2017 concludes, “burnout is not a stable phenomenon; it diminishes in time and the majority of sufferers continue working.” In other words, once you have removed yourself from the work environment where you got burnt out, it is only a matter of time before you fully recover.
So what have we shown you? We have shown you that burnout really consists of three dimensions: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. We then introduced the concept of ‘engagement’, which is the opposite of burnout, and then walked you through three different developmental models for burnout.
The biggest takeaway you should have from this guide is that burnout is really a ‘stress experience within a social environment’. You can’t prevent burnout if you don’t have power over the workplace you’re in — which means it is really important to pick the right workplaces that best fits your goals.
Note that we are not saying ‘pick places that are low stress’, or ‘be unambitious and pick easy jobs’. What the burnout research shows us is that picking workplaces with high job demands is perfectly alright, provided it’s also backed up with a commensurate level of job resources — or at least a good understanding of recovery from ‘loss’.
This guide is arguably more important for leaders and managers. Since you have power over your org, it is up to you to change the organisation for the better. The best model for such change is probably the ‘Areas of Worklife Scale’ — which tells you the order in which you should tackle each factor of workplace stress.
For the rest of us — our hope is that this guide gives you a better understanding of burnout, a more granular ability to judge prospective workplaces, and a set of useful lenses to evaluate the many anecdotal accounts of burnout you might find on the web.
We hope you will never need to experience severe burnout. Godspeed and good luck.
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