Even if you love your work, do too much of it, and your bound to hit a wall. That’s especially true if you work to the point of burnout, which has become somewhat of an epidemic these days. It’s a surprising state of affairs for those who wind up in its clutches. Burnout plagues work warriors—people who can go longer and endure more—until they can’t. Over a long siege of chronic stress, burnout executes an insidious takeover. It steamrolls your work ethic, no matter how imperturbable your drive, ambition, and discipline. Performance becomes inconsequential. You can’t bear the thought of a to-do list. The drive is gone. So are positive emotions. It’s all negative, all the time.
A client of mine with burnout told me he used to be able to plow through 12- and 14-hour days without a hitch. You can only keep that up for so long, though. For a while, the adrenaline produced by the stress response masks the fact that your body is going down. You think you’re handling it, then one day, you’re not. My client eventually hit the wall. When he burned out, what he once lived for—work—actually made him feel physically ill.
Scary stats and studies: burnout is everywhere
The last stage of chronic stress, burnout is little understood but more and more widely experienced. Gallup reports that a stunning three in four workers say they feel burnout “sometimes,” while 29 percent report feeling it “very often” or “always.” The surge has been helped along by an unbounded 24/7 workplace, leaner staffs, and longer days due to digital availability and remote offices where there’s always another email or task to polish off.
In an unbounded world, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of overperformance. Luckily, research shows you can step off the burnout treadmill with hacks that change how you work (think pushbacks on unrealistic workloads, deadlines, and other unsustainable issues).
Working until you drop is the wrong productivity metric in the knowledge economy, in which attention is the chief performance tool. Some studies have shown that overwork is flat-out counterproductive. In one of them, researchers found that workaholism “was not significantly related to performance.” In another, a meta-analysis of 52 studies, people who worked longer workweeks were less productive than those who worked 40-hour weeks.
How to spot the symptoms of burnout
Burnout shuts down the mind and body—a whole-system blackout set off by a long period of chronic stress that paralyzes all coping resources. You’re left with physical, emotional, and cognitive exhaustion, as well as two other major albatrosses, cynicism and inefficacy. The latter bites when, minus energy and motivation, performance goes south, which undercuts self-worth. If you can’t do your job any more, how are you going to survive?
The common misconception about burnout is that you’re just tired. Nope. With burnout, the fatigue doesn’t go away after a night or two of good sleep. The mental and physical exhaustion persists every day until you turn off the threat(s) activating your survival equipment. Also, being tired doesn’t set you up like burnout does for more than a dozen major health conditions—from heart disease and stroke to diabetes, lung disease, and depression—as detailed in a meta-study of nearly 1,000 burnout studies.
The World Health Organization upgraded its definition of burnout last year to “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” To get rid of burnout, you have to identify and turn off the triggers driving stress.
The stress response is activated any time you perceive something is more than you can cope with. This happens a lot in an overwhelmed workplace. Your first adjustment: Change your perception of the threat to increase a sense of control over the demands. You can have high demands, but if you feel you have high control, you don’t feel as stressed.
Burnout is driven by extreme demands—hours, deadlines, workload, not enough support. To get them under control, they have to be changed or moderated, primarily through boundaries. These include your own personal perimeters as well as those you can negotiate with managers to rein in unviable practices. No organization that understands productivity wants burned-out employees, since zombies (other than in film) don’t get good performance reviews.
Identifying burnout’s biggest spark plugs
The place to start fighting back is to identify burnout triggers—those stressors that keep your alarm system activated. Here are some of the biggest culprits:
Chronic long hours: In an always-on world, this trigger is ubiquitous. If you’re working long workweeks to an extent that is not healthy or causing medical issues, you have to find ways to cut back. Use a daily stop time. Go cold turkey on work email after work. The desk does not have to be cleared by the end of the day. Schedule a conversation with the boss about more productive solutions that can keep long nights from being routine—from delegating to more realistic deadlines.
Chronic unsustainable workload: One of my clients was shifted to a major project that was impossibly behind on an extremely unrealistic deadline. Everyone on the team was burning out, but the deadline couldn’t be moved—not until a final pushback conversation from my client resulted in a new deadline with an extra seven weeks to complete the task. Speak up when overload is unsustainable before health problems and burnout kick in. You have leverage. Top talent is very hard to find.
Not enough support: Many companies are running lean, which means workloads and responsibilities multiply. If the load is impossible, lobby hard for more staff. One strategy that can work is to get approval for temporary staff, who can demonstrate the need for more team members through improved performance and then kept on full-time.
After-hours messaging and availability: Everyone needs to have clarity on availability after work. One study found that if you’re handling work emails at home after work, you’re en route to being burned out within a year. Everyone needs to start setting terms of engagement with devices, checking at designated times and otherwise keeping the sound and light circus turned off. That goes for phones as well.
Insufficient reward for the effort you put in: Several burnout triggers come from organizational treatment, including absence of fairness and lack of community. In one study, people whose hard work was met with inadequate rewards (money, respect, recognition) were 16 percent more likely to have heart disease. These are tougher issues to resolve. In some cases, the best option may simply be choosing to work somewhere else. Your health is too important to jeopardize.
How to beat burnout—and the power of positivity
Yes, it’s uncomfortable speaking up, but it’s essential to changing the conditions and practices that drive burnout. It is being done. I see it my workshops, where there are always a few people who speak up about being able to set a boundary. Everyone else in the room can see they’re still employed at the company.
There’s another very important part of the burnout story, key to both prevention and recovery. An essential part of managing stress is managing thoughts. Researchers in the science of work recovery say that you have to detach yourself from work and thoughts of work when the workday is done. Ruminating about work problems keeps strain and stress going and magnifies false beliefs through constant replay.
The way out of your mind is twofold. First, understand that thoughts are not self-definitions; they’re just words fusing with feelings, moods, and emotions. Thoughts are not real. Look at the thought, not from it, and you shut down the self-inflicted stress. When the thought appears, “I can’t handle this anymore,” tell yourself instead, “I’m having the thought I can’t handle this. It’s just a thought.”
Secondly, we all need work recovery strategies—relaxation, recreation, and mastery activities that we can do after work and on weekends to crowd out the negative ruminations with positive emotions that come from doing things we enjoy and that refuel and restore. One of the symptoms of burnout is an absence of positive emotions—which are key to navigating the road back from burnout. Recovery activities, from recreation to hobbies, infuse positive emotions and crowd out the negative.
We’re taught to suck it up when it comes to stress. If you don’t talk about it, though, what happens? You think about it. It’s the thinking that drives the whole stress rumination machine as well as burnout—with cynical, negative thoughts, and withdrawal from others keeping the cycle going.
Burnout only goes away if you make it go away through proactive changes in schedules, workload, hours, recovery strategies, support, stress management, and state of mind. Overperformance may feel macho but staying healthy in an unbounded world is the real home of the brave.
Joe Robinson is author of Work Smarter, Live Better: The Science-Based Work-Life Balance and Stress Management Toolkit and a stress management trainer and coach at worktolive.info