- Burnout does not just occur at work. It can occur in all domains of life.
- Burnout is a stress-induced condition, so quick fixes are not typically successful long-term.
- Taking control and addressing underlying stressors is one of the most effective ways to beat burnout.
It seems that anytime I ask if someone is burned out, I get an immediate, “Of course I’m burned out!” But when I ask what he or she is doing about it, I get a blank stare. Although the DSM-5 does not address burnout, burnout is a stress-induced condition, as defined by the World Health Organization (2019). Current burnout rates at work range anywhere from 40 to 85 percent, depending on the profession, and are increasing because of the pandemic and associated stressors. Burnout in marriages, relationships, parenting, society, politics, and finances is also increasing.
An additional problem with burnout is that many people feel that the most common suggestions to deal with it often aren’t terribly practical in the moment. The other day one leader with whom I was working said that if I try to tell him to breathe deeply or be mindful he would punch me! Of course, we all probably know the psychoneuroimmunological benefits of breathwork and mindfulness; however, I’m finding that many people are tired of being told to do these two techniques. So, beyond breathing, what are we to do as psychologists and coaches to help people deal with the increasing rates of burnout and subsequent psychophysiological detrimental effects?
Here are 10 considerations that are well supported empirically and in practice. These can effectively help people to deal with burnout and its underlying stress.
10 Ways to Fight Burnout
- Focus on what you can control. So much of stress mitigation and prevention is about gaining an internal locus of control. Feeling out of control in and of itself is stress-invoking. Taking responsibility for your own stress and focusing on what you can control can be quite effective in resolving burnout. From there, reflecting on which stressors are controllable and which are not lays the groundwork for the next nine considerations.
- Understand that burnout is a stress-induced condition. Burnout is the result of chronic, unmanaged stressors (WHO, 2019). As a result, burnout is most effectively resolved by addressing the underlying stressors that are the root cause. This is not a condition that resolves through quick, “pop psychology” band-aid fixes. Stress is far more than “fight or flight,” as discussed in my second post in this series. Understanding your stress reactions is beneficial for resolving burnout.
- Deal with the cumulative nature of stress and burnout. Stress occurs in all aspects of your life. Burnout does not just happen at work—it also happens at home, in social settings, with our significant other, with our children, everywhere! And the effects build on one another. However, your mind and body do not know (or care) where your stressors are occurring. They only care that the psychophysiological effects of chronic stress are present and impacting you. You must take a comprehensive approach to addressing all stressors, regardless of where they occur, to make lasting change.
- Consider the effects of both distress and eustress. From a psychophysiological reaction, positive stress (eustress) impacts you just as much as negative stress (distress). Just because a major life event has positive results does not mean that you are not affected by stress from it. For example, one of the most positive events in life is marriage; however, it is also reported as one of the most stress-producing events that people encounter. So, when you get that promotion at work that has been your long sought-after dream, realize that it also carries stress with it.
- Change your mindset towards stress. This concept is twofold. First, don’t get trapped in the negativity bias. From an evolutionary psychological standpoint, our brains are still wired to seek negative stimuli. This provided tremendous evolutionary survival instincts in our early development. Constantly searching for threats that would kill our ancestors enabled our species to survive. However, in today’s environment, constantly looking at the negative is no longer adaptive; it is quite stress-producing. Second, don’t create your own stress. Some people treat stress as a badge of honor. In my days as a CEO, I would often network with my fellow CEO colleagues. Often our time together would be a one-upmanship of comparing who works the longest hours and who has the most difficult challenges. Stress was viewed as a competitive factor—and the person with the greatest amount of stress won. Developing a mindset focused on positive aspects and stress reduction (and not competition) can go a long way to improving how we look at stressors, giving us another psychological tool to address burnout.
- Accept that some stress can enhance performance. Yes, some stress that remains acute can in fact be adaptive in certain situations. For example, if a person is nervous about giving a big speech, he or she may spend more time researching the topic, preparing the notes and slides, and rehearsing the speech until it becomes second nature. Then when the day of the presentation arrives, he or she will feel much more confident and will most likely deliver a more effective speech. In this case, the initial acute stress of giving the speech was used constructively. The problem is not when stress is used in this manner—the problem is when it becomes chronic and unmanaged.
- Stop multi-tasking. Whether at home or work, concentrate only on the topic at hand. How many times have we read the research indicating that it is impossible for the human mind to multitask and juggle multiple activities at once? And yet, people still try to do it. In fact, multitasking is typically rewarded. For example, often when interviewing, multi-tasking is discussed as being a requirement for the position. Multi-tasking dramatically fosters stress, reduces task performance, and increases task dissatisfaction. This is a recipe for burnout in any setting. (See my post on multi-tasking.)
- Don’t allow yourself to feel alone or isolated. I recently spoke about burnout to a large group of fellow healthcare CEOs. When I reviewed the burnout incidence and prevalence rates the attendees were amazed. Each of them felt that he or she was the only one burned out. When they realized that 73 percent of their healthcare leader peers were also burned out, it provided a sense of relief from the context that they are not alone (MGMA, 2018). Perhaps, misery loves company; however, I like to look at it differently: that we can realize we are not alone and work together to address our stress and burnout.
- Implement meaningful self-care. Self-care has become such a buzz concept that I fear it has lost considerable meaning and value. Effective self-care employs techniques that lead to overall wellness. Wellness is the integration and balancing of health factors (i.e., physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual, environmental, social, nutritional, hormonal). For example, a world-class triathlete has amazing physical health, but if that person also has severe depression, then he or she would not have wellness. That person would benefit from self-care techniques that improve mental health, which could lead to more favorable wellness. This can provide dramatic reductions in stress and burnout.
- Embrace what you are passionate about. It is so easy to become side-tracked or demoralized when stress becomes chronic, and burnout sets in. Finding (or re-finding) your passion in life and keeping that as the long-term view can help to avoid the all too frequent short-term derailing that we all encounter at various times.
Following these 10 considerations can empower you to take control of your circumstances, focus on what you can address, and tackle your underlying stressors, enabling you to beat your burnout.
LinkedIn/Facebook image: Rachata Teyparsit/Shutterstock
Medical Group Management Association (MGMA). (2018). Guarding against burnout in your practice.https://www.mgma.com/data/data-stories/guarding-against-burnout-in-your…
World Health Organization (WHO). (2019). Burn-out an "occupational phenomenon": International Classification of Diseases. https://www.who.int/news/item/28-05-2019-burn-out-an-occupational-pheno…