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Why You Are Burned Out at Work and What to Do About It

We must look at the workplace-individual mismatches that are turning us so sour.

Key points

  • The workplace environment plays a central role in employee burnout, yet too often the focus is on the individual.
  • A mismatch between the workplace and the individual, such as lack of appreciation, can contribute to burnout.
  • Burnout is an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.

As an ACT therapist, I love metaphors, and one of my favorite metaphors describing burnout comes from Dr. Christina Maslach, a pioneer in burnout research: "A pickle doesn't start out being a pickle. It starts out being a cucumber, and it's only because it's in an environment of brine that it becomes something else."

The workplace environment plays a central role in employee burnout, yet too often we focus on the individual. I find myself asking burned-out clients, “How can we get you better quality sleep?” or “Where can you fit some meditation or fun into your day?” and “What about taking a few days off of work?” Coping strategies and individual self-care are important, but they won’t solve the burnout problem. Moreover, if your only solution to burnout is to take a break from work, doesn’t that say something about your workplace?

You have to look at the brine you are soaking in.

Burnout Defined

I’ve been burned out at least three times in my life: graduate school, new motherhood, and the summer of 2020. When I’m burned out, my morning run slows to a crawl, I wake up with dread instead of hope, and I start wondering if I am cut out for my job. What’s worse, I start fantasizing about getting pinkeye or maybe a mild case of the flu so I can crawl back into bed.

When I interviewed Maslach—author of the measure that is used in pretty much every study on burnout, the Maslach Burnout Inventory—she defined burnout in more scientific terms. Burnout is an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Burnout is characterized by three categories of symptoms:

  1. Energy depletion or exhaustion: “I feel like I can’t turn my engine on.”
  2. Detachment, negativism, or cynicism: “You can take this job and shove it.”
  3. Perceived or real reduced professional efficacy: “I’m not cut out for this work.”

Although the pandemic made burnout a lot worse for certain professions (over 60 percent of physicians reported at least one symptom of burnout), according to Maslach, burnout did not begin with the pandemic and it will not end with it. Instead, we must look at the workplace-individual mismatches that are turning us so sour.

6 Burnout Mismatches

In her new book, The Burnout Challenge, Maslach points to six workplace mismatches or matches that contribute to burnout. Go down the list and see which ones are going well for you. Which ones need some tweaking?

  1. Workload: Do you have enough resources to meet your workload? Do you have more demands on your time, work intensity, or job complexity than you can handle? Do you feel overwhelmed?
  2. Autonomy: Do you have flexibility at work? Do you have control over what you do and when you do it? Can you let limits? Are you encouraged to solve problems creatively?
  3. Reward: Do you feel appreciated for what you do? Are you compensated for your hard work? Do you feel rewarded with work security, recognition, benefits, income, and intrinsic satisfaction?
  4. Community: Do you have a feeling of trust, belonging, and community at your workplace? Is your work fun? Do you feel mutual respect at work?
  5. Fairness: Does your workplace allow everyone to grow, advance, and be acknowledged?
  6. Values: Do you feel aligned with the work you do? Do you have a sense of purpose at work? Can you wholeheartedly stand behind what you do for a living?

Burnout Revival Skills

Once you identify your burnout mismatches, you can begin to address burnout at an individual and organizational level. Remember, it’s the pickle and the brine.

At the individual level, burnout revival requires addressing the biopsychosocial factors that impact chronic stress.

  • Healthy Deviance. When you are burned out, your body has been facing a high frequency of stressors for a long time. Simply put, your body needs rest and care. Caring for your body in this way may go against workplace norms. You are likely going to have to become what Pilar Gerasimo calls a “healthy deviant" to prioritize your sleep, nutrition, and natural movement needs.
  • Avoidance Patterns. Avoiding stress, anxiety, and overwhelm can make it worse. You may find yourself procrastinating, letting work pile up, or using substances or other distractions to avoid stress. Learn more about your avoidance behaviors, and look at short and long-term consequences. Try practicing compassion when you feel crummy instead.
  • Community. Isolation is a common response to burnout. We want to hide and might fear sharing our vulnerability in the workplace. However, isolation breeds more burnout. Look for at least one person to confide in about how you are feeling—a therapist, friend, or safe colleague.
  • Values. One of the best ways to stay motivated when it comes to work is to find purpose in what you do. When your work feels connected to something bigger than day-to-day tasks, you can focus on this and let it fuel you when you feel run down and burned out.

At the systemic level, burnout revival will require leadership, grassroots banding together, and organizational change.

  • Flexibility. According to Maslach, workplaces need to offer a buffet of options for the diversity of employee experiences. Some employees need time in the afternoon to care for family, others would benefit from working from home. When employees feel they have autonomy over their work, it benefits productivity, strengthens community, and promotes diversity and inclusion.
  • Appreciation. People work harder when they feel appreciated. Leaders and organizations need to pay as much attention to acknowledging their employees' contributions as they do to giving feedback and critique. It’s also important for organizations to pay attention to process and acknowledge effort even when outcomes aren’t reached.
  • Inclusivity and belonging. When people feel excluded it impacts their cognitive performance, health behaviors, sense of purpose, and prosocial behavior. Leaders and organizations need to focus on creating environments where employees feel valued and connected.

As individuals and organizations, we need to take a closer look at how burnout is not a “me problem” but a “we problem.” Together we can create healthier workspaces that fit the needs of the individual while benefiting the whole.

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