- Your burnout is not the problem. It is simply the messenger—the problem is the problem.
- Track your burnout to discover any subtle factors depleting you.
- Respond by changing or accepting your circumstances, as needed.
It's different for everyone, and yet always the same. You have to do a thing you've done a thousand times before, but lately, you just don’t want to. There is no obvious reason why you should feel this way today in particular. You push through your day and you ignore the little voice telling you “stop.” Over time, you force yourself through the motions with greater and greater difficulty. Soon, that little voice has turned into an invisible weight around your neck. You may not be able to explain why, which makes it worse.
If you feel this way about life in general, you are likely depressed and should seek medical advice. If you feel this way about one particular area of your life (such as work), then you could be experiencing burnout.
Originally researched in the helping professions (Freudenberger, 1974; Maslach & Zimbardo, 1984), burnout is associated with emotional exhaustion, a feeling of disconnection, and decreased output. You may notice dread, fatigue, frustration, shame, or helplessness. Because this unpleasant experience is subjective by its nature, we tend to doubt and dismiss it unless there is an obvious cause.
But dismissing it is a mistake, even (and especially) if you do not think you have a “good” reason to feel burned out. Like all internal signals, it sends us critical information about our wants and needs.
Where Burnout Comes From
Burnout results in part from two types of emotional learning: fear conditioning and learned helplessness. Fear conditioning accounts for the urge to escape. When you take a neutral signal (such as the sight of your boss’ office door), and you link it with something unpleasant (such as thinly veiled criticism) your body will learn to dread that signal. This is how we remember to avoid pain.
Learned helplessness accounts for the urge to give up. You may have heard of the famous experiment (Overmier & Seligman, 1967), which found that when dogs were repeatedly exposed to an unpleasant shock that they could not escape, they quit trying and lay down. This is because dogs aren’t stupid. It is wasteful to expend resources on an impossible task.
This disruptive, uncomfortable feeling is on a mission to help you. Your emotions are keeping track of the little frustrations and indignities, even if you are not. The best way to get rid of the feeling is to do as it asks: Find the hole in your fuel tank and fix it. You may be experiencing burnout from: a person at work, an unbalanced schedule, a toxic work culture, unclear boundaries, lack of reward or encouragement, a frustrating task, or overall lack of progress toward goals
This is where this article can’t help you. You have to consult with your burnout, not the internet, to identify what is depleting you.
What to Do
Pick a few times throughout your day to document the following:
- Situation: What was going on when you noticed the feeling set in or get worse? (e.g., before the Monday team meeting).
- Thoughts: What were you thinking at the time? (e.g., “nothing pleases her.”)
- Physical sensations: What do you notice in your body? (e.g., weight, tension, heart beating faster).
- Behaviors: What did you do? (e.g., avoid the task; try to explain yourself when criticized)
- Burnout rating: Give it a 1-10. (e.g., 1 being “Barely any burnout,” 10 being “I am ready to quit right now.")
Give it a week or two and then look back for patterns. Does it get worse when you attempt a particular task? Does it suddenly get a little better if a certain individual is out of the office for the day?
When you identify a factor or set of factors connected to your burnout, then hopefully you can make a change. Maybe you can move the meeting away from first thing Monday morning. Maybe you can delegate, identify obstacles, or drop the project that is going nowhere. Maybe you can politely create some distance from that one colleague. Maybe you can add a more rewarding project to your plate. These changes will probably lead to consequences. Compare the severity of the consequences with the severity of the burnout, remembering that the burnout will grow over time.
If You're Stuck
If the problem is truly out of your control, or the consequences of making even small changes are not worth it (e.g., if I set any boundaries, I will get fired), then your task is to find a way to mitigate or accept your circumstances. If the source of your burnout is frustration with an impossible task, then give yourself permission to invest less emotion in that task. Do everything you can possibly do, and then consciously stop trying.
On the other hand, do not invest extra effort in a task that does not respond to effort. You may not like the final product, and you may receive blame, but if it’s not in your control then it can’t really be your responsibility. If your burnout stems from a boss who can never be pleased, then expect them to be displeased. If your colleague always takes credit for your work, expect them to do so. Allocate your resources toward more fruitful endeavors. And if all else fails, plan your escape—even if you can’t quit any time soon.
Burnout is unlikely to shrink or disappear on its own because it is doing an important job. The feeling is not the problem. It is a survival instinct that reminds you to change a bad situation. When we ignore our internal messengers, they do what they must: they escalate. Honor your instincts so that burnout today does not become crashing and burning tomorrow.
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Freudenberger, H. J. (1974). Staff Burn-Out. Journal of Social Issues, 30(1), 159–165. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1974.tb00706.x
Maslach C., & Zimbardo, P.G. (1982). Burnout: The Cost of Caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Overmier, J. B., & Seligman, M. E. (1967). Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63(1), 28–33. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0024166