Burnout

5 Myths About Burnout (and the Truth We Need to Understand)

Misconceptions about the causes, the cure, and what it means can hold you back.

Posted Oct 12, 2015

Lopolo/Shutterstock
Source: Lopolo/Shutterstock

It’s late at night and you’re dreading the thought of going to work in the morning. You used to be able to juggle all of the demands of the job as you leaned into success, but now something is missing. You don’t feel as plugged into the projects you’re working on, but you know it’s not the right time to change jobs. 

Is this burnout? Are you just stressed out? Is it something else? 

Burnout is a work-related process of chronic stress and disengagement, and if you’ve ever been through it, you know the toll that it can take on your work and life. The worst year of my career was the year I burned out practicing law, and it took me over a year to self-diagnose the illness that ended up changing my life.

I eventually pulled myself out of the spiral and made it my mission to study the illness that almost took me down. As I lecture and train busy people in the skills that help build stress resilience and prevent burnout, I hear certain myths repeatedly.

These 5 myths about burnout need to be busted:

Myth 1: Burnout means you’re weak and can’t handle stress.

Quite frankly, this was something I believed when I burned out. It seemed as though the other lawyers in my group could manage their stress just fine and I was the exception. When you’re tired and over-experiencing negative emotions like cynicism, it’s fertile ground for your inner critic to appear and question everything from the way you work to your sanity. As it turns out, there is a better way to deal with stress, and it has nothing to do with yoga or exercising more. 

Two critical strategies have emerged: The first is knowing your impact. People who perceive their jobs as stressful and demanding do, in fact, report more burnout; however, job stress is only linked to higher burnout rates when people feel like they aren’t making a difference. The second involves helping others. UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor discovered that when we’re stressed, our brains release chemicals that push us to bond and seek out others—she called this response “tend and befriend." Studies show that even as people start to burn out, their willingness to help others remains high. For many, burnout actually increases our giving tendencies by triggering this response.

Myth 2: Burnout requires a major work or life change.

When I work individually with people who feel like they are burning out, their biggest fear is that they will have to leave their jobs. Many of the people I work with actually like their jobs—they just need to make some tweaks to incorporate more boundaries around their time and energy and build their stress resilience. Others can’t afford to leave for various reasons. One of the most effective strategies you can use to prevent burnout is something called job crafting. This involves reshaping your job to fit you better—it’s like Spanx for work. Use your values, strengths, and passions to think of new ways to expand or alter the tasks you perform, how you relate to your colleagues, and/or how you think about your job as a whole.

Myth 3: You have to keep burnout a secret.

This answer requires two qualifications: First, if you’re burned out, it’s likely that other people are noticing. The exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy that drive burnout rear their ugly heads in many different ways. You may be absent or sick more frequently, snapping at colleagues, or spending more time in your office instead of attending work functions. Whatever it is, it’s not going unnoticed. Second, start by having a conversation with your immediate supervisor, assuming you trust him or her. This is not a conversation to wing or to have off the cuff—you need to prepare. (I have a worksheet that can help.) If you can’t talk to your boss, talk to a friend, a coach, your significant other, or your healthcare professional.

Myth 4: A vacation or a day off will “cure” your burnout.

I hear this myth most frequently from clients who have decided to have a conversation with their boss. The boss responds with something like, “I hear ya. I’m stressed, too. Just take Friday off and it’ll all be good.” Leaders don’t often understand the difference between day-to-day stress and burnout, and suggesting a quick fix minimizes the problem and the ask for help. In addition, research shows that vacations don’t “cure” burnout. While burnout levels do decrease during vacation, they often return to pre-vacation levels within a week or two after returning to work.    

Myth 5: If you’re burned out it means you’re also depressed.

Burnout and depression do appear to be related in some way; researchers are trying to figure out exactly how much. The prevailing belief is that about 20 percent of burnout cases can be explained by depression, and vice versa. But that means that 80 percent of the time, other factors are at play. I call burnout a gateway illness because it often opens the door for other issues. I got frequent panic attacks when I burned out, but I was never depressed. Other people experience more physical illnesses. In one study, high levels of burnout in women increased different inflammation biomarkers while depressive symptoms did not; among the men in the study, the opposite was found.

Burnout is a complex illness. It takes time to unravel all of the pieces that go into the puzzle, but the process is worth it. With the right tools, you can have sustainable success at work and in life.

Get strategies, tips, and stories about how to build stress resilience delivered right to your inbox.

This post was originally published on Fast Company. You can see the original article here.

LinkedIn Image Credit: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Aydemir, O., & Icelli, I. (2013).  Burnout: Risk factors.  In Burnout for Experts (Sabine Bahrer-Kohler, Ed.) 119-143.  New York: Springer Science & Business Media.

Berg, J.M., Dutton, J.E., & Wrzesniewski, A. (2008).  What is job crafting and why does it matter?  Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship, University of Michigan Theory-to-Practice Briefing 1-8.

Grant, A.M., & Campbell, E.M. (2007). Doing good, doing harm, being well and burning out: The interactions of perceived prosocial and antisocial impact in service work.  Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 80(4), 665-691.

Halbeslemen, J.R., & Bowler, W.M. (2007).  Emotional exhaustion and job performance: The mediating role of motivation.  The Journal of Applied Psychology, 92(1), 93-106.

Taylor, S.E. (2006). Tend and befriend: Biobehavioral bases of affiliation under stress.  Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 273-277.

Toker, S., et al. (2005). The association between burnout, depression, anxiety and inflammation biomarkers: C-reactive protein and fibrinogen in men and women.  Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, 10, 344-362.

Westman, M., & Eden, D. (1997). Effects of a respite from work on burnout: Vacation relief and fade-out.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 82(4), 516-527.