Burnout: It’s Not What You Think It Is

Have you ever taken time off to alleviate burnout, only to come back and immediately feel just as burned out as you did when you left?It may turn out that you were treating the wrong symptom, or perhaps overlooking the true source. We’re here to help you better understand burnout, so that you can avoid disaster in your work and personal life, solve it for good, and produce the best work of your life.

What is burnout, really?

Burnout is a prolonged response to chronic and emotional stressors on the job, according to Christina Maslach, one of the most prolific researchers of the condition (read more here). You may not know that it is officially considered a medical disorder and even has its own standardized diagnosis code. Burnout is a complex condition with multiple causes and multiple symptoms, which is why it can be so challenging to identify and address.

The six burnout triggers

There are actually six psychological triggers that cause burnout in leaders. Do any of these resonate?

Workload: This is the most commonly known trigger, and one that is overprescribed when it comes to burnout. “Workload” can refer to three things: too much work, work that is too challenging, or too many urgent tasks.

Lack of Control: The absence of autonomy at work can be a major cause of burnout, when we feel watched or micromanaged we shut down.

Insufficient Reward: This includes not only compensation, but also appropriate recognition from managers or leaders.

Fairness: Perceptions of favoritism and unfairness can contribute to a spiral of burnout, and cause havoc on teams.

Community: A breakdown in connection and belonging, not getting effective feedback, and weak communication channels can lead to negative emotions and stress.

Values Conflict: When our core values, the way we believe we should live our lives and do our work, don't match the daily reality of life in the company, it’s extremely difficult for us to engage. Over time, the lack of engagement contributes to more significant burnout.

Can you just push through it?

No, and here’s why not. When you’re burned out, you’re affected in three major ways: overwhelming exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy (a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment). While these are actually symptoms of burnout, when we’re in this state for too long, we start to feel that this is our reality. We become emotionally reactive and cynical. We feel exhausted and see ourselves as worthless. Over time, burnout can manifest similar symptoms as depression and do great damage to our brain and body.

This is because burnout messes with our neurocircuitry, meaning it can damage our cognition and affect our working memory, emotional regulation, and executive or higher-order functioning. It makes us slower and less emotionally intelligent over time. And because it creeps up slowly, we often don’t recognize we’re “there” until we experience a major consequence: losing high-potential employees, declining revenue, or even failed family relationships.

The good news is this: burnout is reversible.

You only have 24 hours in a day, but what you can do with it is limitless when you know how to eliminate burnout and tap into all of your available energy. The first step is awareness. Exploring your situation can motivate you to do something about it, which leads to a long-term commitment to create a life that lets you reach your peak performance as a leader. In most cases, you will need to change one of three things: yourself, your situation or your relationship to the situation. If you aren't sure which burnout trigger resonates most with you, take the Maslach burnout assessment here. Identify where your risk areas are and decide to do something about it immediately. It’s your first step toward accomplishing your wildest dreams, and imagining even greater ones!

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