71. Burnout

Burnout feels like depletion, exhaustion, disconnection, negative emotions and reduced capacity…sound familiar?  You’re not alone! In fact burnout is so pervasive that over seventy-five percent of the workforce is currently, or has previously experienced it.  


Burnout is a  real diagnosis – and defined as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed” by the World Health Organization.  This relatively new diagnosis is defined as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

Christina Maslach (creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory) first identified the syndrome – and it came out of her work with healthcare workers and their families.  Here are her inventory questions:

  1. How often are you tired and lacking energy to go to work in the morning?
  2. How often do you feel physically drained, like your batteries are dead?
  3. How often is your thinking process sluggish or your concentration impaired?
  4. How often do you feel emotionally detached from co-workers (or customers) and unable to be sensitive to their needs?

Does it sound like you?  If you are like most of us – yes, at least some teimes.

How does this happen?  When we carry too much for too long and cannot effectively process our emotions, our neurological system gets overloaded – and we are unable to effectively deal with this overload.

Who does this happen to?  Well, all of us, but those of us that are anxious or have a low self esteem or poor boundaries are thought to be more likely to suffer burnout, according to a study of Spanish nurses.  According to authors Rachel Montane and Erika Pryor, women of color also carry the emotional burden of discrimination, fear of retaliation – and of course much of the emotional labor of diversity in the workplace..

Employers contribute to burnout by unfair treatment, an unmanageable workload, unrealistic deadlines, poor communication and a lack of support.

Enter Drs. Emily and Amelia Nagoski, authors of Burnout, who just happen to be identical twins.  They have concluded, based on their research, that the key to preventing burnout is to manage the emotions you are having so that we do not become emotionally exhausted.  They encourage us to process the emotion – actually turn towards it, and feel it.  Scary!!  But we can do it.

Here are the twins’ suggestions to deal with, process and get on the other side of our emotions.

  • Engage in physical activity
  • Try breathing exercises
  • Make positive connections with people you love and care about (call someone or better yet go for a walk with a friend)
  • Laugh – a great big belly laugh
  • Hug for 20 seconds – the full slightly uncomfortable 20 seconds
  • Cry – they promise it will not go on forever
  • Be Creative – paint, sing, dance, write

The key is to send our body a signal that the danger is over, we are safe.  And how do we know our emotions have been processed and we are “done?”  The twin doctors promise your body will tell you.

Be aware of your depletion clues.  Are you sleeping well and enough?  Are you engaging in activities where you do not think of work? Are you taking breaks at work?  Do you have work-life boundaries?

The solution to burnout is actually more than self-care.  It is more about managing emotions.

While burnout is prevalent, there are things we can do to recognize our vulnerability, determine whether it is happening to us and work to relieve that chronic stress through the processing of emotions.  

More good reads:

How to Recover From Burnout & Love Work Again According to Science

How to Eliminate Burnout and Retain Top Talent