The World Health Organization recently named burnout as an international health concern, complete with and ICD-11 code, which is one of the predominant ways medical providers diagnose, chart, and bill for care. Whether or not burnout should be a medical diagnosis is beyond my scope. However, the vast majority of fixes for burnout are not medical in nature.
A few years ago I published a toolkit to understand and prevent burnout. Now seems like a good time to provide an update as the research and cultural framing (as well as my understanding) on burnout continues to evolve. What follows is a brief summary of factors, many of which are often overlooked, impacting burnout. Each summary ends with a link where you can read more on that particular issue.
1) Decades of research shows that people thrive when they have three basic psychological needs met. Meet them.
1) Autonomy: some control over one’s work and destiny.
2) Mastery: ability to make observable progress over time.
3) Relatedness: feeling of belonging to a group or cause beyond oneself.
When one or more of these needs is missing, the risk of burnout increases exponentially. What does this mean?
Individuals ought to seek jobs where these needs are met and, to the extent that they can, craft their jobs accordingly. Sometimes this means turning down promotions—and that’s okay.
Organizations should do whatever they can to protect these needs for their people and regularly evaluate how they are doing. This is especially important as new technologies are changing the day-to-day work of many professions.
2) Stress + Rest = Growth. Respect all parts of this equation.
This equation applies to everyone and everything. People thrive when this equation is in balance. When it comes to burnout, imbalance on either input can contribute. Without enough stress (i.e., challenge) people start to feel like they are going through the motions and become bored and apathetic. When there is too much stress and not enough rest, people suffer from fatigue, which, if chronic, can turn into burnout.
A few things to note: “Rest” doesn’t necessarily mean sitting around and watching television (though it certainly can). In this context, rest means switching to something substantially different than the stress, or the challenge. For many people with traditional jobs, “rest” may actually mean some sort of physical activity.
Sleep is also very important. We all need 7-9 hours. This is basic science. It’s wild and backwards that fields intimately related to performance and wellbeing, such as coaching and medicine, seem to neglect sleep most.
3) Control your passion so it doesn’t control you.
Too much focus on external validation and addiction to ego and relevance are all common, subtle, and destructive forces that lead to burnout.
Psychologists break passion down into two types. Harmonious passion is when you are enthusiastic about something because you love doing it. Obsessive passion is when you are excited about an endeavor because you love the external validation and recognition it brings. This is the difference between loving writing (harmonious passion) and loving all the retweets, likes, and buzz your writing brings (obsessive passion). Research shows that the former is associated with lasting performance and overall life satisfaction; whereas the latter is associated with anxiety, depression, and burnout. Though I give an example I know best (writing) this concept applies to everything.
One of the main findings in researching and reporting The Passion Paradox is that many people start out with harmonious passion and then subtly, often without even realizing it, shift toward obsessive passion. While no one’s passion is purely harmonious—it’s human nature to feel good when something you do is well-received—it’s important to keep the majority of your passion focused on the work itself. Being focused on external results that you can’t control creates a volatile and fragile sense of self, the consequence of which is often burnout.
Something else that happens with obsessive passion and getting caught up in all the external stuff: you spend more time managing your brand and reputation and on social media than doing the actual work you enjoy. It’s like eating candy all-day when you should be eating brown rice. This is a common trap. Realize when you are falling for it and then get back to doing the actual work you enjoy.
4) The expectation of being “balanced” and “passionate” at the same is bullshit.
Balance means equal things in equal proportions. Passion means the relentless pursuit of something. By definition, balance and passion are antithetical. Setting the expectation that you can be both at the same time just leads to frustration, self-judgement, and eventually, burnout.
The answer isn’t to blindly follow your passions wherever they take you. But it’s not to strive for perfect balance either. It is to go all-in on the things you care about while maintaining the power to choose when to shift to something else. This requires cultivating self-awareness and perspective. Whether it’s over the course of a day, week, month, year, or entire lifetime, it’s much better to think prioritization and boundaries over balance. You can have seasons for the important things in your life instead of trying to cram them all into every day.
5) Stop aiming to maximize productivity.
Productivity is not good or bad. It just is. Productivity says nothing of value or fulfillment. If what you are doing in not creating value on par with the time and energy you are putting into it then you should question what you are doing.
Also: if you are productive because you are working from a place of care, love, and flow, then it can be a great thing. If you are productive because you are running away from insecurities or fears (perhaps your own mortality) then it’s likely to lead to burnout. Lots of people (and organizations) don’t even stop to think about where their productivity is coming from and what it is working toward. This is a mistake.
6) Do Not Rely on Willpower.
Whether you run an organization where burnout is a problem or you’re an individual struggling with burnout, you cannot rely on willpower alone. You cannot simply tell yourself (or your people) to work less, especially if you (or your company) have a history of struggling to turn it off. You need to set somewhat rigid rules, especially at first, and then follow them. This almost always requires designing an environment where you don’t need to rely on willpower in the moment when you are tempted to work more. Some examples include:
Take email and internet off your phone.
Leave your computer at the office.
Fire people who send emails or work texts after 6PM.
I hope these ideas help you and/or your organization in navigating burnout. All of these concepts are just that—concepts. They are interesting to muse about but don’t mean much until you lift them off the page and apply them. The application may be hard, especially if you are working against lots of habit energy and inertia, be it personal or organizational. But you have to do this stuff for it to work.
Whether you are concerned about yourself or your organization (or both), you can’t just sit around and think and talk about this stuff. You’ve got to take action.