Burnout is a big buzzword lately – but what does it really mean and what can you do to prevent it?
There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle when it comes to burnout. Burnout is a work-related phenomenon, so organizational practices, job factors, and leadership are major contributors. However, that doesn’t mean everything is out of you control. How you approach your work, and your life, is equally important.
So what exactly is burnout?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It has three underlying dimensions:
1. Emotional exhaustion
Emotional exhaustion is a chronic state of physical and emotional depletion. If you’re emotionally exhausted, you might feel tired all the time, easily irritable and frustrated, or find activities that you once enjoyed less enjoyable.
Also referred to as depersonalization, cynicism involves psychologically withdrawing from your peers and your work. When you’re experiencing cynicism, you become distrustful and pessimistic and start to pull away from others.
3. Reduced professional efficacy
This is the reduced perception of accomplishment. With this dimension, you start to feel like you and your work are not good enough. Ironically, you might force yourself to work more or work harder to compensate.
Well… that sounds terrible! Not to worry, though. There are a lot of strategies that you can apply to prevent burnout.
This is where self-leadership 2.0 comes in!
Self-leadership is the process of influencing yourself. Through self-leadership you can influence your thoughts, feelings, and actions to cultivate the life you want – one that is engaging and free from burnout, in which you make your wellbeing a priority.
Here’s how to do it across the three self-leadership 2.0 elements of self-knowledge, self-goalsetting and self-regulation.
Preventing burnout through self-knowledge
Self-knowledge means understanding what you’re good at and what is important to you. Your values, interests, strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, and passions are all things that you need to know about yourself. Having self-knowledge is important for preventing burnout in a several different ways!
When you know what matters to you and what you value, you can make choices in line with that self-knowledge. Burnout doesn’t only come from excessive workloads or strain – it can also come from a misalignment in values. Putting energy towards things that don’t matter to you is depleting.
Understanding your strengths and weaknesses allows you to take on tasks that are right for you and to ask for help and support. For example, if your Excel game is strong, it makes sense for you to agree to a project done in Excel. If it isn’t, you may need to ask for time to learn, ask for help, or possibly decline if the timeline does not allow you to learn. This saves you time, frustration, and energy.
Preventing burnout through self-goalsetting
Taking time to articulate your goals maximizes your chances of achieving them. This can be accomplished through self-goalsetting. Thinks like setting SMART goals, understanding what is intrinsically motivating for you, creating contingency plans, and using the resources that you have available to help you reach your goals will help you prevent burnout.
One popular theory on the basic cause of burnout from management research is job demands-resource theory. The theory says that burnout happens when your demands exceed your resources. If you set goals that are unrealistic or that you do not have the resources to achieve, an imbalance like this is evitable.
Lofty goals are important to your development, but the goals still need to be within reach otherwise you can burn out along the way. For example, I once set unrealistic goals at work, in my degree, and in my personal life (all at once). I pushed myself too hard and sustained a concussion – and accomplished none of those goals!
Having contingency plans for your goals is another important way that self-goalsetting helps you prevent burnout. Contingency plans make the inevitable bumps along the way to big goals manageable. You lose less energy and resources because you’re already prepared! This approach can also help with your sense of self – acknowledging that things can go wrong contributes to your sense of self-efficacy because you understand that a setback is not a reflection of competence or ability.
Preventing burnout through self-regulation
The ability to manage your emotions and behaviours through self-regulation allows you to progress at work and in life as smoothly as possible. Cultivating self-regulation includes developing constructive mindsets, learning to recognize your stress and emotions, incorporating mindfulness into your life, and building habits that support your goals. These things can help you prevent burnout!
Mindsets are the established sets of attitudes that you hold (Carol Dweck wrote a great book on fixed vs. growth mindsets). There are two stress mindsets: If you have a ‘stress-is-debilitating’ mindset then you view stress as detrimental and as something to avoid. If you have a ‘stress-is-enhancing’ mindset then you view stress as important for your health and vitality.
Stress isn’t all bad –it supports your health and vitality by signaling that you need to make changes in your life. Through self-regulation, you can cultivate a mindset that stress is enhancing. People with this perspective tend to be happier and less negatively impacted by the stressors they encounter, which helps to prevent burnout.
Recognizing your emotions and your stress is another key part of burnout prevention, for two reasons. You can’t release what you don’t identify. Going about your day, you often need to push down stress and emotions – and that’s okay (and often necessary).
However, stress and emotions can become trapped in the body and contribute to emotional exhaustion. If you recognize your stress and feelings, you can take steps to release them. Exercise is the best and fastest way, or you could spend time in nature, talk to a friend, or do something relaxing!
So, if burnout is something you're keen to prevent, see if you can identify at least one small step across each of the three self-leadership elements you can take today to look after yourself.
Nina is a workplace stress expert, coach, and researcher and she loves thinking about, talking about, and helping people with work-related stress. She advocates for work-life balance and believes it is possible to be a high-achiever at work without burning out or letting stress take over. Through Workplace Clarity, Nina offers research-based workshops and for businesses and programs for individuals who want to manage work stress, beat burnout, and cultivate work-life balance. Nina holds degrees in Neuroscience and Mental Health (BSc), Management (MSc) and is currently working on a PhD in Management.