Avoiding Burnout

Maintaining a Healthy, Successful Career


Learn to avoid burnout in your career.

© iStockphoto/eyewave

It's the beginning of the week, and Mia is already longing for the weekend.

For the past few months she's been feeling out of sorts at work, and she's not quite sure why. For instance, she's always tired, she feels disengaged and unmotivated most days, and she's constantly checking how long it is until she can go home.

Mia is also snapping at her colleagues (something she never used to do), and she feels that there's never enough time to get everything done. This leaves her feeling perpetually behind and demoralized.

Mia is showing classic signs of burnout. In this article, we'll look at what burnout is, what its consequences are, and how you can avoid burnout in your career.

What is Burnout?

Two important definitions of burnout are:

  • "A state of physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations." – Ayala Pines and Elliot Aronson.
  • "A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward." – Herbert J. Freudenberger.

Between them, these definitions embrace the essence of burnout, with the first stressing the part that exhaustion plays in it, and the second focusing on the sense of disillusionment that is at its core.

Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: You can only "burn out" if you have been "alight" in the first place.

While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment, and it is not experienced by people who can take a more cynical view of their work.

Specific symptoms of burnout include:

  • Having a negative and critical attitude at work.
  • Dreading going into work, and wanting to leave once you're there.
  • Having low energy, and little interest at work.
  • Having trouble sleeping.
  • Being absent from work a lot.
  • Having feelings of emptiness.
  • Experiencing physical complaints such as headaches, illness, or backache.
  • Being irritated easily by team members or clients.
  • Having thoughts that your work doesn't have meaning or make a difference.
  • Pulling away emotionally from your colleagues or clients.
  • Feeling that your work and contribution goes unrecognized.
  • Blaming others for your mistakes.
  • Thinking of quitting work, or changing roles.

Stress and Burnout

So, what's the difference between stress and burnout? Although the two share some characteristics, there are distinct differences.

Stress is often relatively short-term, and it is often caused by a feeling that work is out of control. You might experience stress several days in a row, especially when you're working on a large project or under a tight deadline.

However, once the situation changes, stress often lessens or disappears entirely. (Stress can affect you over the longer-term, however, if you're consistently experiencing these things.)

Burnout often takes place over a longer period. You might experience it if you believe your work is meaningless; when there's a disconnect between what you're currently doing and what you truly want to be doing; or when things change for the worse – for example, when you lose a supportive boss, or when your workload increases beyond a sustainable point.

You go through "the motions" instead of being truly engaged. Over time, this leads to cynicism, exhaustion, and, sometimes, poor performance.

Causes of Burnout

People experience burnout for a variety of reasons.

Lack of autonomy is a common cause, so you might experience burnout if you don't have much control over your work, or if you feel that you never have enough time to finish tasks and projects.

Another common cause is when your values don't align with the actions, behaviors, or values of your organization, or of your role.

Other causes include:

  • Having unclear goals or job expectations.
  • Working in a dysfunctional team or organization.
  • Experiencing an excessive workload.
  • Having little or no support from your boss or organization.
  • Lacking recognition for your work.
  • Having monotonous or low-stimulation work.

If you suspect you might be experiencing burnout, take our Burnout Self-Test  .

Consequences of Burnout

Clearly, the consequences of burnout can be severe. Your productivity can drop dramatically; and this not only impacts your career, but it negatively impacts your team and organization as well. Your creativity will also be affected, so you're less likely to spot opportunities (and you don't have the interest or desire to act on them), and you may find excuses to miss work or take days off sick.

Career burnout can also spill over into your personal life, negatively impacting your well-being and your relationships with friends and family.


Burnout can cause a variety of health problems including sleeplessness, physical ailments and sicknesses, depression, and even substance abuse. If you're concerned for your health, speak with an appropriate health professional.

How to Avoid Burnout

When feelings of burnout start to occur, many people focus on short-term solutions such as taking a vacation. While this can certainly help, the relief is often only temporary. You also need to focus on strategies that will have a deeper impact, and create lasting change.

Let's look at specific strategies that you can use to avoid burnout:

1. Work with Purpose

Do you feel that your career has a deeper purpose, other than just earning a paycheck? Most of the time, rediscovering your purpose   can go a long way towards helping you avoid burnout and keeping stress at bay.

Look at the deeper impact of what you do every day; how does your work make life better for other people? How could you add more meaning to what you do every day?

These are important questions, so spend time thinking deeply on them. You could also use the PERMA Model   to bring more meaning and happiness to your life.

If you think that you're in the wrong role or career, develop a career strategy   to help you plan for a career that's better for you. Or, use job crafting   to shape your role, so that it fits you better.

2. Perform a Job Analysis

When you experience work overload day in and day out, you can start to feel as if you're on a treadmill and that you'll never catch up. This is demoralizing, stressful, and often leads to burnout.

Perform a job analysis   so you can clarify what's expected of you, and what isn't. This tool will help you identify what's truly important in your role, so that you can cut out or delegate   tasks that aren't as essential.

If you feel that your boss is assigning more work than you can handle, then schedule a private meeting to discuss the issue. Let him or her know that your excessive workload is leading to burnout. Come prepared with some options that could be considered for shifting certain tasks or projects to someone else.

You can also make life easier by learning how to manage conflicting priorities   and deal with unreasonable demands  .

3. "Give" to Others

One quick and easy way to add meaning to your career is to give to others, or to help them in small ways.

When you do this, it makes you feel good. Even the smallest act of kindness can re-energize you and help you find meaning in your work.

4. Take Control

You can avoid or overcome burnout by finding ways to create more autonomy in your role. Try talking with your boss to see if he or she is willing to let you have more control over your tasks, projects, or deadlines.

You'll also feel more in control of your work if you manage your time effectively  . Learn prioritization techniques  , and make use of To-Do Lists   or an Action Program   to take control of your day. Then tie these in with daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly personal goals  .

5. Exercise Regularly

Exercise can help alleviate stress and create a sense of well-being. You will also experience increased energy and productivity when you exercise regularly. What's more, regular exercise will help you get a good night's sleep  .

Get more exercise   by getting up earlier, or even by exercising at lunchtime. You might also be more motivated to exercise by teaming up with colleagues, or by setting up an office fitness challenge.

6. Learn to Manage Stress

When not managed well, short-term stress can contribute to burnout. This is why you should learn how to manage stress effectively.

There are several strategies that you can use to cope with stress. For instance, you could keep a stress diary   to document what routinely causes you stress. Practicing deep breathing, meditation  , and other relaxation techniques   can help you calm down when you're experiencing stress.

You can also manage the way you think – this can contribute to stress. By monitoring your thoughts and practicing positive thinking  , you can change unhelpful reactions and manage your emotions through a stressful situation.

Key Points

Burnout is a mixture of professional exhaustion, and disillusionment with other people, the organization, or the career, over the long term.

Symptoms of burnout include low energy, a loss of interest in your work, and irritability with colleagues or team members. As such, it can cause low productivity, high absenteeism, low creativity, and even health problems.

To avoid burnout, follow these tips:

  1. Work with purpose.
  2. Perform a job analysis, and eliminate or delegate unnecessary work.
  3. Give to others.
  4. Take control, and actively manage your time.
  5. Get more exercise.
  6. Learn how to manage stress.

Remember, if, at any time, stress and burnout are causing you to worry about your health, seek the advice of an appropriate health professional.

This site teaches you the skills you need for a happy and successful career; and this is just one of many tools and resources that you'll find here at Mind Tools. Subscribe to our free newsletter, or join the Mind Tools Club and really supercharge your career!

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Comments (9)
  • Yolande wrote This month
    Thanks for sharing your thought, clwiliia. The do's and don'ts hey...well said! ;-)

    Mind Tools Team
  • clwillia wrote This month
    I love this entire chapter, it targets at a lot of true everyday issues in life on the job setting. I'm really getting some good learning from it. It's called do's and don'ts
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Shaday2002,
    Good to hear from you and great news that you have returned to work, and that you have found the courage to speak directly to your colleague.

    We do indeed need to take a step back from time to time to review what is going on, what is the source of the problems and then come up with ideas and strategies to deal with things.

    Recognizing that there is a pattern with how your colleague interacts with you shines the light on what they are doing more clearly. If you need to communicate more clearly and more assertively with them, we have many resources here. In particular dealing with difficult communication situations - http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/main/page8.php#difficult - has several articles and ideas.

    Keep up the great effort of your continued action towards your own well-being personally and professionally. Let's keep talking to keep you moving forward positively!
  • shaday2002 wrote Over a month ago
    I agree with you in terms of changes in attitude and approach.my primary concern was to refocus and identify the source of the problem.Then what approach to use to handle it.The truth of the matter is that I am working hand in hand with a very difficult person who happens to be my 2ic,whose concern in life is to make things difficult for me.He so much caged me(God knows how...),making me unable to take decisions that will impact positively to my office.I am the state coordinator of a ministry.In a situation where hire and fire is not at your desposal, makes it difficult for me.Yes,I can recommend for the transfer of any staff,but.........
    This article cleared my eyes which make me summoned courage to address him personally and officially.since then things have been taking shape.I wish to consolidate on this.I am breathing well now,feeling more alive.I have resumed work already.You helped me to shelve groaning,complaining or making unneccessary plans,but in taking actions which is what I have failed to do and which was the vital ingredient needed.Thank you
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi shaday2002,
    Great to hear that you have really picked up. It's great when you notice a positive shift in your energy and attitude!

    Having the articles nearby to read is great. What else can you do? What changes can you make or what can you do differently than before to ensure that you do not reach that extreme state?

    It is very important that you make some changes either in behavior, attitude or approach so you minimize the possibility of getting into that poor state as before. If you have a simply 'oh I feel better so I'm ok' kind of attitude and then go back to the same pattern as before, you risk getting burnt out again.

    So, what small (or big!) changes can you make now?
  • shaday2002 wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you a million times for your response.I have really picked up now.My psyche is refreshened.I would take it as you suggested step by step.what i did was to print out those articles and place them beside me that i can glance anytime i wish,so as to serve me as motivating tool to my full recovery.Thank
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    Hi shaday2002,
    Welcome to the Club and very pleased to hear that you have found the article an eye-opener! Often times we do not recognize we are bunring out until something dramatic happens such an enforced leave or under doctor's care!

    The important thing to remember when moving forward in a positive way is to take one step at a time. Set yourself small goals, tasks or achievements that you can do each day - even one a day - that make you feel good about you.

    There are many articles and tools in our Stress Management section - http://www.mindtools.com/community/pages/main/newMN_TCS.php - which can help give you more insight and ideas on ways forward.

    If we can help you each step of the way, please let us know.
  • James wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Shaday

    I'm sorry to hear about this, but am glad that the article was useful. We're here to help as you work your way through this!

  • shaday2002 wrote Over a month ago
    This is an amazing article.I never knew i have been "plague" by this "burnt-out syndrome" untill now.The article gives a clear description of what i have been passing through for quite some time,physically and emotionally.Infact iam presently on a "forced" annual leave just to be away from the office.it is still not helping matters,as my mental energy and focus is so drained.Been to my Doctor(cardiologist) a month ago who placed me on some drugs.Before i read the article,i took the burnt-out self-test.my score was 57.Having read the shocking analysis of the score,i continued to read the whole article.
    It was an almost 100% explanation of my condition.Thanks alot

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