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Burnt Out?

| October 15, 2019

by Jim Bruce

Where are you on the burnout scale — exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy — to fully engaged — energy, dedication, and absorbed?1


In a 2018 paper, Seppälä and Moeller2 introduce a young woman who is in a new workplace. She really liked her new job and was highly motivated to perform well. She undertook, and was highly successful at, organizing a large conference, accomplishing what was seen as a remarkable feat.
And, in the final weeks before the conference her stress levels drove her to burnout with its feelings of physical and emotional exhaustion, depression, and problems sleeping. She was forced to take time off, missed the conference entirely, and needed a long recovery period to return to her earlier performance and wellness levels. Her burnout was the result of long-term stress and almost a complete depletion of her resources.
In this same paper,2 Seppälä and Moeller described a study conducted at the Yale University Center for Emotional Intelligence that found that one in five employees reported both high engagement and high burnout.  These employees, like the woman in the earlier example, were passionate about their work, reporting high levels of interest, stress, and frustration. The authors concluded that organizations may be at risk of losing some of their most motivated and hard-working employees, not for a lack of engagement, but because of their simultaneous experiences of high stress and burnout symptoms.
In his essay How to Recognize Burnout Before You’re Burned Out,3 Kenneth R. Rosen, writes “Being tired, ambivalent, stressed, cynical and overextended has become a normal part of a working professional life. The General Social Survey of 2016, a nationwide survey that since 1972 has tracked the attitudes and behaviors of American society, found that 50 percent of respondents are consistently exhausted because of work, compared with 18 percent two decades ago.”
This leads one to ask, how might I know that I’m burnt out? Or, on a path leading to burnout? Alice Domar, faculty member at the Harvard Medical School and Director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health (quoted in Kat Boogaard’s essay4), says “Burnout is when somebody just feels depleted from doing the task at hand.” It’s more than a bad day or even a bad week. “Burnout tends to be when you just don’t have any good days, and it goes on for a long period of time.” “The tank is empty.”
There are lots of lists of warning signs of burnout. Michael Musker,5 suggests that you ask yourself four questions:

  • Has someone close to you asked you to cut down on your work? 
  • In recent months have you become angry or resentful about your work or about clients, colleagues, or patients? 
  • Do you feel guilty that you are not spending enough time with your friends, family or even yourself? 
  • Do you find yourself becoming increasingly emotional, for example crying, getting angry, shouting, or feeling tense for no obvious reason?

And, here are two lists that are more nuanced and provide more detail, first this one from Kat Boogaard:4

  • You can’t get excited about work anymore.
  • You’ve stopped putting in the effort. 
  • Your performance is suffering.
  • You’re totally exhausted. 
  • You’re dealing with physical ailments – headaches, increased illness, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, gastrointestinal pain, etc.

 And, this one from Lisa Gerry:6

  • You are exhausted all the time.
  • You lack motivation.
  • You are frustrated and cynical.
  • You are unable to concentrate.
  • Your job performance, compared to prior years, has slipped.
  • You are having interpersonal problems at home and at work.
  • You are not taking good care of yourself – perhaps smoking and drinking too much, eating too much junk food, not getting enough sleep.
  • You are too preoccupied with work, even when you are not at work.
  • You are less happy and satisfied with your career and home life.
  • You have begun to have health problems – digestive issues, heart disease, depression, and obesity.

Even though it’s very difficult to stop and take a hard look at yourself, I think that the effort is worth it. So, stop. Find a quiet place and take time to reflect on these warning signs, even if your brain is screaming at you “I’m OK.” Take a hard look at the questions and the two lists, go through them one warning sign at a time, and honestly ask yourself how it might apply to you. I confess, I have to check some of these items off as things I need to do some real work on. And, I suspect that everyone can find something that, if really worked on, would provide a meaningful benefit to themselves and to people around them.
Emma Seppälä and Julia Moeller2 point out that leaders and managers have a real role here, beyond that of examining themselves. For example, they need to ensure that the goals set for their staff members are realistic. And, if they are not, the leaders and managers are responsible for making the changes that are necessary. Seppälä and Moeller take this responsibility further suggesting that managers and leaders go beyond thinking just about material support and also provide intangible resources such as empathy and friendship in the workplace. And, managers and leaders need to let staff disengage when they are not at work. This more than just suggests that managers and leaders avoid sending work related emails in the evenings and on weekends as well as encouraging staff to take a real lunch All of this sends a loud message that balance is important. 
So, now you are at the point, as they say, where the “rubber hits the road” where YOU have to decide whether you will do something about either your possible approaching burnout or the one you may already be in. Boogaardsays that “Instead of merely pressing pause and removing yourself from your situation for the time being, you need to do something to actually change it.” She quotes Alice Domar4 who says that you have to do two things: “Change your attitude and change your workload.” 
Changing your attitude requires you “to learn to recognize negative habits and thought patterns and stop them when they happen. For example, thinking, ‘I have to do this perfectly or I’ll be a failure.’ You challenge … these thoughts and get away from the all-or-nothing thinking.” Boogaard4 continues: “… perfectionism is closely linked with burnout. So, recognizing some of these self-imposed pressures can help you breathe a little easier at work (and hopefully feel a little less stressed on a daily basis).”
The second change Domar says you must do is to change your workload, change the volume of your work. Too much work can in and of itself lead to burnout. So, if you feel burned out, reduce the volume of your work. Lighten your load. (This may require a conversation with your manager. You can find a helpful guide for such a conversation here.)
Burnout is a difficult subject and is very difficult to address because we wrap it in feelings of our personal failure. Disabuse yourself of that idea. If you feel or have felt that you are stretched beyond your limit, stop and do an audit using the tools from this Tuesday Reading and actually do something about it. Fundamentally, you are really the only one who can effect the needed changes.
Make it a great week for yourself and your team.  .  .  .  .  jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates.  He previously was Professor of Electrical Engineering, and Vice President for Information Systems and CIO at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

  1. Clark Gaither, The Very Opposite of Burnout — What You Absolutely Must Know, The Good Men Project, May 2016.
  2. Emma Seppälä and Julia Moeller, 1 in 5 Employees Is Highly Engaged and at Risk of Burnout, Harvard Business Review, May 2018.
  3. Kenneth R. Rosen, How to Recognize Burnout Before You’re Burned Out, New York times, September 2017.
  4. Kat Boogaard, 5 Telltale signs You’re Burnt Out at Work (and What To Do About Them), The Muse, September 2019.
  5. Michael Musker, Are You Burnt Out At Work? Ask Yourself These 4, June 2019.
  6. Lisa M. Gerry, 10 Signs You’re Burning Out — And What To Do About It,, January 2013.