How to avoid burnout: an expert’s take

Cover Image for How to avoid burnout: an expert’s take
Nicole Hennig
Nicole Hennig

Wilmar Schaufeli is a professor of Work and Organisational Psychology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and a distinguished research professor at Leuven University in Belgium. He has studied job stress and burnout for decades and now focuses on the more positive aspects of engagement at work to help individuals and employers avoid burnout.

What is burnout?

In essence, burnout is mental exhaustion. All your energy is drained and you feel chronically exhausted, not only mentally, but physically too. Both are very much interconnected with each other. Burnout also means that you can experience difficulties in managing your emotions: you might lash out, you might feel very sad, or start to cry. This lack of emotional control ties in with the exhaustion because you lack energy–and controlling or managing your emotions requires energy. The same applies to attention, focus and concentration. When people are burnt out they cannot really concentrate, they cannot process information very easily and often forget things.

The second component of burnout is mental distancing, where people try to distance themselves from the source of their exhaustion – namely their work because they feel overloaded. By mentally ‘checking out’, they hope to reduce their energy output and start to recover but it doesn’t really work that way. Essentially it has to do with exhaustion on different levels, and with distancing yourself from your work. The impact across all areas of your life can be extremely debilitating, which is why it’s so important to create effective strategies to avoid burnout in the first place.

What’s the difference between stress and burnout?

The scientific understanding of stress shows it to be the result of an interaction between a person and their environment. So, when your environment becomes too demanding and you stop being able to cope in a good way, the balance is disturbed. You could look at stress as the precursor to burnout but it’s also important to remember that there’s such a thing as good stress–it’s all in how you perceive your environment and the challenges you come across every day.

The main difference is that burnout is much more specific. With burnout, we see complete and chronic exhaustion, a symptom that is specific to that condition and not the general stress you experience as part of normal life.

What are the early signs of burnout?

One of the best ways to avoid burnout at work is to know what signs to look for and then take action as soon as possible. It’s sad to see people who burn out simply because they are very motivated and committed to their job but don’t know the red flags. We often see that people are not able to actually acknowledge that they are nearing burnout, so they keep on going because they cannot admit that they’re struggling to cope. By overriding this feeling,  they exhaust themselves and start the cycle of exhaustion that typifies the condition.

Decades ago, I did psychotherapy with people who were burnt out. All too often the story was that it started six months or a year ago, their partner or colleague may have noticed and told them to slow down but they didn’t listen and continued to work. So, when you feel really exhausted and it’s not something that goes away after a nice weekend or short holiday, that’s a sign. When you feel unmotivated and not so committed to your job anymore, that can also be a sign that something is wrong. It’s important to admit it to yourself and don’t think that you can just continue as you are or work even harder to counteract it. That’s the wrong response.

How do you avoid burnout when you have a stressful job?

Firstly, it’s important to differentiate between healthy work engagement and workaholism, or work addiction. I often hear people say that when you are engaged at work and put in effort then you will burn out, but that’s not true. Our research shows over and over again that employees who are engaged, know how to handle the stress balance and will find ways to avoid burnout naturally. On the surface, it might look like a workaholic is engaged because they work very hard, put a lot of energy into what they’re doing, and identify with their job. But, the main difference is that an engaged person is intrinsically motivated by the fact that they like their job and the reward is in the work itself. Whereas a workaholic is working hard, not because they enjoy the work, but because they feel uneasy and guilty for not checking in, even when at home or on holiday.

Going to work allows workaholics to avoid feeling those negative emotions that are associated with not working, so they have another motivational system working. It’s people who are addicted to working that actually burn themselves out because they always need to be switched on. They can’t relax and the delicate stress balance required to avoid burnout is disturbed. Reframing your work motivators is a good place to start if you feel yourself slipping away from healthy practices into more of a work addiction mode.

What are tips to avoid burnout?

The best tactics for avoiding burnout involve a large amount of self-reflection and honesty with yourself. If you start feeling ‘off’–whether that’s feeling more tired than normal, unmotivated or emotionally sensitive– try to analyse what’s going on. Do you have too much work on your plate? Are you struggling with the deadlines you’re being given? If so, you could take a course in time management or talk to your manager about some strategies to avoid burnout–like reducing your workload or delegating some projects to someone else. You might also find yourself in a tricky situation if you have difficulties saying no or being assertive. If you associate dedication and being a team player with saying yes to every project or request that comes your way, you’ll quickly exhaust yourself. Again, there is training out there to improve these skills so you can set appropriate boundaries at work. Ultimately, being proactive is really the best approach for avoiding burnout.

How can you set healthy boundaries at work to avoid burnout?

Successfully avoiding burnout at work is all about finding a balance between investment and outcomes; between investing your energy and being energised by your job. If you invest a lot of energy in work, it’s not a problem as long as you can recover this energy at work or elsewhere. For example, if you work for clients and you have a successful experience then you get this big reward that gives you energy. The same happens when you come home and you do something really relaxing–maybe you go out with your friends or family or play sports, and you recover this energy. Then after a couple of days, you might feel stressed again, but that’s normal and not a problem at all as long as the checks and balances add up. So it’s about getting the mix in play. If you’re not able to strike the balance and you cannot get energy from your job or outside your place of work, that’s when you start running into trouble.

How managers can help employees avoid burnout?

As employers or managers, there are plenty of strategies to avoid burnout within your team or organisation. You can start by reducing the demands on your employees. For instance, reduce time pressure around deadlines, lower workloads, or try to give people more flexibility in their week to deal with at-home conflicts or life admin to reduce the emotional demands placed on them. This is usually very difficult to do because by decreasing the workload, you require more employees to do the same amount of work, resulting in an increased spend for the required output. However, studies have been conducted showing hard evidence that the number of nurses on a ward is directly related to patient mortality as well as medical errors. So, if you increase the number of nurses, then you decrease the burnout levels, and also decrease the mortality rate along with it. The flipside? It costs a lot of money.

The other path for employers to take to help tackle burnout is to increase the resources made available to employees in order to do their jobs. This means  you can work a lot, like I did in my life as a University professor (I worked much more hours than the standard that I was supposed to work), but I had a lot of autonomy to help counterbalance the stress. For instance, I could decide what kind of subject I wanted to study, I got a lot of social support in the form of peer recognition and was able to participate in important decision making. This all led to a greater sense of wellbeing at work while maintaining a heavy workload.

Leadership is also very important. Through in-depth research, we identified a concept we named ‘engaging leadership’. In a number of studies, we were able to show that when leaders are empowering, inspiring, strengthening and connecting, they can improve engagement and ultimately avoid burnout within their teams. It makes sense: if you have an inspiring boss, they can make you feel that your work is meaningful. If you have a boss that is helping to create relationships within the team, you develop a good atmosphere which inspires higher engagement. Your colleagues can be an incredible source of support in avoiding burnout at work. You collaborate professionally but can also get social support of all kinds from your colleagues which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Regardless of which tactics you employ, the most important thing is that, as a manager or business leader, you actively implement strategies to avoid burnout in the first place. Making efforts to avoid workplace burnout not only helps the individuals on a personal level but safeguards your workplace from the loss of resources that inevitably comes with a reduced or demotivated workforce.


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