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How to prevent burnout from taking over your life

A clinical psychologist shares science-backed strategies for responding to burnout.

How to prevent burnout from taking over your life
[Photo: graphit77/iStock]

In our hyper-connected working world, more and more people are experiencing burnout. As a coach and psychologist, these cases leave me genuinely concerned, given that recent research showed that more than 9 of 10 workers are stressed at work (almost one-third of them to unsustainably high levels). Employee burnout has also hit “epidemic” levels.

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Burnout, left unchecked, leads to poor performance, resentment, and even physical ailments. The process of burnout is painful and insidious. I can attest to this from firsthand experience and from leaders who have turned to me for coaching when they’re experiencing burnout.

Research demonstrates that the presence of high job demands and inadequate resources are the main sources of burnout. There are, however, psychological strategies that individuals can use to minimize it (and its unfavorable effects). Follow the four-step process below:

Step 1: Recognize when you’re burning out

Burnout can be a tricky problem to distinguish. After all, the corporate world rewards those who work long hours, and many don’t want to admit that it’s unsustainable to do so. Even though burnout can be a critical problem in the workplace, sadly, not everybody agrees that it’s a problem that they need to take seriously.

Psychologist Christina Maslach has found that burnout consists of 3 components:

1) Exhaustion: This represents the immense emotional, physical, and/or cognitive fatigue that compromises the ability to work effectively. You don’t feel replenished after a good night’s sleep and time off, because the deficit is too large.

2) Cynicism: Also referred to as depersonalization, this manifests in lower levels of engagement. You may begin to feel detached, negative, or annoyed by work and coworkers.

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3) Inefficacy: This occurs due to a lack of productivity and feelings of incompetence. You feel you can’t keep up or won’t be successful.

Although there’s a correlation between the components, research shows that individuals have distinct burnout profiles. You might find that you experience exhaustion more than cynicism, or that the feeling of inefficacy takes over more than anything else.

Step 2: Practice effective energy management

Once you recognize the symptoms, you need to conduct an energy audit. For a week, track your time and make a note of what you’re doing, who you’re with, and how you feel. Rate them on a scale from 0 (completely drained) to 10 (energized). Make a note of how valuable the activity is, and don’t forget to audit your time away from work.

Your audit can help guide new actions so that you can invest more time in encounters that energize and fill you and cut back on the areas that drain you. To be clear, this isn’t about avoiding stress. According to peak performance research, effective energy management consists of stress and recovery. Stress–in small doses–actually stimulates growth. The real culprit is chronic stress without recovery. The main objective here is to address and replenish your diminishing energetic resources

Step 3: Reset your thoughts

When one is headed down a path toward burnout, chronic stress can take a toll on your brain and thought patterns. Neuroscientists have discovered that chronic stress triggers long-term changes in the brain structure, which may leave you more prone to anxiety and mood disorders. This is why it’s important to train your mind to re-establish healthy neural pathways. By doing so, you’ll slowly “rewire” your brain so that you can consciously make daily choices that will improve your quality of life. 

When you experience strong emotions, you might feel like it controls your behavior. But when you make efforts to observe your thinking, you can be intentional and choose not to react, but respond. A simple way to start practicing this is by separating your thoughts from yourself. Remember, you are not your thoughts. This separation empowers you to pause and decide if you want to believe this thought or not. Next, put your thought on trial by asking yourself, “what is the factual evidence for and against this thought?” You’ll start to notice other patterns of unproductive thoughts, and realize you’re in control of those too.

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A coach can be a big help in this step because they bring an objective view and a new perspective. Our thoughts are incredibly powerful. When you train your mind to see things more clearly, you can reduce reactivity and you’ll be more likely to act in your own best interests.

Step 4: Record your behaviors

In this step, identify a list of non-negotiable behaviors that make you feel like you’re thriving, then record how you’re doing against them. Researchers agree that burnout doesn’t occur from one big event–but is the result of a prolonged stress that erodes thriving behaviors over time.

When you record how you feel on a consistent basis, you’ll be able to “catch” the subtle precursors to burnout far in advance. This means that you’re able to course-correct early and often. Over time, you’ll become more aware of subtle behavior changes and what it takes to maintain positive behaviors. For example, you might track a key thriving behavior as “exercising at least five days per week.” If you notice that you’re only making it to the gym twice a week, you know that you’re on the verge of burnout and it’s time to get your self-care plan back on track.

Burnout is a natural consequence of a hyper-connected world, but it doesn’t have to take over your life. Follow this four-step process to gain new skills and awareness, and also to exemplify a healthy model for your team and others around you.


Dr. Jacinta M. Jiménez is a Stanford University trained and licensed Doctor of Clinical Psychology and a Board Certified Coach. She currently serves as Head of Coaching for BetterUp.

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