Burnout is not just too much stress

"Describing everyday stress as “burnout” denigrates the seriousness of the condition and mitigates the responsibility of organizations." —HR Magazine20

“Burnout does not start with stress but with loss of commitment and moral purpose,” wrote burnout expert Ayala Pines, who equates stress with strain and burnout with loss of meaning. We burn out when we no longer believe that the things we do are useful and important. In other words: Are you telling yourself, “I can no longer stand my job, my boss, and my organization, so I need to get out of here!” or are you saying, “I love my job and my organization, and I just need to slow down”?

By misunderstanding what burnout actually is, we ignore how to prevent it and how to heal from it.

Being tired, under pressure, and having to cope with everyday stressors in a job that gives you a sense of significance and where you feel appreciated is not the same as suffering from burnout. Sometimes the days we work the hardest are the most significant. If we are tired, even very tired, what we need is to have a good sleep, a weekend off, maybe a holiday, detox our body and mind with some healthy food and a silent retreat. Then most likely we’ll be fine. But recovering from burnout requires more than a quick break before plunging back into a new assignment in the same polluted pond.

Burnout resembles what in spiritual traditions is called an existential crisis. Since work seems to have taken the place of religion for many people, burnout can be thought of as the secular version of a spiritual breakdown.

Think about it: is your prolonged sense of vital exhaustion in any way connected to a disenchantment and loss of purpose at work?

Perfectionism, extreme idealism, and our inability to say no play a role, but organizations also carry a great deal of responsibility when it comes to burnout. In fact, what fosters burnout is a toxic or unsupportive work environment that lacks care, incentives, and rewards, where incivility and disrespect are coupled with overwork, where you are not allowed to grieve or show emotions. One manager told me, “One of my staff’s relatives was killed by the Islamic State in Syria, so he told me he had to go to the funeral. I said, ‘OK, but you need to come back in the afternoon for the training.’” I listened to this account and asked if she felt she had acted in the right way. “No, I was wrong,” she replied with sadness. Stories like this are widespread among do-gooders. How helpful is it to work with refugees across the border when we are incapable of helping the ones who work with us?

These episodes of micromanaging not just people’s work but also people’s emotional lives are the epitome of burnout-prone workplaces.

So if stress is part of life, and can even be a healthy motivator, how can we prevent burnout? Research is clear in stating that in order to treat or prevent burnout, the focus needs to be on enhancing people’s sense that their work is important and makes a significant contribution, on the one hand, and on creating a supportive, caring, and learning work environment on the other. These goals can be achieved without significant monetary expense, which is an important factor in times of shrinking budgets.


- Extract from my book The Idealist's Survival Kit. 75 Simple Ways to Avoid Burnout