In this article you will learn to prevent burnout by understanding the psychology of exhaustion and what steps take us towards balancing work and life.
Are you suffering from burnout?
Too many people are caught up in a burnout epidemic characterised by exhaustion and emotional detachment that lowers efficacy but also erodes self-esteem and hope. This affects millennials, seasoned professionals and gig-economy workers.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently added burnout to a list of occupational phenomenon and in some sectors, 8 out of 10 people will experience it each year.
If outside validation is your main source of nourishment, you will be hungry for the rest of your life.
Steps to prevent burnout
To prevent burnout, it helps to first understand the psychology of exhaustion and what steps lead towards it.
The work of psychologist Herbert Freudenberger who examined burnout in the 1970s is particularly illuminating. Freudenberger defined burnout as “the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Below are the first three steps he identified that can cause one to experience burnout. What I noticed when I read his work is that we are all wired to get onto the burnout path. Let me explain:
1. The compulsion to prove oneself
From a very early age, our nervous system knows that survival equals connection and connection requires attention. As children, we seek attention and with it, likeability, approval and love. This does not fade away once we become adults. You may well know individuals whose actions are priomarily driven by the need to be liked and approved of, which can prove deeply problematic. You may recognise this trend in yourself.
What this means is that all of humanity is hard-wired to be susceptible to burnout. You could be the millennial seeking fame and stardom, or your first successful startup before the age of 25, or a seasoned professional desperate to secure a key promotion, keep your job or ensure you’re seen as a teamplayer. The key question is: what we do with that compulsion?
2. Working “harder”
Attention and approval demand work. They require that we show up, engage and give effort. This takes energy; if that energy is balanced by adequate rest, the journey to burnout is halted. If the energy requirement exceeds what we have to give, we will deplete.
At times and without paying attention we can deplete to dangerously low levels especially when the change is gradual. Without clarity about how what we do serves others and ourselves, it is easy to get caught in working ever harder, risking drain or draining out, sowing seeds of dissatisfaction and in the end creating poor results. Lacking the discipline for adequate rest and recovery will only amplify this vicious cycle.
I have been watching the BeJu (Bullet Journal) phenomena with some interest lately as the journaling method relates to my Grid productivity and wellbeing approach. Originally designed to aid notes-organisation by Caroll Ryder (who admits to having ADHD) this mindfulness-meets-organisation approach has actually caused burnout in some people.
Imagine my surprise: when searching for videos on the Bullet journal on Facebook, I came across people confessing to incredible stress and burnout from bullet-journaling. Why? Because rather than using the method to make their lives easier, they got caught up in the pursuit of social media likes from their Instagram perfect BeJu pages postings. How did this happen?
3. Pleasing others and putting our own needs last
Our minds focus on something they zero in on very much like a missle does on a target! But, what if what we focus on turns out to be the wrong end goal?
If we follow the example above, imagine you began to learn a method to help you stay calm, organised and motivated to get the most from your day. In fact, the BeJu mission is to help people become more mindful with how they spend their lives, time and energy.
Yet if you happen to be a person who wants attention and you know you can get it from social media and quick stardom by “going viral”, the real purpose of the tool gets lost in favour of social media likes. The more you chase external approval the more miserable you feel. You may even abandon what essentially is a great practice because it’s making you work way too hard for the wrong payoffs.
In the video I watched, the presenter admitted that she prioritised her need to be seen and admired over actually doing what she needed to get done and enjoying living a happy life. I thought perhaps she should try the Grid and combine it with BeJu.
Other ways that signal we may have taken the third step include:
- telling yourself something is only temporary such as when pulling all-nighters to study or complete projects, taking performance-enhancing substances, etc
- doing loads for others but not looking after yourself, so you become exhausted – parents, carers, mission-driven professionals such as teachers, doctors, nurses, etc
- becoming “broke” as a helper, coach, healer and solopreneur by helping others but not charging adequate rates or giving away your services for free to earn respect you ought to have for yourself
- engaging in habitual high-burnout risk behaviours such as perfectionism, not saying No, and refusing to delegate.
Don’t be afraid to say No – be afraid of saying Yes too often.
3 Burnout Prevention Tips
Now that you know the first three rungs of the burnout ladder, you may want to take an honest assessment to check whether you’re in danger. Here are my three tips to avoid the more unpleasant burnout effects that follow suit if things get worse:
- Take the road of self-love and unconditional acceptance of yourself as you are. The sooner you can drop the compulsion of needing to prove yourself to others and living your life to get other people’s approval, the better your health and wellbeing will be.
Examples of actions that will help could be: dressing in a way that makes you feel comfortable instead of wearing what you assume is expected, saying “no” to people and declining invitations for work or pleasure that you know will likely drain you, and clearing people out of your life who bring negativity, gossip and constant complaining. All of these behaviours are fundamentally self-harming.
- Give yourself adequate breaks, self-care and rest. For more ideas, read Grid self-care and 10 ideas for self-care. Until you begin to respect and cultivate your wellbeing, don’t expect anyone else to do it for you. People generally will treat you as you let them.
- Put yourself first; many people have a real problem with this rule. They are afraid of being called selfish or even labelled a narcissist. Others will openly admit that pleasing others makes them feel good. What we need is balance.
Love of self is at the heart of authenticity and genuine connection and it demands that one learns to attend to oneself, nurture one’s mind, heart, body, spirit and soul.
Stop letting people who do little for you control so much of your life, how you feel and ultimately your health.
How do we know that things are improving?
According to Herbert Freudenberger, if one finds themselves on the path of the three steps above, the likely next step is a bunch of negative feelings including conflict, resentment, anger, sadness, upset and more stress!
By contrast, if you’re finding yourself feeling increasingly lighter, happier, more joyful and content – you have found a way to rebalance your life and energetic demands in a way that supports your wellbeing. For some group help, check out our Grid retreat or Heart and Mind integration retreat. Both events are designed to help attendees take positive steps towards personal empowerment.
Of course, negative feelings are incredibly useful if one pays attention. Negative emotions and states are perfect natural alarms to our nervous system. They say: “Stop what you’re doing! It’s not working!” If you’re experiencing any of these signals pause, listen and make one small change to what you do. Our helpful 14-day habit change tool can help you pinpoint that vital tweak that will work in your life. It has and is helping many others already.
Keep in mind that there is another way to cope with negative cues that our highly evolved brains fall back on which is misleading and dangerous: revision of what matters. This is where the mind creates a story we use to help explain unpleasantness in ways that cement ill-adopted behaviours and coping mechanisms.
If you’re still caught in justifying and explaining why you need to earn other people’s approval so much, are suffering inside in order to earn it and/or keep deprioritising what you need and what makes you happy, you’re not really improving. Get help early. Explore our Grid blogs and method. Talk to someone. Talk to us.