I’ve recently been poring through the research surrounding how and why we burn out—and have stumbled on a couple of fascinating ideas I think are worth sharing. Burnout is what we experience when we face too much chronic stress over an extended period. It’s characterized by three attributes: exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of productivity, all at the same time. (It’s for this reason that, technically speaking, exhaustion alone does not qualify as burnout.1)
The first curious lesson from the research relates to where burnout comes from. Burnout is the result of one thing and one thing only: too much chronic stress in our work and life. Chronic stress is simply stress that we face repeatedly—and can come from anywhere, including constant demands at work, strained relationships, financial worries, or anxiety around what our post-pandemic future looks like. Unlike acute stress, which is one-off and temporary, chronic stress feels like it’s never going to end.
The second interesting idea is about what causes burnout.
Burnout is technically a workplace phenomenon. Research conducted by Christina Maslach—perhaps the world’s foremost burnout researcher—has found that six main areas of your work serve as a breeding ground for chronic stress. The worse you are in these areas, the more likely you are to burn out.2
These six areas are:
- Workload. How sustainable your level of work is over time.
- Control. How much autonomy you have and whether you can choose which projects you work on. The less control you have over your work, the more likely you are to burn out.
- Reward. You need to be properly rewarded for the work you do. This means monetarily, but also socially, where you’re recognized for your contributions, and intrinsically, where you find your projects rewarding in and of themselves.
- Community. The stronger your relationships at work and the more supported you feel, the less likely you are to burn out.
- Fairness. Maslach defines this as “the extent to which decisions at work are perceived as being just, and people are being treated with respect.”3
- Values. Whether you connect with your work at a deeper level.
When it comes to these variables, no job will be perfect—even if you work for yourself. But if you have been feeling more burnt out than usual—especially with pandemic stress layered atop your day—you might want to consider these six areas.
I also recommend either:
- Scanning through the six triggers and reflecting quickly on how well you’re doing in each, or;
- Ranking, on a scale of 1 to 10, how healthy your work is in each dimension. You can also chart this number over time to see if you’re making improvements.
We can’t always control these six areas of our work. But by bringing some awareness to them, we can figure out what we do have the power to change, where our stress is coming from, and how to improve our work for the better.
When facing unprecedented amounts of chronic stress, taming the stress we can control is critical.