The Main Causes Of Burnout (And How To Overcome Them)

The Main Causes Of Burnout (And How To Overcome Them)

It’s common to feel tired after a long day at work or to need a holiday after a month-long sprint to finish a new feature. But sadly it’s also common to feel tired all the time. To lack enthusiasm about your work. To feel cynical and disengaged from what you do.

These are all symptoms of burnout, which is becoming more common as our work lives become busier, more demanding and more stressful.

In this post I’ll explore what burnout is, what causes it, and how we can overcome it.

What is Burnout?

The term “burnout” was coined in the ’70s by Dr. Herbert Freudenberger. The term was taken from an analogy of a burned-out house:

If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out, you know it’s a devastating sight… some bricks or concrete may be left; some outline of windows. Indeed, the outer shell may seem almost intact. Only if you venture inside will you be struck by the full force of the desolation.

Freudenberger says, like a burned-out house, someone who’s burnt out may not seem that way on the outside, but “their inner resources are consumed as if by fire, leaving a great emptiness inside.”

But what exactly is burnout? Researchers say burnout can be broken down into three parts:

  • Exhaustion
  • Cynicism
  • Inefficacy

Exhaustion from burnout could lead you to be easily upset, have trouble sleeping, get sick more often, and struggle to concentrate.

Cynicism is sometimes called depersonalisation in this context, because it’s categorised by feeling alienated from the people you work with and lacking engagement in your work.

Finally, inefficacy refers to a lack of belief in your ability to perform your job well and a decrease in achievement and productivity.

But how do we get into this sorry state? It’s not as simple as overworking.

What Causes Burnout?

It’s a common misconception that burnout is simply a result of working too hard or for too long, according to Alexandra Michel, a science writer at the Association for Psychological Science.

“Ultimately,” writes Michel, burnout results when the balance of deadlines, demands, working hours, and other stressors outstrips rewards, recognition, and relaxation.”

APS Fellow and professor emerita at the University of California, Berkeley, Christina Maslach, has been studying burnout since the 70’s. Maslach and her collaborators came up with six components of the workplace environment that can contribute to burnout:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

We end up with burnout when one or more of these areas of our work don’t match our needs.

It’s not a rare condition, either. Research by Gallop recently found that 2.7 million workers in Germany report feeling symptoms of burnout. A different survey in 2013 found nearly 30% of UK-based HR directors surveyed believe there’s widespread burnout in their companies.

And the effects are serious. Michel says burnout is “not just a state of mind, but a condition that leaves its mark on the brain as well as the body.”

The Risks of Burnout

Being tired and lacking engagement in your work is no fun, but the risks of burnout run even deeper.

Research has shown that the chronic psychosocial stress that’s common in people suffering from burnout can impair personal and social functioning as well as overwhelming your cognitive skills and neuroendocrine systems. Over time the effects of burnout can lead to memory, attention, and emotional problems.

One study also found burnout sufferers may have accelerated thinning of the brain’s front cortex — a part that’s essential for cognitive functioning. This section of the brain thins as part of the natural ageing process, but the thinning effect was more pronounced in participants who’d experienced burnout.

It’s not just the brain at risk, either. A study of nearly 9,000 workers found burnout significantly increases the risk of coronary heart disease.

This is all sounding rather grim, so let’s move on to something more positive: how to overcome burnout.

Overcoming Burnout

So you’re feeling the effects of burnout or you’re worried you’re at risk. What can you do? Psychologists suggest looking for ways to make your workload easier to manage — delegating more, saying “no” more often, and writing down what’s making you feel stressed at work.

But burnout isn’t just about workload stress. To overcome burnout, you also need to find ways to relax and enjoy life again.

Focus on Your Daily Care

It’s easy to forget about looking after yourself when you’re burned out. You’re feeling stressed, you’ve got too much on your plate, and the last thing you have time for is looking after yourself.

But according to Sherrie Bourg Carter, psychologist and author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, that’s exactly what you should be doing. Carter says making sure you eat well, stay hydrated, exercise, and get plenty of sleep is critical when you’re facing burnout.

Carter also recommends remembering what you like doing to relax, and finding more time for those activities.

Do What You Enjoy

Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer believes burnout is caused by something simple and easy to fix: a feeling of resentment toward your job. Burnout is the result, according to Mayer, of work getting in the way of workers’ lives. She says people “will become resentful if work makes them miss things that are really important to them.”

To avoid this resentment turning into burnout, Mayer says it’s important to know what you care about most and schedule time for those activities.

Software developer Kent Nguyen agrees. He says burnout comes from “not being able to do what you love or what is important to you regularly.” In Nguyen’s case, he started feeling burnt out when he was spending more time on his management duties than on writing code.

Nguyen thinks of periods of time spent coding like checkpoints, each one staving off burnout for a little longer. He has small daily checkpoints and bigger weekly and monthly checkpoints so there’s always a new bout of the thing he loves to do coming up. And when he misses a checkpoint, he makes sure to schedule another one as soon as possible so he never goes too long without doing what he enjoys most.

Add Something New

This will probably sound strange, because it’s a very counterintuitive idea, but James Sudakow, author of Picking the Low Hanging Fruit: And Other Stupid Stuff We Say in the Corporate World, actually added to his hectic schedule to help him avoid burnout.

Sudakow admits his schedule was hectic. Between his family duties, work, and the hours he spends writing every week, there wasn’t much wiggle room.

But Sudakow did what few of us would — he added piano lessons to his schedule. 30 minutes per week for the lessons and an hour to practice every day meant more than six hours per week of extra commitments.

But here’s the strange thing: it actually worked. That extra commitment helped Sudakow stave off burnout. The trick, he says, was choosing something that helped rejuvenate his energy. Playing piano at night made me feel better when he went to sleep and when he woke up the next day. That daily rejuvenation seeped into his work and made him feel better overall.

While adding to your schedule or even finding more time for something you already enjoy doing might seem impossible when you’re facing burnout, looking after yourself is a great place to start. Simply focusing on sleep, eating well, and getting a little exercise every day can help you avoid the worst of burnout while you get back on track.

A guide to burnout: what it is, and how to overcome it [RescueTime] Belle B. Cooper is the co-founder of Melbourne startup Hello Code, an iOS developer, and a writer. 


  • Good read. And I’d still like to see more action in the industry regarding fixing the organisational problems that often cause it, rather than simply the employee dealing with it by “cut and run” — which can have immense personal implications if hundreds of thousands of dollars of non-vested stock grants, as well as career progression, hang in the balance — and leaving the next person in that role to face a similar fate.

    I think the “6 components of the workplace environment that can contribute to burnout” are pretty straight on, and a lot of them are under the control of the employer. Corporate values are something that come from the top and are unlikely to change, so an employee can avoid a mismatch here simply by doing their research before signing on. To the extent that Community means the personalities of one’s team, that, too, can be assessed for fit before you sign on. For example, the reputation of the product team I was on at Microsoft was that it was extremely intense and full of overtime… work ethic weaklings or those looking for work/life balance need not apply… although if you were willing to put in the effort, you’d be compensated. But everything else would seem to be something that can – and ought to – be adjusted on the fly.

    Take reward. For most of us, that’s called OUR PAYCHECK, bonus, or alternately stock awards or options that you actually let us cash in without laying us off beforehand. Managers in many companies have said it’s crass and disappointing for their employees to say they are motivated by pay, but it’s reality. My 80-110 hour weeks at Microsoft were made a lot easier by $5000 and $10,000 random bonuses dropped into my direct deposit account every few months. (Yes, I know people will say that never happened at M$FT after the turn of the century, but they’d be wrong. Guess it just didn’t happen on YOUR project, or 99% of projects. I knew I was one of the fortunate ones and that it was the chance of a lifetime. That’s why I was willing to put in the level of effort I did.)

    Take workload, for example. If you pay me enough, I’ll gladly commit to 24 months of 80 hour weeks to get your project out the door. I’ve done it before and would do it again. But DON’T tell me 24 months and then start whingeing at month 26 that I’ve cut back to 50, because I spent 2 years managing my energy reserves to make it to the 2 year point on that schedule, and didn’t leave margin for (your) error. And the key words here are “If you pay me enough” — there’s a life equation I do, of “life missed due to work” and “future life facilitated by the income I can save”, that has to balance. At a certain point, though, it has to stop, because Herculean efforts cannot go on indefinitely, and any reasonable amount of pay becomes insufficient to compensate for the loss of free time and health.

    Take fairness. DON’T punish and abuse me at month 26 for doing only a 50 hour week, when there are plenty of people on the team who’d never even done an 80 hour week, who aren’t being abused for their 50 hour weeks. And DON’T give the other key person who’s done 80 hour weeks an assistant to do their scut work, and fail to give me an assistant, and then grade what I get done on the same curve against the person with control over 2 resources to get things done (himself and another). Bullying a key contributor who’s cut back after 2 years and still produces more than 80% of team members is simply unfair.

    [ Bonus points to those who detected that between point 1, and points 2 and 3, there must have been a management change. There was. From intelligent, industry-experienced engineering managers who’d been in crunch projects like Windows 3.1, 95 and 2000 (whose ability to herd cats I am still in awe of), to a clerical project manager whose main skill was knowing how to play politics well enough to keep herself employed. Keeping herself employed had nothing to do with treating staff fairly. The fact that these things changed with management indicates that they’re under control of management. ]

  • I’ve actually done a little research in this after reading the article in my first comment. I don’t suffer from overwork. In fact I make sure I clock in and out on time. So I do my 37.5 hours per day.

    My issue is with control. Not being able to do the job to my best ability, but how my employer and team want it done. Not being able to improve anything, just do it the way it always has been done. Such as fixing the symptoms of errors instead of fixing the errors themselves because the business hasn’t asked for it to be fixed. It gets a bit sysiphean in nature.
    It’s also why I do my scheduled hours and no extra.
    There are three things that will help you work long hours
    -autonomy. The ability to do the job as how you see fit.
    -mastery. The ability to learn.
    -purpose. Working for something greater than yourself.
    In the knowledge economy, if you are paid enough, no amount of extra money will help long term without these.

    • @no_nick, you’ve figured it out. In a sysiphean scenario, you do your fair week of work to meet your social and business contract with your employer who’s paying you to do that number of hours a week toward the goals it sets, within the parameters it specifies. AND THEN YOU WALK AWAY until it’s time for the next week.

      My comments about cutting my 80+ hour weeks down to 50 at Microsoft were about exactly this. A couple years of incredible hours could be justified on the grounds that my professional background told me that they couldn’t train others to do the work I was doing, quickly enough to keep meeting the periodic deadlines during those 2 years. But 2 years is a long emergency, and MORE than 2 years is not really excusable as a length of time to expect staff to cover for your inability to find people with the right skills to do the work or able to be trained to do the work so that intense OT is no longer required, with no end in sight. So at the 2-year point, I said, ok, I fulfilled the above-and-beyond commitment I made, and it’s time to reclaim a normal life. (It can be argued that even the 50 hours I cut down to was too many, but since my “normal” week had been in the low 80’s for a couple years, it was absolutely like getting my life back!) And it wasn’t negotiable. My supervisor (can’t call the dweeb a manager… really couldn’t manage their way out of a paper bag, but as a standover person, they were quite dedicated) was furious and threatened me to hell and back, and I just shrugged, confident that I’d done my part for the project and was in the right to claim back nearly a full time work week of OT each week, for my own use.

      On your “three things that will help you work long hours”, I think that varies from person to person. Surprisingly, I’ve found for myself that I am to a point willing to trade autonomy for dollars (“I’ll do your stupid task your way for X hours, if you’ll compensate me for X hours of time and I’ll laugh all the way to the bank”). One thing that’s important for me is knowing exactly how long the period of long hours is going to go on. Because I go full-on for that length of time, but AM counting the days until it’ll be over. Another thing that’s important to me is having a team to commiserate and work together with. For me, it’s a lot easier to do long hours if others I like being around, and who have a similar cynically amused view of the situation, are also in the thick of it. Bonus points if one of the people sticking around is my manager, even if they just sit in their office surfing the net, because it communicates, “I’m not asking you to give up any more of your life than I myself am giving up.”

      “Purpose” used to be a thing for me that drove long hours. Bur in recent years, I’ve found interesting purpose in my personal life outside of my career, so that’s no longer something that really drives me to put in extra time.

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