Is Burnout Inevitable?

It’s after 3 a.m. and you look at the clock in frustration.  Despite feeling so exhausted that you want to collapse during the day, somehow at night you can’t will yourself to sleep.  Your mind races with to-do lists, a replay of that conversation you could have handled so much better, and a nagging feeling that you’ve forgotten something important.  You know the morning won’t bring relief, but instead a reminder that you’ve lost your motivation as you struggle to get out of bed. 

If this is something you can relate to, you’ve likely suffered from burnout, maybe without even realizing it.  In fact, most people don’t realize they’re burning out until they hit a breaking point, when it’s hardest to recover from it.  This can lead people to make drastic decisions they might not have otherwise made, like quitting a job without lining up a new one.  It can also lead people to isolate themselves, withdrawing from the activities and the people they love.

For many of us, burnout seems inevitable.  After all, there are so many demands on our time, and expectations to meet, and deadlines to hit, that it can all just feel overwhelming.

But burnout doesn’t have to be inevitable.  Not only can you recover from burnout, you can actually avoid it in the first place.  So how do you do this?

It turns out that most burnout doesn’t stem from one large event.  Instead, it comes from the build-up of micro-stresses – small stress that adds up without you even realizing it.

  • Somebody talks over you in a meeting when you had a great idea to share. 
  • A deadline gets moved up unexpectedly.
  • There’s an accident on your way to picking up your kids from school, making you late.
  • Your flight gets delayed on the vacation you’ve been looking forward to for months.
  • You forgot to get milk, so now you have another stop on the way home.

All of these things are small, seemingly insignificant events that should be easy to brush off and move past.  That’s what most of us do.  The problem is, by ignoring these micro-stresses, they build up and over time create patterns in the brain that resemble what you’d see in PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).  This can be detrimental and explains why we often don’t see burnout coming until we hit a breaking point.  It’s not until the stress builds up to near-traumatic levels that we start to realize it’s an issue and by then, it’s often had a bigger impact than we realized.

You might realize that you no longer talk to friends as often, or have as much to share at the family dinner table.  You may find it difficult to find the motivation to do the things that once came naturally to you.  You may even find yourself suffering from anxiety, depression, decreased appetite and insomnia. 

But there is hope.  Since we know that burnout can result from the pile up of micro-stresses, it’s important to build your self-awareness and tune into those micro-stresses.  Check in with yourself every week to explore where your stress comes from, so you can actively take steps to mitigate it.

Then put yourself on a path to recovery and prevention by setting up a small aim each week to shift your behavior to help you avoid or better deal with your micro-stresses.  For example, if you are often stressed by deadlines getting moved, think about how you can set aside buffer time in your calendar to address those emergencies, so they don’t create chaos for you and become more manageable.

Make rest a priority. The best way to recover from burnout is to give yourself time to rest.  There are seven different types of rest, as outlined by Dr. Saundra Dalton-Smith, so you may be low in a single area or several areas.  Self-reflection can help you better understand where you’re depleted so you can set aside time to build up rest in that area.  Ask yourself where you feel whole and fulfilled, and be honest about where you feel rest is lacking.

Finally, try incorporating the practice of gratitude into your routine.  Not only does gratitude improve mental health, it also helps increase optimism and foster stronger connections with those around you.  Write down what you’re grateful for, and don’t be afraid to share your gratitude with those that make you thankful.  It will boost their mood as well as yours.

So if you’ve suffered from burnout yourself, or you’ve witnessed it in someone you care about, take hope in knowing that it is not a condition that has to be chronic.  You can recover from it and feel recharged again.  You can also build up your defense against burnout by proactively getting ahead of it and building your resiliency, so you can avoid it altogether.

To learn more about how to spot the early signs of burnout and how to overcome it, check out our latest research, The 2023 Burnout Report.