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While we often use the phrase ‘burnout’ to describe feeling depleted of energy or overworked, the term has recently been updated by the World Health Organization to mean more than that: moving from being simply a ‘state’ of exhaustion to a diagnosable syndrome — one the International Classification of Diseases is calling an ‘occupational phenomenon’.

There are two processes that contribute to the syndrome, burnout specialist and organisational psychologist Michael Leiter tells The Style Sheet. ‘The first is an energy process in which people become exhausted due to intense work coupled with insufficient recovery. The second is a values process in which people become cynical and discouraged when they fail to find fulfilment, or their core values, through their work.’

With burnout statistics showing 23 per cent of employees have reported feeling burnt out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 per cent reported feeling burnt out sometimes, there’s a good chance it’s something you can relate to.

So how does one successfully combat — and even avoid — burning out? The Style Sheet asked Leiter, along with burnout expert Joelle Amouroux-Huttner, to share their strategies — learning that while the work starts from within, you can only go so far without bringing your workplace into the conversation. ‘It helps to think of burnout as a breakdown in the relationships people develop with their work,’ says Leiter. ‘Action to avoid burnout needs to address that relationship.’


1. Recognise the signs

‘Burnout is a process, a cycle. So first and foremost, you need to educate yourself about the process and the telltale signs. Then you must be willing to be honest about your situation. You cannot recover or avoid burning out if you aren’t willing to accept that whatever is going on in your life isn’t quite right. From an outside point of view, it may look like you’re really successful and have your life under control, but only you will know whether that’s true. Recognise the situation for what it is, not better, not worse,’ says Amouroux-Huttner.

2. Remember that you are enough

‘Most burnouts start with the fear that we’re not “something” enough — good enough, experienced enough, educated enough. And while most people will find a way to overcome that fear, for some it’s impossible to ignore. They’re driven to present to the world a perfect image. They become overachievers, not because they want to achieve, but so they can prove to themselves that they’re enough. Recognising that they’re driven by an unhealthy need to be “something” should allow them to look at the big picture of their life and find a more balanced way to live,’ explains Amouroux-Huttner.

3. Introduce regular activities

‘When in the burnout phase, it’s normal to become focused on only one aspect of one’s life at the expense of everything else. For example, if a person’s life is consumed by their work, it’s likely that they’ve stopped taking the time for their friends, family or other activities. Making a concerted effort to reintroduce those elements into their life — and making it mandatory — allows them to reconnect with parts of their life that they’ve forgotten about. This gives them a way to decompress and to recharge their batteries,’ shares Amouroux-Huttner.

4. Keep workloads sustainable

‘Work with managers and colleagues to develop sustainable workloads. Most people like working hard on tasks they believe are important and useful, but they still need opportunities to rest and have a break from work to fully recover a new supply of energy to devote to the next day at work. You have to work with others at work to ensure that your recovered energy isn’t all expended by even more work demands,’ stresses Leiter.

5. Don’t waste your energy

‘Work with your workgroup to improve workplace civility. For example, a workgroup process such as Strengthening a Culture of Respect and Engagement (SCORE) can help to avoid burnout by reducing the amount of energy people waste in uncivil social encounters. It also opens new opportunities for colleagues to engage one another through supportive encounters where people express appreciation and reaffirm their sense of community at work. Another way to minimise wasted energy is by reducing administrative busywork — filling out forms and writing things no one wants to read simply uses up energy without adding value,’ offers Leiter.