What is burnout, and how can you avoid it?

Burnout is a complex topic, but one that business leaders really need to understand. That’s why we found the HBR Women at Work podcast’s episode on burnout and self-care so insightful. 

The episode features interviews with two fascinating academics, exploring what causes burnout, and how self-care can help us avoid it. In this post we’re going to focus on the interview with wellbeing expert Mandy O’Neill, a professor at the George Mason University School of Business, and senior scientist at the university’s Center for the Advancement of Well-Being.

O’Neill explains that not having enough time for the people and things that really matter to us is, at its heart, what causes burnout. But what exactly is burnout? And what can we do to treat it – or better yet, prevent it?

Burnout isn’t just stress

Stress and burnout are closely related, but not the same. O’Neill outlines three points academics use to define burnout:

  • emotional exhaustion;
  • depersonalisation;
  • and a decline in a sense of personal accomplishment.


We’re all used to the idea that stress can show up in physical ways. Maybe you get sick more when you’re stressed, or you can’t sleep properly. “This is actually a very helpful thing,” O’Neill suggests. “It’s your body’s way of saying you need to change something, [or you’re] not going to be able to perform optimally.”

With burnout, though, you don’t necessarily have a direct physical symptom to point to as evidence that something’s wrong. Instead you might feel detached from yourself and your life, emotionally exhausted, or unfulfilled. As horrible as that might be, it doesn’t necessarily stop you like, say, stress-induced migraines might. But pushing through those warning signs, says O’Neill, can make your burnout into a chronic issue.

“People under stress will often experience burnout, but people keep going with burnout … which is part of how it gets to be chronic.”

Applying self-care principles to work can help

When dealing with burnout herself, a key part of the answer for O’Neill was job crafting. That is, refocusing for a while on aspects of her work that refuelled and fulfilled her. As podcast co-host Amy Gallo notes, she “left one work situation to go to another work situation. It’s not like you went to a yoga ashram.”

Her approach demonstrates that you can’t confine self-care to your personal life. Work, as a major part of life, needs to be incorporated into a holistic approach to self-care.

Of course, it’s not always that simple in practice. But most of us can adjust how we spend our time a little, whether by shifting our favourite tasks to the end of the day or week, or by discussing problems like scope creep with our line manager.

“It’s not the case that every single aspect of [your] job will be the one that’s really pushing you to the point of burnout. So … you job craft a little bit. You focus on another aspect of the job that maybe hadn’t been receiving as much attention.”

Ignore burnout, lose talented employees

As a leader, if you fail to prevent burnout in your workplace, you’ll lose talented employees. And the kicker is, those employees you lose, the ones who prioritise a good work-life balance… They’re the ones who are likely to be consistently good performers at work, who are less likely to end up needing time off due to burnout or stress-related illnesses in the long run.

If you want the benefits of a diverse workforce, you must make sure your organisation provides a welcoming environment for a diverse range of people. Fail to do this, and daily frustrations and microaggressions will just contribute to burnout in, for example, female employees in a male-dominated workplace, neurodiverse employees, or people of colour in a company with mostly white employees.

Offering more money or a fancier title isn’t always enough to keep employees in a burnout-inducing work environment. O’Neill gives the example of a fascinating long-term study of female MBA alumni from Berkeley. Those who were most successful (in terms of pay and promotions) initially, and who the computer model expected would be most successful over time, actually dropped out at higher rates after a certain point.

“We think what happened is that they were experiencing burnout so severely that the so-called opt-out option was more attractive than trying to do something else,” O’Neill explains. “We think they were just plain old dropping out.”

“At some point, I think everyone has to do some introspection and ask what’s really important and what you’re willing to do for a paycheck and for how long. There’s really good evidence that, above a certain point, money doesn’t matter.”

Leaders set the tone

Leaders often feel like they have to do everything, to show their dedication to the job by working longer hours, never calling in sick, and so on. But this actually sets a dangerous precedent in the workplace – that necessary self-care is actually laziness.

If you’re heading down the road to burnout, you’re modelling to your direct reports that that’s how they should behave too. On the other hand, show them that your team prioritises self-care as well as hard work, and you’re demonstrating that long-term productivity and happiness are your priority.

And this doesn’t just apply to C-suite executives, either. Middle managers often have a much more direct impact on their team’s work culture than leaders higher up in the organisation. As a manager, what behaviour are you modelling to your direct reports? Are always at your desk through lunch, staying late in the office, or working through illnesses? Trust us, this is not a case where “do as I say, not as I do” will cut it!

“Being a manger has one of these unique advantages of everybody paying attention to you, and the emotions that you express are even more contagious than emotions expressed peer to peer.”

Avoiding burnout is a tricky task, especially when you’re a very work-driven person or work in a competitive field. But it’s vital to long-term professional success. It’s something anyone in a leadership role needs to keep a close eye on – both in themselves, and in their employees. Coaching can be a very efficient way to learn the skills needed to avoid burnout, but in the long run, it’s down to you.

As co-host Amy Bernstein puts it, avoiding burnout is really about “knowing what matters to you, and who matters to you, and keeping that front of mind … And by the way, I think it’s going to go way beyond 2020, and I think it’s great advice for life.”