How to manage burnout

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While we each have a certain threshold for workplace stress, the pressures of the pandemic have likely lowered it, putting all of us at higher risk for burnout.

But how do you know when you’ve crossed over from high stress to more dangerous burnout territory? And once you’ve gotten there, how do you regain your energy and build up resilience?

On March 18, Quartz brought together a panel of experts on how to manage burnout, as part of our Quartz at Work (from home) workshop series. Paula Davis, CEO of the Stress & Resilience Institute and author of the new book Beating Burnout at Work, kicked things off with an explanation of the difference between stress and burnout. She says that while stress can come from any aspect of our lives, burnout is a particular manifestation of work-related stress, with three main features: chronic emotional and physical exhaustion, chronic cynicism, and sense of lost or diminished impact.

If any of that sounds familiar, you’re in good company.

Click the large image above for the complete video playback of the workshop, or read on for our top takeaways.

Many of us have a romance with work—and sometimes the relationship is dysfunctional

When work is your passion, it can fuel you even through the most grinding days. It can be worth the sacrifices you might have to make to get the job done. But when the sacrifice turns into suffering—when the work you are putting in seems to deplete you more than it fulfills you, and you no longer feel you have choice in the matter—you’re deep at risk for burnout.

Workshop panelist Gianpiero Petriglieri, a psychiatrist turned associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, has written about this idea in Harvard Business Review and suggests the dynamics are similar to those in our other personal relationships.

“What many of us have is a sort of romance with work. And I’ve got to say, many of us are in a dysfunctional romance with work,” he said. “People tell you, if you’re not happy in your job, you should just leave it. If you’ve ever been in a dysfunctional romance, you know it’s not so simple.”

A complication for many of us is that even jobs we loved in the past might seem to be making us unhappy now. That’s entirely understandable, Petriglieri said, particularly in the context of a pandemic that has turned many of us into remote workers.

“We are remote from the two things that have been proven by psychologists again and again and again to be the protective factors from burnout. One is connection to others, and one is connection to some kind of hope, some kind of future,” he said. “Your job is not just what you produce—it’s about the people you came into contact with, the future you were trying to bring into the world. And if those people are no longer as close to you, and that future is in question, that job is no longer your job. And it’s ok to question it.”

This is where leaning on others becomes essential. “If you’re in a dysfunctional relationship,” Petriglieri said, “what’s going to save you? Occasionally, your dignity; in extreme cases, the law; but in most cases, your friends.” It’s easier said than done, but find the colleagues, coaches, mentors, family members, and friends outside of work who can ground you with the connections and perspective you need. It can make all the difference.

People of color carry an extra layer of burnout risk

Panelist Lorraine Uy Alire, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, on several occasions referenced her Asian and Latina heritage. That was very much on purpose.

“I am consistently inserting my identity here [to set a] multicultural context,” she said. Her point? To make sure that any audience members who don’t share her identity can still get an understanding of where she is coming from. Embedding identity and culture into the things we say and do, she said, is a way of building empathy and antiracist approaches into our discussions and actions.

But what does any of this have to do with burnout?

Alire is co-chair of the Oppression and Resilience Special Interest Group for Minority Mental Health at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies. She also is the co-founder of refillyourwell.net, an online guide to managing burnout for activists of color. Burnout is common across all forms of activism, she said. But activists of color carry the extra burden of experiencing the prejudice they are fighting against, and being tokenized even by well-meaning allies who are calling on them to represent their communities or identities.

She said we need to take antiracist psychological approaches to combatting burnout. But these are rarely found in the literature.

The idea is “a new concept right now,” she said. “It’s on brand. But all this marginalization, this oppression, it’s always been there. The pandemic has forced us to pause and look in the mirror, to not be lost in the trance. And that’s the beauty we take from this. You feel the sadness, and you feel the growth and the grief.”

Alire said she sees patients from marginalized communities who exhibit physical manifestations of stress and burnout—fatigue, headaches, backaches that make them prone to injuries. “Something I always thinking about is fairness is wellness,” she said. “We need white allies, allies of privilege, to tell us to pause, to tell us to stop, to say, ‘Let me carry the burden for you.'”

Burnout is a work problem and it’s up to workplaces to solve it

After a pair of panic attacks a number of years back landed her in the emergency room, Davis, from the Stress & Resilience Institute, was wondering what she did wrong. “I must have missed some memo along the way about how to manage my stress,” she recalled thinking. She was working for a law firm at the time, and she was burned out.

“As leaders we still have the mentality” that burnout as an individual issue, caused by different stressors in people’s lives, she said. But the causes usually are systemic or cultural.

Her new book does offer tips for how individuals can manage burnout-level stress (among them, try to restructure your workload so that you devote at least 20% of your time to a part of your job that you find meaningful, a strategy she said has been shown to cut burnout rates in half among people in the medical profession). But the emphasis is on what managers and teams can do to address the problem.

“It’s great from a leader perspective to tell folks you need to take time off, and encourage that; it’s not going to fix a burnout problem,” she said in response to an audience question about how to urge a hard worker at risk of burnout to take a break. “You have to also take a step back and start asking yourself, ‘What’s going on in my team and in the environment that I am leading and creating that is causing this individual, and others individuals likely in this realm, to be feeling this way and to end up likely being cynical and exhausted and feeling disengaged.'”

Extra time off has been a go-to for many companies during the pandemic, but if workload is the top factor driving burnout in your organization—it’s the most common overall, she said—then a day away doesn’t necessarily hold great appeal. Davis said many of her clients have expressed concerns that “if I leave for a day, I’m going to come back to 55 additional emails and feel even more in the swamp with my workload problem.”

Leaders who want to make sure people have time to rest and recharge need to model the behavior and take time off themselves, she said. “But we really have to be getting to the deeper conversation about what’s causing this in the first place.”

If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, she said, it’s that this is a conversation more and more leaders seem willing to have.