Why Some People Burn Out At Work And Others Don’t

BY LORI MIHALICH-LEVIN

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it?  What exactly leads someone to “burn out” in her job?  And what causes someone else to weather some work storms but still be happy where she is?  After all, as we learn from a really young age (when our parents screamed as we reached toward the burner on the stove), getting “burnt” really hurts.

My thigh got burned by a hot potato when I was two or three years old, and the scar is still there. No one wants the pain – or the scars – of work burnout.

Given that I’m a lawyer, the first place I turn in answering tricky questions is to the meaning of words.  What’s the definition of “burnout” anyway?  Here are the two definitions the dictionary gives us:

1. The reduction of a fuel or substance to nothing through use or combustion. (WOAH, what an image!)

2. Physical or mental collapse, caused by overwork or stress.

They’re pretty much the same thing in the work context, no?  It’s entirely possible to work yourself down to “nothing” or to metaphorically internally combust.

As I see it, there are two major factors that contribute to whether someone will hit the burnout stage or not: the work environment and culture on one hand, and individual factors that relate to how you treat yourself on the other. Let’s explore each in turn.

Work Environment vs. Personal Factors

1. Work Environment and Culture. There’s no getting around the fact that some work environments are more stressful than others.  Some lines of work have frequent and stressful demands and/or long hours and offer little reprieve from either.

In The Healthy Workplace How to Improve the Well-Being of Your Employees—and Boost Your Company’s Bottom Line, Leigh Stringer does an excellent job of explaining how important personal control and choice are to our wellbeing at work.  In discussing the results of job-stress studies by Robert Karasek (an industrial engineer and sociologist) and Tores Theorell (a specialist in industrial medicine), Stringer notes that “those workers with the greatest risk for illness are those with high psychological demands and low decision latitude.”

“In other words,” Stringer writes, “if you have a job that does not provide much choice in how you are able to manage stress, you are more likely to suffer mentally and physically.”  It makes complete sense to me that “workers who have control over their work and work environment typically have more positive health outcomes, even if they have stressful jobs.”  The stress of my own legal job is mitigated by the fact that I have a great deal of flexibility in how I get my job done.

Does your job allow you some choice in how or where you complete your work?  If not, you’re inherently at more risk for mounting stress.  Does your workplace have a culture that rewards workaholism, or, instead, a healthy integration of work and other parts of your life?  If the former, it’s often hard to swim upstream against a prevailing current.

One helpful concept I’ve learned from Jessica DeGroot at the ThirdPath Institute is that “periodic overwork” is a normal part of most jobs.  Yes, things get stressful from time to time, and we find ways to cope with it during those trying times.  It’s when “chronic overwork” sets in and you never get a reprieve that your physical and mental health suffer.

2. Personal Factors. How we treat ourselves as individuals also must play into whether we are more or less likely to burn out at work.  I’ve known plenty of individuals who will put in 300% effort on a work job, even when “only” 100% is required.  Or who stay late every night and work every weekend, because that is their personal choice, preference, or personality.  What motivates us matters.  And don’t get me wrong – I believe it hard work and in doing work that I find rewarding.

But we each have limits, even if we don’t like to admit those limits to ourselves.  We simply can’t survive (let alone perform well) on constant work, no sleep, no vacations, and unhealthy habits.  Aside from the environmental and cultural factors in the office, I believe our own ability to set and honor boundaries is one of the biggest determinants in whether we’ll reach the stage of burnout or not.  (Here’s my short tutorial on how to set them.)

How much of a supportive community you have in place really matters, too.  Do you have a spouse or friend who can help you process the work stresses, and help you zoom out to gain perspective?  Do you have a community of friends at work or away from work, who help you to de-stress and blow off steam?  If so, you’ll be able to come out on the other side of trying work situations with more ease.

So, how to answer the question of who’s likely to burn out?  I’d say it’s someone whose environmental and/or personal factors don’t allow them to step away from work.  To create healthy spaces for themselves to step back from the job and life race.  To re-center themselves.  And to return to who they are at their core.  If you can create that space for yourself on a regular basis – even in micro bites – you’re on the path to living more sustainably in your work.  And to reducing the chances of getting singed.

Lori K. Mihalich-Levin, JD, is the founder of Mindful Return, author of Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave, and creator of the Mindful Return E-Course. A partner in the health care practice of a global law firm, she also is mama to two beautiful red-headed boys. Lori holds a law degree from the Georgetown University Law Center and completed her undergraduate studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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