Ever wake up exhausted and just dread going to work? Do you feel like that most days? Every day?
And we’ve all seen others who have suffered the death spiral of burnout and become shambling zombies at the office. They’re not “The Walking Dead”, they’re “The Working Dead.”
Well, maybe you’re just tired. But tired isn’t burnout. Tired is tired. Get more sleep and you’re not tired anymore. So what does real burnout feel like?
…three things happen: you become chronically exhausted; you become cynical and detached from your work; and you feel increasingly ineffective on the job.
Ah, must be time for a vacation. Vacations fix burnout, right?
Wrong. Research shows that’s like taking painkillers to treat a brain tumor. You feel better for a while but then the problem comes roaring back:
…work engagement significantly increased and teachers’ burnout significantly decreased after vacation. However, these beneficial effects faded out within one month… job demands after vacation sped up the fade-out of beneficial effects.
So what gives? What is burnout really? Where does it come from? And what do we have to do to avoid it? Time for some real answers.
Let’s get to it…
What Burnout Really Is
Burnout isn’t being overworked or not getting enough rest.
Burnout is job-induced depression.
We commonly refer to the problem as “burnout,” but what’s fascinating is that psychologists have realized that burnout isn’t just an acute overdose of stress; it’s pretty much plain ol’ clinical depression. The paper, “Comparative Symptomatology of Burnout and Depression,” said, “Our findings do not support the view hypothesizing that burnout and depression are separate entities.”
When work just gets too frustrating and pursuing your career goals feels futile, you become pessimistic. And University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman explains that “depression is pessimism writ large.”
Seligman’s work also shows optimism promotes persistence. When we expect good things to happen, it’s rational to be more resilient.
So burnout is actually the flip side of grit.
…when you’re not clicking with your role, you’re overloaded, and your duties aren’t aligned with your expectations or values, it’s not merely the stress that gets to you; you actually experience a perspective shift. You feel you can’t make progress, you disengage, and you eventually become cynical and pessimistic. So burnout is the flip side of grit. When we talked about Navy SEAL James Waters and the research of Martin Seligman, we saw that resilience often comes from optimism. Burnout is the result of a pessimistic attitude toward your job. “This isn’t getting me anywhere. I can’t handle this. It’s never going to get any better.”
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So how do you make sure you never end up as one of “The Working Dead”? Well, if the root cause of depression is pessimism…
Optimism and pessimism all come down to the story you tell yourself about what happens to you. Researchers call this “explanatory style.”
There are three important elements here. Let’s call them the 3 P’s: permanence, pervasiveness and whether it’s personal.
Pessimists tell themselves that bad events:
- Will last a long time, or forever. (“I’ll never get this done.”)
- Are universal. (“You can’t trust any of those people.”)
- Are their own fault. (“I’m terrible at this.”)
Optimists, well, they see it the exact opposite:
- Bad things are temporary. (“That happens occasionally but it’s no big deal.”)
- Bad things have a specific cause and aren’t universal. (“When the weather is better that won’t be a problem.”)
- It’s not their fault. (“I’m good at this but today wasn’t my lucky day.”)
The defining characteristic of pessimists is that they tend to believe bad events will last a long time, will undermine everything they do, and are their own fault. The optimists, who are confronted with the same hard knocks of this world, think about misfortune in the opposite way. They tend to believe defeat is just a temporary setback, that its causes are confined to this one case. The optimists believe defeat is not their fault: Circumstances, bad luck, or other people brought it about. Such people are unfazed by defeat. Confronted by a bad situation, they perceive it as a challenge and try harder.
Pay attention to the voice in your head. When it starts describing negative events as permanent, pervasive or personal, correct yourself.
By remembering the 3 P’s and flipping the script, Seligman says you can make yourself more optimistic over time.
(To learn more about how to be optimistic, click here.)
So you’re looking on the bright side. Good. But is there anything that can make you downright immune to burnout? Yup…
Find Meaning In What You Do
When you find true meaning in your work — when it’s not a job, it’s a calling — you don’t burn out.
Researchers Cary Cherniss and David Kranz found that burnout was “virtually absent in monasteries, Montessori schools, and religious care centers where people consider their work as a calling rather than merely a job.”
When jobs are meaningful, long stressful hours don’t have to be the path to an early grave. In fact, the exact opposite can be the case…
The Terman Study followed a group of people across their entire lives, from childhood to old age. What did they find?
Those who stayed very involved in meaningful careers and worked the hardest, lived the longest.
(To learn how to make your current job feel meaningful, click here.)
Rose-colored glasses? Check. Feel your work is meaningful? Check. But when the stress hits hard what’s the emotional EpiPen you need to inject yourself with to prevent burnout?
Double Down On Relationships
When you get busy at work, you often make less time for friends and family. Bad idea. That’s the emotional equivalent of being so overworked you stop eating and starve yourself to death.
Who handles stress the best? Those who increase their social activity when things get hard.
Shawn Achor echoed this, “The people who survive stress the best are the ones who actually increase their social investments in the middle of stress, which is the opposite of what most of us do. Turns out that social connection is the greatest predictor of happiness we have when I run them in my studies.”
But does this theory really help you avoid burnout in the real world? Yes.
When the American Medical Association surveyed top doctors to find out how they avoided burnout, one of the key things mentioned was “sharing issues with family and friends.”
(To learn how to make friends as an adult, click here.)
Alright, we’ve covered a lot. Time to round it up and learn the most important idea underlying all of this…
This is how to avoid burnout:
- Burnout is depression: You’re not tired from your job; you’re pessimistic about your job.
- Be optimistic: Remember the 3P’s. (Every one of my blog posts is always good and it is personally due to me.)
- Find meaning in what you do: I’m writing this to help you. So I’m not burned out. (But, man, am I tired.)
- Double down on relationships: Work stress is a poison and friends are the antidote.
What’s really interesting here?
None of these fixes actually changes what you’re doing. Optimism and meaning only change your interpretation of what’s going on. And time with friends happens when work is done.
Working less doesn’t make your job less frustrating. It makes it less frequently frustrating. You can still be quite pessimistic about things you don’t do as much.
People have jobs far worse than yours and don’t get burned out. It’s about perspective.
You decide whether the glass is half-empty or half-full.
But make sure to drink with close friends.
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Eric Barker is the author of Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong. Eric has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 290,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here.