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Book Review-Professional Burn-Out

I was giddy.  It was a book published in 1977.  Professional Burn-Out wasn’t that big, but it was a book that predated Freudenberger’s Burn-Out book, which was published in 1980.  It still cited his journal articles on the topic – but very few people would even know about this book.  I have to credit The Burnout Challenge for directing me to it.  In the irony of ironies, it further discredits the premises in The Burnout Challenge.


Rarely do I share outlines more or less directly from a book – but here, the outline shines light on the idea of burnout and its factors.  It starts with looking at personal and professional factors for burnout:

  • Personal Sources of Burnout
    • Not Setting Limits (see Boundaries)
    • Not Paying Attention to Our Own Needs and Limits
    • Not Communicating Our Feelings
    • Isolating Ourselves Physically and Psychologically (see Loneliness and Acedia & Me)
    • Political Nature of Work
    • Powerlessness (see The Hope Circuit)
    • Ignoring Positive Attention from Others
    • Lack of Professional Identity
    • Becoming Overinvolved
    • Professional Survival Skills
    • Inability to Live with “Gray Areas” of Life
  • Organizational Sources of Burnout
    • Not Including Staff in Policy Making Procedures (see Reinventing Organizations)
    • Lack of Structure that Allows People to Share Strong Positive and Negative Feelings (see The Fearless Organization)
    • Lack of Positive Feedback
    • Lack of Ability to Personalize Workspace
    • Not Sharing Wants and Needs and Not Encouraging Others to Do the Same (see Radical Candor)
    • Lack of Adequate Supervision
    • Dead-End Jobs
    • Lack of Skill-based Training
    • Few External Rewards
    • Limited Vacation Time
    • High Client/Staff Ratio

What’s key here is that many of these same concepts have shown up in other work since publication – and many of these are directly addressed by our bathtub model as explained in Extinguish Burnout.

Three Degrees

Professional Burn-Out proposes that there are three levels of burnout:

  • First: Signs and symptoms are experienced mildly and occasionally.
  • Second: Signs and symptoms are more persistent and difficult to move out of.
  • Third: Signs and symptoms are continuous. Psychological problems begin to accompany the signs of burnout.

Signs and Symptoms

The list of signs and symptoms at a personal level include:

  • Fatigue – This label to what is commonly called exhaustion today.
  • Worry – This also includes an inability to separate work from the rest of our lives.
  • Inability to make decisions – This is commonly seen when someone is overwhelmed. (See The Organized Mind.)
  • Guilt – Here, there’s a sense that the work that is being done isn’t of high enough quality. Today, this is often called inefficacy.  We’re guilty, because we don’t feel effective enough.  (See I Thought It was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for more on guilt.)
  • Physical symptoms – Often, our minds impact our bodies. We continue to find that our physical symptoms are driven by our minds.  (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for more.)
  • Alienation – We see that we’re disconnecting from friends. This leads to feelings of Loneliness.
  • Criticism/Griping – Today, we generally call this cynicism. Cynicism is the result of our feelings of inefficacy.  (If you want more about an appropriate level of happiness, see Bright-Sided.)
  • Anger/Resentment – Also known as being “snappy”. (See A Force for Good for more about how to work on anger.)
  • Accident proneness – Another sign of cognitive exhaustion associated with high levels of stress, people may start bumping into walls. (See The Rise of Superman about chemical exhaustion in the brain.)

At an organizational level, we’ve seen an increased awareness of the problems of engagement, which closely track what we see at an individual level as burnout.  Gallup has routinely demonstrated that about one-third of people are engaged, one-third are neutral, and one-third are actively disengaged.  The reported symptoms are:

  • Increased absenteeism
  • Low level enthusiasm
  • Quality of service declines
  • Lack of focus
  • High level of complaints
  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of acknowledgement of “strokes”
  • Lack of openness to new ideas

Strategies for Dealing with Burnout

The book continues with a list of strategies for dealing with burnout, both personally and organizationally.

The personal strategies are:

  • Awareness
  • Contact
  • Peer professional
  • Work under good supervision
  • Personal skill building
  • Carving out professional time
  • Help without rescuing
  • Personal work contract
  • Dealing with one’s own unfinished business
  • Work with someone you like
  • Learning to relax without having to work hard at it
  • Regular exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Learning and using assertive skills
  • Making a want list
  • Be creative with anger
  • Take time and space for yourself

Organizational strategies are:

  • Encourage staff to express feelings
  • Support/Encourage and reward risk taking
  • Provide ongoing supervision
  • Encourage sharing of needs and wants
  • Invite staff to participate in policy and decision making
  • Train staff in burnout
  • Train supervisory staff in burnout

These approaches are not fundamentally different today than back then – even if few people are able to do all of them.  Perhaps that’s why Professional Burn-Out remains a problem today.

Book Review-The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs

“Reheated in a microwave oven” is the best way to describe The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs.  It’s a rehash of Maslach and Leiter’s previous book, The Truth About Burnout.  I disagreed with their approach in 2018 when I read it, which was originally released in 2000.  I had hoped that their update would address the problems with the previous edition – and in some ways, it did.  However, it also doubled down on some of the problems of the previous work.  I’ll start with the criticisms and then move to finding some value in the work.

I do need to acknowledge that, because we’ve written a book, Extinguish Burnout, and have the corresponding website, we’ve got a competing interest of sorts.  Also, Maslach attempted to discredit an article that we wrote about the origins of burnout as a construct – for which we were able to quote page and paragraph from Freudenberger’s original work, Burn-Out.  In so much as it is possible, I’ve tried to not allow this to color this review of the book; but at some level, I’m sure it’s unavoidable.

In most situations when I read a book that I so strongly disagree with, I simply don’t write a review.  It’s not worth the effort just to dissuade people from reading the book – however, due to the degree to which the book leads people astray and the positive bias that people might have towards reading it because of Maslach’s name, I felt that it was important that I post this review.  My hope is that I can illuminate common misconceptions and pitfalls that exist in the burnout space as well as to clarify some of the difficult parts to understand.

Connecting the Research

My biggest disappointment is that the revision didn’t connect to the research that has been done since the previous work.  There weren’t internal research citations for burnout work; instead, there were vague references to “research supports” – which isn’t satisfying if you want to see what was really said.  Often, what people say research results mean aren’t what they do mean or are even in conflict with the research author’s own interpretation of the results.

It also didn’t connect to work outside of the direct burnout space.  Instead, in many cases, the statements in the book contradicted what research in adjacent areas has shown.  Let me provide some clear examples:

  • Stress – Some of the best work on stress comes from Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. (I wrote three posts to review it.)  It explains how stress functions and how it’s a short-term/long-term balance that results in long-term inefficacy, but this is totally missed.  Also missed is the work that Lazarus covers in Emotion and Adaptation and Barrett’s work in How Emotions Are Made about the importance of the person’s interpretation.  These would have, of course, undermined the premise of the book.  If we acknowledge the way people respond to stressors in the environment, we can’t completely blame the environment.  Of course, the work on behavior being a function of both person and environment goes all the way back to Lewin’s early work.  (See A Dynamic Theory of Personality for more.)
  • Psychological Safety – In the space of creating psychological safety, Amy Edmondson’s book, The Fearless Organization, is the landmark. Edmondson and her work on creating psychologically safe workplaces doesn’t get a mention – even though the argument is that workplaces are the problem and that improving safety is at least part of the answer.
  • Incompetent Leadership – In numerous places, the book blames incompetent leadership despite having never defined what leadership is in the first place. Of course, many have tried to address this topic, including Burns in Leadership and Rost in Leadership for the Twenty-First Century.  The book further sidesteps the skills that would make leadership competent – like those described in The Leadership Machine.  Ignored was the work indicating that every layer of organizational hierarchies will struggle with the others, as explained in Seeing Systems.  It’s easy to blame the leadership when they’re in the “them” group.
  • Intrinsic Motivation – The idea of people’s motivations coming from themselves gets a single reference. Deci’s work in Why We Do What We Do received only cursory attention despite being an important mediating factor to the need for direct organizational/structural motivation.  Daniel Pink’s extension to this work in Drive was similarly ignored.
  • Teams – While The Burnout Challenge addresses the need for collaboration, there’s no mention of Hackman’s work (e.g., Collaborative Intelligence), Hansen’s work (e.g., Collaboration), or works like Group Genius that would operationalize the concept of collaboration.
  • One View of Organizations The Burnout Challenge views organizations as machines, but that’s only one way to conceptualize them. Also ignored was the work in Images of Organization, which describes how our views of organizations can help us – and hurt us – in understanding and changing them.  Other works, like Reinventing Organizations, use the mechanical lens to show how the motivations of organizations and their operation can be different.  This allows greater clarity about the kinds of structures that seem to lead to better employee engagement – and therefore less burnout.  (Research demonstrates that engagement and burnout are largely overlapping concepts.)

The Errors

In addition to the omissions, there are some direct errors in the work.  For instance:

  • Equating Moral Injury and Compassion Fatigue – The former is the result of asking someone to do something that violates their moral/ethical standards, and the latter is the result of prolonged exposure to others’ negative emotions. Frameworks would have exposed this.  Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind covers the foundations of morality – and the conflicts that can and do arise.  Likewise, teaching how to manage moral injury would be useful, as Kidder does in How Good People Make Tough Choices.  In Moral Disengagement, Bandura explains how systems are structured to disable our morality – which could address or mitigate moral injury.  (Admittedly, this is probably a bad thing.)
  • Extensive Research on Burnout – Here, the problem is they assert that the research supports the three-component model of burnout that Maslach uses – exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. While there is research that supports this formulation, it’s also what people were looking for, so the results can be explained by many reasons.  As we learned with the Hawthorne effect, things aren’t always as they seem.  (See Management and the Worker.)  Second, the statements ignore the research that refutes not only the construction that Maslach uses but also that burnout is a separate concept from depression.  I do believe there are nuances that separate burnout from depression – but they’re very small.

There are, of course, other errors, but fundamental errors like these are harder to excuse.

Understanding the Criteria

As stated above, Maslach has proposed there are three categories that should be used as the defining characteristics of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  However, it’s relatively simple to deconstruct this and realize why the formulation isn’t right.  (There are research articles that point to limitations as well, but a simple logical progression will be quicker.)  We’ve all been exhausted without being in burnout.  Cynicism is what happens when we don’t feel effective any longer – thus leaving us only with inefficacy at the core.

Understanding the relationship between these factors at a deeper level requires an understanding of systems.  Donella Meadows in Thinking in Systems explains the basic stocks and flows that drive all the work around systems.  In short, we have a reserve of willpower that we consume when we feel ineffective.  (See Baumeister’s excellent work, Willpower, for more on willpower.)  When that willpower is exhausted, we feel hopeless.  The work of Seligman and others on hopelessness indicates that hope is a powerful force.  (See The Hope Circuit.)  This hopelessness – our feelings of permanent inefficacy — triggers cynicism.

However, there are other dynamics at play.  Willpower is a consumable resource but one that recovers.  So, we oscillate between hopelessness and the resulting cynicism, and feeling as if there may be hope – and we don’t need to be cynical.  The exhaustion component of the equation has its cyclical nature, too.  Some of this is rejuvenated when we sleep, even if we’re less tired and more exhausted – feeling like we have no energy.  The Burnout Challenge is quick to point out that burnout requires being sustained – and exhausted requires that as well.  However, the dynamics of cyclical progression are ignored.

The challenge is teasing out the causal nature of one of the components to the other and the relationships of these cycles.  To my knowledge, no one has been able to show these relationships.  I am, however, aware that screening high for burnout often leads to screening high for depression.

The Match

Another major consideration is the match between the employer and the employee.  While the match itself isn’t explained, there are many dimensions on which one could base the degree of relatedness.  Before we get to that, imagine a “surfer dude” in swim trunks, with a long-board at his side, on a southern California beach where the waves are “righteous.”  Also consider the immaculate professional in a custom three piece suit, expensive shoes, an expensive briefcase, and a watch that costs more than some people’s homes walking into the board room of a financial services firm in London.  Both are precisely fitted for the environments that I described.  Reverse the scenarios, and they’re incredibly out of place.  That’s the match problem.

It doesn’t mean that the circumstances or the people are wrong.  It means that the match is wrong.  One of the challenges in The Burnout Challenge is that, though the framing is that there’s a bad fit, the book returns to the good vs. bad dichotomy, which isn’t real.  It speaks of six factors (explained shortly) that are about how the employers aren’t being good to their employees – regardless of the match.

It’s described as a match, when the reality is that it hides a negative view of employers, including both management and leadership.

The Six

The six mismatches are as follows:

  • Work Overload – Here, the focus is on overworked workers who can’t keep up with the demands being placed on them. See the section on measuring performance below for more on this topic.
  • Lack of Control – This is the autonomy that a person has to influence the work they do. (See Compelled to Control for why I hesitate to use the word “control” here.)  This is where Deci’s work on intrinsic motivation is briefly raised.
  • Insufficient Rewards – Here, the word “rewards” is used as a proxy for both direct rewards and recognition. (For tips on this, check out 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees with Little or No Money.)
  • Breakdown of Community – Community is the relationships with supervisors, peers, and the broader organization. See the section, “Social Capital,” for more.
  • Absence of Fairness – The perception (or lack thereof) that decisions are made fairly – that is, impartially. See the section, “Equitable,” for more.
  • Values Conflicts – When things that the individual finds important aren’t important to the organization, burnout is likely to arise, because they see no progress on the things that are important to them.

Measuring Performance

Let’s take a quick look at retail performance.  It’s measured in inventory turns – that is, how fast merchandise is sold on average from the shelves.  Here’s the official numbers from a retailer that we all know:

  • 1994 – 3.45
  • 1995 – 3.75 (8.7%)
  • 1996 – 3.66 (-2.4%/6.1%)
  • 1997 – 3.85 (5.2%/2.7%)
  • 1998 – 3.98 (3.4%/8.7%)
  • 1999 – 4.01 (0.8%/4.2%)
  • 2000 – 4.22 (5.2%/6.0%)
  • 2001 – 4.75 (12.6%/18.5%)
  • 2002 – 4.56 (-4.0%/8.1%)

The first number is inventory turns, the second number is improvement, the third number is the two-year improvement.  Any guess at the retailer?  If you think that it’s Walmart, you’d be wrong.  It’s the competitor that Walmart crushed: K-Mart.  Home of the blue-light special improved its performance – but not enough.  Walmart’s performance for the same period was:

  • 1994 – 5.14
  • 1995 – 4.88 (-5.1%)
  • 1996 – 5.16 (5.7%/0.4%)
  • 1997 – 5.67 (9.9%/16.2%)
  • 1998 – 6.37 (12.4%/23.5%)
  • 1999 – 6.91 (8.5%/21.9%)
  • 2000 – 7.29 (5.5%/14.4%)
  • 2001 – 7.79 (6.9%/12.7%)
  • 2002 – 8.08 (3.7%/10.8%)

It wasn’t that K-Mart wasn’t improving – they were.  Just not fast enough.  The question of performance is always relative to some reference point, and in this case, the point of comparison is the competitor.  K-Mart simply couldn’t keep up with these numbers.

In the context of burnout, we have two forces working on us.  First is the force of the external expectations of the organization, and the second are our own expectations.  The external expectations can be out of sync with reality.  For all of the negatives of Fredrick Taylor’s Scientific Management, it did have the benefit of being able to identify standards and norms for individual activities – and thus set reasonable expectations.

The unfortunate reality of today is that most organizations have no idea what a normal level of performance should be for many of the tasks performed.  They simply accept the results that their current employees are achieving.  When employees are replaced, this can lead to massive disconnects, as the previous person may have had the temperament and skills that made them perform the task substantially better than average – or substantially poorer.  When working with external expectations, it’s important to evaluate what they’re based on – and why those results may need to be adjusted.  Dan Ariely explains in Predictably Irrational that we often fail to correct our initial assumptions sufficiently.

Internal expectations are often more challenging.  They’re based on a desire for maximization (see The Paradox of Choice), perfectionism (see Multipliers), or simply previous conditions that no longer apply.  They may be expectations that were once external by parents, coaches, or others that have become internalized and now feel like truth.  When we’re facing internal expectations, we often need to find ways to develop better acceptance of ourselves.  (see No Bad Parts and How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.)  That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t maintain a desire to get better.  Carol Dweck in Mindset explains how a growth mindset allows for growth while acknowledging the current conditions, and Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool in Peak explain how to take that to excellence.

It’s important to note that, clearly, internal expectations aren’t the responsibility of the organization; they’re something that each of us bring to the organizations we join.

Social Capital

Robert Putnam’s work in Bowling Alone is a classic as it relates to the concept of social capital – that is, our ability to get things done because of our relationships.  In his follow up book, Our Kids, Putnam explains how this social capital impacts our children.  In the organization, most HR professionals know that people join organizations, but they leave managers – and sometimes the group dysfunction that managers allow to continue.

As humans, we need relationships: to be expelled from our communities was a death sentence.  We need to depend on others to share the work and make the load lighter.  (See Healthy Dependency in Relationships for more.)  In the context of work, relationships are with our manager and our peers.  If they’re good, they’re a shield that will stop us from considering other offers or leaving when we’re upset.  If these key relationships aren’t right, then nothing will be right.

For the most part, these relationships can’t be directly controlled because of the variation in perspectives, experiences, and values, but there is one way that organizations can ensure they get better outcomes.  That is to insist on accountability.  (See The Four Disciplines of Execution for more.)  That’s no guarantee that there will be good relationships, but it makes it more likely.


We need to understand why fairness is so important.  To do that, we can look at a game that economists use.  It involves two people and $10.  The first person picks the split between the two people, and the second person decides if either of them get the money.  From an economic point of view, any split between them should cause the second person to accept the deal, because they’re better off for it.  (See Drive, Choosing Civility, The Marketing of Evil, and Positive Psychotherapy for coverage of the ultimatum game – it’s very popular.)  However, the economist view isn’t the one that happens.  When the balance between the two gets shifted away from the second person by about 60-40 or 70-30, they start saying no.  By 80-20, it’s even more profound.  But why?

It appears that our evolution has necessarily involved the addition of anti-cheating responses.  Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene proposed that genes were exclusively selfish.  However, Robert Axelrod in The Evolution of Cooperation showed how collaboration could be adaptively evolved.  Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind expressed a similar sentiment – with much less math.  The evolution of cooperation requires a way to identify cheaters and punish them.  Thus, when we detect people trying to cheat us – to not be fair – we have a natural reaction to try to punish the cheater.  That means we have to detect the problem, and some of that relies on the way we view the situation.

At first, it appears as if equitable and equal should be the same.  If two people receive the same amount, then it should be equitable.  Fair enough.  However, what happens when the amount is a percentage increase?  Someone making $1,000,000 getting a 10% increase gets an extra $100,000 while the person making $50,000 gets an extra $5,000.  Is that equitable?  Maybe, but maybe not.  It depends on your framing.

If you’re focused on the amount, then it appears unfair – even more unfair than in the ultimatum game.  If you are focused on the percentage, you recognize it as “fair” because it’s equal.  So, here, there’s an important message for organizations: make sure that what you’re doing appears as fair as you intend it to be.  The Righteous Mind considers fairness (and not cheating) a foundation of morality, and certainly this rings true.  It’s foundational to the way all people view things.  There are competing possibilities for the ultimate moral decision, but largely we all believe we should be fair.  Being effective at maintaining employee engagement (and thus avoiding burnout) includes emphasizing the ways in which the decisions are fair.

Collaborate Within, Complete with Outside

Morten Hansen in Collaboration makes the point the most clearly.  You must keep competition on the outside and collaboration inside.  He’s not alone: Group Genius, The Culture Puzzle, Bowling Alone, Collaborative Intelligence, and even The Hidden Brain express the same sentiment.  Competition inside of groups is bad.  However, the question becomes how large is the collaborative vs. competitive group?  For the most part, organizations have abandoned the review approach of stacked ranking, where members of a group are sorted from best to worst, and typically the worst are let go.  Clearly, this was bad, because it set up inherent competition in the group.  However, what about different divisions in the same organization?  Steve Balmer’s reign at Microsoft was filled with inter-group conflicts, which may have been part of the reason why the stock price was flat for such a long time.

The Burnout Challenge equates this competitive group aspect with a culture of fear.  In the context of losing a competition, that’s fair – however, it’s in many ways too broad a characterization of the safety (or fear) that someone feels at an organization.  This is just one aspect of the story.  If the organization utilizes competition internally, but even the losing group retains their jobs and gets other interesting assignments, it’s possible and probable that they’ll feel safe.


One curious condition arises when one thinks that it’s the leadership’s fault that you’re burned out.  What happens if you’re self-employed?  Who do you blame for being overworked and under recognized?  The answer is yourself, obviously – but what do you do about it?  The challenge with the framework laid out in The Burnout Challenge is that there’s very little you can do.  Because the model doesn’t account for perceptions or our ability to change our perspectives on the same objective facts, we’re left stuck.

Mind the Gap

For us, the issue is really in the gap between expectations and the results that you believe you’re getting.  If you believe that you’re getting the results you expect, you will feel effective, and you’ll avoid burnout.  These expectations can either be internally driven – that is, what you expect – or externally driven – what the organization or your manager expects.

It’s entirely possible to be in a situation where expectations are misaligned – but they’re your expectations of yourself, not the expectations foisted upon you by others.  One of the key things we tell people is that most of the requirements for what we do aren’t the requirements of others but are instead the way that we believe we should behave.  It’s not about the boss that expects that there won’t be any typos – it’s the expectation we have for ourselves.

This has two implications.  First, it’s this gap that moves us towards burnout, and it takes a lot of support and self-care to avoid burnout.  Second, it means that burnout can be entirely internally driven and doesn’t necessarily require the influence of the organization at all.  (See The Paradox of Choice and Multipliers for the impacts of maximization and perfectionism.)


One of the most useless things for burnout – in the long term – is a two-week vacation.  Many of the popular solutions to burnout is to offer people massages at work or encourage them to take a two-week vacation, but the truth is that this is just an opportunity to recover.  It doesn’t address any of the fundamentals of the situation that led to burnout in the first place.  As the old saying goes, if nothing changes, then nothing changes.  You can’t expect to stay out of burnout if you return to the same situation that led to burnout with the same tools.  You either need to change yourself, change the situation, or get new skills.

Is This Thing On?

Are you listening to the feedback you ask for?  If not, you’re contributing to the idea that their work and opinions don’t matter.  It’s the harsh reality for too many organizations.  They must execute an employee survey every year, because someone told them they had to.  They might even say that the items identified in the survey will be addressed – but far too often, the survey is done, and no one has any idea how to convert the feedback into a set of actionable steps to change the outcomes.

The bigger problem with this behavior is that it breaks the trust that you will pay attention, the result of which is that people stop telling you the truth about the situation, making it nearly impossible to recover.

Where the Lever Breaks

I’m all for leverage and scalability.  I love finding simple solutions that have great returns.  It’s magical when you see it happen.  One could easily accept The Burnout Challenge’s assertion, “Where major advances in workplace well-being occur, they come through better workplace design, not through supplying organizations with tougher employees,” if it were not for our knowledge that this rarely works.  It’s the strategy fallacy.  Sometimes, it’s called the “planning fallacy,” and it’s apparent in the way that we run projects differently today.

It used to be that we’d run waterfall-type projects with big, upfront planning of what we wanted and a large development cycle.  It worked well for hundreds of years, as engineers built bridge after bridge and building after building.  There were some notable failures, but they were always explained away as aberrations.  The Tacoma Narrows Bridge failed, because new materials in use elevated aerodynamics to a point of concern.  As long as the projects were the same, things worked relatively well, even if tragedy occurred when things did change.

Software development through the 1980s used this model with dismal results.  Projects didn’t work, they were late, and more over budget than the Sydney Opera House.  As a result, in the late 1980s, a shift started happening towards what is now called “agile development” or “agile approaches.”  Unlike big, upfront planning, it recognized that there were things that had to be learned along the way, because every project was essentially unique.

Agile approaches are iterative, emphasizing making small changes, learning, adapting, and trying again.  This allows teams to learn during the process and discover challenges that simply can’t be predicted.  That’s where the great level of strategy breaks – where it encounters an unanticipated problem.  When it comes to people and their perceptions, there are always unanticipated problems.  Consider The Coddling of the American Mind, which explains how we’ve attempted to warn people that they may be triggered by content only to discover that students continue to be triggered by content – just not the content that the instructor expects.

To be clear, I’m not opposing strategy.  We need a strategy.  However, we need to accept that strategy isn’t the only solution to the problem.  It’s not a case of whether we need better designed organizations or tougher employees.  The simple fact of the matter is that we need both – or rather, we need to accept that strategy isn’t enough.  We don’t need tougher employees – we need employees that are more equipped to handle the slings and arrows that life throws at them inside and outside the organization.

Match Matters

The major premise of The Burnout Challenge isn’t without merit.  Match does matter.  When you’re in an organization or a position that doesn’t match your skills or temperament, it can move you towards burnout.  However, the key is understanding how that happens – so you can intervene and prevent it.

If burnout boils down to perceptions of efficacy, then how does a bad fit lead to less efficacy?  Physics has the answer.  When one object collides with another, and there’s no energy converted to friction, the entire energy is transferred to the second object.  (In practical terms, there’s some deformation and therefore energy conversion to heat, but it doesn’t matter for this example.)  Perfect alignment means almost perfect energy transfer.

Consider that we’re measuring efficacy based on how far to the North an object travels, but instead of being hit square, our object is hit at a 60 degree off-axis angle.  The energy is still imparted to the second object, but the yield from that energy is literally half of what it would have been had it been an aligned transfer of energy.

If we’re still expecting our full efficacy – and we are – then we’ll feel like we’re coming up short, because we are.  When we mismatch with an organization, we struggle, because there is so much effort spent adapting to the mismatch, and that friction and misdirection makes us feel less effective.  That lack of efficacy, in turn, leads us to burnout.

So, while there are many things with The Burnout Challenge that are wrong, we can recognize that match between person and environment does matter.

AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture Episode 247: Enable Personal Agency and Proactively Prevent Burnout

Terri and I recently joined Christina Giordano of the AllVoices Reimagining Company Culture podcast to discuss burnout. We talk about how to systematically prevent burnout, research about the tangible benefits of happy and healthy teams, KPIs to evaluate a company’s culture, and more.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Or you can watch us live on YouTube:

Article: Block the Burnout

Organizations are facing unprecedented numbers of employees who are struggling with mental health issues, including burnout.  The global pandemic did more than disrupt our work, it disrupted the way that we communicate, connect, and remain productive.  However, these disruptions don’t need to ignite a wildfire of burnout.  Here’s what you can do to stop it.

From ATD’s TD magazine July 2021 issue. Read more:

Podcast: B2B Nation – Ways to Deal with Burnout in Marketing

I recently sat down with Mike Pastore of the B2B Nation Podcast to discuss dealing with burnout in marketing. Burnout is becoming an increasingly popular topic one year into the global pandemic. More than half of marketers say they have felt the effects of burnout in the past year, according to one survey. And many of the prospects marketers are trying to reach are also suffering from burnout, making them less receptive to marketing messages.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Book Review-Overcoming Job Burnout

I fundamentally disagree that burnout is limited to the job. Burnout is a condition that impacts people in their personal lives as well as in their jobs, no matter what definition the World Health Organization has adopted (for political or structural reasons). However, Overcoming Job Burnout doesn’t say that burnout can only occur in a job context, it’s just the context that Beverly Potter is talking about.

One might wonder why a year after the publication of Terri and my book, Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, I’m still reviewing other people’s burnout books. The short answer is to better understand others’ perspectives and find new pieces that I can take from them to bring to people that are struggling. Overcoming Job Burnout had a few of those nuggets that I can share.

What’s the Point?

Central to the burnout problem are the feelings of hopelessness. (See The Psychology of Hope for more about hopelessness and hope.) While most definitions of burnout center around exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy because of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, inefficacy is different – and causal. You see, we’ve all been exhausted and totally not in burnout. We’ve completed the climb to the top of the proverbial mountain and have found ourselves with nothing left to give. We collapse to recharge and recover, not in burnout but in triumph. Cynicism happens not in burnout but any time we don’t feel like we can change the situation any longer. Cynicism is a result of the feelings of inefficacy, not a cause of burnout.

Inefficacy, our painful wondering “What’s the point?” is at the heart of burnout. Our feelings like we’re not good enough (see The Gifts of Imperfection for more) drive us to feeling like nothing we do will matter – and this is the dangerous place to be that has signs naming it both burnout and depression depending on which side of town you enter from. If you enter from a clinical point of view, depression is the likely name; if you enter from the wisdom and ignorance of popular culture, this place goes by the name of burnout.

Right Radio, Wrong Station

I was reminded of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, in which an alien race of machines captures our Voyager space probe and helps it by returning it. The probe, in the movie, can receive a command that indicates that it’s made it home. However, the receiver was intentionally burned out. To satisfy the dramatic needs of the movie, it was necessary to go directly to the probe and enter in the message. While this is just a movie, I was reminded of it, because there are some times when people desperately need to know that they’re loved, and they’re valuable, and they matter – and then they actively avoid accepting the very thing they crave when it comes to them.

Potter is speaking about a woman, Ann, who isn’t getting the supportive feedback that she needs. I was struck by the alternative conclusion that she wasn’t letting in what she needed. One can be in Boston or New York and get wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the city. One could argue that there is no place to just relax, connect with nature, and recharge. However, that’s simply not true. Both cities have vibrant park systems that create adequate green space for people to connect with – if they choose.

I’m not trying to deny that some people don’t get the encouragement and positive affirmation they need. Tragically, not everyone does. However, I’m left to wonder how much of burnout isn’t about feeling appreciated as much as it is failing to recognize how you’re appreciated. This walks dangerously close to blaming the victim, but that’s not the intent. The intent is to say that sometimes the thing people need most isn’t more affirmation but rather a way to accept the affirmation they’re getting already.

Burnout Isn’t the Result of Personal Weakness or Inadequacy

Shame and stigma still surround mental health issues in the world today. (See Brené Brown’s work regarding the caustic effects of shame in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t).) While it’s societally acceptable to not be able to bench press 300 pounds, it’s not acceptable to succumb to the weight of emotional issues related to the loss of life, love, liberty, or livelihood. I’ve been told repeatedly that we should talk about thriving instead of burnout, because burnout is perceived as a weakness, and people don’t want to admit to it. The skills that we teach in Extinguish Burnout are thriving skills – but that framing doesn’t help the people who need it most.

It’s possible, and societally appropriate, to view burnout as a weakness. However, the truth is that it’s more likely than not a simple lack of skills that can be taught, the result of which aren’t just recovery but revival. Burnout is – but shouldn’t be – more shameful than not knowing how to sew your own clothes. We all need clothes, but few of us know how to sew them anymore. We don’t blame or shame people for their lack of clothes-sewing skills.

Small Goals and Small Improvements

If you want to find your way out of burnout, the path is filled with many steps – but all of them are small. The best way to escape the grip of burnout is to set small goals and meet them. Set one small goal and meet it, then set the next small goal and meet it, and so on. The result is a feeling of accomplishment – no matter how small – and the awareness that you’re not completely ineffective. Efficacy in the small things over time adds up to efficacy in large things.

No One Ever Truly Accomplishes Things on Their Own

Even the solo pilot or the sprinter has someone that they needed to become what they are. The pilot needs the mechanic to take care of the plane – or the designer to design it. The sprinter has a coach who taught them how to be a winner. To believe that we’re supposed to be successful alone is to deny reality. We are a society of people that are interdependent, needing one another for the support that we can’t do for ourselves.

Providing Your Own Structure

The human body is supported by a structure. Our bones allow us to stand and walk – and be something other than a puddle of skin on the ground. We all need structure – but sometimes we can become too reliant on structure. When it’s missing, we can believe that we’re not effective simply because there’s no structured thing for us to accomplish.

A critical factor to resisting burnout is our ability to accept ambiguity and a lack of structure. Thus, if we want to find ways to escape burnout, the simple tactic is to add structure to our world. The more we can structure our world, the more we demonstrate our ability to shape and control it – and also the more tangible feedback we can generate that we are getting something done – and thereby see that we are effective.

Difficult is not Impossible

If you spend your life avoiding difficult things, you’ll begin to see them as impossible. After all, your experience – the loudest teacher you have – says that you’ve never achieved something that’s difficult. If you’ve never attempted anything difficult or you’ve never persisted until the difficult thing is done, then the perception that they’re impossible is entirely reasonable. However, there’s a completely different experience you get if you try difficult things and sometimes, or even most of the time, fail.

Despite the failure, you learn that, occasionally, you’re able to accomplish difficult things. In doing so, you demonstrate your self-efficacy in the face of difficult things, and that can make all the difference in the world when it comes to avoiding or recovering from burnout.

Reading Overcoming Job Burnout is neither difficult nor impossible. It’s a solid book on burnout when you can’t read Extinguish Burnout.

Techsplaining Episode 57: Identifying and Coping with Burnout with Rob Bogue

Recently, I got with the Techsplaining crew and talked about combating burnout. With COVID-19, many of us have been stuck at home and having a hard time coping. It can be hard to tell whether the feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy are a temporary result of the pandemic or if they’re signs of a more serious burnout problem. I break it down for you and talk about how to both identify burnout and recover from it in this day and age.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

HR Uprising Episode 66: Avoiding Burnout – Masterclass

A week ago, I joined Lucinda Carney on the HR Uprising Podcast to give a special masterclass on burnout – and how you can avoid it. In it, I discuss ways to identify the root causes of burnout. I talk about what our personal agency is in the context of burnout and what fills or drains our personal agency bathtub. I also review the two components of stress (the stressor itself and our assessment of the stressor) and strategies that can help you avoid burnout.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Book Review-Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow!

It’s surprising how many books there are on burnout. It seems like every day I get introduced to someone else who has a book either directly on burnout or with a subtitle including the word burnout. When a friend introduced me to Peter Atherton, I hadn’t heard of his book, Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! However, I’m glad that I did learn about the book, both because of its ability to share Peter’s story as well as the insights it can offer folks who are struggling.


Like many of his peers, Atherton connects burnout to stress. While I disagree with this framing, I understand the perspective, because stress does, in an indirect way, contribute to burnout. When Terri and I did the research for Extinguish Burnout, we discovered that the key was that feeling of inefficacy, what Martin Seligman and Steve Maier would have called “learned helplessness” decades ago and more recently recognize is the lack of learned control. (See The Hope Circuit for more.) For us, it’s about whether our expectations of ourselves and our perceived results are aligned when we are triggered into evaluating them. When they’re not aligned, we feel like we’re ineffective, we have no control, and burnout sets in with its exhaustion and cynicism.

Stress is a contributor in that it triggers a set of reactions that are like a payday loan. The person feels like they need their entire capacity to fight today’s fight and the result is shutting down the immune response, digestion, and anything else the body feels it can defer to another time. The problem is that restarting these processes and getting them back into homeostasis takes more energy than just leaving them running. The result is less long-term efficacy for a bit of short-term efficacy. Living in a constant state of stress has been linked to numerous health issues, but its role on burnout is simply the reduced overall efficacy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for much more on the impacts of stress.)

Overloaded Becomes Overwhelmed

At some level, the kind of biological stress that triggers the literal stress response in humans isn’t the kind of stress that Atherton is speaking about. Instead, he’s talking about the kind of gap between expectations and results. When you’re unable to answer all your emails, address every customer concern, take care of all the employees, etc., you feel the weight of the gap between your expectations that you can do it all and the reality that you can’t. The perception that we should be able to do it all keeps us in a perpetual state of being overloaded. Instead of prioritizing or delegating, we continue to believe that we can do it all, even when we can’t.

We all get overloaded at times. It’s a part of the normal ebb and flow of life. It’s not the idea that we’re overloaded that’s interesting, it’s the idea of what we do when we’re overloaded that’s interesting. Atherton’s point is that when we remain overloaded, we become overwhelmed – which leads to the inefficacy that we believe is at the core of burnout.

The solution, we believe, to managing the fact that you are overloaded is to ground yourself in reality. It’s unreasonable to believe that you’ll always be able to keep up. It’s unreasonable to believe that you’ll handle every complaint. You can resolve the problem of being overloaded by letting go of things you don’t need to do – or simply can’t do. You recognize these things by connecting yourself with what is reasonable for a human to be capable of.

Detachment and Disengagement

Atherton spends some time connecting burnout to disengagement and explaining what he calls the “burnout-disengagement cycle.” Here, too, the underlying message seems to harken back to learned helplessness. Of course, disengagement, like burnout, is bad, but one of the things that can prevent burnout, detachment, is strangely close to disengagement linguistically, and because of that they seem to be often confused.

Disengagement is giving up or shutting down. Detachment is accepting the limitations you have in controlling outcomes. While we have influence over the outcomes, the reality is we’re rarely in true control. There are always external circumstances that can interfere with our ability to do something. (See Resilient for more on detachment.)

The truth is that our world is probabilistic. We like to think A leads to B, but, in reality, A only leads to B in 90% of the cases. In this situation, it’s denying reality to say that anything we could do could truly cause an outcome we desire. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of life.)

The best place to land is concerned for the outcomes, committed to our own behaviors, and, in the end, letting go of the poor outcomes we couldn’t prevent. We continue to care for the hurting, while not blaming or shaming ourselves because we couldn’t prevent it. (See our video post Kin-to-Kid Connection: Understanding Shame and Guilt for a video on shame and guilt, Dare to Lead for a collection of Brené Brown’s work on shame and guilt, or my review of I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for a shame map.)

Shifting From “Me” To “We”

At the beginning of our careers (and our lives), we’re naturally concerned with “me.” We’re looking for the best job for us. We’re focused on us. Gradually, as we mature, we broaden our scope from “me” to “we,” initially defining “we” as our significant other and expanding it gradually as children are born. However, at some point, we make an even bigger leap from “me” to “we” when we expand our considerations beyond our immediate or extended family and instead focus our interests on our ultra-extended family in the form of the entire human race. Perhaps, you may say, that most folks never get to a concern for the entire human race. However, this is the path we’re on. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the thinking about why this is true.)

Many of us built careers around some technical skill, and some of us became successful because of it. That success reduced the degree of challenge in our career, and our success plus the passage of time makes it possible for us to see that we can do more for our world than just deliver the technical skills. We get restless and want to do something more. Decades ago, it would have been called a midlife crisis, and it would have led to a divorce and remarriage – and a sports car. However, today it can mean finding a path to help others.

Fear of the Same or Fear of Missing Out

We’re afraid that nothing will ever change. We’re afraid that what we have today is all there is. Fear rules our lives. On the one hand, we’re afraid we’ll be stuck or we’re missing out on something. Our friends’ Facebooks are littered with vacations, parties, and accolades. We wonder why we can’t have what they have.

We forget that, from their point of view, our feeds on Facebook are glamorous too. We post our trips to conferences and the customer success stories. We don’t post the red-eye back from Seattle leading directly into preparation for the wedding of a child and the pain caused by a lack of sleep. No one wants to hear that, it’s not happy. So, we don’t post it, and they see only the trips and the weddings. They see the highlight reel we post, not reality.

We see the same thing from them, just the highlight reel. All good, no bad. The result is we feel like they’re doing things that are better than or more interesting than we’re doing, but the truth may be very different.

Making the transition from a successful career to one of uncertainty for the good of “we” at great personal risk to “me” isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s challenging on nearly every level – but it can be equally rewarding.

Golden Handcuffs are Still Handcuffs

Too many people become trapped in their success. They are being paid “too much.” They enjoy the symphony tickets, the new cars, and the mansion they call home. The result is the fear of letting it all go to respond to the calling of our heart and help others can speak too loudly, and we can turn away from that calling we all have to help our fellow men and women.

The good news is that golden handcuffs often create a margin – the ability to work on your own projects. That margin is fertile ground for rediscovery and regrowth that may imbibe us with the courage to conquer those fears. Maybe you’ve got enough margin to consider Reversing Burnout and finding your new mission.

Book Review-Burnout to Breakthrough: Motivating Employees with Leadership Tools That Work

Everyone has a backstory. You do. I do. Every author I meet does. Everyone I read has some sort of a backstory that has led them to where they are today. That’s certainly true of Ina Catrinescu. She relates part of her childhood from the former Soviet Union in Burnout to Breakthrough: Motivating Employees with Leadership Tools That Work. She has a unique perspective on the “chains” that bind us. Having moved from the socialist world to the capitalist world, she’s seen firsthand how both worlds have the capacity to demoralize and demotivate people. One was enslaved to an immutable dogma, and the other is tethered to a rat race.


Around my house, the family is quite fond of saying that, if anything can be done, I’ll overdo it. I believe in excellence and have been known to take on some crazy projects. (Like the solar powered mini-barn.) However, I’ve got absolutely nothing on the Japanese, who created a whole word that means “overwork to death:” karōshi. It’s more than a high suicide rate. It’s literally being so encompassed in their work that they’ll keel over at their desks. They’ll work until they simply can’t work any longer.

Not to be outdone, the former Soviet Union taught kids songs that basically translated to, “Your only purpose in life is to work your fingers to the bone, and you better do so thoroughly because the whole country is watching!” While this may not rise to the death toll of karōshi, it’s still a powerful push towards overwork.

In America, we’re subject to our own factors. Our protestant work ethic has us believing that we need to work not to live but rather work to achieve. Achievement, for many, is measured in the cars you drive, the neighborhood you’re in, and the clothes you wear. We work so we can get more things that prove to others that we’re working. As more people work and can afford these things, we must find ways to differentiate ourselves and demonstrate that we work hard.

Productivity has improved 97.5% since 1960, but that hasn’t meant that we work fewer hours. In truth, we’re working as many or more hours today than we ever have. Greater productivity isn’t reducing the number of hours we’re working.

Minimum Income

Communism was a grand experiment. At least in the case of the Soviet Union, it didn’t work out. Another experiment was done in Canada that did work out – until it was stopped. What would happen if you offered people money every month with no strings attached? Would the recipients become lazy and do-nothing, or would they use the money to get back up on their feet? The experiment in Dauphin, Manitoba, Canada did just that. Money was provided to low-income residents with no strings attached. They could continue to receive it for as long as they needed it.

The results seemed positive even though the program was stopped. It seemed like the results were better health, but as of now, the program hasn’t been tried on a broader scale.

Prosperity not Profit

Most organizations measure their results with a balance sheet. It’s net income that matters. However, much like gross domestic product doesn’t capture the full picture of the good we’re doing, profit isn’t the full measure of the organization. (See The Hope Circuit for Gross Domestic Happiness.) Red Goldfish explains how looking at the good you do in the world may be good for your bottom line. Reinventing Organizations focuses on how increasing the level of consciousness in the organization can be an important part of bringing more joy to the individual, the organization, and the world.

More people are trying to figure out how to run their lives with the new bottom line. Instead of it being all about money, it’s about impact. While not everyone is trying to find a way to make the world better, more people are considering it. Given that the roots of burnout exist in the world of caring professions, in which professionals try to “change the world,” it’s no surprise that this idealism, while beneficial to the world, can cause challenges to the psyche of the individual.

Finding Meaning

Finding your “why” is a challenging – and evolving – thing for everyone. (See Simon Sinek’s Start with Why for more.) Despite the challenge, without a sense of purpose, you’re likely to find yourself adrift without a clear sense of what you expect to get done and what you need to be focused on.

Privilege of the Platform

Years ago at an NSA annual event, I heard a comment that has stuck with me. “The privilege of the platform” resonated, because, despite the fact that so many people fear public speaking, it’s still an honor to be asked to share what you know with so many people. The platform isn’t a right, an obligation, a duty, or a task to be done. It’s a privilege. Similarly, management can be seen as a burden or a great opportunity. Robert Greenleaf in Servant Leadership speaks about how leaders serve those that they lead.

When we speak about burnout, we find that we speak about the difference between “having to” and “getting to” do something. It’s obviously a mindset shift, but it’s one that makes a big difference.

Values are not Virtues

Everyone has values. Whether we can articulate them or not, everyone has values that they hold. However, not all these values are virtues. Just because you value something doesn’t make it virtuous. It seems that too many people believe their values are universal values that everyone holds rather than recognizing that we each have our own values and motivators. (See The Righteous Mind and Who Am I? for different ways of learning what values we hold and what motivates us.)

We must accept the reality that others hold different values than we do.

What About Burnout?

There is a lot of good information in Burnout to Breakthrough, but, in the end, I found that I struggled to find the tie-in to burnout. While you may get a lot of good information, I’m not sure how it will help you avoid or prevent burnout.

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