I Was Wrong About Burnout and You are Probably Tooby@vinitabansal
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I Was Wrong About Burnout and You are Probably Too

by Vinita BansalMarch 11th, 2022
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Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive Global, collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, hit her head on the corner of her desk, broke her cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood. Arianna’s story set me on a week-long expedition to study burnout at work. There are three dimensions of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism and negativity towards the job, feeling ineffective at the job and feeling disconnected from their team and organization. Leaders and managers can take to promote well-being within their teams to promote a healthy work environment.

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I vividly remember the day I read about Arianna Huffington, the founder and CEO of Thrive Global. She had collapsed from sleep deprivation and exhaustion, hit her head on the corner of her desk, broke her cheekbone and woke up in a pool of blood.

I read the story many years later after it happened while working for a fast-growth startup feeling tired and exhausted from the daily demands and expectations from the job. I was someone who always prioritized my mental health and while I knew that I was nowhere close to being burnt out, the story left me with a trembling sensation, a feeling of fear and anxiety in that moment.  

Considering it a momentary sensation that such stories tend to evoke, I decided to shrug the feeling aside for the rest of the day. Later that night, when I had time to think about what I had read during the day, I realized that my stress and anxiety were not stemming from a concern for myself. The story had triggered a sense of unease for many people. 

Just a few days back, one of my managers expressed his troubles sleeping and how he often woke up in the middle of the night feeling all stressed and tense. I knew that one of the engineers on his team was causing him a lot of trouble, but that wasn’t the only reason for his anxiety.

He was one of those people who cared a lot about his work, the opinion of others and a desire to make everything right. He had a hard time dealing with ambiguity, conflicts and other chaotic situations at work that are a natural part of a manager’s job. His tendency to take things personally and a desire to seek a perfect harmony between people often left him feeling overwhelmed and swamped.  

I had a significant realization at that moment - I needed to do more to understand how other people in the organization were feeling and whether they were getting the emotional support to do well in their jobs. Arianna’s story set me on a week-long expedition to study burnout.

I was wrong about burnout

Over the years, I heard friends and colleagues saying, “I am burnt out,” when they felt really tired and exhausted from working long hours or when they felt like they had hit the wall with new ideas or when they generally had a hard time focusing on their work.  

Naturally, being burnt out became synonymous with work overload. Michael Leiter, a Nova Scotia-based organizational psychologist, and the author of The Truth About Burnout writes -

The biggest misconception about burnout is that it’s the same as exhaustion. People use burnout as a synonym for tired, and they’re missing the point that there’s a world of difference between those two states

When employees feel overwhelmed by work responsibilities, they feel emotionally drained, which eventually makes them feel stressed out. Such people aren’t really burnt out, but it’s quite possible they will be there soon if they don’t take measures to deal with their situation. 

Without a proper understanding of burnout, the natural response from many leaders and managers is to encourage well-being within their teams by promoting vacation time, taking breaks between work, doing walk-and-talk audio calls instead of video calls to deal with zoom fatigue, and even asking people to have no meeting days. 

These are all super useful techniques to deal with the problems of work related exhaustion, but by themselves, they are not sufficient to solve the problem of burnout at work. That’s because work overload is just one of the causes of burnout. 

Christina Maslach, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, developed  Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) to define and measure burnout. According to MBI, there are three dimensions of burnout:

  1. Feelings of exhaustion 
  2. Feelings of cynicism and negativity towards the job
  3. Feeling ineffective at the job

Employees who don’t feel engaged at work, who lack a sense of progress, who feel disconnected from their team and their organization, who don’t find a sense of purpose and meaning in their work, and those who feel ineffective in their job are at equal risk for burnout. A sense of progress, purpose and belonging is crucial to mitigate burnout and promote a healthy work environment for your employees. 

Now more than ever, with the current stage of the pandemic and no end to it in sight, many people will continue to work from home while many others will be back in office. We all have to wait and see how the hybrid work environment will pan out, but meanwhile, there are a few measures leaders and managers can take to promote well-being within their teams. 

5 strategies to beat burnout at work

1. Address the root cause of stress 

The first step is to understand how different people in the team are feeling. By observing closely, you may get a sense of your employees' current mental state:

  • Are they able to navigate uncertainty?
  • Are they having a hard time focusing?
  • When they are with others, do they look engaged or checked out?
  • How is their current workload? Do you find them working long hours and responding at odd times?
  • How are they making decisions - rationally or impulsive?

Research shows that when people are burnt out, it compromises their judgment and they are less likely to engage in rational decision-making and more likely to go for avoidant decision-making. 

Once you have collected data and made some observations about your team members, schedule time with them to validate your observations. A great question to get started is to ask “How are you feeling - positive, negative or neutral?” This question almost always led to some great conversations with my team and surfaced problems that we could solve together. 

Depending on their response, you can ask further questions to understand why they are feeling a certain way: 

  • If they are feeling positive, ask what’s making them feel positive about work. What else can you do together to keep them feeling great and excited about work?
  • If they are feeling negative, ask what situations or circumstances might have contributed to this feeling. Try to understand if it's only a recent thing and hence a temporary phase or there’s something bigger contributing to them feeling this way.
  • Sometimes people may choose the safe path and say “neutral” even when they are feeling negative. You need to prod a little to get them to speak up and share their true feelings. 

As a manager, you can prevent your employees from being burnt out by getting to the actual root cause of the issue that’s causing them stress at work. Don’t assume it’s the workload. Instead of forming an opinion, try to validate your assumption. 

2. Define a common measure of success 

It’s difficult to feel motivated and excited about work without a clear sense of direction. Many managers make the wrong assumption that their people aren’t motivated to work. In my years of experience working with people from different backgrounds, I have yet to come across someone who wasn’t motivated to perform and do well. The problem is never lack of motivation, it’s almost always lack of clarity and a common understanding. 

Stress and anxiety comes from throwing darts in the dark with the hope that something might hit the target someday. It’s both tiring and mentally exhausting and one of the common reasons for feeling frustrated, disconnected and disengaged at work.

We thrive when we have a positive goal to move toward, not just a negative state we’re trying to move away from - Emily Nagoski

You can mitigate this risk by defining a common measure of success. Understand what each individual in your team desires - what they desire and not what you want from them:

  • Are they looking to build some new skills?
  • Do they want to contribute beyond their day-to-day tasks?
  • What energizes them?
  • What puts them off?
  • What are their strengths?

Different people have different expectations from their job and it’s important to align their expectations to the different opportunities at work and not the other way round. Remember, every person’s measure of success is different and aligning on a common definition is the key to a happy, healthy work environment. 

My life, I realized, was out of control. In terms of the traditional measures of success, which focus on money and power, I was very successful. But I was not living a successful life by any sane definition of success. I knew something had to radically change. I could not go on that way. This was a classic wake-up call. Looking back on my life, I had other times when I should have woken up but didn’t. This time I really did and made many changes in the way I live my life, including adopting daily practices to keep me on track—and out of doctors’ waiting rooms. The result is a more fulfilling life, one that gives me breathing spaces and a deeper perspective - Arianna Huffington

3. Act as a support structure 

Lack of autonomy at work can be another major source of disengagement. When employees are empowered to make more decisions, they feel engaged and motivated to do better.

As a manager, be available to clarify, support and provide feedback, but don't insert yourself into every situation. Delegate, don’t dictate. Give your employees space to make mistakes, learn and grow on their own. If you are at the forefront of all decision-making within the team, you not only risk becoming a bottleneck, but you also risk stalling your team’s growth and being the reason for their misery and dissatisfaction at work. 

By acting as your team’s support structure, you can enable your team to take small steps in the direction of their goals (thereby enabling progress), gain confidence to take on bigger risks, feel excited about acquiring and practicing new skills (enabling purpose) and inculcate a fail-fast mindset thereby building resiliency in the team to deal with challenges and setbacks. 

When people in the team feel supported at work, they feel less stressed about making mistakes and more excited to try new opportunities. It also gives them a deeper sense of meaning and connection at work.   

4. Create opportunities to connect 

The invisible force that often causes people to burnout at work is a loss of connection and a sense of belonging. Human beings are social creatures who thrive in social groups. Feeling socially connected is not only important for our personal well-being, but being part of a group can teach us important skills that can help us live our lives. 

Since we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, a loss of connection can put us on a downward spiral of negativity and reduced efficacy at work. It can also lead to feelings of cynicism and negativity towards the job. 

To create a sense of belonging within the team, identify ways in which different people on the team can come together to exchange ideas and opinions. Encourage everyone to share their perspectives. Explicitly ask those who don’t speak up to present their opinion. Create opportunities for team members to interact with one another by teaming them up on a common project or asking them to come up with solutions to a problem together. Working with others can be energizing and exciting and at the same time, it can fulfill our need to connect with others and keep us happy and healthy.   

5. Fix the job, don’t try to fix your people 

Strong delivery and performance culture can make people hungry and wanting for more - more money, a bigger house, better titles, and bigger projects. There’s no end to this race. 

The culture to perform can make people push for more without understanding what their limits are. They start ignoring the symptoms that their mind and body are trying to tell them. The mental exhaustion and eventually burnout can come from not only working hard, but also working against others.

Feeling that you are in competition with others all the time for the next promotion, or the next salary raise can make you lose connection with other meaningful things in your life. Things that you probably value more, but don’t give as much attention - spending time with your friends and family, taking your kids out for their practice games, or pursuing a sport or an activity that gives you joy.   

When people’s actions don’t match with what they truly desire, it can lead to an inner conflict and a loss of personal fulfillment.  

Leaders set the pace and culture of an organization. If you notice a high level of burnout within your organization, don’t take measures to fix the people, fix your culture. Preventing, reducing and eliminating burnout won’t happen unless you take steps to manage your employees workload and give them the control they need to do their jobs better without burning out. 


  • People casually connect exhaustion and tiredness from working long hours with feelings of burnout, but they are not the same.
  • Work overload is just one of the reasons for feeling burnt out at work. Other factors can contribute to burnout too.
  • Maslach burnout inventory, standard for measuring burnout, defines three components that contribute to burnout - feelings of exhaustion, cynicism and ineffectiveness at work. 
  • Help your employees deal with stress by addressing the root cause that’s causing them tension and anxiety at work.
  • Define a common measure of success to give people a clear sense of direction and make progress in their work.
  • Act as a support structure to enable them to take risks and embrace opportunities thereby giving them a sense of purpose.
  • Create belonging in the team by connecting team members on projects, ideas and problems.
  • If there’s a high level of burnout within your organization, fix your culture. Don’t try to fix your people. 

Previously published here.