What You Need To Know About The 7 Pillars Of Performance. Register for the web-class now.

Subscribe to our blog

Back to Blog

Build Burnout Immunity

Feeling frazzled, exhausted, or ‘over it’ when it comes to your job? Don't worry you're not alone and there's lots of things that can be done to get back on track.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the phenomena of ‘Job Burnout'.

In today's world, it seems almost everyone is overworked and stressed out due to their jobs or careers. With endless emails to read through all day long and constant distractions from co-workers vying for your attention, many people feel exhausted before they even leave work each evening! While there will always be times when you need to put in extra hours at work during an especially busy time period where deadlines are looming overhead - if these feelings continue on into every other week or month then something needs changing! It could well be that you're suffering from "job burnout" which can have adverse effects both professionally as well as personally.

So, what is it? What's happening in your brain? And how can you future proof against it on both a psychological and physiological level?

Before getting into the science of it all, let’s first deal with the elephant in the room. 

Is job-related burnout real? 

The quick answer is, yes. But, historically it wasn’t a recognised medical condition. However, in 2021 the International Classification of Diseases recognised ‘burnout’ and assigned a unique ICD designation code. It is described as a prolonged response to chronic emotional and interpersonal stressors on the job

It’s typically defined by three key dimensions;  

  1. Overwhelming exhaustion
  2. Feelings of cynicism
  3. A sense of ineffectiveness or accomplishment 

Importantly, this can also lead to a sense of detachment from the job and even a lack of personal identity. Powerful stuff! 

So now we know what it is, how does this present itself?

Much like symptoms of depression, burnout will asphyxiate ambition, idealism, and even the sense of self-worth. It commonly presents itself in the form of negativity directed at clients, colleagues, or other stakeholders, and a crisis in feelings of professional competence which relates to self-efficacy.

And the interesting thing is burnout is not just a result of working too hard.

Burnout has validated psychological triggers that are preconditions. As the World Health Organisation says, high job demands, low control, and effort-reward imbalance are risk factors for burnout. The onset and effect can be subtle, and like so many other detractors from peak performance, it creeps up on us, outside of our conscious awareness. 

And before we know it’s a bit like the boiling frog fable.

Haven’t heard that?

If you popped a frog into a saucepan of boiling water, it would hop out. But if you put the frog into a saucepan of tepid water and then bring it to a boil slowly, it’ll not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.

So it’s a bit like burnout. It just gradually creeps up on you and then, boom! There it is.

Obviously, we want to avoid this happening.

So let's take a look at what's happening in the brain during burnout?

In as simple terms as possible, burnout alters your neural circuitry forcing you into a downward spiral. Research has shown that this can ultimately cause a vicious cycle of neurological dysfunction. Clearly, something we want to avoid.

In a series of studies, participants diagnosed with burnout reported more difficulty modulating strong negative emotional responses compared to healthy controls. In fact, the two groups ended up showing key differences in the amygdala structure; the part of the brain that is responsible for processing emotional reactions, including fear and aggression. The ‘burnout group’ had a relatively enlarged amygdala and also appeared to have significantly weaker connections between the areas of the brain linked to managing emotional distress.

So burnout literally causes changes in your brain and interferes with critical connectivity between the parts that dominate and control the executive function and allow you to perform higher-order operations. 

But the good news is that science has shown how the effects of chronic stress impacting specific areas of the brain, leading to the changes in mood learning and memory (that are all the hallmarks of burnout) are reversible.

But whilst it’s reversible, and we’ll dive into that now, let's play it safe, and try to avoid getting it in the first place. 

How to avoid job burnout?

By becoming immune to it.

Let's start with burnout proofing your psychology. This means, understanding the six psychological triggers that we need to stop becoming activated.

  1. Lack of control
  2. Values conflict 
  3. Insufficient reward
  4. Work overload
  5. Unfairness
  6.  Breakdown of community

Let’s take a look at each. 

The first metric is lack of control. This is when your sense of control over what you do is undermined, reduced, or limited. If you’re familiar with the Self Determination Theory, this is almost the polar opposite of Autonomy. Micromanagement could, for example, be a burnout trigger.

Then there is the values conflict. This is where there's a disconnect between your own core values and the core values of the organisation or the workplace. Let's say, for example, you are a staunch environmentalist but the company you work for is destroying the environment. Each day you go to work it’s grating on you and unwittingly triggering a negative psychological response.

And then there is the insufficient reward. This could feel like you’re being taken for granted, not being recognised for the value you add, or are under-compensated. Examples of this could be a lack of pay or indeed a lack of recognition by your boss or others around you. 

And then we've got work overload, which is where your workload is either too much, too complex, too hard, or a bend of the same. It’s a common misconception that burnout simply occurs when you're working too much but actually, it's only one of these six triggers, it's a much more nuanced equation. 

The fifth driver of burnout is unfairness. This is when you or others are treated unfairly or there's a culture of favouritism. It could be key assignments and promotions are made in a seemingly arbitrary fashion or discussed behind closed doors. 

And finally, the sixth trigger is a breakdown of community. This could be where you have to work with patronising colleagues and there's no mechanism for conflict resolution. Maybe you know someone who describes their work environment as ‘toxic’? Maybe you’d describe your work environment that way? This lacking sense of community and camaraderie is not to be underestimated or overlooked.

So, how to become immune to burnout?

You've got to identify and solve the root problem. Let’s say someone is suffering as a result of a feeling overworked. They’re emotionally exhausted, feeling fried, cynical, and with low self-efficacy. They take a week off to recover and relax. 

When they return to work they’ll be straight back into the triggering state and their burnout will reappear.

The same is true if you're feeling under-compensated for your work. When you return after your week off to relax you’ll still be feeling under-compensated.

So the point here is the equation surrounding burnout is more nuanced than ‘just taking a week off’ would suggest. You have to solve the root problem. 

So let's say your root problem is that you've got a lack of control. Your boss is a micromanaging pain in the a*se who's constantly over your shoulder and checking what you’re doing. In this case, you might have to change your boss in order to mitigate burnout. 

Another example is a values conflict. Taking a week off won’t resolve this so you may have to leave that company and join one with which your values are aligned. 

Now, not to be misunderstood, we’re not saying that taking ‘time off’ is bad in any way. On the contrary, taking time off is phenomenal for all sorts of reasons. We’re just saying that in the case of job-related burnout, fixing the root cause(s) is required as the triggering conditions will likely remain otherwise.

So at a psychological level, we need to change both you and the situation. So removing the root cause AND becoming physiologically burnout proof too. 

Importantly, focusing on your physiology makes you less susceptible to the six psychological triggers of burnout. You’re better able to tolerate them and it essentially expands your window of tolerance.

Here are three ways to burnout proof your physiology.

  1. Sleep like your life depends on it! Sleep is the ultimate buffer against a wide range of health and wellness threats, including psychological burnout triggers. If you haven’t read our blog about the impact of under-sleeping, you can read it here. We’d also recommend listening to our podcast episode with Filipa Bellete called ‘Why Sleep Matters’.
  2. Recover like it's your job! Treat it as a game and ‘play’ active recovery at a really intense level to buffer against the psychological triggers for burnout. Ideally, build a recovery practice routine into your morning to prime your nervous system for the day. It’s important to down-regulate and ensure that you are going to be able to stay centred, calm, and grounded for the day. Of course, you’ll want to take a similar approach in the evening too. 
  3. Positive psychology ‘basics for breakfast! This means practising meditation, mindfulness, and gratitude, actively fostering social connection, nourishing nutrition, and get the body moving in some form every day. Basically expand to the extent you can so you are well resourced and in good condition, sleeping 7-8 hours every night.

These are tried and tested ways to burnout proof your physiology and, not only will they help to make you feel great, they’ll give you the buffer to reduce susceptibility to the psychological forms of burnout too.

For those who want to dive deeper into the subject of becoming burnout-proof and all other areas of how you can optimise your performance at work and in life then you may be an ideal candidate for our 12-month leadership development and personal performance program, Unleashing Potential.

You can become part of an incredible, hyper-engaged community with an ‘all-star’ coaching team comprising Special Forces veterans (like Commando Steve), elite athletes, and subject matter experts across subjects like positive psychology, flow state, sleep, stress management, nutrition, and much more. 

It’s not for everyone and that’s why we take our application process seriously. That said, it's a heap of fun, incredibly immersive, and sets participants on a path of health, fulfillment, and success, at work and in life. 

If you’d like to know more we’d suggest completing our ‘Impact Scorecard’ (Get Your Score) which will get you an instant score, an emailed report, a (physical) copy of the Lead By Example book, and the opportunity to jump onto a 1:1 coaching call with our co-founder Mat Lock.

Back to Blog
crossmenuarrow-left linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram