How we fall into the burnout trap

Dr. David Ballard is assistant executive director for applied psychology at the American Psychological Association, where he leads APA’s Office of Applied Psychology and its Psychologically Healthy Workplace program, focused on the application of psychology to a broad range of workplace issues.

We spoke with Dr. David Ballard of the American Psychological Association about why highly engaged people are so prone to chronic stress. He shared strategies for individuals—and organizations—that want to change their ways, be healthier, and continue doing meaningful work.

How can people know if they’re experiencing burnout?

In some cases, people are under chronic stress, and eventually that builds up and can affect your motivation. It affects your competence and your ability to do be successful in your job, and it can affect your actual work performance as well. When you’re experiencing burnout, you wind up having an extended period of time where you feel exhausted, unmotivated. You feel ineffective, and their actual job performance can decline.

Another symptom is being preoccupied with work even when you’re off. And then ultimately, over a long period of time, chronic stress can add wear and tear on your body too, so you can experience physical symptoms and actually get sick.

What are some ways that we can recover, after experiencing this kind of stress?

With chronic stress, the demands that you’re facing are more than the resources you have to handle those demands. So you either have to reduce the demands, increase the resources, or do a little bit of both. But certain things can prevent you from burning out in the long run.

First, you need to have time when you’re not working and when you’re not thinking about work. The amount of time varies person to person.

You also need to engage in some kind of relaxation activity. It could be meditating; it could be yoga; it could be something like exercising. It could be reading a book, listening to music, having a leisurely lunch with friends or family members.

Interestingly, you also need to engage in some other kind of stimulating, challenging activity that’s not work related. You need some other kinds of outside interests and activities. And you also need to get enough good-quality sleep.

Our brains are designed to handle stress in short bursts. Stress helps us face whatever the challenge is and be appropriately energized and focused. But the problem is, in most of our day-to-day lives now, we’re facing a constant, chronic degree of stress, so you never come back down to normal. You just always feel stressed out.

When I’m really, engaged in my work, it’s hard to stop thinking about it, especially if people’s lives are being impacted. Even if I go on vacation, it’s hard to turn off.

You see this in professions with physicians, other healthcare professionals, first responders, and public servants. People who are really engaged in their work are more susceptible to burnout because they’re willing to go that extra mile. It’s a double-edged sword. You want people to be committed and care about their work, but at the same time, people in those circumstances need to take extra steps to have those recovery experiences.

Set reasonable expectations and boundaries for yourself.  It may not mean that you need to completely disconnect for an extended period of time. It may be that you set boundaries like, ” I’m only going to check email once a day at this certain time, and that’s going to work for me.”  In our research, we found it’s more important that you’re in control of how and when you’re [disconnecting] than it is how much you’re actually doing it. Otherwise it creates more stress and conflict.

That is extremely helpful. I’m going to do that.

Yes, I have to make myself do that, too. The irony: I’ll find myself taking the kids to the pool in the summer, sitting there working on a report about work-life balance.

Is there anything that organizations can do to help prevent people from burning out?

The most effective approaches always tend to be systems-based. You can’t just tell someone, “Hey, you need to develop better skills to manage your stress,” and then keep throwing them back into an environment where they get beaten up over and over again, stress-wise.

Employers need to do things like regularly monitoring stress levels in the workplace and taking steps to improve the work environment. If employees are able to work in a way that’s a good fit for them and fits their needs and preferences, the work is going to be less stressful, more manageable, and the outcomes are going to be better. Provide good training and development—not just technical skills but the interpersonal skills, social skills, the things that are going to help them be able to manage and function effectively.

And then, in general, create a supportive work environment where people feel like everyone’s in it together. You have each other’s backs even if you’re serving in different functions.

One thing I have seen people struggle with: They want a job that’s less stressful. But then they end up feeling like those less-stressful jobs don’t hold the same meaning for them. How do you reconcile that?

I think it’s about finding the balance. For people in really meaningful jobs, not only are they passionate about their work, but a lot of times it’s core to their identity. That makes it all the more important to effectively manage the stress that comes along with the job. In some jobs, you’re dealing with populations who are in very difficult situations. There can be vicarious traumatization day-in, and day-out. People in those kinds of jobs need to be able to take care of themselves so they can care for others.

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of the people in this field are adrenaline junkies. But, over the long haul, that can be really wearing. Is there a good way to manage needing that excitement?

It’s important to know yourself and how you experiences stress. Some people, they ruminate, and they worry. Other people start to get muscle tension and backaches or more physiological kinds of symptoms. Do something about it before it snowballs.

It’s also really easy to fall into a trap of never taking a break. But the research is pretty clear that if you’re taking short breaks during the day, you actually make up for that time in added productivity. Stand up and stretch, take a walk down the hall, talk to somebody for a few minutes, and close out one task and move to another.  

Another thing, especially for high-functioning people in a highly stressful environment: seek professional help if you need it. If things are really building up, go talk to a psychologist or other mental health professional. Most people wait until they’re in crisis, but tapping those earlier can optimize your performance.