Managing Burnout

What is burnout?

Burnout is the opposite of engagement. It’s characterized by a feeling of exhaustion, an increase in cynicism towards work (and toward clients and coworkers), and reduced levels of achievement, and it’s most likely to strike your best and most ambitious team members.

An engaged individual finds their work energizing. A burned out individual finds the very idea of work tiring. An engaged individual feels like they (and the organization) can win. A burned out individual gets cynical. An engaged individual is part of the organization's community. A burned out individual reduces their level of personal contact. An engaged individual can see past the here and now, enabling broad and strategic vision. A burned out individual gets stuck in the moment, and starts treading water.

Ulrich Kraft's Burned Out from Scientific American Mind is an excellent introduction to the concept of burnout.

What causes burnout?

Burnout is commonly blamed on “too much work”, but there are actually six major areas of burnout, and “too much work” is only a fraction of one of those areas.

  • community: when a culture of happiness, praise and humor evaporate, or when work is too individualistic, feelings of frustration and hostility can arise.
  • control: responsibility that exceeds authority, micromanagement, and poor leadership can lead to frustration, and lowered achievement.
  • fairness: favoritism and inequity in promotions, pay, or workload, or the perception of an unfair dispute resolution can be exhausting, and can lead to cynicism.
  • reward: managers and teammates who don’t appreciate hard work, insufficient salary and benefits, and the intrinsic knowledge that the work was completed poorly can lead to inefficiency.
  • values: conflicts between company values and company actions and conflicts between personal values and company values can also drive cynicism or lowered achievement.
  • workload: work that isn’t matched to a person’s skills and inclinations, or too much work can lead to exhaustion.

It is common to have a few small mismatches across these dimensions. However too great of a mismatch, along too many dimensions, for much time can easily lead to burnout.

Job Burnout by Christina Maslach, Wilmar B. Schaufeli, and Michael P. Leiter provides excellent insight into the causes of burnout.

How can burnout be measured?

Burnout can be measured directly, or by tracking engagement (the opposite of burnout).

That said, I prefer monitoring engagement. I prefer this for two reasons:

  1. Reduced engagement can be a sign of organizational problems, even if it hasn’t escalated to burnout, and
  2. Reduced engagement is often noticeable before burnout is easily visible.

A tool like the Gallup Q12 can be very helpful in understanding engagement. Louis R. Forbringer wrote a very helpful Overview of the Gallup Organization's Q12, which provides an excellent intro to the tool. However, if you're considering implementing it, I recommend First Break All The Rules, which goes into substantially more depth. I promise that the content is better than the title.

Alternately, one can measure burnout directly instead of using engagement as a proxy variable. To do so, one could use a tool such as the Maslach Burnout Inventory, or the Quick Burnout Assessment that can be found in Reversing Burnout: How to rekindle your passion for your work.

Who burns out?

Burnout has more to do with the situation than the individual, however it tends to hit the best, most dedicated, and most ambitious team members. After all, caring about professional success is a prerequisite to burnout.

How do I watch for burnout?

Carefully! It’s easy to underestimate pending burnout, because the growth is exponential, not linear. Here's what it can look like when an employee burns out.


At the start of the chart, the challenges are easily identifiable, but seem surmountable. There are a few signs of burnout, perhaps due to very valid (seemingly temporary) issues, but the individual “takes one for the team” without much extra complaint. On a red/yellow/green scale, the situation feels imperfect, but green.

Time passes, the temporary situation still hasn’t improved, and things have become slightly worse (though not by THAT much). There’s a bit more obvious friction, and it’s clear you can’t expect the individual to “take one for the team” much longer. As such, the situation feels yellow.

Then, almost without any additional warning, the individual starts reacting more severely to minor issues. They’re frustrated with their teammates. They’re frustrated with the customers. They’re frustrated with themselves. They’re frustrated with me. They’ve lost faith in the organization. The situation is clearly red.

But these feelings were all wrong.

  • When it felt green, it was yellow.
  • When it felt yellow, it was red.
  • When it felt red, it was on fire.

The time for the diving save was back when things felt yellow. Otherwise, the looming hockey stick of exponential growth sneaks up, and turns an awesome human being into ash.

Burnout sucks.

It’s natural to wish that we are immune to burnout. We want to believe that our toughness, our dedication, and our ambition will keep us safe. But they won’t. They’re the very traits that make us, and our teams, vulnerable.