Is Burnout Inevitable?

7 ways to dodge the #1 occupational risk of today.

A friend of mine had a heart attack in the middle of the night and still showed up to work the next day. When she told me, it was one of those shocking-not-shocking moments within today’s work-martyr culture where we come in sick, stay up half the night ruminating over our long-to-do lists, eat lunch at our desks and don’t use the vacation we earn because we dread falling behind.

Burnout is being called the “number one occupational risk of today”. Defined as a three-part syndrome of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy resulting from the wear and tear of work and personal demands, burnout wreaks havoc. It’s predictive of health issues including obesity, insomnia, and anxiety and depression. A study of 8,838 employees found that burnout was associated with a 40% increased risk of developing coronary heart disease. Their study found that the 20% participants with the highest burnout scores had a 79% increased risk.

The conditions that breed burnout are ones that are familiar mainstays of today’s workplace: high stress, heavy workload, a lack of control over job situations and lack of emotional support. In the US, we work longer hours, take fewer vacation days and retire later than employee in other industrialized countries.

Today’s work environments are being called “modern hazards” by the World Health Organization. The term “work-life balance” is being replaced by “work-life spillover”, with escalating demands everywhere we turn. This isn’t just a problem in America, In Japan, the term “karoshi “describes death by overwork.

Burnout isn’t reserved for high status jobs. People in lower wage-earning jobs deal with less control and are often not afforded adequate or any paid vacation or leave. People in low status jobs can face exhaustion due to monotony, lack of opportunities for growth and punitive work structures. When those who are “underemployed”, meaning they are overqualified for their jobs, it can create the kind of despair and exhaustion predictive of burnout.

With the risk of burnout looming, it’s vital that both employees and their employers take measures for protection. Burnout prevention is often discussed too narrowly, with the focus falling solely on the lap of the stressed-out worker. For people to thrive and avoid this modern-day trapping, employers need to create the conditions that help employees do well and be well. Here are six ways to protect today’s workers and help ensure burnout doesn’t become the inevitable path:

  1. Take a “universal precautions” approach. Assume everyone is at risk, even when they don’t seem to be displaying outward signs of stress. In this hyper-competitive market, the risk of burnout is real for all of us, even when we see ourselves as adaptive or “strong”. The American Psychological Association says we often don’t recognize the seriousness of our stress levels until we actually physically get sick. Arianna Huffington, one of the most dynamic and influential leaders of our time, is a prime example of this. While running the Huffington Post she founded, she became so exhausted that she collapsed from exhaustion, waking up to a broken cheek bone in a pool of blood. Huffington’s hard lesson prompted her to sell the Post and she now heads up Thrive Global, devoting her time to promoting well-being and preventing burnout.
  2. Invest in relationships. Work demands often cut into the very personal time that has been shown to shield against burnout. Some studies have shown that the presence of a supportive partner is a protective factor, along with access to a social network outside the work place. Even when time is thin, our sense of connection and community is a vital force in helping sustain us. Even though you might feel like you have to be a robot to get your job done, we are still wired for human connection and the very force of knowing we’re not alone is a powerful contributor to well-being.
  3. Practice self-care and lifestyle medicine. Our brains and bodies do not respond to long term neglect and abuse. We need proper sleep, nutrition, hydration, exercise, movement and time away from our screens. Make a point to infuse “break rituals” into your daily routines—don’t wait for your next vacation to give yourself permission to engage in protective self-care. People who make the time to for mindfulness, yoga, breathing, nature and activities that allow their brains and bodies to come up for air, are more likely to dodge burnout.
  4. Don’t treat people like commodities. Where people feel that they are valued and secure in their jobs and not simply a number or spoke in a wheel, it lowers the risk of burnout. Employers who let their employees know that their contributions are important and that they are cared about help foster positive engagement. Cultures of fear go against what we’ve learned from modern brain science-that when people are in toxic, low-trust, anxiety provoking situations, it can lead to states that interfere with focus, creativity, and productivity. Treat people well, and they’re more likely to do well.
  5. Support “job crafting”. Employers who work to ensure employees skills, interests and values are aligned with the tasks they are assigned are more likely to find employees who are positively engaged. A higher level of skill use is associated with lower levels of depression. Tasks that are motivating and challenging can help boost morale and momentum.
  6. Prioritize prevention. We know that healthier workers make for healthier organizations. We now have the science that shows that punitive, top down, exhausting work environments hurt morale, productivity and the bottom line. Employers need to stay hyper-vigilant. Know the pulse of your people. Ask for feedback and work towards solutions to improve the quality of the environment together.
  7. Build a culture of trust. Create a culture of help-seeking and help giving where employers encourage employees to take advantage of time off, utilize their EAP services, and have opportunities to learn and develop self-care skills. Providing access to pedometer programs, lunch and learns, mindfulness training, job coaching, and encourage participation in evidence-based strategies for preventing burnout and protecting mental health such as cognitive behavioral treatment to help ensure workers have the tools they need to flourish. Stigma keeps people from speaking out about their needs—they need to know that burnout is a risk of today and that it’s safe to reach out and secure the resources to help protect against it.


Toker, S. Melamed, S. Berliner, D. Zeltser, I. Shapira. Burnout and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Prospective Study of 8838 Employees. Psychosomatic Medicine, 2012; 74 (8): 840.

Marchand, A., Durand, P., Haines, V., Harvey S. The multilevel determinants of workers’ mental health: results from the SALVEO study. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 2014.

Brandstätter, V., Veronika J., & Schulze, B. Motivational Incongruence and Well-Being at the Workplace: Person-Job Fit, Job Burnout, and Physical Symptoms. Frontiers In Psychology, 2016.

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