Four Risk Factors for Burnout—And How to Overcome Them
A burnout survivor offers tips for coping with it—or avoiding it in the first place.
Work-life balance is one of the aspects of well-being that I have the hardest time implementing in my own life. As a happiness researcher and consultant, I really do try to practice what I preach. But work-life balance is something I often work at for short bursts before I end up backsliding into workaholism.
I know that I am not the only one with this difficulty; work-life balance is really tough for many people. I think it’s time we start a conversation about balance, precisely because it is so hard for so many of us to find, and it is so integral to enhancing well-being.
Below, based on my experiences, I illuminate four risk factors for poor work-life balance and eventual burnout.
I began to see people struggle a lot more with work-life balance when I entered graduate school, and I’ll tell you why. Universities select grad students who can persevere year after year to complete a PhD—a degree that takes an average of 10 years to complete. So they pick students who, as a group, tend to be ambitious, focused, enthusiastic, and even obsessive about their work. Although many people struggle with setting aside enough time to do work, grad students tend to be the type of people who struggle to set aside enough time not to do work. They may neglect to eat right, exercise, engage in hobbies, or even see their friends and family.
If you “live to work,” forget to schedule time for non-work activities, and see yourself as someone who is highly motivated and persistent, then you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do: If you’re already a hyper-focused, motivated, planner type, then I know you can successfully apply your motivation skills to create better balance. Get out your calendar and schedule time to spend on your health and happiness. Build in systems to prevent backsliding. For example, by scheduling your well-being-promoting activities at a regular time each week, you can build healthy habits.
Scheduling regular “friend time” is also helpful. Recently, my workaholic friends and I have started pre-scheduling weekly fun activities to do together. Now we don’t have to make the effort to schedule fun time each week; it just happens. Because we have agreed to meet each other and we hold each other accountable, we help each other succeed in creating balance. The more you can plan, automate, and increase accountability for your behavior, the easier it will be to improve your work-life balance.
2. Social comparison
As grad school progressed, the social comparisons started kicking in for me and my peers. I heard things like, “Sally has five publications, but I only have two. I need to write more,” or “John finished his qualifying exams in his third year, but I won’t do mine until my fourth year. I need to read more,” or “Mila gave such an amazing research talk. I should be spending more time honing my presenting skills.” And so on.
When top performers are all gathered together and all asked to do similar tasks, only one person can be the top performer. Everyone else, who was considered a rockstar in a different setting, is now average—or worse. This type of environment leads everyone to work harder and harder to regain that sense of mastery, self-esteem, and respect. But when everyone works harder, no one gets any further ahead. Pretty soon work-life balance is long gone and everyone still feels inferior.
If you are surrounded by people who are amazing at what you are supposed to be amazing at, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do: It is human nature to compare ourselves to “similar others.” This isn’t always a bad thing; it helps us work harder and be better. But if you want more balance, you may benefit from working in an environment where most people are doing work that is very different from yours. For example, let’s say you are a chef and you work with a brilliant team of managers, marketers, and waiters at a restaurant. When these colleagues do well, it probably won’t make you feel like you are not doing well yourself. But when you get selected to go on the popular reality show Top Chef, suddenly you are working with brilliant chefs who are at the same skill level as you and know the same cooking methods. In the face of their success, you might feel like you are not doing so well.
If you feel social comparison is hurting your work-life balance, you may want to work in an environment where everyone has more defined and discrete roles.
3. Local culture
It wasn’t until I finished my Master’s degree and started my PhD at a top-tier school that my local culture became an additional risk factor for me. At top-tier schools, everyone expects you to be a star. For the sake of argument, let’s say that they define a star as being yellow and having five points. This means that a star is not blue, it is not circular, and it is not polka-dotted. Of course, every human being is different and has different strengths and weaknesses. So very few of us fit any definition of what it means to be a star.
What happens when people feel they are not what they could or “should be”? They overwork themselves to become what they should be, sometimes developing issues with sleep, health, and career prospects, or even depression or anxiety. If you are in a culture that expects everyone to be stars, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do: One thing you can do is build a growth mindset, the belief that people can grow, change, and improve. It means that people are not born stars; they become stars. Be careful, though: A growth mindset alone might just become one more reason to work harder.
So ensure that you also practice self-acceptance and self-compassion. Remember, no one should make you feel bad about who you are. Maybe you are an octagon (and not a star). If so, try to view yourself positively and celebrate your distinct shape.
4. Broader culture
UC Berkeley—where I did my PhD—sits right next to San Francisco and Silicon Valley, an area that is often considered a technology mecca. Some of the world’s best-known tech companies, including Facebook and Google, operate here. Thousands of small startups operate here, too. If you are sitting at a coffee shop, you are almost guaranteed to overhear someone who is starting, working at, or discussing a startup.
It is an inspiring and invigorating culture, but it also prides itself on extra-hard work. You may have heard stories about startup founders forgoing sleep, food, and socializing to build their companies. Indeed, startup culture reinforces the idea that success requires working incredibly long hours.
If your culture expects you to work all the time, you may be at risk for burnout.
What to do: Try to establish boundaries. You decide: What is an acceptable number of hours for you to work? What life experiences would you regret missing? What are your work-life-balance deal-breakers? Once you establish what is acceptable for you, you must be assertive in advocating for your own needs. Because no one else will.
What happens if you do burnout?
In my case, the risk factors added up and got the best of me. While still pursuing my PhD at Berkeley, I founded my own company, Lifenik, Inc. In between teaching and doing research and dissertation writing, I was fundraising and pitching my company. I also took classes in business and technology, picked up a minor in Management of Technology Innovation, and taught myself how to code in R. When my startup started failing (just like 75 percent of the other startups), I worked harder, I pivoted to focus on well-being consulting, and I took on odd jobs to build skills. At this point, balance was not even something I was prioritizing at all.
I started getting migraines, insomnia, and numbness in my hands and back (these turned out to be symptoms of anxiety, by the way). I stopped valuing and prioritizing the people in my life, even neglecting to spend time with my husband and my friends. My work stopped giving me a sense of purpose. I felt aimless, and I started wondering why I didn’t feel my life had meaning.
Then the unthinkable happened. Little by little, the quality of my work started to decline. I would schedule meetings at the wrong times, write reports that were missing lots of words, and be unable to answer the simplest of questions. “What was happening to me?!” I asked myself, “If I can’t work, then what else do I have?!”
It was crazy to realize that I had so neglected the non-work parts of my life that I didn’t even think they existed anymore. It was only then that I realized something was really wrong.
It turns out, I was well into the worst phases of burnout. Because burnout builds slowly, you can miss it entirely. Your health, relationships, and well-being start to falter, but you may not know why. Eventually, your body simply shuts down to prevent you from working. In my case, my brain and body just weren’t functioning well anymore. In a more frightening case of burnout, Arianna Huffington collapsed and woke up in a pool of her own blood.
Burnout is serious. And balance is important. Don’t let yourself get to this point.
How to recover from burnout
The truth is, many of you may already be experiencing burnout. It’s up to you to reverse it. Just as it took time to develop burnout, it will take time to recover. Returning to a regular 40-hour workweek is usually not enough to make up for years of overworking yourself. You may need to take long chunks of time off, work part-time for a while, and learn how to better cope with stress.
It is a long road back to a healthy, balanced life. The earlier you start getting clear on what really matters to you, the better. You can take surveys to see if your well-being is suffering and try to reprioritize the things that really make you happy in life. Moving forward, it will be essential to accept yourself, and learn how to be more assertive so that you don’t just end up burning yourself out all over again. These are just some of the ways that you can create balance and start living a happier, more fulfilling life.