What Is Burnout?So let’s start with exactly what is 'burnout'. Herbert Freudenberger, who originally defined burnout, defined it in his book Burnout: The High Cost of High Achievement as, "the extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one's devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results." However, we all kind of know what we’re talking about when we talk about burnout: that feeling that we can’t face another day of our stress, of our life, and the feelings of listlessness and lack of motivation that come with it. It may feel like wanting to throw in the towel, pull the covers over our heads, or just escape, or it can feel like an extreme lack of motivation. It’s not a diagnosable psychological condition, but it’s been well-studied, and widely experienced. (See this article for more on the symptoms of burnout.)
Virtually anyone can be susceptible to burnout under the right conditions, but certain personality traits, thought patterns and, especially, lifestyle features tend to put people more at risk. The most important risk factors in burnout include having a lack of control in your situation, feeling a lack of recognition or compensation for your work, unclear requirements, high consequences for failure, and the experience of not being able to meet the requirements demanded in the job. (See this article for more specifics on the risks of burnout.) It’s not being busy that contributes the most to burnout—there are many people who thrive on having many things in their lives, and others who have lifestyles that demand very little of them and are stressed and unfulfilled—but these factors of being ineffective and unable to meet requirements, with no control to change things.
In fact, burnout isn’t generally as much of an issue if you’re doing things you love—what positive psychology refers to as gratifications--but are just doing a lot of them. If your life is full of activity, but each activity presents you with a fulfilling way to express your strengths, to do things that make you feel alive and contribute to your own wellbeing and that of your family, and if you feel feelings of excitement rather than dread when you move through a busy day, you’re probably doing fine, and might just benefit from general stress relievers when you’re feeling a bit stressed.
With that said, being too busy still presents a degree of risk, and if you’re too busy to have balance in your life, if you’re not able to take care of your own physical and emotional needs because you’ve taken on too much, or if you’re routinely feeling overwhelmed, it’s probably time for some changes. These articles on time management and creating a life plan can help you see where you might be too busy and what you might want to cut back. And my free weekly newsletter can keep you supplied with information and techniques you can use on an ongoing basis. Have fun!