The surprising way to protect yourself from burnout - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Careers The surprising way to protect yourself from burnout

The surprising way to protect yourself from burnout

Burnout can affect any of us. Can we recognize the signs and make the connections needed to survive and thrive?

7 min read


Credit: Pixabay

Amy has been under increasing stress. Her boss is pressuring her to significantly boost the productivity of the team she manages. She’s working longer hours and spending more time on work while away from her office.

Adding to that, Amy feels stress from her commute to work and the financial pressures to support her family. The time she once spent on self-care — getting sufficient sleep, exercising and engaging in leisure activities with family and fiends — has gradually been squeezed out of her schedule. Sound familiar?

The demands on Amy are taking a toll on her. She almost feels numb and, as a result, she’s less able to connect with other people at work and at home. Her patience his wearing thin, and she no longer empathizes with the people in her life. This growing detachment has led her to depersonalize others, contributing to feelings of alienation. While she may hide it from others, Amy feels lethargic and lonely, at times anxious and other times depressed.

To try to feel better, Amy began to engage in behaviors and ingest substances that are addictive. They make her feel better for a while, but she’s found that she has needed more of the behaviors and substances over time. When she’s tried to stop, she feels awful. Amy secretly fears her addictions are taking over her life.

Like many people, Amy traveled down the slippery slope of burnout that led to addiction. She’s not alone. In 2011, Sussman, et al. studied the co-occurrence of 11 addictions in the US (cigarettes, alcohol, illicit drugs, binge eating, gambling, Internet, love, sex, exercise, work, and shopping). By reviewing 83 studies with more than 500 respondents, Sussman and his coauthors concluded that approximately 47% of Americans had one or more of the 11 addictions.

The primary cause of job burnout

The gold standard job burnout assessment is the 22-question Maslach Burnout Inventory (“MBI”) by Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. The MBI surveys three areas: exhaustion, depersonalization and professional efficacy. According to Maslach, people often think the demands of their jobs are the primary contributors to burnout. Interestingly, she has found that poor relationships in the workplace — incivility, passive aggressive behavior and bullying — are often the real culprit.

In other words, people have a misconception when it comes to burnout; they think it’s caused by work demands when more often it’s attributable to a poor state of relationships or, what I call, a lack of connection. Matthew Lieberman, a social neuroscientist at UCLA, has noticed this blind spot, too, and he refers to it as “our kryptonite.”

In his TEDx talk, “The Social Brain and Its Superpowers,” Lieberman calls connection a superpower and this lack of appreciation of our social superpowers keeps us from becoming smarter, happier and more productive (similar to how kryptonite prevented Superman from exercising his superpowers of flight and x-ray vision).

3 practices to protect yourself

Burnout is often the result of spending too much time on activities that consume energy and insufficient time on activities that energize. Here are three practices that can boost connection and emotional energy to help protect you from burnout.

Connect yourself

Schedule time for self-care. I know one person who literally schedules time in his calendar and guards it as he would an appointment with a client. Self-care will make you emotionally sturdier and more resilient.

At one time in my life, my habit was to run hard until I collapsed, take time to recover — and repeat the cycle. It wasn’t until a client of mine had me complete the Hartman Value Profile that I was even aware of this unhealthy pattern. It was a wakeup call that resulted in changing my attitude and behavior.

Today I have several safeguards in place. Each week, I take at least one 24-hour period off from thinking about work and chipping away at my to-do list, and do things that are life-giving and that recharge my batteries. I also exercise on a regular basis and spend time on most days for self-reflection (praying and recording entries in the Gratitude 365 app, for example).

Connect with others outside of work

You should be aware that America is experiencing an epidemic of loneliness (read excellent articles about it in Slate and The Atlantic). I can relate. When the demands of work and commute crowded out time for family and friends, I began to suffer from loneliness. I didn’t feel well, but wasn’t aware that loneliness fueled by stress was behind how I was feeling physically

No one ever told me that people are hardwired for connection and that we dysfunction when our need for connection goes unmet. If you’re not convinced that you need connection to thrive in life, read the “Science of Connection” chapter in “Connection Culture” where I present the scientific evidence. Now I’m intentional about spending time with my wife and going to my men’s Bible study on Saturday mornings. You should be intentional about investing time connecting, too.

Connect with colleagues and customers

Over my career, I have worked in cultures that energized me and cultures that drained my energy. Mind you, I hadn’t changed.

I’ve come to see that it was the differences in attitudes, uses of language and behaviors that affected me. Workplace cultures either control people, are indifferent to people (because everyone is so busy they don’t take time to connect) or they connect people. It’s connection cultures that help people thrive, individually and collectively.

To establish and sustain a healthy workplace culture, it’s necessary to have a common vocabulary that defines what culture is, a framework to create a health culture and examples of how others have done it.

Rather than trying to assemble this on your own, I recommend taking time to get your team together to read my latest book, “Connection Culture.” As a companion piece, download free copies of the 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” e-book. You and your team can use these practical resources to develop a shared language and approach to team culture and then identify individual and collective actions for implementation.

The bottom line? Connection is protection from burnout. I sincerely hope you will mark this day, begin connecting and watch what happens. I promise that over time, you will see that connection affects much more than the financial bottom line. As you experience greater levels of productivity, prosperity and joy that come from having an abundance of connection in your life, you will discover wealth of even greater value.


Michael Lee Stallard speaks, trains, and consults for business, government, healthcare and education organizations. He is president of E Pluribus Partners co-founder and author, most recently, of “Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy and Understanding at Work.” Sign up at no cost to receive his 28-page “100 Ways to Connect” ebook.  

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.