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This is a woefully inadequate article, and a woefully inadequate survey. So what if 'poor leadership' is the number one cause for burnout? That insight isn't useful. As an employee, I'd like to figure out how to avoid burnout. And as a employer, I'm not sure how to reduce burnout — get better leadership? How do I do that?

But it turns out there are good ideas we can try that may be found in the academic literature.

Context: I was writing up my process for preventing burnout recently (https://commoncog.com/blog/nuanced-take-on-preventing-burnou...), and I took some time to look into the academic literature for burnout, to see if it highlighted anything I'd missed.

I'll give a quick summary:

1. The standard test for burnout today is something called the Maslach Burnout Inventory https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslach_Burnout_Inventory, and it measures burnout along three metrics: exhaustion, inefficacy, and cynicism.

a) Exhaustion: described as wearing out, loss of energy, depletion, debilitation, and fatigue.

b) Inefficacy: described as reduced productivity or capability.

c) Cynicism: negative or inappropriate attitudes towards clients, irritability, loss of idealism, and withdrawal.

2. The MBI is a descriptive model, which helps you identify burnout, but we need a developmental model as well (e.g. what are the various stages of burnout?). The early models of burnout described the pathway as three stages: 1. job stressors (an imbalance between work demands and individual resources), then 2. individual strain (an emotional response of exhaustion and anxiety), and then 3). defensive coping (changes in attitudes and behavior, such as greater cynicism).

Or, to put this simply: first your job demands too much of you, then you feel anxious and emotionally exhausted, then you cope by becoming cynical about work, and then you quit.

3. Maslach found that development of cynicism is the biggest predictor of burnout-related turnover. If you're cynical about your job, you're pretty likely to think about quitting or to actually quit soon. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19426369)

4. If you look at the literature today, however, you'll find that most burnout research has converged on two development models: the Job Demands‐Resources (JD‐R) model (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_demands-resources_model) and the Conservation of Resources (COR) model (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservation_of_resources_theo...). I'll leave you to read the respective Wikipedia articles, but the takeaway from both of them is that burnout results from when the resources provided by the job are outstripped by the demands of the job.

As a CEO or manager, your best bet to reducing burnout is to increase the list of job resources described in JD-R, that is:

> physical, psychological, social, or organisational aspects of the job that are either or: functional in achieving work goals; reduce job demands and the associated physiological and psychological cost; stimulate personal growth, learning, and development. Examples are, career opportunities, supervisor coaching, role-clarity, and autonomy.

As an employee, your best bet to reducing burnout is to increase personal resources (which are different from job-provided resources in the JD-R model). But the problem here is that the research doesn't yet know if there are effective techniques in increasing personal resources. Why? Well ...

5. There are only two decades or so worth of research into burnout, and the research was primarily centered around the care-giving professions. Consequently, early models of burnout were thought to stem from social exhaustion (e.g. nurses and doctors dealing with death, or grief); in a 2016 retrospective review article (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4911781/), Maslach herself write that this is an active field of research, and they don't yet know if you can train someone to be more resistant to burnout.

There are some interesting research directions, though. I found this paragraph in an undergrad paper from Australia (where apparently half of the nurses there leave the profession prematurely, mostly due to burnout):

> Rather, failure to recover consistently from such work stresses (in non-work time) is a crucial determinant of chronic (maladaptive) fatigue and burnout evolution (Winwood et al. 2007). When such recovery is effected consistently, physiological toughness (Dienstbier 1989,1991) and enhanced stress resistance is developed, with improved performance at work, better sleep and reduced maladaptive health outcomes (Dienstbier 1991).While some individuals may achieve this spontaneously, far more may benefit from specific training to do so effectively and consistently.

The Winwood paper may be found here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17693784 but it's unclear if they've found a set of techniques that work for most people in most professions. I'm still reading up.

PS: I have a technique that I use myself, but it's unclear that it would work for everyone. I wrote it up here: https://commoncog.com/blog/nuanced-take-on-preventing-burnou.... It's certainly protected me from burnout in startupland over the years. But, as I've mentioned, I'm interested in the research because the goal there is to find a set of general techniques that would work for most people. My technique has a sample size of one.




Thank you for writing this all up. I found this all really interesting but one question remains: what should we do when we have burnout? It's easy enough to say "just employ one of your coping mechanisms" but presumably there are real resentments underlying the situation?

I guess this is the crux really. Is burnout merely an arbitrary expression of exhaustion and overwork, which carries thoughts and resentments that may seem 'real' but are really just manifestations of stress? Or are the resentments in any way real? If they're real, I personally feel they need to be tackled in a way beyond mere coping.


The resentment may come from mismatch between personal and job goals. It could be anything, projects, salary, bosses, colleagues. It may be clear from the beginning, or pop mid-course.

With no resolution to the mismatch, it leads to self-repression of the resentment, then to cynicism, and indeed it saps away emotional energy to manage this.

So, it's important to be aware of how the job vs personal goals match. Making the job expectation known to the superiors may as well help keeping the balance. Btw, brown-nosing is a form of negotiation, sure it's not the only way.

Otherwise the burn-out will be more self-inflicted. Also, there're cases that may have no practical ways to balance (culture fit). In this case setting to oneself a limited time-frame to attempt finding the balance (improving the job goals). Then declare 'mission accomplished' and move on (taking the side of personal goals).

Low and time-wasteful work-load (9-5) may as much lead to burn-out as the sweatshop slavery kind. But both environments have those that would flourish there.


Here’s my unsolicited advice for dealing with burnout. Good luck.

If you’ve got resentments you’ll need to work through them. Get help. Debrief your role in the causes. Regrets probably exist at first but you’ll find moving on with new is healthiest approach after you’ve worked out the details of the old.

Work on frustration tolerance. Little things should stay little. Laughter may help. Or not.

Reconnect with purpose. Find a purpose. Make it clear. Make it detailed. Plan. Execute.

You will need to change. What that means is up to you.

Check in with exercise, diet, social circles. Don’t disconnect from any of these. Fix any deficiencies.

After all that maybe you can forgive, forget and move on.




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