Well-Being//

Can You Avoid Burnout and Still Be Great at Work?

These three smart practices are key.

Is your job burning you out? You’re not alone. The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as a “special type of job stress—a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work.” In my study of thousands of workers and managers, I asked respondents to rate their level of work-related burnout. Many experienced some level of mental and emotional exhaustion. About a fifth (19 percent) strongly or completely agreed that they felt burned out. Another quarter (25 percent) agreed somewhat, with the remaining 56 percent reporting little or no sense of burnout.

Burnout is serious. Research has tied it to ills such as cardiovascular disease, marital dissatisfaction, and depression. Fortunately, my study found that changing the way you work can lower your chances of burning out, even as it increases your performance on the job.

Three practices in particular make a difference. I call the first “Do Less, then obsess.” Many people try to improve their performance by working harder. They take on more priorities, projects, or work tasks. My research found that choosing just a few priorities, projects, or tasks, and then obsessing to excel in these chosen areas of focus, leads to higher performance, while also preventing people from becoming exhausted at work. It makes sense: people who do less and then obsess have fewer priorities to handle and track, so they aren’t as overwhelmed.

Susan Bishop, a small business owner in my study, redesigned her executive search business in line with the principle of “Do less, then obsess.” She imposed strict rules about which clients and projects she would accept (and what she would reject), and she dedicated herself to the work she took on. As Bishop told us, her life improved dramatically both inside and outside of work. Not only did she perform better; she felt more engaged, satisfied, and energized. Others in my study achieved similar results. According to my data, mastering the “do less, then obsess” practice allowed people to move up 29 points in our ranking of how much burnout they prevented (e.g., from the 60th to the 89th percentile). That’s a big improvement!

A second burnout-busting work practice is what I call “Disciplined Collaboration.” In my study, people performed better when they were choosier about which cross-team collaborations they took on. Rather than saying yes to every possible collaboration, these participants assessed when to collaborate, and when not to. If they did choose to collaborate, they went “all in,” taking steps so that others were both willing and able to commit to the effort and deliver results. People who practiced disciplined collaboration performed better on the job, and they jumped 12 points in our ranking of how much burnout they prevented. Their disciplined approach allowed them to accomplish more in less time with their partnerships, preventing exhaustion.

Both of these practices prevent you from being physically and mentally exhausted at work, but there is another part of burnout—emotional exhaustion. As the Mayo Clinic’s definition suggests, burnout can stem from a sense that work is stressful, bristling with interpersonal friction, and lacking in meaning. Another work practice—what I call P-squared—helps prevent emotional fatigue. High performers in my study didn’t just do work that they loved. They also did work that matched their passion for the job with a sense of purpose—a feeling that they were contributing in meaningful ways to others or to society. People who combined passion and purpose (P-Squared) ranked 16 percentage points higher in my “preventing burnout” ranking. They tended to go to work excited about what they did every day, perpetually re-acquainting themselves with work’s deeper meaning. This allowed them to keep emotional exhaustion at bay.

After implementing her rules about which clients to take, Bishop found that she derived more passion and purpose from her job, and that she in turn felt more excited and energized. As she said, it was as if “this huge weight had been lifted.” She no longer had to deal with “the clients that I hated” as well as the smaller clients whose searches took up so much of her time. Because she and her team weren’t bogged down running low-level searches, she could land more meaningful (not to mention more lucrative) assignments, such as a search for an executive position at the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes. She was still working hard, but she was accomplishing more and feeling less burned out.

I have met so many people who believe that a tradeoff exists between achieving at work and enjoying a happy life. They put in huge amounts of strenuous, exhausting work—long hours and maximum effort—to become top performers. Millions of people around the world sacrifice this way, suffering burnout and its consequences, because they don’t know how to work differently. But now there’s a clear answer. As our study of thousands of workers and managers shows, you can perform exceptionally well and still feel happy and energized, both inside and outside of work. By changing her work practices, Bishop had the energy she needed to navigate crises in her family, get her Ph.D., and even begin a second career teaching at a business school. As she discovered, being great at work means performing in your job, infusing your work with passion and a strong sense of purpose, and living well, too. How great is that?

From GREAT AT WORK: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better and Achieve More by Morten T. Hansen. Copyright © 2018 by Morten Hansen. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All rights reserved.

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