The Power of Positivity: Overcoming the Negative Emotions of Burnout

Although burnout may show itself differently person to person, it can embody three characteristics


We all know a bit about stress. Between travel, clients, and staying on the cutting edge of business and industry trends (not to mention our busy home lives!), it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. We also know we are not alone in this feeling. According to Deloitte’s external marketplace survey on burnout, 77 percent of respondents said they have experienced employee burnout at their current job, with more than half citing more than one occurrence.

Although burnout may show itself differently person to person, it can embody three characteristics that are at the root of what we psychologically experience–exhaustion, cynicism, and a feeling of dissatisfaction with accomplishment. In other words, burnout often creates a cycle of negative emotions and thoughts–“I’m too tired,” “I don’t trust him/her,” “I’m not good enough,” etc. And because burnout is so common, our attempts at addressing it often look a lot like a game of whack-a-mole, where we stamp out flares of high stress when they occur, but do very little to understand the negative emotions we are experiencing and know how to break the cycle. This reactive and siloed approach to fighting burnout may work at times, but when multiple stressors pile up across different domains in life, this strategy will likely fail.

A more proactive approach to breaking the cycle of negative feelings starts by reframing our thoughts from narrow and negative toward more positive emotions. The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions provides a compelling case for how positive emotions can shift our reactions to stressful events. According to the theory, negative emotions narrow our reactions to stress, down to a basic level of response (e.g., escape or expel) designed to get us through the unpleasant experience. Like a game of whack-a-mole, we are solving an ongoing problem (there are always more moles and more stressors) with a temporary solution. These responses do nothing to build the type of long-lasting coping strategies needed to deal with inevitable stressors in the future.

However, positive emotions–such as joy, interest, contentment, and pride–tend to broaden the array of our thoughts and actions, putting us in a better position to build the resources necessary to overcome burnout. For example, the positive emotion of joy broadens our thoughts and actions by creating the urge to have fun and play, which results in the formation of strong social bonds at work. These social bonds can play an integral role in curbing the effects of stress and burnout down the road.

So what? It is easy to parrot platitudes such as “think positive!” and “keep your head up!” which only serve to further frustrate those who are wrestling with burnout. Instead, here are some tried-and-true behaviors that can increase positivity to help address burnout before it begins.

1. Create a pocket of time for self-reflection. Capture the emotions you are experiencing as a result of stress and burnout.

2. Practice daily gratitude by creating a gratitude list at the end of each day. Gratitude lists and journaling offer a cheap, quick, and easy method of further self-reflection and can flip negative and cynical thoughts to positive ones.

3. Focus on your strengths. It can be easy to fall into a cycle of dissatisfaction with yourself when you are burned out. Focusing on strengths at home and at work can help you overcome any deficiencies you may be sensing.

4. Become a positivity role model. If you lead a team at work, open every team meeting with recognition/kudos. After a few meetings, open it up for others to do the same.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Take advantage of stress management programs at work or in your community and lean on friends and family when times get tough. Burnout should not be taken lightly! It is easy to joke about how hard you are working, or feel a sense of “keeping up with the Joneses” at work, but it’s not sustainable.

There are far too many people who are hanging by a thread due to stress at work and at home. The good news is there are strategies that can help you do more than simply survive in a state of burnout. Behaviors that focus on increasing positive thoughts and emotions can help you thrive and prevent burnout before it happens. Begin by intentionally practicing a few of the behaviors above and you will likely notice a difference! 

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