How to Break the Dead-End Cycle of Burnout

A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

“I know there’s something bigger out there for me, but I’m so burned out, I don’t know where to start.”

I hear this all the time.

Many people I know and work with are looking for fulfilling careers. They want their career to be their life’s work, and they want the hours they spend in the office to have a larger impact on the world.

Despite this goal, they’re struggling with a big issue: burnout.

A recent Gallup study of nearly 7,500 full-time employees found that 23% reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes.

Job burnout accounts for an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in health-care spending each year and has been attributed to type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, high cholesterol, and even death for those under the age of 45.

What’s the impact of this? What kind of work can we really produce when we’re operating from a place of exhaustion? And is it possible to even feel connected to the part of ourselves that has the ability to make an impact?

If we want to make a difference, we have to first be mentally, emotionally, and physically healthy. It’s only from a place of health that we can tap into our creativity and think bigger to drive change.

There are cultural and societal circumstances that contribute to burnout, and I’ll quickly reference articles like this that highlight how the workplace applauds burnout and “busy” culture.

It’s important to bring awareness to these realities; however, what I’m going to focus on in this article is what we can do as individuals to drive change for ourselves.

I’ve been through burnout too. I’ve bought into societal pressure, I’ve pushed myself too far, and I’ve believed that my self worth comes from doing (even when the “doing” was just mindless busy work).

Because of my experience, I know the impact of burnout too well. I also know change starts with the individual.

So here’s how to approach breaking the cycle of burnout, which is the first step to achieving any goal.

Differentiate Between the Habits That Serve You and the Habits That Harm You

Our habits drive a majority of our decision-making. In fact, 40% to 45% of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s not the case.

Because our working memory can only hold four to seven pieces of information at one time, once we master an activity, it moves to a different part of our brain and becomes automatic.

This is fascinating to me because it demonstrates that most of our present actions are based on beliefs we’ve adopted in the past.

Additionally, we form physical, mental, and emotional habits through repetition. The more we repeat something, the more it becomes automatic, and the easier it is to do over and over again.

Let’s talk about how this applies to burnout.

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout this way: “Job burnout is a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

burnoutWhen you’re experiencing emotional exhaustion, a sense of reduced accomplishment, or a loss of personal identity, how do you respond? Do you stop to process your feelings and stress or do you push through hoping things will get better?

Your answer to this will shed some light on an emotional habit—whether or not you’re allowing yourself to be aware of your emotions.

We have to process our stress and work with our emotions rather than push through. If we push through for too long (or avoid the stress in front of us), it builds up—and eventually we crash.

So how do we process our emotions, especially if we don’t yet have the awareness to know if we’re avoiding them?

Saying “no” at work can actually help you advance—here’s how to do it tactfully

Identify Your Emotional Triggers

What are emotional triggers? Emotional triggers are events or experiences that trigger a negative emotional response.

Maybe a boss speaks to you in a certain way or a friend says something to you, and that triggers a feeling of sadness, anger, or frustration. You feel activated emotionally and you shift from a place of serenity or neutrality to a more negative state.

We all have these experiences and reactions, but I believe emotional triggers can be harmful when we’re not aware of them.

Many of our triggers are happening in our subconscious.

Additionally, if we have a habit of avoiding our emotions, we’re going to push that trigger in the back of our mind.

And what’s the impact of that? It will likely show up again until we deal with it and better understand what’s triggering us.

Emotional triggers can zap our energy and contribute to our burnout. The first step to working through this is to build awareness of what triggers us.

Start by listening to your feelings and labeling those emotions. Are you feeling sad, angry, frustrated, a sense of dread, scared?

What thoughts are associated with these emotions? If you ask yourself enough questions, you’ll get to the root of the trigger, and you can better understand what you need to shift to a more positive state.

I’ve put together an audio training and workbook to help you work through your emotional triggers by answering a series of questions.

Don’t Do It Alone

When it comes to working through burnout, stress or emotional triggers, our initial reaction might be to do everything alone.

After all, sharing feelings and opening up requires vulnerability.

In the workplace, this may be even more challenging because of office politics and the organizational culture. You may not want to draw attention to your mental health because of potential repercussions.

But here’s why doing it alone may be harder.

Humanity has evolved in groups because these societies have been critical to our survival.

Back in the day when we were cavemen, groups provided physical safety and protected us from potential predators.

We’re not dealing with the same physical threats today, but we are dealing with social threats like workplace toxicity, stress, status, and other factors that contribute to burnout.

Our social threats feel the same as physical threats; therefore, just like we’ve protected ourselves physically in groups, relying on groups and communities can provide social safety.

This applies to finding support in our career—whether we need that support to find a new job, help us cope with a difficult boss, or move up to a more prominent title.

Furthermore, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we have a series of needs that are critical for our evolution.

burnoutWe start with our basic physiological needs such as food and water, and after those are met, we move to safety and security.

After we meet our basic needs, we need to feel a sense of belonging—so we move to find love and relationships and friendships.

Following that, we seek prestige and accomplishment, and eventually we move toward self actualization—which is about reaching your full potential.

Having a sense of belonging is critical as you move through your human experience. It provides support when you’re feeling alone and unable to process your emotions. And positive feelings of love and belonging can help us work through emotional triggers.

Think about how your relationships have supported you through challenging times in the past.

How can you leverage those connections and apply them to your career?

In Conclusion

It’s possible to find fulfillment with your work. Start with first breaking the cycle of burnout—which consists of becoming more aware of your emotions, thoughts, and actions. The process is worth it because you tap into a healthier, more conscious version of yourself. And when you access that place, so much more is possible.

Written by Belma McCaffrey for Thrive Global.

Hear more from Belma in an upcoming webinar with Ivy Exec!


About the Author

Belma McCaffrey is a career and leadership coach on a mission to redefine work and challenge the status quo so that work is a vehicle for impact and living a better life. She brings empathy, connection and a strategic mindset to her clients where she supports them with identifying the right opportunities and then developing the most strategic way to land those opportunities. Prior to becoming a coach, Belma spent 10+ years in business development and strategy roles at companies like the Associated Press, GroupM, and Conde Nast. She also runs her own coaching platform and community, Work Bigger. Belma has a B.A. in political science and public relations from Syracuse University, an M.B.A. in marketing from Baruch College, and is receiving her coaching certification with the NeuroLeadership Institute where she applies foundations in neuroscience to her leadership and career coaching.