Feel the Burnout

What the Science Says About Preventing Burnout

We all know that feeling. Those days where we begrudgingly lug ourselves to our car for the morning commute to work, buckle up our seat-belt, start the ignition and…contemplate whether we should just drop everything, drive to a new city, and start a new life. The fantasy abruptly halts as we pull into our parking space, trudging up the stairs for another Tuesday at the office. “Another day, another dollar,” we mumble to ourselves, savoring the last few moments of the daydream where we are on a tropical island with a cocktail in each hand.

Workplace burnout is a common occurrence. Feelings of “exhaustion and work overload” (Maslach, 2011) dominate our bodies and our minds, leaving us feeling defeated. But what if there was a way to not only overcome these treacherous feelings, but to thrive as well? Christina Maslach, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley has extensively studied workplace burnout and recently wrote an article about circumventing this phenomenon through employee engagement. Specifically, she discusses increasing “employees’ energy, vigor and resilience” by preventing burnout in the first place.

Maslach believes that organizations are equipped with the proper resources to not only detect early stages of employee burnout, but to transform these feelings into a positive outcome. In order to achieve this, she writes that rather than focusing on the individual level, it is imperative that we examine the employees' organizational environment. A worker's surroundings take an effect on their attitudes and well-being, which buffer the effect that external job stressors have on work-related outcomes such as absenteeism and illness.

Three important principles that an organization can employ to prevent burnout are as follows: 

  1. Don't wait until the burnout occurs to treat it. This includes performing periodic “check-ups” to gauge which areas need improvement and how your employees are coping with work-related stress. If you notice your employees seem to be feeling overwhelmed, reach out to them to see what they need. Maybe offer them a personal day off to decompress.
  2. Foster engagement in the work environment. Engaged employees are better equipped to cope with workplace challenges as they arise, and thus are less likely to be burdened by excessive stress. An engaging work environment should be supportive, involving, and challenging. As a supervisor, you can foster this type of climate by providing your employees with tasks that they find both interesting and challenging. Be sure to also provide support, both in the form of coaching and feedback to help them work through the challenges, and by expressing care for their personal well-being.
  3. Focus on the organizational culture. Start by evaluating what common values or shared by you, your employees, and the organization, and share those values to make them explicit. Then act on them – does your organization value teamwork? If so, consider planning an offsite team-building event. Is giving back to the community important to you? Maybe plan a volunteer day. By doing so, you are helping your employees to feel that their own values are congruent with the work they do every day.

So the next time you notice your employees seem to be experiencing burnout caused by their job, take a quick break to evaluate how everyone is feeling and what you can do to improve the situation. Remind yourself that there are steps we can take to combat feelings of burnout and replace them with positive and productive practices. It may even help to implement preventative processes that attack the issue of burnout before it begins. Even if you are not a manager yourself, consider talking to your higher ups about the issue of burnout and making suggestions as to what they could do differently. After all, who can argue with science?


Maslach, C. (2011). Burnout and engagement in the workplace: New perspectives. The European Health Psychologist, 13(3), 44-47.

Bakker, A. B., Albrecht, S. L., & Leiter, M. P. (2011). Key questions regarding work engagement. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 20(1), 4-28.