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Burnout: What It Is and How to Avoid It

Burnout impacts personal, project, and organizational performance. Therefor it is important for project managers, performers, and executives to understand what it is and how to manage and avoid it.


What Burnout Is

Burnout is “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”[1]


On a personal level, chronic stress and overwork leads to relationship problems, illness, a lack of motivation, disengagement, low energy, and suboptimal performance. Personal well-being impacts project performance and organizational health. When performers are suffering from burnout symptoms, they are less productive, more prone to leaving, less creative, withdrawn, more likely to become frustrated and angry and to engage in unnecessary and poorly managed conflict.


Burnout is not just being tired and needing a vacation. Studies have defined it more precisely, provided measurements, and have identified factors that contribute to it. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) was developed by Christina Maslach in 1981 to evaluate and measure burnout. In her 2016 study[2] she makes it clear that, as with all aspects of wellness there are degrees of symptoms on a continuum.



Research identified three interrelated symptoms – exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced effectiveness.

  • Exhaustion is loss of energy and fatigue. It occurs when there is too much stress caused by unhealthy performance demands (chronic overwork). It can be a short-term experience following an intensive physical, emotional, or mental activity. Short-term exhaustion can be treated by moderating performance demands and taking rest and recovery time. If it goes untreated and becomes chronic, burnout follows.
  • Disengagement is affected by a sense of not being cared for by leadership and of the futility of the work. People lose a psychological connection to their work. Involvement and enthusiasm suffer. Performers, whether executives, managers, or staff, just put in their time instead of being actively engaged in their work. self-worth suffers. They become cynical and either engage in unnecessary conflict or withdraw to avoid engaging in meaningful debates.
  • Reduced effectiveness is tied to both exhaustion and lack of engagement. With tiredness, less involvement and enthusiasm, performers become less productive and less effective. That results in greater stress as performance goals become more difficult to achieve. Greater stress feeds exhaustion and lack of engagement.



Symptoms have causes. Identifying the causes helps us find the most effective treatment.

Burnout is the result of poorly managed chronic workplace stress. Workplace stress is inevitable, not enough stress and performance suffers, overstress and performance suffers. Managing workplace stress is maintaining the dynamic balance among personal non-workplace stress, individual psychologies, the pressure of workplace and cultural performance expectations, and physical and mental effort.

Address poorly managed workplace stress by exploring its causes.


  • Ignorance and not caring are the main culprits. Ignoring, denying, or underestimating the impact of overwork and chronic stress enables burnout to sneak up on you. Unlike a broken bone that results from a specific incident, it emerges overtime as exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced effectiveness interact. Without mindfulness and self-awareness, one becomes burned out without realizing that it is happening.
  • Workaholism and fear of failure are compulsions to work excessively hard and for overly long hours. This feeds the tendency to underestimate the effects of overwork as well as the stress that comes with not being able to achieve personal and organizational goals. The compulsion to work overtaxes the mind and body. It is emotional stress multiplying physical stress.
  • High-intensity workplaces. Some organization cultures reward workaholism while stoking the fear of getting fired or not getting ahead. Imagine the impact of an attitude that sees performers, including project and functional managers, as being easily replaced. Like slaves on an ancient galley, when an oarsman is burned out, they are tossed overboard and replaced.


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Some professional service and consulting firms bring in waves of highly motivated and capable associates and put them in a position where they must choose to devote themselves to work to get ahead or be gone. Those who manage their stress well can succeed, some realize they do not want to pay the cost for success, others keep at it and burn out.

  • Management issues. Some managers do not recognize that there are differences in people’s capacity for demanding work and stress. They may drive performance and create unnecessary stress on performers who are valuable contributors but cannot live up to unrealistic expectations. Setting irrational objectives and not providing necessary resources is a management issue that causes unnecessary stress.
  • Stress management skills are used to avoid burnout and improve performance when under stress. These skills work to relax, recover, and direct effort. They support the self-awareness needed to avoid burn out.


Project Work

Beware, project performance is the kind of work that can easily lead to burnout. Projects often have tight deadlines and budgets along with expectations for quality performance. If these are not managed well, project managers and performers become stressed. If they move from high intensity project to high-intensity project without a break, burnout is inevitable.



Awareness of the nature and impact of burnout is the principal means for avoiding and treating it. There are two treatment dimensions, personal and organizational.

  • Personal – Everyone, regardless of their role, has the responsibility to manage their wellness. Cultivate the mindful self-awareness that gives you the ability to recognize when you are getting tired, losing your enthusiasm, and becoming less effective and efficient. Recognize it before it becomes overwhelming. Act.

Take a break or a vacation, ask for help, get some physical exercise, learn and use stress management techniques to make yourself more responsive, resilient and better able to thrive in the midst of stress. Assess your reasons for being stressed to the point of burnout. Is your stress self-imposed or driven by your work situation?

What can you do about it? Cultivate mindful self-awareness to enable you to look within and cut through whatever is driving you to overachieve. Push back to negotiate rational and reasonable demands and work schedules. Consider leaving a toxic environment.

  • Organizational – Leadership is responsible for creating an environment that supports organizational success. Success is accomplished, at least in part, by promoting individual wellness. That means to regularly assess attitudes, set reasonable demands and methods to avoid burnout. Wellness programs such as mindfulness meditation, stress management techniques, and opportunities for physical exercise and ‘being heard’ are great. They are most effective when they are integrated in a business process that promotes rational expectations and practical work-life balance and includes awareness of the impact of burnout on the business.


Find Dynamic Balance

Avoid burnout by managing your own stress and then use your influence to help your team find the right balance by assessing both individual and organizational goals and needs.


[1] How To Measure Burnout Across A Global Organisation,the%20University%20of%20California%2C%20Berkeley
[2] Latent burnout profiles: A new approach to understanding the burnout experience

George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.