End of The Year Got You Burned Out? Tips for Putting Out the Fire

Photo by Shoaib Altaf
Photo by Shoaib Altaf
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The Challenge: Many of us are “running on empty” – why do we feel so exhausted and disengaged from our work?
The Science: Research shows that mindfulness meditation may help reduce and prevent burnout at work.
The Solution: Practice this meditation regimen to reduce burnout in your own life.

For a while, nothing about my work inspired me. I felt that everything did was ridiculous or trite.

I was feeling really dejected about work and felt like my career was plateauing before it even started. It impacted the way that I connected with everyone at work and made me want to close off in my personal life as well. I felt stuck and that nothing with work excited me.

Burnout starts with my environment and being emotionally unhealthy. I spend so much energy on coping with the social trappings of my town and organization that I have little energy left to put into my work.

Do you struggle to find new and interesting aspects in your work? Are there days that you already feel tired before you go to work? Do you find yourself talking about your work in a negative way? Do you feel emotionally drained, worn out, or weary after work? (1)

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be experiencing burnout. Unlike stress – feeling overwhelmed by too many pressures – burnout refers to a lack of passion, motivation, and resources.

In the workplace, there are three components to burnout (2):

  1. Emotional exhaustion (feeling fatigued, burdened, and under-resourced)
  2. Depersonalization (feeling disengaged from job tasks and cynical towards coworkers)
  3. Diminished personal accomplishment (feeling incompetent or doubtful regarding job responsibilities)

Burnout typically follows a process (3). We initially feel excited and energized about a new job or project. But when the job expectations increase, so do our levels of stress. Chronic levels of stress, in turn, deplete our energy levels. Higher levels of stress also make it difficult to sustain healthy habits with respect to sleep, exercise, food, and relationships. Over time, these high levels of physical and emotional exhaustion leave us feeling bored, depressed, and demotivated. Not surprisingly, burnout is related to poor job performance (4) and greater desires to quit our jobs (5).

Burnout does not just affect our own lives – it also affects those around us. Some evidence suggests that burnout is contagious, and can “spillover” from one employee to another. When we feel burned out, we lack the resources to deal with our daily responsibilities, whether at work or at home. The demands of our jobs may make it difficult to fulfill our family duties (6).

To help combat burnout, organizational psychologists have identified a number of preventative strategies, such as taking a vacation, increasing one’s support system at work, customizing one’s position, and participating in multiple roles or projects (7). However, these strategies are not available to many employees. A promising alternative is mindfulness meditation, which can be practiced for free and in the convenience of one’s home.

Mindfulness is a core practice of Buddhism, and refers to nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Mindfulness involves focusing our attention to the present moment.

To cultivate this state of wakefulness, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike engage in mindfulness meditation. To practice this type of meditation, begin by finding a comfortable seating position. Bring your attention to your breath – start by inhaling for five counts (silently counting in your head), and exhaling for five counts. Continue this breath awareness for a few minutes, trying to increase the number of counts for each inhale and exhale. Try your best to maintain awareness of your mind and body. Notice if you are carrying any tension in your body (e.g., clenched teeth or fists), and allow your body to relax. Notice the thoughts that are floating in and out of your mind. Whether you are feeling worry, anxiety, fear, hope, or simply distracted, do not try to ignore or suppress these thoughts. Rather, take note of them. Pay attention to them without judgment, and silently remind yourself that you are in the middle of meditating. Continually bring your awareness back to your breath and body. Continue this process for as long as you feel comfortable … many people start with five minutes each morning.

Although the primary aim of mindfulness meditation is to achieve greater awareness of one’s thoughts, there are many other well-documented benefits of this practice. In a review of research on interventions, mindfulness meditation was most strongly related to the following outcomes (8):

  • Reduced stress
  • Lower levels of anxiety
  • Fewer negative emotions
  • Greater well-being overall

The benefits of mindfulness meditation also extend to burnout. When primary care clinicians participated in mindfulness intervention, they experienced lower levels of burnout, depression, anxiety, and stress nine months after the study (9). Similar effects were observed in a study of teachers, who reported lower burnout, greater self-compassion, and improved teaching engagement following a mindfulness intervention (10).

Although people in all professions experience burnout, some occupations are more at risk than others. For instance, burnout rates are especially high in emotionally demanding careers, such as healthcare, teaching, and social work (11). Burnout also uniquely affects different social groups. Women physicians report 60% higher burnout rates than male physicians (12).

Most jobs are inherently stressful – that is unlikely to change, especially given increases in the work hours and demands (13) expected of us. The key to stress management is having the necessary resources to deal with life’s daily stressors. Mindfulness meditation is research-based tool to regain our passion and energy levels at work.

Here are some free mindfulness meditations to get you started:

What does burnout mean to you? Are there any special things you do to help prevent or deal with burnout? Have you tried mindfulness meditation as a way to deal with work stress?

1. Note: these questions are adapted from the Oldenberg Burnout Inventory: Demerouti, E., Bakker, A. B., Nachreiner, F., & Shaufeli, W. B. (2000). The job demands-resources model of burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(3), 499-512.
2. Maslach, C. (1982). Burnout: The cost of caring. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
3. Burisch, M. (2006). Das burnout-syndrom: Theorie der inneren erschöpfung [The burnout syndrome: A theory of inner exhaustion]. Heidelberg: Springer Medizin Verlag.
4. Maslach, C., Schaufeli, W. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2001). Job burnout. In S. T. Fiske, D. L. Schachter, & C. Zahn-Waxer (Eds.), Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 397-422.
5. Lee, R. T., & Ashforth, B.E. (1996). A meta-analytic examination of the correlates of the three dimensions of job burnout. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81(2), 123-133.
6. Peeters, M. C. W., Montgomery, A. J., Bakker, A. B. & Schaufeli, W. B. (2005). Balancing work and home: How job and home demands are related to burnout. International Journal of Stress Management, 12, 43-61.
7. Blache et al. (2011). A burnout intervention training for managers and team leaders. Retrieved from http://www.burnoutintervention.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/BOIT_Good_practice_brochure_EN.pdf
8. Eberth, J., & Sedlmeier, P. (2012). The effects of mindfulness meditation: A meta-analysis. Mindfulness, 3(3), 174-189.
9. Fotney, L., Luchterhand, C., Zakletskaia, L., Zgierska, A., & Rakel, D. (2013). Abbreviated mindfulness intervention for job satisfaction, quality of life, and compassion in primary care clinicians: A pilot study. Annals of Family Medicine, 11(5), 412-420.
10. Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., Bonus, K., & Davidson, R. J. (2013). Mindfulness for teachers: A pilot study to assess effects on stress, burnout, and teaching efficacy. Mind, Brain, and Education, 7(3), 182-195.
11. Schaufeli, W.B., & Enzman, D. (1998). The burnout companion to study & practice. London: Taylor & Francis.
12. Meitzer, D. O. (2009). Social science insights into improving workforce effectiveness: Examples from the developing field of hospital medicine. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice, 15(6), S18-S23.
13. Schwartz, T. (2012, January 24). Transforming the way we work. Harvard Business Review, Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/01/transforming-the-way-we-work/

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Verónica Caridad Rabelo
Verónica Caridad Rabelo is a PhD Candidate in Psychology (Personality & Social Contexts) and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Overall, her research interests include social identity and mistreatment in the workplace. Her current projects investigate gender identity and leadership emergence; sexual assault in the U.S. military; workplace harassment on the basis of gender and sexual orientation; and mindfulness and compassion among stigmatized employees. Verónica is a proud alumna of Williams College, where her passion for social justice and feminist psychology first sparked. In her spare time, Verónica enjoys doing puzzles, practicing yoga, and spending time in the sun.
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