How to Avoid Burnout at Work and Stay Motivated on the Job | Chris Kresser

How to Avoid Burnout at Work and Stay Motivated on the Job

by Chris Kresser

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Work is, well … work. By their very nature, jobs are often difficult and stressful. They require continuous, sustained mental and physical exertion that can leave us worn down and in desperate want of a vacation. But what if that sense that you just really need a break from the day-in-day-out of it all becomes something more?

This doctor is likely experiencing stress. Doctors—and other professionals—may need help learning how to avoid burnout at work.
Feeling stressed and unmotivated can happen in any profession. Here’s how to avoid burnout at work. iStock/humonia

If you’re extremely exhausted and feeling detached and ineffective at your job, you’re likely experiencing professional burnout. Learning how to avoid burnout at work—or how to correct it if you’re already experiencing it—can do wonders to help your happiness and your health.

Burnout can affect anyone in any occupation, although it’s rampant among physicians and other healthcare providers. When it hits, it can lead to negative health consequences, from gastrointestinal issues to cognitive deficits—and when it affects those in the health field, it seems like an ironic outcome considering their dedication to improving the well-being of others. It also has a more global impact on health, including declining numbers of doctors and poorer patient care in clinical settings.

Luckily, Functional Medicine offers a solution, in its approach to medicine for practitioners and its approach to healing for other professionals. Whatever your job may be, keep reading for help recognizing the signs of burnout, plus strategies for recharging your batteries and reclaiming the pleasures you can find in a good day’s work.

No matter what your job is, if it involves stress, you could be at risk for occupational burnout. Check out this article to find out how to avoid it—or how to rediscover your passion and productivity if you’re already experiencing burnout at work. #healthylifestyle #chriskresser

Beware of Burnout: A Danger You Face No Matter Your Job

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger first coined the term “burnout” in the 1970s to describe the stress and emotional depletion he saw people experiencing in helping professions, such as medicine. Today, it is widely recognized as a legitimate medical disorder, and one that can affect anyone at work, in any profession. (1, 2)

In fact, a recent Gallup survey found that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience occupational burnout. Of the nearly 7,500 employees across a variety of fields who took part, 23 percent reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44 percent reported feeling burned out occasionally. Participants cited reasons from an unmanageable workload and unreasonable deadlines to a lack of clear communication and support from their managers. Add to these the fact that today we can, and are sometimes expected to, work away from the office almost 24/7 via phones and laptops, and it’s not hard to see why the phenomenon stretches across sectors. (3)

The three key characteristics of burnout are: (4, 5)

  • Overwhelming exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism, along with frustration and anger, that lead to detachment from your job
  • A sense of ineffectiveness or failure

To be sure, burnout has negative consequences in our professional lives; those who are burned out are much more likely to take sick days, perhaps missing pay, for example. (6) But also not surprisingly, the effects of burnout extend far beyond the office door.

Mounting scientific evidence shows that burnout can leave a profoundly devastating mark on the body and brain—to the tune of between $125 and $190 billion in healthcare spending annually in this country. (7)

Research notes that it can lead to ruined personal relationships, anxiety and depression, and substance abuse. Burnout has been found to be a significant predictor of type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, gastrointestinal issues, respiratory problems, and even death in those under the age of 45. And recent studies suggest that it can literally be too much for our minds to handle, rewiring neural circuits that make it hard for us to cope with stressful scenarios and eventually leading to distinctive changes in brain anatomy and cognition. (8, 9, 10, 11)

Are You in the Healthcare Field? Why Burnout Hits You Hardest

Although it can affect anyone in any field, it does appear that if you work in a helping profession, as Dr. Freudenberger noted, you’re more likely than others to experience burnout. And it seems physicians, in particular, are hit especially hard by the syndrome.

Research suggests that more than 50 percent of doctors now experience burnout, with some literature proposing even higher numbers, between 70 and 80 percent of the physician population. (12, 13)

Why are practitioners so burned out, when most went into the profession with a zeal to help people? Many conventional physicians today deal with common problems like high patient volumes (upwards of 25 a day), long working hours (up to 70-hour weeks)—thanks in part to time-consuming electronic medical records upkeep and navigating the insurance maze—and the general stresses of the profit-driven, increasingly litigious, and often hostile environment of our medical system, which can leave them feeling like just another cog in the machine.

Does this describe your working situation? If so, you likely know how much of an impact these factors can have on your health and your home life, and that of your colleagues. Among physicians, burnout manifests in disproportionately high rates of substance abuse, depression, and suicide or thoughts of suicide. (14, 15, 16)

You likely also know the impact practitioner burnout can have on patients. Not only is burnout causing practitioners to leave the field in droves—the country is expected to face a shortage of up to 100,000 physicians in the next decade or so—but it’s causing those that do stay to make medical errors, including errors that have fatal consequences. (17, 18)

Is It Burnout or Something More? Understanding Moral Injury

If you’re a practitioner experiencing the symptoms of burnout described here but you don’t feel like the term really resonates with you, I get it. And you’re not alone. Many physicians feel the concept of burnout suggests a failure of resourcefulness and resilience on their part, yet I can attest that my colleagues are some of the most resilient people I know—and I’m sure you are, too. As medical practitioners, you’ve survived decades of intense education, complex on-the-job training and demanding full-time work.

It’s been suggested that “moral injury” is a more apt description for physicians feeling exhausted by and ineffective in their jobs. (19, 20) This term was first used to describe soldiers’ responses to actions during war that challenged their ethics. For practitioners, it conveys the feelings that arise from not being able to provide the high level of care doctors aspire to. If you’re like most physicians, you entered medicine believing it was your calling. Not being able to fulfill that calling and care for patients the way you envisioned in this modern, high-pressure medical environment is quite damaging.

Here’s How to Avoid Burnout at Work

So, you’ve read this far and you’re closely identifying with the characterizations of either burnout or moral injury. You’re totally exhausted and dragging yourself to work, feeling disillusioned, and you’re lacking the energy to be consistently productive—which means your performance is likely suffering. You might even have gastrointestinal upset or feel as if you’re constantly sick as a result of all the stress. Now what?

For practitioners and other professionals alike, those feelings don’t have to be inevitable. Here’s how to avoid burnout at work so you can find health and happiness in your professional and personal life again.

Be Mindful

Research has shown that mindfulness, including mindfulness meditation, can reduce burnout among nurses and physicians as well as other professionals. (21, 22, 23) How? Practicing mindfulness—even for a short time—increases positive emotions while reducing negative emotions and managing stress. It helps us tune out distractions and improve our ability to focus. And it enhances our relationships, makes us feel more connected and relaxed, and boosts our compassion for ourselves and others.

Mindfulness means being aware of your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment on a moment-to-moment basis. It means paying attention to what is, rather than getting lost in thoughts about the future or the past. You can find general mindfulness tips in this previous article, “How to Avoid a Near-Life Experience.” The UCLA Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has a free meditation podcast with guided weekly meditations. I also like the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, and some people have found apps like Headspace to be helpful.

Do a Digital Detox

Today’s technology keeps our attention bouncing around like a pinball. Yet the ability to control where you direct your attention is fundamental to optimal performance in whatever type of work you do. I’ve done five- and even 10-day digital detoxes in the past, during which I completely unplugged from all tech, and I can attest to how much they can boost your mood and help you regain focus and clarity. You don’t have to go that long. Even just one day or a few hours a week can be helpful. Set an email autoresponder and spend the time you’ll gain meditating, engaging in physical activity, and otherwise reconnecting with yourself and your family and friends.

Practice Good Work Hygiene

Don’t spend too much time sitting (try a standing desk or even treadmill desk) and take frequent breaks during which you step fully away from the computer (I use the Time Out app for reminders).

Prioritize Sleep and Exercise

When work consumes our lives, we can forget these basics. But don’t underestimate what adequate sleep (at least seven hours) and regular physical activity can do for your productivity, energy level, and outlook.

Work Less

Before you say, But Chris, that’s not possible, hear me out. There are ways to work more efficiently so that you can work less but still get the same amount done. Batching your emails, automating repetitive tasks, and delegating can all help.

If you need extra help learning how to work less and accomplish more, check out this free webinar replay. You’ll get an overview of my Busy to Balanced program, which can help you improve your efficiency and productivity while you reclaim a few extra hours in your work week. I also offer the full, eight-part Busy to Balanced course through the ADAPT Practitioner Training Program.

Practitioners: Make Time to Get Together with Your Colleagues

Healthcare can be very isolating. It’s common for practitioners to spend most of their time working directly with patients instead of interacting with colleagues on a personal level. That can lead to a sense of loneliness and, eventually, burnout. One way to help alleviate that is to find the time to get together and share a group experience with your coworkers.

Work retreats can serve that purpose. They provide the opportunity to deeply connect with your coworkers, talk about the issues you face professionally, and solve problems together in an informal, non-work setting.

I’ve taken part in meditation retreats for around 25 years, and I’m a big believer in their transformative power. Even if you can’t find time to schedule a work retreat, just getting together with your coworkers outside of the workplace can help you feel more connected and, ultimately, more fulfilled.

Consider Making the Switch to Functional Medicine

If you’re looking for another way to practice medicine, consider a Functional approach. Functional Medicine aims to uncover the root causes of poor health. It’s about treating those causes, rather than just covering up symptoms with prescriptions, to help patients truly heal—to make a lasting positive difference in their lives. For me, that was one of the most appealing things about Functional Medicine, and I think it’s one of the least discussed but most important gifts it can offer physicians who shift their practice in that direction. Seeing such results can help you feel successful in your work and personally fulfilled by your calling.

What’s more, Functional Medicine embraces a collaborative healthcare model. In a collaborative model, allied providers, nutritionists, and health coaches work alongside physicians to provide additional layers of support, to both doctors and patients. This streamlines the patient care process, improves the quality of patient care, and creates a better work environment for physicians. It gives doctors more autonomy and increases their professional satisfaction and quality of life, all while resulting in better outcomes for patients.

I embrace this model in my own practice, the California Center for Functional Medicine. It’s also a big part of what I teach aspiring Functional Medicine practitioners in my ADAPT Practitioner Training Program. I believe that this approach to healthcare holds the key to stemming the rising tide of chronic disease—while preventing burnout at work for practitioners.

If you’re not experiencing burnout or moral injury at work, that’s great news—and I hope it stays that way. But if, like so many professionals, you feel the onset of exhaustion and detachment, I urge you to pay attention to the warning signs discussed here and use the strategies shared above to break the cycle and find joy in your work once more.

Now, I’d like you to share your story. Have you experienced feelings of work-related burnout or moral injury? How have you coped? Leave a comment below and let me know!

  1. Mindfulness meditation is good for a lot of people a lot of the time, but it can be very bad for some people some of the time, and the bad effects aren’t extremely rare.

    Book about this from an experienced meditator.

    https://www.amazon.com/s/?ie=UTF8&keywords=trauma-sensitive+mindfulness&tag=googhydr-20&index=aps&hvadid=243351458091&hvpos=1t1&hvnetw=g&hvrand=15286160559820574890&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=e&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9007326&hvtargid=kwd-415973940385&ref=pd_sl_otstzoou_e

  2. I practiced law for 20 years, the last 10 at a large regional law firm and now homeschool my daughter. It is really difficult for women with children. It was not possible to work full time, do an excellent job, and do all the things I wanted to do as a mother, especially as my daughter got older and needed more attention. Women would think about medicating their children who were actually normal but needed more attention than they had time to give. Children are raised by strangers. Men would work in the middle of the night so they could attend a family activity, and I find the men really have fewer people to talk too about their stress. I know people in multiple fields, law, computer, manufacturing, banking who have reached the breaking point, especially working for larger organizations. I think the solutions in the article are well taken but will not really solve the majority of the problems out there until the work/life balance is reimagined, people really examine the priorities in their life and cut things out and realize people matter over things. Family is more important than the next rung up the career ladder. I urge people who feel themselves heading down this path to face the problem head on and make decisions, instead of avoiding the problem and have decisions made for them. I think this is a topic that needs a lot more discussion — the discussion out there in my field was always superficial, just lip-service.