The Role of the Corporate Communicator in Preventing Burnout

Burnout may be the corporate epidemic of our age.  Reports are coming in from everywhere about the rise of burnout and its implication in the poor employee engagement numbers.  Corporate communicators play a critical role in reducing the spread of burnout in the organization – and preventing it where it hasn’t started.  Playing your role starts with understanding what burnout is before discovering what you can do to stop it.

What is Burnout?

Burnout has classically been defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.  Reports vary about whether burnout is caused by the organization, the result a personal deficit of the individual, or simply a natural outcome of our world that impacts some people more than others.  No matter where the blame falls, the question is what drives it and what can we do about it.

The key aspect of burnout is the lack of efficacy, particularly when viewed from the perception lens that communicators are all keenly aware of.  The employee’s view of their efficacy is in question, not the objective reality of how they or the organization are doing.  Sometimes stretch goals and continuous striving for the next level of corporate growth leave employees feeling that they’re not successful.

Stretch Goals

Stretch goals are critical to many organizations’ approaches to driving performance.  The thinking is that, by creating goals that require a bit extra, employees will produce that little extra.  When they do and the goals are met, all is well.  But the challenge comes when employees deliver solid results but not the stretch goals that were hoped for.  Should the employees view this as a success or a failure?

Too often, the message doesn’t make it through that solid performance can still occur even when stretch goals aren’t met.  Instead of celebrating the successful completion of solid performance, the focus is on the missed stretch goal.  This leads to employees who don’t believe in their own efficacy, the efficacy of their team, or the organization.  That sets them up for burnout, particularly from the perspective of the continuing march of the next set of goals.

The Next Goal

As communicators, we’re expected to help the organization realize what the next goal is.  However, if we neglect to celebrate our success on the last goal or don’t integrate that success into the messaging for the next goal, we encourage employees to believe what they’re doing doesn’t matter.

Feeling like nothing you do matters is a driver to burnout and something that we want to avoid.  The more we can draw a connecting line between the success and the behaviors that the team did to create the success, the less likely they are to believe that their contribution didn’t matter.

The Communicator’s Role

As a corporate communicator you can slow the fire of burnout through your organization with these three simple tips:

  1. Celebrate Successes – Too little time is spent celebrating successes inside of organizations, because we forget that, due to our human nature, we don’t hear successes with the same intensity as we hear failures and misses.
  2. Connect Activity to Results – Too few people are recognized for their contribution to success.  Connecting the key activities that led to success allows employees to connect their contribution to the results, allowing them to see that their contribution matters.
  3. Connect the Next Goal to the Last Success – The constant march of new goals can make everyone feel like progress isn’t being made.  To combat this feeling, focus on how the current goal was made possible by the previous success.

In the end, the corporate communicator isn’t the only actor in the play of burnout in the organization.  However, it is a powerful role in preventing the play from being a tragedy.  A few well-timed communications can help bring a light-hearted comedy and dispel even hints of burnout.

Burnout Is Not Just About Work

Most of the writing about burnout has been in the context of work, even dating back to Freudenberger’s original writings about the topic.  However, when viewed from the lens of a gap between your perceived efficacy and your expectations, it’s easy to see how this psychological condition can occur in your personal life as easily as it can be applied to work. 

Exhausted, ineffective, and cynical could describe any home with children.  Parents are often overworked trying to do everything they feel their children need from them, from working to provide for them to transporting them to and from various events.  Every parent has had that moment when their child has done something, and they wonder if they’re really doing a good job as a parent or not.  Children have a way of being their own people, much to the chagrin of their parents.  All you need to do is mention in-laws to get a cynical reaction from most people. 

Clearly, the conditions can exist for burnout not just in the corporate world but in the family world as well.  However, burnout’s reach is even further than this.  The same set of conditions apply for community projects, where you can feel like you’re shouldering the bulk of the burden while fellow committee members practice their “social loafing” skills at the mastery level.  Whatever the goal of the community project, it’s unlikely you’ll completely solve the problem, so you can always point to those that you weren’t able to help as a demonstration of your failure. 

Burnout is not, then, the exclusive result of work.  In fact, we know that burnout in one area of our lives bleeds into other areas.  The manager who is burned out in his job comes home and doesn’t have enough energy left to engage with his wife and children.  The father going through a divorce will see his productivity dip at work, because he can’t help but wonder how he’ll be able to be the father he wants to be after the divorce is final.  The community leader or politician comes home questioning their choices in life to the point where they barely look up from their food at the dinner table, while their family looks on with the resignation that they can’t help.  When we allow burnout to take hold of our life in one area, we necessarily bring the impacts of burnout into all the other areas of our life. 

The good news is the same techniques that help solve burnout in one area of your life can solve it in others.  Learning how to both perform self-care and clarify your identity so you can accept support from others does a great deal to fill up your personal agency.  Learning who you are also makes it easier to set boundaries and pre-decide what you can and can’t help with.  So, while some may believe that burnout is caused through work, that isn’t always the case; but in every case of burnout, those around you who care, including your employer, should be focused on how they can help you get out of burnout – and stay out. 

Thrive, Don’t Just Survive!

There’s more than one way to avoid burnout.  For this blog, we define burnout as the perception that you cannot change your environment and thus have no personal agency (your ability to get things done).  One approach to burnout prevention is ensuring that your personal agency never drops to a low level.  Additionally, you can continually develop, enhance, and increase your personal agency so that running out of it is not a primary concern.  Both can accomplish the goal of avoiding burnout, but the second leads towards thriving, not just surviving.

Black holes are something of a mystery in astrophysics.  However, some properties, like their intense gravity, are well-accepted.  If you consider the idea of being close to burnout similar to being close to a black hole, it’s easy to perceive burnout as trying to suck you in.  The closer you get to burnout, the harder it is to get away from it.  Even outside the grips of burnout, the pull can be powerful.  The converse is also true: the further you are from it, the easier it is to stay away.

As nurses, the desire to be helpful and caring for others can keep us skimming along the bottom of our personal agency reserve, hovering dangerously close to burnout.  The more capacity we retain to help others in their times of need, the more powerful we become at avoiding our own burnout and helping others avoid it through substantial inflows of support.  While our desire to be compassionate would tend to drive us to giving as much as possible, thereby keeping our personal agency low, the better response may be to make judicious allocation of our resources to help grow our personal agency, not deplete it.

When you’re operating with a reserve capacity, momentary heavy demands can easily be accommodated.  When you have high reserves of personal agency and you recognize that demands are too high for positive results, then with support and self-care, you can make gradual changes to bring the system in balance.  Instead of reaching burnout and cutting off all external commitments, you can whittle down external commitments slowly until everything “just works.”  When you’re almost at the bottom of your personal agency, you don’t have the luxury of slow, subtle changes.  You must make changes quickly and completely to escape the pain of burnout.

The compassionate response when someone is in need around you seems like it should always be to help.  For example, in our office, there’s a stoplight hanging by our desks.  It’s a real, full-size, functional stoplight.  It’s designed as a visual reminder that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should do something.  “Can do” items are yellow lights.  “Should do” items are green lights – and “shouldn’t do” items are red lights.  Just because you can be compassionate and help someone doesn’t mean you should.  Perhaps they need to struggle for a while longer.  Perhaps there is someone else who needs to become motivated to help them.  Perhaps supporting them puts you and your situation too much at risk.

There’s one other important consideration for when you can help but maybe shouldn’t.  Sometimes there exists a trade imbalance.  You can do something, but the hardship of doing so is greater than the value the other person will place on the action.  In these cases, the right answer may not be extending yourself.  In these cases, the right answer might be to save more resources for yourself and to fill your personal agency to the point where you can experience thriving.

The Organization’s Role in Burnout

It’s true that organizations can contribute to our burnout.  Unrealistic expectations, unreasonable deadlines, and lack of support create conditions that encourage burnout.  But, at the end of the day, it’s up to us individually to make the life choices that either lead to our safety from burnout or allow us to travel down that road.  This may be an unpopular thought, since it means that we must accept responsibility for our burnout, but it is a perspective that makes sense if you look at burnout holistically.

Burnout Basics

Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of personal efficacy.  We believe the lack of personal efficacy is causal for burnout.  Exhaustion and cynicism are simply the results of believing that you’re not effective.  Exhaustion because you never believe that you can do enough, and cynicism because of the resulting frustration.

The important aspect to note in the burnout definition is that it contains no reference to work, job, or occupation.  The connection doesn’t exist in the original literature on the condition.  The title of Herbert Freudenberger’s landmark book, Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement, seems to imply work – but there’s no support for this in the text.  The reality is that you can burn out from anything that you care about.

Multiple Paths

The real clarity that burnout isn’t your organization’s fault comes when you recognize that burnout can come from other areas of your life.  Burnout can come from your family life, when your children aren’t growing up into the people that you taught them to be.  You can feel powerless, hopeless, exhausted, cynical, and ineffective when they’re not making the choices you expect them to make.

You can be burned out on your friendships.  You may feel like they’re always a one-way street, as you’re there for your friends in their time of need, but no one seems to be there to support you when you need it.  It’s easy to wonder how much energy to expend on friendships if you don’t feel like your friends have your back.

In these situations, the organization that you work for is nowhere to be found.  It’s not imposing a standard of children going to college.  It’s not persuading your friends not to help you.  It may accept the performance impacts of these issues, but it’s not causal to the burnout happening.

Fire Retardant

What organizations can do – and should do – is help employees learn how to be fire-retardant in their lives.  That is, organizations should make it easier to avoid and recover from burnout.  Like fire-retardant materials, these skills and structures don’t prevent the fire but instead prevent its spread.

Situations will occur that lead to burnout.  A client will need something on an unreasonable deadline.  In the struggle to survive, organizations will have high expectations for employees.  However, the status quo should be supportive, accepting, and encouraging.  Fire-retardant materials are rated for how long they can survive the fire.  People, too, can develop the skills necessary to withstand burnout-causing conditions for longer – and more intense – situations.

The Organization’s Role

Organizations can absolutely contribute to increasing burnout – and, unfortunately, many do.  They can also be responsible for creating relative safety from burnout in people’s lives.  They can do this by reducing the factors that lead to burnout in the organization.  Improving recognition so employees know they’re effective and ensuring adequate support are two direct ways of reducing the chances of burnout due to work.

By improving knowledge of what burnout is and how employees can combat it themselves in their own lives, organizations can help every employee discourage burnout in their lives – not just their professional life.

How Do I Feel Burnout?

Burnout itself isn’t a feeling per se.  It’s a syndrome or condition with a set of criteria and expected outcomes.  So, while you can feel burned out, burnout isn’t a singular emotion or way of feeling.  Most commonly, when people say they’re burned out, they mean they’re exhausted – either physically or emotionally.  Occasionally, when someone says they’re burned out, they mean their motivation is waning or gone.

Feelings and emotions are often used as synonyms.  Feelings are more technically the sensory perceptions that you gather from your five senses as well as the sense that you have of your body itself.  Emotions are a higher-level cognitive function.  Like an iceberg that is mostly underwater with only a small amount on the surface, emotions are mostly subconscious.  Because they’re subconscious – and not connected to sensory experiences – they’re often difficult to nail down.

So, feeling burned out isn’t so much a single emotion but rather a cocktail of emotions all mixed together vying for attention.  The cocktail often includes feelings of sadness, hopelessness, emptiness, and irritability.  Many of these seem to spring from a loss of hope.

Hope, as it turns out, is a miracle drug.  In clinical trials, researchers must carefully control for hope, since it often has a much higher efficacy than the thing they’re testing.  As much as 50% of people taking a placebo (a do-nothing drug) report improvements.  Their improvements can only be attributed to the hope that they would get better using the new treatment.  Thus, hope is a powerful medicine no matter what ails you.

So, while there are specific emotions that you can attribute to being burned out, it may be the lack of a single feeling (or perspective) that is the root cause.  Without hope that things will get better, every setback seems fatal.  Without hope, it seems like there’s no point to the effort that you’re putting in.

Hope is a belief that things can get better, whether this is through your own willpower and waypower (knowing how to make things better) or due to an outside force.  Hope can exist that someone will save us, rescue us, or lighten our load.  It can also exist in the belief that we have or can develop the strength to persevere.  When we can no longer believe, we’ll slide towards burnout and, eventually, depression.

Exhaustion – more specifically emotional exhaustion – is the trait most commonly associated with burnout and depression.  This exhaustion makes sorting out our feelings even more challenging than normal and is one of the reasons why we can get sucked into burnout and depression.

If you want to not feel burned out, then look at ways to kindle the flame of hope.  Look for those around you who support and care for you who may be able to help you out of your situation.  Seek out cases of others who have overcome the same kind of challenges you’re facing.  Slowly, as the fire of hope turns into a roaring flame, you’ll feel stronger as sadness recedes, emptiness becomes filled, and irritability seems like a distant memory.

Discovering Burnout in Remote Team Members

Video conferencing just isn’t the same as being there.  It’s easier to put on a happy face and pretend to be OK when things are just off.  Leaders and managers must be extra vigilant with remote team members to discover burnout and head off the effects.  It’s too easy to lose remote people to other opportunities when they feel like they’re not effective.

What is Burnout?

While burnout has classically been defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy, the efficacy is the most important.  Even more critically is how someone perceives their efficacy.  If you perceive you’re being effective – even when you’re not – you’re less likely to become burned out.  Helping team members set realistic expectations and appropriately view their results as a contributor to the team is critical.

Setting Expectations

Leaders have been taught to set lofty goals.  We’ve been taught to inspire those following us to change the organization, the industry, or perhaps even the world.  Management “best practices” say that you’ve got to set stretch goals and ensure that everyone is giving their all.  The problem with these lofty visions and stretch goals is that they sometimes pull our expectations of ourselves from rational moorings and set us drifting in a fantasy land where everything gets done and everyone is happy.  When reality hits and it’s clear the lofty goals haven’t been met, it’s easy to give up hope and believe they’ll never be met.  If you think this might be happening on your team, here are some discoveries that you might make:

  • Discovery 1: Disappointment in Delivery – The first way you’ll see team members at risk for burnout is when they’re disappointed they didn’t meet unrealistic deadlines.  They’re down on themselves for not meeting a goal or deadline that no one truly believed could be made – except for them.
  • Discovery 2: Lack of Grace – If you’re a high-performing team, you’re going to fail.  It’s not a matter of if, it’s when.  The only way to not fail is to not even start to try.  If you’re willing to change the world, you’re going to miss more than you’re going to hit.  Team members at risk for burnout have little grace for failure in themselves – and sometimes little grace for those around them that aren’t perfect.
  • Discovery 3: Disappointment with Success – Those at risk for burnout can be disappointed with a success.  Because that success didn’t reach an unrealistic expectation, they discount the success and minimize its value.

If you find that team members might be facing burnout, what do you do?  Maybe it’s time to do a bit of fireproofing.


Fireproofing your team doesn’t mean that the fire will never come – it means that the team will be able to survive the fire when it comes.  The same is true for burnout: you can fireproof your team to help ensure they don’t get into burnout – or they get out if they’re already there.  Here are three specific tips you can use when you think you’re discovering burnout in your team:

  • Fireproofing 1: Calibrate Expectations – After you’ve reached a defining moment, it’s just as critical to reset expectations to something more reasonable.  Keep the aspirational ideas in the future and acknowledge that, though, the ideal didn’t happen, something successful did.
  • Fireproofing 2: Recognize Results – Sometimes, we move on to the next challenge so quickly that we fail to pause and recognize the successes that we’ve just accomplished.  Find ways to acknowledge the results without releasing the need to continue onward.
  • Fireproofing 3: Make It Safe – Too often, leaders forget the fear team members feel when they don’t get immediate results.  Reassurance that leaders see their progress can prevent burnout.

If you see the signs of burnout, acting fast to stop them in their tracks can be the difference between a small fire and a complete burnout of the team.

The Meaning of Burnout

Burnout has – at times – been associated with shame.  The voice inside your head says, “Other people can handle what I can’t handle.  Why can’t I do it?”  The meaning of burnout is – in this context – taken to mean that there is something wrong with the individual.  However, what if the problem isn’t with you yourself and your core identity but instead how you see the world?  What if your burnout was caused by the way that you ascribed meaning to the events that surrounded you?

In general terms, you can stop working for an organization because you quit, the organization goes out of business, or you’re laid off or fired.  The objective end is the same: no more employment.  However, the subjective experience – that is, what you feel – couldn’t be more different.

I remember quitting a job and being quite joyful about the new opportunities while a friend was assigned to watch me pack my desk up.  She was almost disturbed by the happiness I brought to the situation.  Sure, I was sad that I’d be missing my friends, but the new opportunity was a good one.  Her typical experience with people being fired was sadness and crying.

Burnout is caused by how you view the world.  Objective reality isn’t the point when your feelings are involved.  Are your results what you expected?  Do you believe that others can do it better?  Do you think you have what it takes to persevere until you’re able to accomplish your goals?

Our propensity towards burnout has less to do with what is happening in our world – in the objective sense – and more to do with what we make of it.  It’s more important to feel like we’re making progress than to make progress.  It’s more important to feel good about what we’re doing than to be doing well at it.

The meaning of burnout may be less about how you’re not enough and more about how you’re not being fair enough with yourself about what you can and can’t accomplish.  Sure, it’s possible to run a mile in less than 4 minutes.  However, are you willing and able to put in the time and energy to perform at this world-class level?  For most of us, the answer is no.  Despite the fact that we won’t make the investment needed to reach the goal, we may become disappointed when we’re not there.  It sounds silly when you look at it like that, but all of us do this to ourselves all the time.

We expect to make the best home-cooked meals but find ourselves rushing to get them done between work meetings and our children’s activities.  We say that we should have stronger friendships but look at our calendar and feel like we’ve got to play Tetris to fit things in.  In many – but not all – cases, the problem isn’t with our abilities or capacity to reach the goals that we have.  It’s in our expectation that we should have it all – without the work.

Sometimes, we put in the work and see few, if any, results.  A corollary to the challenge of not putting in the work is the unreal expectation problem.  Somehow, we believe that others don’t have to work hard to see the results they’re getting.  When you learn more about any person who has demonstrated excellence, you’re bound to find years of hard, unrewarding effort to develop the capacity to do something that now looks easy.

If you’re trying to figure out what burnout means for you, perhaps it means you should give yourself a break.  Accept that you’re doing a good job, and things will get better as you continue to work towards bettering yourself and your world.

Welcome to Extinguish Burnout!

Welcome to Extinguish Burnout! While we do not recommend that you take up residency in the world of burnout, we do hope you spend some time with us learning more about burnout.

We started this journey to extinguish burnout because we have experienced burnout enough to know that we needed to find a way to prepare ourselves to avoid burnout in the future. As we talk to people, we have found that almost everyone has experienced burnout at some point in their life. In many professions, burnout is spreading like a wildfire, out of control, consuming people in its path. It is important to realize that burnout is not limited to our work environments only. Burnout can occur in any area of your life, including home, family, friends, social circles and even the areas you enjoy the most.

The more we studied and dove into the research, the more we realized that, too frequently, people experiencing burnout feel like they have somehow failed at being the person they are called to be. Too often, burnout is viewed as a personal failure or evidence that we really are not good enough. This could not be further from the truth. Burnout has little to do with actual failure or even having too much to do.  It is not just that we overcommit or are overcommitted, burnout sparks in the gap between our expectations and our perceived results.

While you are here with us in Extinguish Burnout, you will find multiple tools available. All of these have been designed to be easy to use and divided into portions that can be consumed in less than 20 minutes. Whether you read the book, enroll in the course, or join us in weekly blog posts, our goal is to help you or your friends and family not only recover from burnout but also prevent your return to the hollow world of burnout.