The Role of Stress in Burnout

More than one author has drawn a straight line between stress and burnout, but the journey from stress to burnout isn’t a straight line.  It’s a winding road that includes stressors, appraisal, and the fundamentals of burnout.

Understanding Stress

Before we can explain the effects of stress on burnout, we need to more fully comprehend what stress actually is.  Most people know that the long-term impacts of stress are bad, and we should avoid long-term stress.  But few people understand how stress is formed or how our brain makes decisions about stress.

The first component to understand is that there are stressors in our environment, and we sometimes self-generate stressors.  These are things that, in a direct or very indirect way, impact our ability to survive.  Whether it’s the lion observed in the grass, concerns about how to pay the mortgage, or fretting about which school our child will get into, these stressors are very broadly aligned with our ability to survive and keep our genes alive.

A stressor does not necessarily result in stress.  Other than the initial startle response when we hear a loud noise or see something that appears threatening, there’s a longer process that happens when we appraise the stressor and decide whether the stressor matters.  We may be startled to see the lion but recognize it’s not a threat, because it’s in a cage, or we’re in a car.  This appraisal process is key to preventing – or causing – a stressor to become stress.  If we appraise the situation as high risk, and we don’t think we have the resources or protections we need, then the stressor becomes a stress.

Physiologically, stress is like a payday loan.  It’s very costly and high interest, but sometimes it’s what you must do to survive.  Stress more or less shuts down all long-term investments in digestion, immune response, and so forth.  This allows for focused energy to confront the stressor but costs more in terms of illness, digestive problems, and sheer energy to get things going again.

Understanding the Relationship to Burnout

Burnout is exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of inefficacy.  Burnout comes when we feel like we’re not getting the kinds of results we expect, and we therefore feel ineffective.  Burnout comes from many aspects of our lives, including work, family, and social situations.

So, while stress doesn’t directly cause burnout, the constant need to sideline important long-term investments and the additional cost of restarting them causes friction against our ability to accomplish our goals.  This is the driver that increases the probability of burnout.

Our expectations of our efficacy stay the same, but our actual long-term performance decreases.  That gap causes burnout, as we believe we’re less effective than we should be.

Resolving Burnout

If you’re facing burnout that is caused, at least in part, by stress, then there are a few ways you can make it better.  The first is to evaluate the stressors in your world and determine what you would need to do to appraise them as not a threat and therefore not triggering stress in the first place.

Second, you can adjust your expectations to be more aligned with the reality of the stressors that you’re facing.  It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to perform at your best if you’re constantly fighting off stressors.

Escaping Burnout When You Don’t Have Control

When you’re in burnout, you feel stuck.  Burnout is defined by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  In our bathtub model of burnout, we say that your personal agency “bathtub” is filled by results, support, and self-care.  It’s drained by the demands you place on yourself and the demands of others.  While it’s sometimes hard to ask for support, most folks feel positively powerless to address the demands placed upon them.  The demands feel external and outside of our control.

External Demands

While we believe that our demands are external, when we examine them closer, we find that, for most of us, the demands we have are largely internal, with only a small component of external influence.  Take, for instance, the “need” to do a thorough cleaning of the house before friends come over.  If your friends are coming over to see how well that you clean your house, perhaps you need new friends.  However, most of us learned this habit from our parents (more likely, our mom), who cleaned the house like mad before their friends came over.  We caught the expectation that you must have a pristine house for friends – but is that an external demand or an internal one?

What about the need to answer the phone when it rings?  If you were brought up in a certain generation, you believe that you must answer a ringing phone.  However, if you were brought up in a different generation, you’ll might ignore the ringing phone and text them back at some time later.  Despite the urge, it’s not necessary to answer a ringing phone.

These demands seem like they’re external and acted upon us, but we have control of how we choose to respond to the external stimulus.

Choosing Responses

Invariably, there is someone that explains how they don’t have control of the situation.  Their child needs picked up from school and taken to soccer practice.  Ignoring for the moment that your child doesn’t have to go to soccer practice, who is to say you must be the one who picks them up or drops them off?

Sure, you have obligations and expectations to not neglect your child.  However, that isn’t to say you can’t organize a handful of soccer moms and run a carpool.  The truth is the child will probably like it better – and so will the other parents.  When people explain that they don’t have control, they’re really saying they don’t have control of the external events.  That’s true to some extent, but that doesn’t mean you must accept the standard answers.

Whatever the situation, you’ve got an expectation of how you should – or must – respond.  However, there are often other alternatives that meet the true requirements – but that don’t require the same amount of effort from you.


The truth is that control is an illusion.  No one ever really has control of someone or something else.  There may be strong influence, but there’s no such thing as controlling something or someone else.  While this is initially difficult to accept, it makes it easier to understand that you don’t need control of the situation to be able to influence it in ways that are consistent with your desires – and your need to do self-care for yourself.

The key to burnout is breaking free of the perception of inefficacy.  The more you realize you have influence on your world, the less burnout will be able to maintain its grip on you.  If you can realize that you’re making an impact on your world – and on the world of those you care about – the quicker you’ll get out of burnout.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Growth

Nurses and other emergency responders see some of the worst that humanity has to offer.  Whether the trauma is caused by a natural event or human cruelty, the impact cannot be overstated.  When you experience a trauma first- or second-hand through working with those who are injured, and you see awful things, your mind and body experience it as stress, which can either trap someone in a cycle of stress or create an opportunity for growth.

What is Stress?

Stress at the right time and in the right amount is a very helpful thing.  It helped our ancestors focus their available resources into the immediate moment to escape lions on the plains of Africa.  It’s our body’s way of shutting down long-term investments to address immediate and pressing needs.  Stress is what happens when our brain perceives a threat to our survival.

The problem is that our brains overuse the stress response.  Instead of being limited to predators, we use it when we worry about our job, our mortgage, our kids, or a thousand other things that aren’t an immediate threat, but we perceive as threatening.  Our minds make no distinction between what is imagined or envisioned and what is real when it comes to the activation of the stress.  We’ll get our heart racing during an action movie or a good book even though we’re personally in no danger.

Seeing the Worst

Seeing the worst humanity has to offer is stressful to us.  It’s stressful, because it punches through the defenses of our ego and makes us realize how vulnerable we are.  If this can happen to someone else, it can happen to us – or someone we love.  Losing someone we love is a stressful event because we must reorient ourselves to whether we can survive without that person.  Either way, seeing someone else be harmed can be perceived as a threat to our survival.

What is sometimes called secondary PTSD or secondary traumatic stress (STS) is an expression of our stress at perceiving someone else’s continued suffering.  It creates a stress on us through our ability to imagine ourselves in their circumstances.

Most people are only familiar with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and the challenges it creates.  However, there’s another possible outcome from stress, which we’ve all experienced to some degree, called post-traumatic growth.

Post-Traumatic Growth

We’ve all experienced forms of post-traumatic growth.  When we exercise, our muscles respond to the trauma by rebuilding themselves stronger.  Martin Seligman in Flourish explains that 90% of West Point cadets he surveyed were aware of PTSD, which he describes as relatively uncommon, while only 10% were aware of post-traumatic growth, which is more common (Seligman, 2011).

Most growth processes require some sort of trauma to kick them off.  The trick is that there must be a capacity to grow from the trauma, which requires that the trauma be the right kind, in the right amount, and at the right time.  Too little, and we take no action; too much, and we can’t recover; too frequent, and we don’t have time to rebuild before the next trauma.  Nassim Taleb wrote Antifragile to explain post-traumatic growth.  It’s all about how to grow from trauma instead of break (Taleb, 2014).

Post-Traumatic Stress

When people are subjected to the wrong kind of trauma, at the wrong amount, or at the wrong time, it creates a lasting sometimes even permanent impression.  It shapes the way people respond to the normal, everyday “slings and arrows” that we all face.  Those with PTSD respond more intensely to threats – in effect, they’re constantly being bombarded by their brain telling them they’re vulnerable.  It seems that patients with PTSD have a hippocampus that is overly sensitive (Sapolsky, 2004). The solution to clinical PTSD is to work on downregulating that sensitivity.

Learned Control

In the 1960s Martin Seligman and his colleagues including Steven Maier published on a concept they described as learned helplessness (Seligman, Maier, & Geer, 1968).  The dogs were conditioned with mild shocks and no way to escape.  When they were later put in a position they could escape, they wouldn’t even try.  Decades later, Steven Maier and his colleagues utilized fMRI to discover that it wasn’t learned helplessness at all (Maier & Seligman, 2016).  Helplessness is the default condition.  Instead, we learned a degree of control, and this downregulated the sense of panic when confronted with a stressor.

Albert Bandura was famous for his desensitization training which he used to effectively cure patients with phobias.  The patients were placed in safe conditions and were moved psychologically closer and closer to their fears – while maintaining the perception of safety and discovering their self-efficacy (Bandura, 1977).

Stress and the Stressor

Most of us view stress as the outcome of the environment.  We experience stressors in the environment, and we assess those stressors in terms of their capacity to harm us and our capacity to overcome or compensate for them.  It’s only when we perceive that the stressor will exceed or stretch our capacity to cope that they’ll convert into stress (Lazarus, 1994).

As we seek to better manage our stress, we need to apprehend our assessment of the stressors and evaluate their capacity to truly harm us and our resources for compensating.  The more we can focus our assessment on our own capacity and the support we receive from others, the less stress we’ll feel and the more likely it will be that we’ll experience growth rather than developing a disorder.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. New York: Prentice-Hall.

Lazarus, R. (1994). Emotion and Adaptation. New York : Oxford University Press.

Maier, S., & Seligman, M. (2016). Learned Helpless at Fifty: Insights from Neuroscience. Psychological Review, 123(4), 349-367.

Sapolsky, R. (2004). Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York: Free Press A Division of Simon & Schuster.

Seligman, S. F., Maier, S. F., & Geer, J. (1968). The Alleviation of Learned Helplessness in Dogs. Journal of Abnormal Psychology(73), 256-262.

Taleb, N. N. (2014). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: The Random House Publishing Group.

Getting Help Instead of Burned Out

No one wants to end up in burnout, but it seems like everyone does at some point in their lives.  While there are some factors, we have limited control of, the one that seems like we have the least influence on is actually one we can influence the most.

Burnout is defined by, of course, exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  Our bathtub model for burnout explains that our lack of personal agency, our belief that we can impact change, defines burnout.  We fill our bathtub with results, support, and self-care, and it’s drained by the demands we place on ourselves and others place on us.

At a glance, it would seem like self-care would be easiest to control, but many of us find that our beliefs about self-care are deeply rooted and therefore difficult to change.  Strangely, avoiding burnout can be as simple as asking for help.

You’re Not Weak

The first objection to asking for help is the perception that, if you ask for help, you’re weak.  We’ve got the notion that the American West was won by lone cowboys, who crossed the plains with only their rifle, six-shooter, and trusty steed.  However, nothing could be further from the truth.  We conquered the American West with wagon trains and families that bonded together to help each other out and protect themselves from the rugged terrain.

We became the dominant organism on the planet not because of our individual skills but rather because we had the ability to band together and help each other.  Humans literally need each other to survive.  We’ve always needed each other to survive.  Asking for help is acknowledging who we are as a species.

Being Told No

The second most prevalent concern is, “What if they tell me no?”  It’s a real concern, but, at the same time, you’ll never know if you don’t ask.  With no action, you’ll get no help.  By asking someone, they can say “yes.”  If they do say “yes,” you may wonder if you have to say “yes” whenever they ask – but it doesn’t work that way.  If you can help them, great.  If you can’t help, you can say “no” – just like they can.

Don’t Even Ask

Sometimes folks don’t even want to ask for help.  “They should just know I need help” doesn’t work.  We’re all distracted, overwhelmed, and consumed by other things.  It’s not fair to expect that someone else will be constantly monitoring you to see if you need something.  Many misunderstandings have started with “You should have known,” only to be crushed by the weight of “But how could I have?”

More Help

The reality of most people’s worlds is that they have more than enough people who are willing to help them if they’re willing to ask directly and specifically for what they need.  Where we get into trouble is making vague requests the other person can’t interpret or asking a large group of people, in which everyone feels like someone else will respond.  If you want to get out of burnout, it’s time to get past the concern about being weak and make specific requests to get what you need to succeed.

Overcoming Burnout on Take the Lead Radio

We, Rob and Terri, recorded a podcast with Dr. Diane Hamilton on Take the Lead Radio. In it, we share how people get burned out and offer advice and tips to avoid it. We also talk about our book, Extinguish Burnout, and talk about how to identify what might be silently burning you out and what to do about them.

You can listen to the full podcast here:

Burnout Comes From Everything, But Not Anything!

If you ask a young child what they want to be when they grow up you might get answers like firefighter, policeperson, astronaut, professional athlete, musician, actor, teacher, scientist, doctor or veterinarian.  Any of those careers – and the countless others not mentioned – are great things for a child to aspire to.  However, the problem is when the child puts the conjunction “and” between these things instead of saying “or.”  Most of us have been brought up to believe that we can be anything that we want to be.  However, just because we can be anything doesn’t mean that we can be everything.

Famous Focus

You wouldn’t expect Einstein to be a professional dancer.  He’s perhaps the most influential scientist of the modern age, but that doesn’t mean that he’s great, or even good, at everything.  When even very famous professionals attempt to transition from one sport to another, the results aren’t always stellar.  Michael Jordan is famous for his basketball playing and his Nike-branded Air Jordan shoes, but his results with the Chicago White Sox weren’t great.  By any measure, he’s a great athlete, but even he couldn’t reach for the gold ring in another sport.

We idolize some famous people, but we generally idolize them for one thing – not for everything.  We instinctively expect that people will only be truly great at one thing, but we secretly expect that we’ll be great at everything.

Prioritize One

You can want to be the world’s best parent, spouse, friend, and child.  You can strive to be the best professional the world has ever seen in your chosen profession.  However, somewhere, there will be a conflict, where one aspect of your desire will compete with another.  Your parents will want you to come help them remodel a room the same day your son has a championship little league baseball game.  Your wife will want to take a vacation when you’re set to deliver on a huge project at work.

It is unfortunate, but when you try to be everything, you’ll find that you don’t have time.  You’ll have to prioritize one thing that you hold most dear.  If you want, for instance, to be a pilot, you’ll have to accept that you’ll spend some time away from home, and that may put a strain on your marriage and your desire to be present for your children.  If you prioritize your wife and children, you will have to adapt your career to fit.

Time is a Fixed Quantity

Like it or not, we all have 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, and 52 weeks in a year.  We can’t change that.  We can change how we spend that time, but not its quantity.  The result is that we can do anything we set our mind to, but there’s simply not enough time to do everything that we might like to do or even believe we should be able to do.

We see people who seem to have it all together.  They’ve got a successful career, a loving family, and an Instagram following in the hundreds of thousands.  What we don’t realize is that these are sequential rather than parallel things.  When they’re focused on their family, all is well with the family, but the career seems stalled.  When they’re focused on their career, their family feels the strain.  Like spinning plates, it can appear that they have it all together by swapping from one thing to the next – right up to the point when it all fails.

Deciding What to Drop

The problem is we still want to do everything, and we don’t know what to drop.  It’s not easy or comfortable.  It can feel like you’re giving up or being defeated.  However, you can also look at the process of letting go like you’re losing dead weight that is just slowing you down and isn’t helping you reach your goals.  It’s not easy to tell a child, a parent, or an employer “no” or “not now,” but sometimes it’s necessary to keep the demands of life from completely draining your personal agency.

Hope to Prevent Burnout

People who are experiencing burnout often wonder how they will get out of it.  There is a simple answer, but it requires a complex explanation.  The simple answer is “hope.”  The problem is that this simple answer doesn’t make sense when viewed from a position of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  How can such a little word make such an important difference, and how does one find hope in the grips of burnout?

Burnout and the Gap

We explain how burnout works with two models – the first model is the personal agency, or bathtub, model.  In the model your personal agency, or ability to get things done, is a bathtub.  It’s a reservoir of capability to effect change.  It says that when your personal agency is empty, that you’re in burnout.  The results you get, the support you receive, and the self-care you do all fill up your bathtub.  The demands that are placed on you (and that you accept) drain your personal agency bathtub.

The second way that we describe burnout is by comparing the gap between your expectations of yourself and your perception of your results.  When you expect too much and see too little, you’ll find yourself in burnout.  It doesn’t matter if either – or both – ends of this spectrum are unrealistic.  What matters is that you feel the gap as being too large and you lose hope.

Nothing Ever Changes

The problem with the gap between results and expectations isn’t in the momentary problem.  It’s not in the temporary case where you’re working hard and not seeing results.  The real challenge is when you begin to expect that this will always be the case.  When you believe that all your hard efforts will never be rewarded with the results you expect – that’s when burnout comes.

That moment, when you believe things can’t change, is the moment when you lose hope.  You somehow forget that life is constantly changing, or you feel oppressed by the thoughts that the world is there to make things worse and not better.  In your mind there will be a perpetual gap between what you expect of yourself and what you accomplish.  The world will never quite be “right.”

Understanding Hope

Hope is the most powerful thing that the world has ever encountered.  Whether it’s the legend of Pandora’s box or the fact that every major medical study must control carefully for the placebo effect – which occurs when the hope people have that the treatment will be successful results in improvement without any medical treatment.  With this powerful force, it’s easy to understand how it’s loss could leave people powerless against burnout.

Hope itself is seen as an indivisible entity but the work of C.R. Snyder indicates that hope is made of two components: waypower and willpower.  Waypower is your ability to see a path forward.  It’s the ability to break down the goal in a way that seems achievable.  Even the hope that folks cling on to that is far-fetched generally has a way of happening even if that way is a “higher power” magically intervening.

Willpower is, like most people expect, the willingness to push through and make things happen.  Of course, there’s not much willpower needed for the “higher power” option – but even there people need to be willing to make the plea.

Finding Hope

Once one has lost hope it can sometimes be hard to find again.  Seeking it comes with requisite amounts of viewing the universe as helpful – or at least neutral – and the belief that you have the capacity to make things better.  Even if you don’t have the skills today to make things better, you can find a way to get the skills you need, and then you can make things better.  Often taking additional classes or reading books to educate yourself on the skills you need can be enough to revive hope and break burnout’s hold on you.

Burnout from Maximizers

It’s good to have high standards, right?  Virtue is “moral excellence,” so wanting excellence is a virtue, right?  Certainly, having high standards can be good; however, when you move from wanting good to expecting only the best, you lead yourself down the road of broken expectations towards burnout.

Maximizers and Satisficers

Herbert Simon began with a simple goal of understanding how people make decisions, and the outcome was two different kinds of decisions people make.  Evolution made the first kind of decision.  These are called “satisficing” decisions.  These decisions are made with the available information at hand, so they’re “good enough.”  The second kind of decision is the “maximizing” decision.  These decisions review all the possibilities and identify the optimal solution.  Here, the point is simply “best.”

The good news for the maximizers is that they objectively do better with life.  They have higher salaries.  They generally get more from life than their satisficing peers – except they’re not as happy.  The driving force for maximizers is “the best.”  When they make a decision, they’re primed to regret it when something better comes along.

In contrast, the satisficers with their, sometimes high, standards seek a solution that meets their needs.  They aren’t worried about whether there’s a deal that can save them a few percent or something ever-so-slightly better.  It seems like the reason for this is they intuitively understand the decision-making costs.

Decision-Making Cost

In every decision, we must work with incomplete data.  Whether that’s because we’ve not done an exhaustive search or because we can’t predict the future, decisions are necessarily limited by the amount of available information.  Maximizers are quite willing to do the work to find the absolute best – or what they perceive as the absolute best.  Satisficers are willing to search only until they find an acceptable solution.  Once their criteria are met, they make the decision and move on.  Satisficers largely don’t worry about next week’s sale that would have saved a few dollars or the new innovation that might be five percent faster.

Satisficers recognize that the mental energy of trying to find the absolute best has a psychological and temporal cost.  The basic math becomes an evaluation of the cost of doing a more detailed search to the possible benefit, and it becomes not worth the additional benefit.

Not People

One of the key discoveries since Simon’s work is that people aren’t universally maximizers or satisficers.  In some things, we may be a maximizer, and in others, we’ll behave as satisficers.  One person can insist on the absolute best home but be fine with a car that is basic transportation.  It’s an oversimplification to say that people are maximizers or satisficers.  It is not, however, too much to say that each of us has a tendency towards more or less maximization in our life, and that maximization drives us towards burnout.

Missing Expectations

The problem with maximization is that it’s a standard that cannot be met.  Burnout is the gap between our expectations of our abilities and our reality.  If we believe we can find the absolute best and learn later that there is something better, we’ll necessarily experience regret.  We’ll be disappointed that we couldn’t find the best fit for our needs.  It’s this unrealistic expectation of perfection that drives us towards burnout.  When we maximize and miss – as we are bound to – we invite burnout into our world.

Converting to Satisficing

Through a bit of twisted – but broader – logic, it is possible to realize that satisficers are actually getting the better deal.  Sure, they’re not making the same money – but they’re happy, and money doesn’t buy happiness.  If you want to avoid burnout, perhaps the best way to do that is to do more satisficing and less maximizing.

Extinguish Burnout Podcast on Next For Me

Terri and I recorded a podcast with Next For Me, which was released in their Mindset Makeover newsletter last week. In it, we speak with Jeff Tidwell about why we started writing about burnout and how burnout affects both people and organizations.

You can listen in on the Next For Me website here: .

Burnout Rubber Bands

Rubber bands are amazing things.  The can power flight in the form of balsa wood planes.  They can hold things together.  They may just be strips of stretchy rubber, but they can be useful for a variety of purposes.  The limitations of rubber bands is that, when you stretch them too much, you break them, and their seemingly magical properties are gone.

Burnout is like a rubber band.  When the tension between what we believe we should get accomplished and what we believe we have accomplished is pulled too far apart, it snaps.  The good news is that, unlike a rubber band, we can recover from burnout if we can return the tension to a normal level.

Burnout History

When Herbert Freudenberger first spoke of burn out, he spoke of its presence in high achievers.  It wasn’t work that triggered the characteristic exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy.  It was something that the patients cared about – which was often, but not always, work.

The people that Freudenberger spoke about could be explained as having high expectations.

High Expectations

Some people naturally expect more of themselves than others.  Whether it’s genetics, upbringing, or both (as is suggested in the research), there’s something that drives them to expect that they should make a difference.  Sometimes the difference shows up as being President of the United States.  Sometimes it is earning an impressive salary.  Sometimes it’s changing the world through a cause.

However, expectations didn’t always used to be so high.

Grandfather’s Gas Station

My grandfather worked for and eventually owned a gas station in a small town of 9,000 people.  He was well respected as a member of the church and a community leader.  He enjoyed fishing and hunting.  He was a solid provider for his family and his children.  The important part is that this is all he ever expected to be.

It didn’t cross his mind to be president.  He didn’t aspire to change the world.  He was grateful for a modest house, a way to make money, and some time to enjoy some hobbies, which, coincidentally, helped to put food on the table.

Never once in my memory did my grandfather seem burned out.  The term had been coined by the time he had to close down his gas station and retire.  Even when he reached the end of his productive years, he faced them with resolve and not much in the way of emotion – he wasn’t an emotional man.

Expectations Today

Looking back on grandfather’s gas station, I began to realize that the thing that helped him avoid burnout is that his goals were modest.  He felt like his results matched his expectations.  He’d always tell me to pay myself first and save for retirement early.  By the standards of his generation, he was well off but not as rich as his farm friends.

Today, people owning a gas station might look to expand.  Perhaps they want to franchise, or revolutionize the way that gas is sold.

We’ve trained society that just okay isn’t okay.  We’ve trained people that they’re unique and special and different, and that we expect great things from them.  If these are your expectations, you’re bound to be disappointed.

The Tension

The desire to strive to make things better is a noble cause.  The desire to do great things is powerful in the way that it can move people and a society forward.  However, just like the rubber band, we can hold the tension between our results of today and our desires for tomorrow too far apart for too long, and find that we’ve snapped the rubber band that drives our proverbial plane forward.

By setting the right amount of expectations for ourselves and allowing grace for when we don’t meet our expectations, we can take flight – instead of being grounded with a broken rubber band.