A comprehensive guide for preventing work burnout

  • preventing work burnout

Work burnout is becoming more common among entrepreneurs and young working professionals. The long hours and the never-ending lists of demands can quickly add up, leading to undue amounts of stress and exhaustion. What if there was a way you could prevent work burnout before it got so bad?

In this post, we’re going to present you with a proactive reference guide for preventing work burnout by aligning your ideal reality with your actual reality. It’s called the self-alignment technique. If you think you’re experiencing burnout, please refer to our post on the ultimate psychological guide to burnout recovery.

Let’s get back to how you can prevent future burnouts. First, we will help you identify whether you’re on the road to burnout by getting you to distinguish between it and your regular stress. Then we’re going to provide you with details of the self-alignment technique, in which the sole purpose is simple: reduce the perceived discrepancy between your ideal and actual self.

Our team of psychology and neuroscience PhDs have sifted through a number of papers in the area of cognitive, applied and clinical psychology as well as neuroscience to ensure you can have the utmost confidence in the recommended tactics we provide.

Is it stress or burnout?

Before diving into the framework, an important first step is to distinguish between stress and burnout.

Stress can be similar to burnout and it can be difficult to know when normal stress stops and burnout symptoms begin. Burnout is stress taken to the extreme. Everyone experiences pressure and strain at some point in their lives, but chronic daily stress is regarded as a central factor of work burnout.

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Why is this important? Knowing the difference between the two is critical for managing each one effectively. If you try to use stress management techniques to overcome work burnout, your psychological aim will be off. Stress management calms your body’s nervous system — exercising, deep breathing, meditation: these strategies reduce stress by alleviating the body’s anxious arousal response.

Let’s take a look at some of the differences between stress and burnout symptoms so that you can gain some insight into what you might be experiencing:

burnout vs stress

This method will be useful to you if you believe you’re on the road to burnout — not if you’re simply stressed or already experiencing burnout. Remember, this is about being proactive and stopping it before it gets out of control. If you believe you’re already fully experiencing signs of burnout, our post on burnout recovery will be more beneficial to you.


The self-alignment technique

It’s a common misconception that the main culprit of burnout is simply overworking (either too hard or long). But it’s more complicated than that. Research indicates that there are a number of factors at both the individual and organizational level that contribute to work burnout. The findings show that burnout happens when there is a discrepancy between what you want (your ideal), and what you have (your actual).

In a perfect (mental) world, these two things align: the ideal is also the actual. But in reality, there’s usually a discrepancy between the two. It’s explained by a theory in psychology called self-discrepancy model. It argues that humans are strongly motivated to maintain a sense of consistency among beliefs and self-perceptions. Because of this, you have certain notions of what your ‘ideal’ self should look like, and you use this as your guide or standard to motivate your actual behavior. For example, maybe your ‘ideal’ self is someone who naturally and spontaneously feels motivated for the majority of the day, but your ‘actual’ self is someone who needs a lot of convincing to get stuff done.

If your ideal and actual reality start to show discrepancies like above, you feel a whole slew of negative emotions: disappointed, sad, agitated, anxious, and distressed. The discrepancy in your sense of self carries drastic consequences. The most problematic of these feeling is burnt out.

Over the past couple of decades, a group of researchers have developed a model identifying six key components of workplace environment that, together, contribute to burnout. According to this model, burnout occurs when one or more of these six areas is mismatched between your ideal and your actual. A mismatch between each one of these components develops gradually over time, leading to emotional exhaustion, cynicism towards your job, and feelings of inefficacy. In other words, burnout develops due to hundreds or even thousands of little discrepancy-based disappointments. The point of this framework is to help you become more aware of these subtle disappointments so that you can deal with them consciously and proactively.

To this end, the lessons contained in the framework come with three aims:

  1. To understand the nature of the components and what they look like.
  2. To understand what happens to you when there’s a discrepancy and the negative emotions that ensue.
  3. To learn how the discrepancy can be resolved so that you begin to align your ideal and your actual.

The six components include:

  • Workload
  • Control
  • Reward
  • Community
  • Fairness
  • Values

Here’s a summary reference image for you to come back to at a later date.

components of work burnout

Let’s dive into each one separately and in more detail.


Workload – What happens when there is a discrepancy in workload


balancing workload discrepancy

source – tes.com

This is probably the most common of all the components leading to signs of burnout. Having too much work for the available time has been studied for years, with the findings supporting the general notion that time pressure and workload are strongly and consistently related to burnout. You’ve probably guessed it, a discrepancy in workload is found with excessive work, where too many demands exhausts your energy to the point that recovery becomes extremely difficult.

However, a couple more uncommon examples of this dimension is that the discrepancy can also occur from too much of the wrong kind of work, as when you may lack the skills or inclination for the activities you’re performing, even though it is in reasonable quantities.


Resolving the workload discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ is to engage in the work that is meaningful and has positive impact (for you the and the business). But your ‘actual’ is you being inundated with unimportant work that limits your time.

An obvious solution here that you’ve heard before is to to say “no” more often. One thing you don’t usually get is an explanation into why and how to do this. Saying “no” can be a difficult task for many reasons: you feel bad, you feel pressure, the work needs to get done, etc. But, saying “no” when you need to, will most definitely help prevent the signs of burnout and here’s the why and how to do it:

A. Understand what happens under a full plate

It might seem counterintuitive, but being short on time actually makes it harder for you to manage your schedule. According to Harvard behavioural scientist Sendhil Mullainathan, the busier you get, the harder it becomes to say “no” to subsequent requests. The reason is, because as resources get depleted from a packed agenda, we tend to act habitually. If your default response is always to do it all, then chances are, you’re going to saying “yes” more often than not. Instead, rehearse your reasons for saying “no” before you need to. Having a specific plan in place before you’re presented with a request will make it more likely that we’ll act in accordance to your original intentions.

B. Don’t get caught up by the harshness bias

When at work, saying “no” to your team whether you’re an employee or an owner of the business can be stressful, not only because of the pressure but also because of something psychologists call the harshness bias. This is where you believe people will judge us more negatively than is actually the case. The reality is that people won’t think less of you at all.

C. Schedule in your social time

By fully scheduling your day, including your spare time, you’ll be able to clearly see what you do and don’t have time for. This will ease the discomfort of saying no as a planned schedule “calls the shots” rather than you. This will also prevent you from overbooking yourself and not taking time out for yourself. Additionally, by scheduling out all of your important priorities, you’ll be able to see where you actually do have the time to add work in.

D. Use visualization

It’s no surprise that visualization is involved with many psychological tactics. One reason is that you tend to make better decisions by visualizing the future as clearly as you can. Try it out: Think about the last time you said “yes” when you knew you already had too much work to get done in the amount of time you have. Visualize what happened in as much detail as possible. Maybe you missed a birthday you had planned, maybe you had so much anxiety you couldn’t sleep. Whatever the case, try to relive that experience. How did you feel? By doing this, you’ll be able to bring yourself back to this moment and foreshadow what you’ll again go through if you add to your plate.


Control – What happens when there is a discrepancy in control

A discrepancy in control is associated with reduced feelings of personal accomplishment. It often indicates that you have insufficient control over the resources needed to complete your work or in a way that you feel is most effective. This would generally come from working with partners or investors who need to have their hands in everything, giving you little freedom to perform in a way that you think is best.

When you feel like you have no control, it becomes really hard to create positive outcomes for yourself and others — eventually leading to something called learned helplessness. When you get stuck in this frame of mind you tend to lose the belief that your actions have a direct impact on the outcome of your lives (an internal locus of control) and instead begin to think that external events are responsible for your daily outcomes (an external locus of control). Research shows that those with a higher internal locus of control tend to be happier, more successful, have a deeper sense of self-actualization and are least likely to suffer from anxiety and depression. Here are some simple exercises to become proactive and feel more in control at work.


Resolving the control discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ is to have some degree of autonomy in your work in order to feel like you’re actually making a difference. But your ‘actual’ where you have little control over the work you create, leaving you feeling helpless.

A. Control what you can

Let go of some of the things you can’t control. Especially if some of those things come from a co-worker or partner in your business who tends to be a micro-manager. Pushing back against someone who needs their hands in everything will work against you. Instead plan around this by keeping them in the loop and making upfront agreements about where they should be delegating the work to others and where their help might be needed. If there are areas that are not in your power to change (for example in an area where they are the specialist), don’t force it. Concentrate on the things you can control and let go of the superficial things that you can’t.

B. Know your strengths and weaknesses

The ability to look at yourself objectively is imperative to feeling happy and in control. If you can’t determine what you are and aren’t capable of controlling then chances are you’ll be stuck in a spiral of frustration. To determine your strengths and weaknesses, create a list of what you believe are yours, then have a group of close friends provide you with their list of general things they think you are good at and things you might need to work on. Now, compare this list to the one you made. Are there any discrepancies? Going back up to the first tactic, by determining what you’re good at you’ll be able to communicate effectively.

C. Do small things with great effort

Even achieving little things can re-establish a sense of competence and personal control. This is another reason to schedule your day to the full extent. For example, if you have daily progress meetings with your team, ensure that you’re putting just as much effort into these as you would the rest of your day (even if you do them everyday). Do this by asking questions, being supportive, and being fully present. Not only does this show commitment and keeps your team on track, but looking back at all the tasks you’ve completed in your day will give you gratification and a sense of control.


Reward – What happens when there is a discrepancy in reward


balancing reward discrepancy

source – graymatterblog.com

This type of discrepancy comes from a lack of appropriate rewards for the work you do. These could be in the form of financial rewards but is mostly related to social rewards like a lack of appreciation from others. This lack of appreciation is devaluing to you and your work. Alternatively, this can also occur due to a lack of intrinsic rewards such as taking pride in what you’re doing. These feelings can lead to personal inefficacy.

More than extrinsic (external) rewards, internal (intrinsic) rewards are particularly important in maintaining adaptive and creative work outcomes. In fact, the number one reason employees leave their jobs is because they don’t feel appreciated. Additionally, 83% of employees feel as though it’s better to get praise (intrinsic) than a gift (extrinsic). Even in children you see more creative work when they’re prompted with intrinsic motivation over being given tokens and rewards.


Resolving the reward discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ here would be to feel appreciated for the things that you get done in the business and to feel supported by the decisions you make. But your ‘actual’ reality is one with a lack of purpose for the work you’re doing because you feel unsupported with a source of motivation that is external to you. How can you increase intrinsic rewards both within your business and within yourself? It comes down to building up these four factors: meaningfulness, choice, competence, and progress.

A. Sense of meaningfulness

This involves finding the importance in the work you’re doing. If you feel like you have the opportunity to accomplish something of real value then you’ll feel like your path is worth your time and energy, giving you a strong sense of direction.

Build up your sense of meaningfulness by:

  • Defining your passions
    • Clearly define the passions you have in the work that you do. Be descriptive by describing these in detail. For example, “I am passionate about working directly with my team and working together to come to solutions.”
  • Creating a vision
    • Vividly picture what could be accomplished with your work.
    • What is the ‘big picture’ of what your company is trying to accomplish? Imagine the end goal of what this looks like and how you would piece together the steps to get there.
  • Connecting the dots
    • Now connect how your daily work contributes to this vision/passion
    • What little steps can you accomplish towards this end goal in a month from now? What about a year from now?

B. Sense of choice

Again, this comes from a sense of autonomy. This comes from feeling free to choose how you’d like to accomplish your work. With a sense of choice you feel ownership of your work and will feel responsible for making it work.

How to build up your sense of choice:

  • Have a clear purpose
    • Understand exactly what it is you’re trying to accomplish and why.
  • Security
    • Create an environment where your fellow colleagues or employees don’t fear punishment for honest mistakes. Do your best to create a culture of experimentation and “fail fast.”
  • Trust
    • Have confidence in your fellow colleagues, superiors or employees for their decisions and demand the same in return.

C. Sense of competence

This comes from feeling that you’re able to handle your activities well and are producing high-quality work. With this comes a sense of pride and satisfaction with your work.

How to build up your sense of competence:

  • Knowledge
    • Ensure that you have adequate insights into the work you’re doing.
    • Being caught in a situation where you don’t have all the information can lower your sense of competency, so make sure you’re up to date with everything you need to know about the projects you’re working on.
  • Ask for feedback
    • This will help you gain insight into what’s working and what isn’t leading to future success.
  • Challenge
    • Ensure that your projects are optimally challenging — make sure you’re working on something that fits your abilities.

D. Sense of progress

This comes from feeling like your efforts are accomplishing something. When your work is on track and moving forward, you’ll feel confident in that the choices you’ve made were the right ones.

How to build up your sense of progress:

  • Create a collaborative environment
    • Co-workers helping each other succeed ensures things keep moving in the planned direction.
  • Create milestones
    • Creating a set of checkpoints will mark the stages of your accomplishments and will help you feel like things are moving along as you progress towards the broader goal.
  • Celebrate the bigger accomplishments
    • When creating your checkpoints, mark a couple of the larger milestones and celebrate their accomplishment with your team.
  • Measurement of improvement
    • Create a way to determine whether performance gets better over time.


Community – What happens when there is a discrepancy in community

balancing community discrepancy

source – teenlife.com

This fourth discrepancy comes from feeling as though there is a lack of community engagement in your work and business. You may feel as though your relationships with others at work are suffering or missing some positive connection. People thrive in positive social environments and they always function best when there is an ability to share comfort, humour, and happiness with others. With this in mind, it’s no surprise that unresolved conflict with others in the workplace will cause ongoing feelings of frustration and hostility and reduce the likelihood of social support.

When we have close, supportive relationships, we’re more resilient, get more done and feel more worthy. Support is actually a great buffer against the effects of burnout.


Resolving the community discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ would be to feel like your business is full of engagement among team members that like you have a good relationship with everyone. Your ‘actual’ in this case would be a team who doesn’t engage with each other outside of work and only engages with each other in very work specific situations during the day. Additionally, you don’t have very good relationships with all team members and there are some you don’t know very well.

A. Increase community engagement

Create days throughout the year where employees can volunteer towards a good cause or enroll a team in a charity event on the weekend such as a fundraiser or run for a specific cause. This adds a social dimension for employees and strengthens relationships, leading to a greater sense of comradery. In fact, research has shown that taking a couple hours out of the day to contribute back to the community can have the following effect on individuals:

  • Increases values
    • Allows the individual to satisfy personal values.
  • Increases understanding
    • Allows the individual to understand and learn more about the world and exercise skills that are often unused or overlooked in the day-to-day grind.
  • Leads to personal development
    • Allows the individual to work through negative feelings such as guilt, depression, and anxiety by thinking beyond just themselves.
  • Increases social development
    • Allows the individual to strengthen social relationships.
  • Contributes to career development
    • Allows the individual to work on career-related skills.
  • Enhances self-esteem
    • Allows the individual to feel better about themselves through giving back to an important cause.

B. Engage in mentoring

One way to decrease isolation and enhance the supportiveness in your workplace is to engage in mentoring. For example, if you notice a co-worker is struggling in an area where you have experience, offer some time to mentor them in that area. When you support others with your knowledge and experience, it will make you feel appreciated. You can also benefit in a similar way by gaining a mentor yourself. At each stage in life, whether you’re at the beginning of your business or a seasoned serial entrepreneur, you can always benefit from advice and experience of someone who is further along the path.


Fairness – What happens when there is a discrepancy in fairness

balancing fairness discrepancy

source – recognizethisblog.com

When there is a lack of perceived fairness in the workplace a serious mismatch will occur. Fairness displays respect and confirms a person’s self-worth. This can occur in the workplace when there is unequal workload or pay for similar positions; when there is dishonesty within the company; or when promotions or evaluations are handled erroneously. If there is an inability for both parties to voice concerns or if an employee is always criticized for addressing concerns, then the work environment will be judged as unfair. A lack of fairness contributes to work burnout in two ways: first, it will drain your emotional resources leading to emotional exhaustion and, second, it will also fuel feelings of cynicism about the workplace.

Mainly, there are three things you can personally do to ensure you’re cultivating a fair environment for yourself and those around you.


Resolving the fairness discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ would be to work in an environment where everyone is respected and treated fairly. Your ‘actual’ in the case would be an environment where people aren’t treated equally, where they get defensive when criticized constructively, and where there is no sense of trust among the team. Developing a sense of fairness throughout the work culture is dependent on building up these three factors:

  • Build trust
    • Ensure you do what you say you’re going to do.
    • Stick to timelines.
    • Be open about mistakes and errors.
  • Encourage openness
    • Be open to constructive feedback.
    • Share information openly with other coworkers.
    • Cultivate transparency in decision-making processes.
  • Respect others and demand respect
    • Set clear communication guidelines.
    • Avoid office gossip.
    • Do things for the betterment of the company, not just yourself.
    • Say what you mean and do what you say.

Again, this is about being proactive. You can work on developing a greater match for yourself when you feel like your developing work burnout. When all three of these (trust, openness and respect) are present you will feel valued and in turn, fully engaged.


Values – What happens when there is a discrepancy in values

The last area of discrepancy occurs when there is a conflict between values. This one is particularly important to pay attention to. Maybe you are constrained by your job to do things which you feel are unethical. Or perhaps the growth of the company has led to the maintenance of certain values that don’t align with the original ones you had in mind. In any case, a mismatch here will lead you to feeling disconnected from the company which will in turn lead to a lack of fulfillment in what you’re doing.


Resolving the values discrepancy

Your ‘ideal’ would be to build a company that has the same values as you. Your ‘actual’ would be working at or building a company that requires you to act in a way that is against what you believe in. To determine whether your company is going in the direction that is in line with your ‘ideals’, take part in these following activities:

A. Take time to read and go over the mission statement

  • All companies have them. Determine if your company is still progressing in ways that you agree with or not.

B. Are expected actions and values aligned?

  • Determine if you’re ever feeling uneasy about decisions or actions you need to take or if you’ve felt uneasy about the actions/decisions others in the business have made.

C. Does your company act in accordance to what you’re building? (this is a big one)

  • Maybe you’re involved in a company directed around self-help and yet the company itself doesn’t practice the advice it’s giving.
  • A lack here can make you feel as though the value of what you’re working on is low, leading to a lack of drive and fulfillment.

Sitting on these three will put some things into perspective. If you end up feeling as though you’re not aligned after this exercise maybe the cause of your work burnout is a lack of agreement with the company itself.


Recap on techniques to prevent work burnout

These mismatches can occur individually or in any combination. They must be addressed and worked on individually and each has its own unique set of solutions. This is about being proactive! When your ‘ideal’ and ‘actual’ realities don’t align, this can lead to exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy in the workplace which will eventually lead to burnout. This is why it’s important to determine the common areas where a mismatch between your ideal and actual realities in the workplace can occur. Let’s go over what we covered today:

  • Workload
    • To align the ideal and actual: Focus on the right kind of work for you, fully schedule your day, and understand that the less time you have the more inclined you’ll be take on more.
  • Control
    • To align the ideal and actual: Learn to work with what you’ve got, control only what you can, and figure out your strengths and weaknesses so you have a clear picture of your capabilities.
  • Reward
    • To align the ideal and actual: Build up your sense of meaningfulness, sense of choice, sense of competence, and sense of progress to feel intrinsic motivation and support from others.
  • Community
    • To align the ideal and actual: Engage in group community activities with your team and get involved with mentoring to tap into a sense of work that is bigger than just you.
  • Fairness
    • To align the ideal and actual: Establish trust, openness, and respect in all day-to-day interactions no matter how small and hold everyone (including yourself) accountable.
  • Values
    • To align the ideal and actual: Determine whether your company is scaling and moving forward in the direction that aligns with the core values which were established from the very beginning.