The Six Misalignments That Create Burnout

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Burnout impacts many of us at some point in our lives, whether it comes from work, from certain relationships, or even from our family. 

Interestingly, when we experience burnout, we will often minimize our experience, attributing it to being too busy or too exhausted. Some of us will even secretly feel like the burnout is our fault – perhaps because we’re lacking in some way. 

Decades of research, however, have shown that burnout is more than an inconvenience. In fact, the World Health Organization recognizes burnout as a serious occupational phenomenon. 

If you’re currently experiencing burnout or know someone who is, there is likely something else going on beyond simply being busy or tired or lacking in resilience. 

More likely, you’re also experiencing six major mismatches that contribute to burnout, which we will cover below. 

To recover from burnout, you’ll want to address each of these six areas.

What’s burnout?

My own personal experience with burnout made me feel as if my entire being was switched to “low-battery” mode. This “low-battery” mode dimmed all of my experiences including my energy, my joy, my creativity, and even my ability to express myself and connect with others. I could still wake up every day and go through the motions, but I was disconnected, numb, and bored – just a shell of myself. We switch to low-battery mode for self-preservation because, otherwise, we would completely drain our batteries or break a fuse. 

The scary thing about burnout and being in low-battery mode is that, in the moment, it can almost feel like that’s the new norm, which can be disempowering and depressing.

But burnout isn’t your norm. You weren’t born to experience a life of burnout. It’s a reaction to mismatches in our lives that haven’t been addressed yet. This means, however, that we can still turn things around. 

Contrary to popular belief, burnout is not a productivity issue at its core; it’s a matter of life purpose and wellbeing.

When someone’s burnt out, it’s heartbreaking. That person has figuratively lost their flames. Their desire, drive, and ambition are no longer lit inside their being. 

Dr. Kristina Maslac from UC Berkeley has been researching burnout since the 70s. She defines burnout as the erosion of values, spirit, dignity, and will. Erosion of the human soul. 

Burnout isn’t a productivity issue. It’s an issue of whole-person wellbeing. 

How do we get burnt out?

The sneaky thing about burnout is that it doesn’t happen overnight.

Burnout is something that you’ve worked really hard for over a period of time (even though it’s completely unrewarding), and it can happen to many high achievers with “can do” attitudes.

The irony is that, once you have burnt out, you become a “can’t do” person, either in spirit or in terms of your physical ability.

The thing is, you can be a high achiever, love your job, and be successful – all without being burnt out.

In fact, it’s the only sustainable way to accomplish everything you want and be happy. 

The six mismatches that create burnout

Research finds that burnout at work is not about the individual but rather their manager and the organization’s culture. 

Dr. Christina Maslac’s research finds that there are six mismatches that create burnout at work. 

These six mismatches are:

  1. Workload
  2. Level of job control
  3. Insufficient reward
  4. Lack of social support
  5. Absence of fairness
  6. Conflict in values

You don’t experience burnout when just one of these mismatches arises. Humans are resilient and resourceful, so it takes more than a heavy workload to erode our spirit. 

But things get more difficult when you add in examples of other mismatches, such as:

  • a self-serving and aggressive micro-manager
  • a toxic environment where people undermine, gaslight, and backstab each other
  • HR that cares more about protecting the company than protecting you
  • a lack of transparency around recognition and the promotion process
  • having to sell something you don’t believe in
  • having to behave in a way that doesn’t align with your values in order to succeed

Now that’s a perfect recipe for burnout that will easily dim your spirit.

The fact that some “progressive” companies use the slogan “Humans First” is a sign of how far astray we’ve drifted from humanity in the workplace. 

Even though the six mismatches listed above were researched in a work environment, they are applicable to other situations where we experience burnout. 

Burnout in life

At their cores, the six mismatches describe the demands of our environment and our fundamental human needs

The main demand at work is workload, but demands could also come from our partners or family members. The other five mismatches relate to our human needs for wellbeing, including our sense of control, being seen and supported, being treated with kindness, and spending time on what matters to us.

Just like in the workplace, we can experience burnout outside of work whenever we’re neglecting our needs over a period of time. 

Because expectations, demands, and control are common themes in families and relationships, it’s not uncommon to feel burnout in these areas, especially if we believe we’re obligated to fulfill someone else’s wishes and expectations while neglecting our own. And, if we feel like we can’t talk about what we’re experiencing – because family and relationship matters are usually personal – we’re going to feel the extra pressure. 

On the flip side, when your needs are met, you can fully engage with the demands of your environment. It’s the reason why you can work endlessly on a passion project and feel energized. Or stay up all night talking to someone whose company you enjoy. Or lose track of time while practicing your hobby.

How do you know if you’re just tired or if you’re burnt out? 

The three common symptoms of burnout based on Dr. Christina Maslac’s research are (1) exhaustion, (2) cynicism, and (3) inefficiency.

Exhaustion shows up when you’re physically, mentally, or emotionally tired – all the time. Whether it’s a weekday, weekend, or you’re on vacation, as long as you’re awake, you’re literally or figuratively tired. You’re tired of the schedule, you’re tired of the people, you’re tired of the work. 

Cynicism shows up as bitterness, pessimism, and resentment toward a person, a situation, or the environment. Not only are you tired, but you’re also tired of the “same shit, different day” routine, you’re tired of the charade, and you don’t believe in what you hear, say, or do. 

Inefficiency shows up as procrastination, lack of motivation, diddle-daddling, and not getting things done. You are wasting time, either stuck frozen in place or spinning and not gaining traction. 

Why do we need to address burnout sooner?

The danger with burnout is that most people don’t know it’s happening until it’s too late.

Dr. Hans Seyle – the father of stress research – identifies stress as having three stages. The last stage is burnout. If we continue pushing forward, this is the phase where we collapse and get sick. Whatever is already your weakest link is going to feel the brunt of it of this collapse.

We all have an Achilles heel. For example, do you have digestive issues? Be prepared to take that cramp and bloat to the next level. Do you have back pain? Expect flare-ups. Are you prone to depression? Count on not wanting to get out of bed even more often. 

Our physical exhaustion is just one part of it; our minds and hearts also experience burnout. And, sometimes, mental and emotional burnout can be even more difficult to bear.

When we’re burnt out, it prevents us from being true to ourselves, living our purpose, and experiencing connection and meaning. 

Healing from burnout 

Experiment with the following six (of many) ways you can realign the six mismatches, refill your tank, and recover from burnout. 

  1. Negotiate the demand 
  • Does it have to be done by you, or can it be done by someone else? 
  • Can you share the load by doing a portion instead of the whole thing?
  • Can you give yourself more time to do it?
  1. Make your goals meaningful and within your control 
  • How could you make this goal more meaningful to you? 
  • How would you insert your own style or voice?
  • How could you make the situation work for you?
  1. Assess your benefits 
  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?
  • What are you getting out of being in this situation?
  • What knowledge or experience can you extract from this?
  1. Seek community 
  • With whom can you share your experience and perspective?
  • Who can provide you with advice and mentorship?
  • Who will hear you vent when there’s a rough patch?
  1. Ask for what you believe to be fair
  • Can you help me understand how this was decided?
  • If I do this for you, can you help me with that?
  • Can it be my turn this time?
  1. Get clear on your values 

Remember, burnout occurs when we do not meet our own needs over an extended period of time. I believe that, when we don’t attend to our needs, it’s because we haven’t articulated what they are. 

Getting clear on what matters to us is the most important step because, if we don’t know what’s important to us, others will let us know what’s important to them. 

So, begin identifying the things that are important to you – things you care about, things that give life meaning, and things that nourish your body, mind, and heart. 

Many people find hiring a coach can help with recovering from burnout. Since a coach can be a sounding board that helps us articulate our values and our needs, as well as be a thought partner to create a customized strategy to move forward. A coach also keeps us accountable as we navigate new territories.

Final words on burnout

At its core, we experience burnout when we’re expected to continue giving while we’re running on empty.

If we want to avoid or recover from burnout, we need to get really honest with ourselves and ask, “Am I getting my needs met?” And if not, why?  

Get curious about the answers to these questions. They will inspire you to dig deeper and reconnect with what matters most.

Follow and allow your truth to guide your way back to blazing.

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