Burnout is as much about your dreams as it is about your work, because burnout is the gap between your expectations and your ability to meet them. Jennifer Senior has a great article in this week’s New York Magazine about about burnout, which I will quote from here.

Burnout is not about how many hours you work, (contrary to Lisa Belkin’s New York Times column this week), but if the hours you work bring you desired results. For example, if you have very flexible hours and can go on an early date and then go back to work after dinner and you get eight hours of sleep, a 100-hour week might be fine for you. In fact, Ayala Pines, professor at Ben-Guiron University at the Negev, found that serial entrepreneurs, known for working very long hours, were the workers least prone to burnout. (Those most prone are pediatric nurses in burn units.)

Burnout doesn’t come from overwork but from an inability to get what you need from the work, according to Christina Maslach, professor at University of California, Berkeley. She created the wideley used Maslach Burnout Inventory to test one’s level of burnout. Senior describes the six areas of burnout to watch for:

1. Working too much
2. Working in an unjust environment
3. Working with little social support
4. Working with little agency or control
5. Working in the service of values we loathe
6. Working for insuficient reward, whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback

The effect of burnout is depersonalization, according to Barry Farber, professor at Columbia University. He says, it’s not that people are uncaring, but “their level of caring cannot be sustained in the absence of results.” Senior describes it more poetically, “People who are suffering from burnout tend to describe the sensation in metaphor of emptiness — they’re a dry teapot over a high flame, a drained battery that can no longer hold its charge.” This is no small thing, and we should all be watching for it.

What can you do? Align your expectations with reality. Senior reports a body of research that shows younger people burn out faster because of thier unrealistic expectations, and older people have more perspective based on their experience. But this is hard to control, because if you don’t have experience what can you do except build it up over years?

Fortunately there is a bit you can control no matter how old you are, because like most research about happiness, it comes down to your connections with other people. Maslach found that married people burn out less often than unmarried because a spouse provides another means for fulfillment besides a job. And Pines found that people are more prone to burnout in a society that values the individual way above the family or community.

So make sure you are reaching your goals and maintaining close friendships, and you probably won’t burn out.

36 replies
  1. Casey Kraft
    Casey Kraft says:

    “For example, if you have very flexible hours and can go on an early date and then go back to work after dinner and you get eight hours of sleep, a 100-hour week might be fine for you.”

    Perhaps you need a remedial math class. :)

    There are 168 hours in the week. If you work 100 hours, that leaves 68 hours. Eight hours of sleep per night for a week (56 hours) leaves 12 hours or less than two hours per day to eat, dress, bathe, socialize, etc. Seems that would qualify as burnout in anyone’s book.

  2. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Casey,
    The point of the post is that it’s not simply a math problem, it’s a dream problem. You need to look at the long hours someone works and ask if that person is meeting their goals.

    For someone who is 26 with no kids and no significant other and is working with good friends at a company that is doing really well, the 100 hour week might be just fine — and in fact, this is the case for a lot of very happy entrepreneurs.

    I am not saying everyone could do that, but I’m saying that the issue is not the number of hours per se.

  3. Gary
    Gary says:

    Penelope,
    I think you had some very good ideas in this post. I agree with your point that working too much is not the only the cause of burnout. If someone is working in a job 30 hours a week, they can still burnout from lack of puporse in their job, where they long for something more meaningful towards them.
    Gary

  4. Laura Belhumeur
    Laura Belhumeur says:

    I took this blog as very fascinating. I have heard about the “burnout” affect at the work place, but I did not know it was so common. It was also intriguing to read about the married workers to be less inclined to burnout because they are receiving satisfaction from their spouse, which keeps them happy. It makes sense that someone who is unhappy and displeased at work, and who also comes home to an empty house, is more prone to burnout. The workers who are alone come home and don’t have anyone to vent to or anyone to share their troubles from the day at work with. Other things I liked about this blog was that many were quoted to try and describe a point, you heard the point made in two different ways so it was easier to take in and appreciate.

  5. Kristin
    Kristin says:

    I found this blog very interesting. I have heard about the “burnout” before, but I had no idea that working too much was the only cause. It makes sense now that it is from depersonalization. It makes sense that younger people experience burnout more because of the inexperience and the tendency to stress over things. I found it interesting that those people with spouses experience “burnouts” less often. I appreciate the advice at the end on how to avoid a burnout, as Im sure other readers do.

  6. feddlyn
    feddlyn says:

    Well I agree and disagree, I feel like the hours you work don’t determine if your happy our not, it mostly have to do w/ if you like the job that your in, cause I no numerous of people who loves there jobs, who wouldn’t mine spending their whole day at work, but I do agree that working to much can become tried some, and people who been working for a long period of time, does know how to manage there time efficiently. I also agree that people who have spouses to help them, do have the beneficial of the doubts, but it all depends if they do or don’t have children, so either way its a “win” win situation. I never heard of suck term the “burnout”. I agree and disagree on the term, cause at times you reach your dreams and that can become a burden on your part, also if you don’t reach it as well. All in all I found this article to be quite interesting in many ways.

  7. Katie Estes
    Katie Estes says:

    I think this blog was fantastic! The term "burnout" is certainly something all college students can relate to in one way or another. We college kids work ourselves sick. We take 3,4,5 classes a week, work part time or full time jobs, have the thought of student loans and FAFSA forms haunting us in our sleep, have broken cars, no gas in our cars, high cell phone bills and to top it all off try, to somehow, have a life. Being a college student is crazy and we all at some point in time feel like we are going to "burnout". There is far too much pressure when it comes to school now a days. What did I get on my test? Was my paper long enough? What is my GPA? Is it high enough to make Dean's list? What about my major? Those are questions that are constantly running through my mind. Am I good enough? But, this article made me think about things another way. Am I good enough for who? Who the hell am I trying to impress? The author made it quite clear in the section about college students that your happiness and the idea of being "burnt", all has to do with what you make of college. The list of how to make the best out of your 4 years of education made the piece very entertaining. A few of my favorite were:

    1. Get out of the library.
    "You can have a degree and a huge GPA and not be ready for the workplace. A student should plan that college is four years of experience rather than 120 credits,"

    5. Avoid grad school in the humanities.
    "Schooling only gives you the capacity to stand behind a cash register,"

    9. Try new things that you're not good at.
    "Ditch the superstar mentality that if you don't reach the top, president, A+, editor in chief, then the efforts were worthless.

    20. Make to do lists.
    You can't achieve dreams if you don't have a plan to get there.

    College is tough, life is tough. And it's very easy to "burnout". But with a little organization, guidance and ambition – we'll all be just fine.

  8. murrell
    murrell says:

    I agree with the part about being burnedout which has to do with not getting enough respect. I disagree about the part that says that working to long isn’t the cause of burnout. IT IS! I would not want to work all day, go home for a few hours then go back out to work. Once I’m home the shoes are OFF! That’s my burnout prevention.

  9. Wala Alzobier
    Wala Alzobier says:

    I absolutely agree with the blog its very interesting the ideas were very luring .Because honestly I never took it that way that working a lot of hours is not always the case of a burnout. Because to me it is working long hours would evenly make me very dizzy and worn-out kind of disagree with Christina maslach a professor in university in California when she said that "Burnout doesn't come from overwork but from an inability to get what you need from the work". I am going to have to say that is not always the case even though I understood the parts when the blog was saying that lack of interest or reward can case burnout that is more understandable. However it gave me knew way of looking at why things that causes burnout.

  10. Chelsea
    Chelsea says:

    I thought the blog, “Beware of the Burnout: Take the Test” made alot of really good points. I like the way Penelope Trunk opened her blog,” Burnout is as much about your dreams as it is about your work, because burnout is the gap between your expectations and your ability to meet them.” (Trunk) It really gave me a good insight into what I was about to read. Trunk goes on to talk about the importance of not only the time but the results of work,”Burnout is not about how many hours you work, but if the hours you work bring you desired results.” (Trunk) This is a very valid argument. I completely agree with the fact that you could work twenty hours a week and come out with better results that someone who works sixty. This quote illustrates the saying: It’s quality, not quantity. Being “burntout” doesn’t necessarily mean you’re overworked,”Burnout doesn't come from overwork but from an inability to get what you need from the work, according to Christina Maslach, professor at University of California, Berkeley.” (Trunk) However, working long hours at a dead-end job could easily burn you out. Human beings need to be fulfilled, we need careers that make us feel whole. As a college student I feel enormous pressure to succeed. What exactly is success? The media makes it seem as though the only was yo be successful is to be rich. That is the explanation my generation has grown up with. Trunk talks about pressure on the youth,”younger people burnout faster because of their unrealistic expectations, and older people have more perspective based on their experience.” We strive for something we’re told we want, in reality that’s not what’s going to make us happy. Like I said previously: It’s quality, not quantity. I think that was a point made throughout this blog, and it came across very clear and effective.

    * * * * * *

    Chelsea,

    I just realized that you (and many of your schoolmates, I think) are commenting on my blog as an assignment for class. I wish I had had an assignment like this for school.

    I’m really happy that you wrote about finding your own goals and not assuming someone else’s. I hope that for you, success is living life in accordance with your own values. That’s no easy task — believe me. I struggle with it every day when I check my email during the time I set aside for realaxing.

    –Penelope

  11. CGUEVARA
    CGUEVARA says:

    This article gave me a whole new perspective of the term “Burn Out”. It all comes back to belief that if you are satisfied in the workplace you can be happier in life. I completely agree that hapiness comes back to the way we communicate with other people and I can see how married people are less to have a burn out. I also believe that a burnout doesn’t necessarily need to be caused by a job. I am a college student and I know many people who are already going through some of the symptoms. My favorite point on your article was when you stated that younger people are most likely to have burnouts because we over estimate ourselves. This aritcle gave a different opinion to my belief in never being able to work more then 50 hours when knoe that if you find your calling there are no limits to what one can do.

  12. William
    William says:

    I thought this was well written. I also thought this was very informative. I think that this proves that kids can sometimes get over their heads when they join the work force. I mean older people know what their getting into because they have experience. Young college students really should learn to take it easy at first or thry could burn out.

  13. Bryan
    Bryan says:

    This blog was informative and for the most part did an excellent job of explaining the causes of burnout and how to aviod it. However, on the list of ways to avoid burnout, “1. Working too much” contradicts the premise earlier that “a 100-hour week might be fine for you.” Otherwise, I found the explanation of burnout and the tips to combat it very helpful.

  14. Tyler
    Tyler says:

    Although I agree that there are multipule causes to burning out, i feel like the one that really makes the largest difference is when you feel like your job doesnt give to a greater good, or help you leave an impact on society in some way. The feeling of striving for this feeling is what drives many people I feel.

  15. nate mcminn
    nate mcminn says:

    “Burning out” is something that i see most people doing in the job that i have right now. I bartend/manage a popular resturant on the waterfront in plymouth, ma. The expectations for money from the wait staff is high with an even higher expectation from the customers for the service provided. I notice almost everyday that most of the staff is burnt out because, like the article states, the expectations are too high for the average money and ammount of work they do. They also work long hours into the night with virtually no breaks.

    Myself as a student has also been burnt out on many occasions where i have found myself on the 3rd page of a 10 page paper as my alarm is going off signaling it is time to get ready for class, hurrying on assignments, or even speeding down the road because i slept thru my alarm. Being burnt out is a part of my life wether it is me or people around me. This article is a good way of describing burning out and spreading the knowledge with key points on how to control your life so you aren’t burnt out.

    * * * * * *

    Thanks for posting this comment, Nate. These are good examples of ways we burn out. Sometimes I think the best way to fix our own lives is to hear stories about other peoples’ lives.

    -Penelope

  16. Jackie
    Jackie says:

    This is a great article; most of the points brought up are things people experience, and feel but do not necessarily express in words. It's all very true about how friendship and social interaction can help you maintain a lower stress level, also not becoming burnt out. It's important these points are brought up because some of the most important things in life can be pushed aside because of work. I definitely agree with the part of the article that states, "Senior reports a body of research that shows younger people burnout faster because of their unrealistic expectations – " As a member of the younger community I feel that I have some unrealistic expectations; with the heavy work load in college, and amount of stresses in life, I don't have time to fulfill every expectation I hold high for myself. This article is helpful to put into perspective the concept of becoming "burnt out" and to not let work get in the way of living.

  17. Norma  Andersen
    Norma Andersen says:

    I was working with older and young people back in Denmark.

    I am 57 yrs old and still going strong, But I will like to try some thing new in another country.

    I hope to hear from you soon.

    Yours N. Andersen

  18. Burn Out
    Burn Out says:

    I agree with this article..its not how many hours you work a week..I work in a field that is counseling children that are in crisis in which they stay at a placement if you believe it or not im only a 23 yr old and been at this placement for 2 years…Dont get me wrong but it is stressful at times but I do not plan the children at all because they are here for a reason and must of the time they are rewarding because i love working with children…But it is the staff that stress me out more then the children…I work on a good week around 50+ hours and on a bad week i can work up to 70+ hours…It seems like I come into work and go home to sleep…Some children ask me if i live here the answer is no but i enjoy being aroudn the children and helping them…But it is the administration that is burning me out…i saw more staff come and go here then i see the children get discharged….For all the work that we put into this placement the administration seems like they are all worried about the money and nothing else…We get no thank yous for putting in extra work for anything…I just put in for a position as a supervisor but next thing you know 3 months later they gave it to another guy that has a supervisor position in our center…Everyone says that they are wrong with doing that since i deserve the position but that is stuff that burn people out as well…I love working with children but im at the burnout stage already and this is what i want my career to be in…Reading this article made me open my eyes to alot of things that i will be trying to due to make sure i dont burn myself out….

  19. Gordon R. Vaughan
    Gordon R. Vaughan says:

    Not sure I agree fully with the first part. I’ve been through burnout twice in my life and it’s not primarily about unrealized expectations/lack of fulfillment and only partly about having your needs met.

    It’s mostly about using one part of yourself to the point of exhaustion, not being able to switch gears and ever get a break in that area. Losing sight of your goals is a result, but that’s a symptom not a cause.

    Farber’s description sounds more like an accurate description of burnout.

  20. William J
    William J says:

    a very good article and something which I relate to now however what worries me is the ability to recovery from burnout thus learning from ones’ mistake, aside from aligning expectations with reality, some say you can never fully recover…

  21. Jason
    Jason says:

    But according to your other article about doing what you love being nonsense, the article above should have included a statement about just staying in the crappy job and remaining burned out because at least the job will allow you to do other things in life you enjoy, right?

  22. gogireeornale
    gogireeornale says:

    Fortunately I was surfing the internet today and I thoroughly freaked out. I really inaugurate my ex-girlfriend pictures on the internet. I have no thought when she did this but my ex-girlfriend was making revealed with some other teen.
    Does anyone contain any info on this ex-girlfriend site?

  23. Fred
    Fred says:

    I’m doing this test as part of a post-mortem on a job that I just quit. I have to admit that I was shocked that my score was 67.

    It took me 3 months to decide to quit the job. It’s frightening how you can live in denial.

  24. Sue
    Sue says:

    Wow. Finally someone put it into words…that perhaps not so vague feeling of tiredness of not giving a s—, of wanting to crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.
    I do a lot of volunteer work with women who are disadvantaged in a few areas .and sometimes it seems like I am just not getting any where. At all.
    So the really working hard for something often without seeing results makes sense for the way I feel. Plus, other areas of my life are not always meeting my needs….
    I was looking for the self test though..is there one?

  25. Lauren
    Lauren says:

    I stumbled upon your blog today. It’s insightful. I especially appreciate this post and those on twentysomethings. As a twentysomething, I guess you could say that I fit the stereotypes — burned-out and looking for a new job. It’s nice to read that there’s hope and that burnout isn’t a life sentence.

  26. Kumar
    Kumar says:

    Actually I take things seriously and get tensed for simple stuffs, which I understand later when I think about it, while I am cooled down. Now a days, I have simultaneously started thinking when I am tensed and make myself cool. I have got some inputs from your post and I believe I will be advantageous from this.

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