Can Science Save Us From a Failed State of Burnout?

Missing the point of life doesn't make sense -- but then a lot of things we do are irrational when we're under the influence of myopia, a specialty of chronic stress and its final stage, burnout.
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The renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, who studied the life stages, said we are going to have three main questions at the end of our days as we look back and review what we have wrought: Did I do what I wanted? Did I get what I came here for? And was it a good time? Burnout ensures a "no" for each.

That's not the answer anyone in possession of their faculties wants. Missing the point of life doesn't make sense -- but then a lot of things we do are irrational when we're under the influence of myopia, a specialty of chronic stress and its final stage, burnout. Both constrict the brain to the false emergency of the moment and prevent us from seeing the big picture and more sustainable ways to manage work, life, or national resources.

This is hard to see when we're in the middle of false beliefs that appear so believable that it seems rational to put health, family, and long-term problems on hold for short-term external goals -- such as performance, power, money, status -- that are ephemeral and, as the research shows, don't deliver what we want.

• The more importance placed on wealth aspirations, the poorer the well-being. (1)

When self-esteem is based on external measures, there is more stress, anger, and substance abuse. (2)

The stronger the financial goal, the lower the satisfaction with family life. (3)

The training is embedded deep: More hours are better, all value lies in performance, stepping back to think or refuel is a sin, bravado rules, false short-term emergencies are more important than real, long-term ones.

I see it up close and personal in my stress management and productivity trainings at organizations around the country. Quantity of hours is confused with quality, how "hard" the person works (how long) takes priority over excellence or results, the most basic management tool -- boundaries -- is seen as weakness.

The true source of productivity in the knowledge economy isn't the Burnout Model -- just keep going till the paramedics arrive; use everything up now, forget about later -- it's who's got the freshest brain. Anything that undercuts the chief productivity tool, attention, is counterproductive. Being able to take more, beat yourself up more, endure more, have less of a life than the next person, is a fool's errand for work, life, and leadership.

The Burnout Model celebrates an ass-backwards world in which the values we hold sacrosanct -- productivity, family, rational thinking, civic engagement, achievement, physical vitality -- are abandoned for the pursuit of a mirage that produces their opposite -- exhaustion, stress, distraction, hair-trigger emotions, insecurity, withdrawal, despair, cratered home-life, depersonalization, and cynicism.

Stanford Medical School's Mark Cullen told me that, "Even if you love your work, do too much of it, and you'll hate it." And not only that. When you work too much, you can't take satisfaction from what you do, because there's always something next on the list.

There's an adage in the management trade that says, work expands to fill the available time. With technology, that's 24/7 -- unless we make some of that time unavailable through boundaries. This is hard to do for a culture that defines itself through labor more than in other lands. We are taught to believe that all value and its metrics -- success, money, toys, status -- come from performance, so more of it must be better. Step back, and you lose value and feel guilty.

When "workaholism" was identified as a life-threatening addictive behavior, the medical world thought they had a term that could finally make people take the condition seriously. Wrong. Workaholics saw the term as a positive description, and it had to be replaced with "overperformance."

Performance is an external yardstick, a measure of other people's approval. Since it's about what others think, not you, it doesn't stick. You get a quick bump and then have to knock yourself out for the next external pat on the back. Performance pads what's known as a pseudo, or contingent, self-esteem. It's fickle, because it's dependent on others, so you have to keep racking up more performance to feel worthy, because you don't really buy it.

The pseudo-self-esteem of power and performance is an illusion we pay a steep price for when short-term ego always rules over long-term problem-solving. It's a treadmill that leads to chronic stress, depression, stroke, a distracted nation caught up in false alarms, and a whopping bill for our failed state of burnout. U. C. Irvine's Peter Schnall, co-author of Unhealthy Work, told me that the tab comes to $400 billion in stress-related costs for American business every year, and a $1 trillion hit annually to the economy. Want to cut the deficit? Start here.

The masochism isn't based on anything scientific, just reflex over thought, on the celebration of action, commotion, busyness over all else. It's all retaliatory, reacting to events, devices and other people's crisis mentality all day. We are locked in a cycle of false urgency and false emergencies (stress) that we can stop. (When we turn off the danger signal, the stress response stops in four minutes.) Nonstop motion makes everything appear urgent when we haven't taken the time to think about what is urgent and what isn't.

Productivity is not a function of rote constant commotion, racing full blast, or doing four things at once. The science shows that productivity is about informed performance, thinking before we act, and managing demands, instead of having them manage us. How much better could our work, attention, lives, and communities be if we could follow the data, instead of the bravado of the Burnout Model? For instance, multitasking can slow productivity down from 40 percent to more than 100 percent, says University of Michigan multitasking expert David Meyer. The stats say there's a better way:

• Constant interruptions erode impulse control. The more you check email, the more you have to check it. (4)

The fatigue of that 14-hour day comes out of your hide the next day and the next. (6)

• The key trait of business people who have true satisfaction in their lives is the deliberate imposition of limits. (9)

When I do workshops to help organizations manage crazy-busy overload, management and staff alike agree that the burnout approach doesn't make sense and are relieved to get permission from the research to follow a less crazed, more productive path. We as a culture need permission to get off the mutually assured destruction circuit and adopt healthier yardsticks beyond external success, such as the Third Metric, advocated in these pages by Arianna Huffington. All the data shows that it's internal success that rules. You are the audience, nobody else.

We can get more done in less time, think clearly, and carve out space to do the things Erikson says we're going to need to do to give our lives a thumbs-up, when we're not in the thrall of external approval and values at odds with who we say we are. The real motivation for engaged offices and citizenry lies not on the My Ulcer's Bigger Than Yours track, but with intrinsic goals that help us be absorbed in every moment for its own sake (10), enjoy the fruits of our labor, and insure that we have a resounding "yes" ready for each of Erikson's questions.


1. Tim Kasser, M. Vansteenkiste, J.R. Deckop, "The Ethical Problems of a Materialistic Value Orientation for Businesses," in Human Resource Management Ethics, edited by J. Deckop, 2006

2. Jennifer Crocker, "The Costs of Seeking Self-Esteem," Journal of Social Issues 58, 2002

3. Carol Nickerson, Norbert Schwartz, et al., "Zeroing in on the Dark Side of the American Dream, 2003

4. Winifred Gallagher, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life. Penguin Press, 2009.

5. Edward Shepard, Thomas Clifton, "Are Long Hours Reducing Productivity?" 2000

6. Business Roundtable, "Scheduled Overtime Effect on Construction Projects," November, 1980

7. Stephen Cole, Ichiro Kawaki, J. Michael Gaziano, JoAnn Manson, Julie Buring, Charles Hennekens, "The Urgency and Risk of Non-Fatal Myocardial Infarction," 2001

8. Jeffrey Conte, Kathleen Ringenbach, Frank Landy, Stacy Moran, "Criterion-Validity Evidence for Time Urgency: Associations with Burnout, Organizational Commitment, and Job involvement in Travel Agents," 2001

9. Laura Nash, Howard Stevenson, Just Enough, 2004

10. Edward Deci, Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation, Penguin, 1995.

Joe Robinson is a stress management and productivity trainer, speaker, and author of Work to Live and the Email Overload Survival Kit. You can find his work at

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