Job Burnout is a Killer

How to define job burnout

Have you ever tried Googling “Job Burnout”?

Here are some of the definitions you get:

Worthless. Totally bland and impersonal.

They just describe the problem and don’t give you a darn thing to do about your burnout.

A Very Personal Definition of Burnout

When I went for annual check-up with my doctor, I had an interaction that gave me a much more meaningful definition of job burnout.

We were going through the typical doctor-patient stuff, and then I asked him:

“How do you define burnout?”

I expected him to pull out the latest research studies and even some kind of medical stuff about the science of depression.

But that’s not what I got at all.

He shifted my entire view on job burnout with his response.

His eyes welled up with tears.

And he shared this…

“Job burnout happens when you confuse ‘who you are’ with ‘what you do’.  

You see, my doctor lost his father years ago when he literally worked himself to death.

His father just couldn’t be persuaded to take time off to recover from a heart attack because it wasn’t “productive”.

Like so many Americans, his father couldn’t separate his sense of self from the work he did.

It had disastrous consequences.

If you’ve read my blog before, you might recognize this as end-stage burnout. The kind that ravages your body. Conflating his self-worth with his job productivity drove him to work harder, harder… harder. Until his figurative burnout became literal, tangible burnout and he died.

I spent the rest of the afternoon pondering this, and here’s what I came up with.

What Happens When You Separate You from Work?

Being able to separate your sense of self-worth from the daily challenges at work will give you these benefits:

  • Your health improves – You’re instantly less stressed.  Things at work just seem a lot less significant. It’s funny how office issues or even attacks that really used to be annoying and even painful before seem a lot less personal and a lot less of a big deal. You also naturally begin integrating more ways to take care of your body into your work day (aka get out of your chair, walk around the office, and talk to someone).
  • You perform better at work – Work becomes less about just getting the job done and moving onto the next thing.   It evolves into creating a work-life that is sustainable for you, your family, and even your co-workers.
  • You have more romance – I suspect you didn’t anticipate this benefit.  This could show-up as more love, better relationships, or more passion for your work.  You feel more alive in what you do all day .

How do you do it?

Here’s three steps to get you started:

  1. Begin with why you’re working instead of focusing on how or what you’re doing.  This get’s down to the core of your work. What’s the larger mission you’re taking care of when you show up to the office?
  2. Distinguish your job title from who you want to be in the world.  Consider that your business card may say “Accountant” but maybe what you really want is to make people’s financial dreams a reality, or your card says “VP of Human Resources” but what you really want is to create an open working environment where conversation and concerns are shared freely.
  3. Focus on how your job can make a difference in the world versus getting caught up in the mundane details.  No matter what your job is, it can make a difference. But it’s not going to happen by answering emails or forcing yourself to sit at your desk 80 hours a week. Think about how the world’s going to be different when you finish the job and direct your energies there.

Now it’s time to go out, create your own personal path forward from burnout, and share it with others.

To Reigniting Your Career!


PS:  To get the free Burnout Manifesto: Seven Ways to Reignite your Career (without quitting your job), enter your email address here





  • Ed C

    Reply Reply May 28, 2012

    What if it’s not the work that is causing the stress, but management policies toward employees. My large corporation (used to be Dow 30, if that’s any hint) has a quota system that requires that roughly 8% of employees be rated ‘underperformers’ and denied a raise and denied the bonus they would otherwise receive. I’ve been tagged and it has left me angry, un-motivated, and depressed. Funny how many older employees, like me, suffer this indignity. I can reasonably assume that this is a strategy they use to get older employees to leave … without a severance package. And this is a company some damned fools rated as “one of the most ethical corporations”. I’m disgusted that this goes on.

    • benfanning

      Reply Reply June 11, 2012

      Ed, Thanks for your comment. Management policies can definitely be a cause a stress at work (and at home for that matter).

      It can be demoralizing and get you stuck in the mentality of “that’s just the way things are”, and even into the mindset of “they’re out to get me”. Of course they might be.

      One tip that has helped me and my clients deal with the frustration of stressful management policy is to shift to the mentality of “it’s just a matter of time”.

      Your comment is a great example of bringing this to awareness, and I’ll never look at the 8% the same way again. I’m sure others won’t either.

  • CMilesFitz

    Reply Reply May 29, 2012

    Ed, I agree that the “forced bell curve” environment can really color your outlook on your job satisfaction, security, and desire to find the good in what you do. In my experience, there is little to nothing that the individual can do to change these broad corporate policies (especially at large companies). I’ve found it’s better to approach my personal team (what I directly influence) in a different way and fight for that ethical stance whenever possible.

    When I remove myself from the confines of “normalizing” and simply help to challenge and support my team to achieve the best for them and the organization it actually amazes me how few conflicts arise. Rather than fighting the system, I set my team up for success that usually speaks for itself. This has even worked for my own career pathing, the less I’ve worried about where I’ll hit the curve, the better those reviews tend to go.

    Unfortunately, sometimes even the best intentions don’t work out, at that point it’s time to remember what really matters in our lives and potentially find a new path rather than burning out trying to be the butterfly wing against a much stronger prevailing gale.

    • benfanning

      Reply Reply June 11, 2012

      CMiles, This seems much like a much more inspiring place to work than when you’re up against the bell curve.

      Thanks for providing an example of what the office and your own career can be like when it’s not being “normalized”.

  • Carole Staveley

    Reply Reply November 7, 2013

    My experience was working for a pharmaceutical company that started out with a philosophy of “do what’s right and the money will follow”, to 16 years later having the philosophy of “do whatever it takes to increase profits.” In the last 2 years at this company, I was depressed and disgusted in myself for even contributing to what they stood for. But I had a nice 6-figure salary that contributed significantly to our family income and lifestyle. I was trapped. Until I started to think creatively. Yes, I’ve given up a lot of money, but I am loving life and smiling a lot more than I did those last few years in the corporate world. With the backing of a supportive husband, I have started my journey with book writing and blogging, and developing a sustainable business model around my passion to help others reach their physical potential by becoming “health champions.”

    • benfanning

      Reply Reply November 7, 2013

      Thanks, Carole. Congrats on your transition. Love how you’re you turning burnout into something powerful that can help others!

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