3 Science-Backed Strategies For Beating Burnout

Sep 18, 2017

By Taylor Kreiss 

Americans love #winning.

And that can be a wonderful thing. Seriously, there are many benefits to feeling like a competent go getter.

It’s just that sometimes our culture’s passion for success can get a little... out of hand. Just look at recent studies suggesting that we’re reaching ~50% Burnout rates across many industries.

It’s actually becoming more normal than not to struggle with workplace exhaustion, irritability, demotivation and disillusionment. Our obsession with achievement has us running ourselves ragged and Burnout is turning into the new status quo.

Now for the good news: there are some practical science-backed strategies we can use on a daily basis to combat the causes and symptoms of Burnout.

I’ve chosen three radically different strategies here, so you can explore which one works best for you. I invite you to pick one or two that sound appealing and try them for a full week. Track their impact and leave a comment about your experience. Let’s start a conversation about how to reclaim our well-being in the workplace!

1. Editing Your Social Group To Beat Burnout

We all know people who are tremendous sources of secondhand stress. For these folks, every small kink in the plan is a catastrophic problem that needs to be dealt with immediately. They vent about how tired they are, they constantly complain about coworkers and they generally seem to have an energy sapping effect on their social network.

I’m exhausted just thinking about people like this. The unyielding negativity is draining (and contagious).  

A substantial amount of research shows that we humans tend to take on the emotions and behaviors of those around us. So if we want to be motivated, energetic and productive at work, it’s absolutely essential that we become more deliberate about who we’re spending our time with during the day.

Here’s what you do:

This is a strategy you can start right now. Open a Microsoft Word document and answer the following prompts:

List 6 people you interact with every day at work.  

Next, go down the list and ask yourself if each person is an energizer or an energy drain. Place a plus sign (+) or minus sign (-) next to their names accordingly.

Now it’s time to adjust your daily interactions. The goal is to make an effort this week to spend more time with energizers and less time with energy drainers.

Start with one or two people (with whom you have some ability to control your interactions) and generate some strategies to spend more/less time with them.

Try starting a new project with an energizer or just going to their workspace to speak with them more often.

Perhaps make a point of being “busy” when draining people ask you out to lunch or just make efforts to shorten interactions with them.

Create concrete strategies and implement them throughout the week. Pay attention to your energy levels and see if you don’t feel like you have extra energy throughout the day.

Personal development guru Jim Rohn famously said: “You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time around,” and the data agrees with his underlying idea. The people we surround ourselves with have a tremendous influence on our energy levels and the decisions we make. Try tailoring/curating your social group to help yourself function more effectively and avoid Burnout.

2. Meaning At Work

Have you consistently had moments on the job where you slump over, sigh deeply, shield your eyes and think “why am I doing this?”

Well you’re not alone.

Recently, researcher Tom Rath surveyed over 10,000 people and found that only 20% of them reported feeling that they had done meaningful work the day before.

This is unfortunate because meaning has routinely been associated with significantly higher work engagement, increased job satisfaction and greater intrinsic motivation. Finding meaning in your work can be a wonderful way to combat disengagement, disillusionment and demotivation.

So get more meaning out of the daily grind and give the following meaning exercise a try!

Here’s what you do:

The goal is to pause several times a day and focus on how your actions make a positive impact. Consciously link your daily activities with some contribution you’re making to other people and/or to some larger purpose.

Oftentimes when we’re hammering away on excel spreadsheets, we focus on how mundane or pointless the task is – it can be difficult to see the meaning in it. But just about every job position exists to improve the lives of others. Your work positively affects the lives of other people, even if those effects are not immediately apparent.

That spreadsheet is likely a small step towards providing an important service or product to real people, and stopping to appreciate that result tends to provide a palpable positive energy boost.

So the next time you’re at work, set an intention (maybe even multiple reminders on your iPhone) to stop and write down how your present activity serves society and/or enriches the lives of real people, even if it’s just one.

Try to do this at least three times a day at work for a week. Do this exercise often enough and you’ll create a habit of making meaning out of your work.

This is not just mental gymnastics or vapid “positive thinking.” What we focus on is determinative of our experience, so actively look for the good you are doing and you’ll enjoy the benefits.

I do understand that you may not be working in an ideal situation and sometimes it may feel like you have a higher calling that is more deserving of your time, but there is certainly some degree of meaning to what you do, and connecting with that can help deal with Burnout.

3. Breathe Your Way Through The Day

There is a wealth of research on how effective breathing exercises can be as a proactive means of managing your energy, stress and state of mind.

There is a multidirectional interplay between our emotions, mental state, physiology and breathing. Feeling anxious turns our breathing to a more shallow and quick tempo, while breathing fully and slowly in a calm manner tends to produce feelings of serenity. Deliberate breathing exercises tend to slow heart rate and calm blood pressure with surprising quickness.

The best part is that these strategies are always available to us. Sure you can go on a weekend long retreat focused on breathing meditations, but you could also spend 45 seconds before a meeting to deliberately breathe and center yourself.

So let’s take a look at two breathing exercises that may help to beat Burnout in the workplace.

Here’s what to do:

Try one or both of the following breathing exercises several times a day for a week. Use them in different situations and at different levels of stress. Record your experience to get an idea of how effective the strategy is for you. Again I’d recommend setting iPhone reminders to keep the breathing exercises top of mind, because you have to actually do them to see if they work for you.

Take Five

This exercise was recommended to me by mindfulness expert Cory Muscara. He’s suggested it to many different types of people, from school children to high powered business executives and received incredibly positive feedback. I‘ve summarized his directions below; I recommend reading all the way through before starting.

Take out your left hand and hold it out in front of you like you’re holding a pizza. Then take your right pointer finger and rest it at the base of your open palm, right near your wrist.

Slide your right pointer finger up your thumb, inhaling through your nose as you do. Exhale slowly through your mouth as you slide your pointer finger back down to the base of your palm.

Next slide your right finger up your left pointer finger, inhaling slowly and fully. Sync your exhale with sliding your finger back down to the base of your palm.

Repeat this process up and down the middle finger of your open hand. Look to sync your inhalations and exhalations with the movement of your right pointer finger up and down your left hand.

And continue until you have breathed your way up and down the five fingers of your hand.

Congratulations, you have just “taken 5.”

I fully acknowledge it may feel a little silly at first, but I think you’ll be surprised at how effective it can be once you get into the habit of pausing to take 5. And if you get really ambitious or want to treat yourself - try taking 10, 15 or even 20!

2. Just Breathe

This is a deceptively simple exercise, but in our overstimulated modern world it can be a herculean struggle to just sit and pay attention to your breathing (seriously wait until you try it). Read through before starting.  

Set a timer for three to five minutes.

Place your hand on your belly and take long full breaths that fill up your abdomen like a balloon.

Feel your hand move with the inhale and exhale, trying to really breathe down into the belly.

Pay attention to the breath for the full amount of time on your timer. Try not to judge or think you’re doing anything incorrectly. Just keep your awareness on the act of breathing. Breathe and focus.

The mind will want to wander, as minds do naturally. When you notice your mind wandering, gently guide your attention back to your inhales and exhales.


Your timer will go off and you will have completed this exercise. Just that easy (or difficult if you’re anything like me).

This may not feel like a panacea for your daily stress, but creating even a small space to take a breather can really calm the nervous system. And making a habit of breathing exercises can make for a truly noticeable effect.

In Conclusion

Our workplace culture is not going to change tomorrow, and the bosses are unlikely to mandate official nap-times any time soon.

Ultimately we’ll need to start a conversation about our hyper-productivity if we want to improve our well-being and do our best work.

Thankfully there are some strategies we can implement ourselves to beat Burnout. I would love to hear if you try one or more of these strategies so don’t hesitate to reach out: [email protected]

 *I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that certain symptoms of Burnout can actually be a signal of more serious underlying health issues. It’s important to start a conversation with your healthcare provider(s) about your levels of stress and exhaustion, so please do see a professional if you’re concerned about Burnout or about your wellness in any way. Seriously, reading an article online doesn't put a person in a place to diagnose themselves - see somebody if you’re not feeling well.

About the Author 

Taylor Kreiss is a positive psychology writer and coach on a mission to share the art and science of the good life. He consults businesses in how to bring positive psychology into the workplace, coaches one-on-one to help individuals reach their peak performance and writes for Creativity/Philosophy/Positive Psychology blogs. He also loves connecting, so please reach out to talk about potential collaboration: [email protected] And please check out his website if you want more articles like this one: taylorkreiss.com


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