Treating burnout with belonging

A guide to relationships, resources and reciprocity.

Search the word “burnout” and you will find yourself flooded with opinion pieces, investigative journalism, psychological studies, and government reports, all with titles like, “Burnout and stress are everywhere” (American Psychological Association), “Burnout was supposed to get better. It hasn’t.” (Vox), and even “Searches for ‘burnout’ are at an all time high” (Quartz). 

If, like me, you’re a literalist with a penchant for looking up words in their original contexts, you might find that a lot of this writing isn’t talking about burnout at all, but exhaustion, depression, and exploitation and oppression, all of which can contribute to or be part of burnout without adding up to the whole thing. 

So what’s the deal? Why are searches for burnout at an all-time high?

For one, as Jonathan Malesic baldly points out in “The End of Burnout:” “When you say you’re burned out, you aren’t only admitting to failure, you’re also claiming to fulfill the American ideal of constant work.” To be burned out is to be hardworking, committed and useful. 

Second, the instances of burnout, while perhaps not as high as our media might claim, are significantly higher than they were a few decades ago, with our work environments creating a uniquely insidious existential problem: if you are a “good” worker, you will and should burn out. 

This is not only because “good workers” put in extra time and give their work all of themselves, but also because they are so self-managed as to no longer be in relationship with others, and, simultaneously, self-sacrificing enough to abandon their own needs in service of the desires of others. Burnout, then, is a problem of lack of belonging.

Overcoming burnout means re-considering the role belonging is meant to play in our workplaces. 

Making sense of burnout 

Our cultural conversation about burnout focuses almost solely on exhaustion, yet the experience of being overextended is simply not the same as being burned out. Specifically, when psychologist and researcher Christina Maslach developed the Maslach Burnout Inventory, she identified three components to burnout: 

1. Exhaustion (also called burnout): A feeling of being constantly drained of energy at work due to being overextended. The experience of exhaustion dissipates when the worker leaves their workplace, either temporarily or permanently. 

2. Depersonalization: A feeling that those you are meant to serve – customers, clients, students, volunteers, etc. – are problems rather than those you are meant to help. The term “depersonalization” is used interchangeably with “cynicism.” 

3. Lack of personal accomplishment: A feeling that your work accomplishes or contributes nothing, which can be associated with so-called “bs” jobs. 

So why the hyperfocus on exhaustion? In part, it’s because it’s the easiest part of burnout to treat – take a vacation, get some sleep, advocate for fewer hours, hire more people and share administrative tasks. These are all recommendations for solving the problem of burnout, and while they have their merits, may be totally ineffective when considered with what burnout really is. 

For example, exhausted workers tend to have negative perceptions of their workload, but not the people they work with. Cynical workers, however, tend to have negative perceptions of their co-workers and work environments. Working less may not actually help a burned-out worker because their feelings of cynicism have totally alienated them from why they do the work in the first place. 

It’s worth nothing that everyone from the original coiner of the term burnout, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, to Christina Maslach and Jonathan Malesic, have identified that those who burn out tend to be idealistic because no matter how hard one works, those ideals fail to be met. 

Anecdotally, I see higher rates of burnout among care workers such as teachers, health care providers and faith leaders. In my research interviews with these individuals, they describe directly or indirectly that the ideal of “care” is one that can never be met. 

Disconcertingly, this might mean that our focus on “purpose-driven” work might be one of the biggest contributors to our culture of burnout, both in creating the conditions for more people to experience burnout and the idea that burnout is inherently a sign of worthiness. 

Treating burnout structurally and as individuals with belonging 

As Malesic notes, “burnout arises from the contradictions between our ideals and our organizations, but it’s also a product of the unhealthy interpersonal relations we have at work. Burnout stems from the demands we place on others, the recognition we fail to give, the discord between our words and actions. It is ultimately a result of the failure to honor each other’s human dignity.”

In my own work on belonging, I found that belonging at work is the experience of feeling part of something greater than yourself that you value and respect and that values and respects you back. In many ways, belonging and burnout are incompatible. Therefore, the strategies for achieving a sense of belonging may also serve as ones for preventing burnout. 

Specifically, belonging requires a healthy sense of connection, mutuality and the space to honor both. In my model, to create a culture of belonging at work, we must have relationships, resources and reciprocity. 

Relationships refer to having positive, meaningful ties our colleagues, customers and community. The cultivation and maintenance of these relationships is a balm to feelings of cynicism because we remain committed to and connected others. In practice, strong working relationships might translate into “yes” answers to these questions: 

  1. If I experience an emergency, will others believe me and offer support? Will I have someone to turn to? 
  2. When I feel stuck or confused, am I met with understanding and resources? 
  3. Do others acknowledge and validate me as the person I am, in addition to the things I do? 
  4. Do I feel I can offer help, encouragement and acknowledgement to others? Will they receive this help, encouragement and acknowledgement openly from me? 

Resources are the things we need to invest in relationships. When we are well-resourced, we are less likely to be overextended or exhausted. Resources include the time and energy needed to regularly check in, offer and receive help, and praise and be praised. They also include money, tools and services. How can I feel valued and respected if I know I am paid 18 percent less than a colleague doing the exact same role? If my team is under-staffed and I am pulling double shifts regularly, will I have enough energy to participate in the work community enough to feel part of something greater than myself? 

To achieve a sense of belonging and stave off the exhaustion of burnout, it’s worth making a list of everything you need to go from being overwhelmed to neutral. Some questions to ask are:

  1. Do I have clearly defined roles and responsibilities? Do I know what are the “must-have” and “nice-to-have” components of my role? 
  2. Do we have enough staff support to complete our current list of projects? 
  3. If I am unable to complete all my work within a reasonable amount of time, do I have options other than working late such as reaching out to a colleague, pushing a deadline or hiring outside help? 
  4. Am I authorized to automate manual tasks? 
  5. Do I believe I am paid fairly relative to my colleagues? 

Reciprocity refers to the experience of being able to give and take within a work community. It’s important to note that reciprocity is not “tit for tat” and should not mean exact trades; the difference between reciprocal versus transactional workplaces is nuanced and important. Transactional relationships are transparent but not necessarily trusting – “if I stay late 30 minutes to help you with a problem, you will have to stay 30 minutes late next week when I ask. If you break that contract, our ‘trade’ relationship is over.” 

Reciprocal relationships are often transparent and always trusting; they are rooted in the belief that while not everything about our future interactions is known, I am confident that you will uphold my dignity and I yours. So, maybe I need you to stay late today to help me with my problem, but when you need the same help next week, I can’t stay because of a family commitment. In this case, I may enlist a fellow colleague to help you, brainstorm ideas ahead of time, bring you a prepared dinner to take home to alleviate stress, or take a pass on this situation but come through on another one. 

Reciprocity is hard because it’s both situational and long-term; the only way to establish true reciprocity is through the everyday muscle memory of making promises and keeping them, knowing one another and being known. In this way, it can serve as a bulwark against lack of personal accomplishment because the strength and stability of your workplace relationships is an accomplishment. 

When Malesic argues that the answer to burnout “will not just entail creating better workplaces, but becoming better people,” reciprocity is the first concept that comes to my mind. Reciprocity helps reorient our mindsets from merely preventing our own sense of burnout to preventing that of others and promoting their experience of belonging at the same time.