After a two-year global pandemic that has created massive ramifications to our collective mental health, economy, and the way work, burnout is on everyone’s mind. Even before the pandemic hit, burnout was rising, with over 75% of American workers claiming to have experienced burnout on the job at some point during their career. And it doesn’t appear to be getting any better.

Burnout is defined as “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” Though it is often used to describe work, it can refer to relationships, to commitments, to activities we once sought for pleasure, and to journeys that we partake in. It’s when you’re giving more than you’re getting, when the output and the input are out of whack.

Burnout is the long-term effect of misalignment. It’s when the activities you dedicate your time to don’t match your values, your interests, or your sense of purpose. Burnout drains the joy out of something you once loved to do, and if the feeling persists, it may be time to re-examine how you’re going about your work. Sometimes getting through burnout requires a revamping of your perspective. Other times it’s a message telling you it’s time to move on. And then there’s everything in between.

Burnout is created from an accumulation of both STRESS and STAGNATION. Burnout means giving your all (that’s the stress part) to something that doesn’t matter enough to you (that’s the stagnation part). How much we care is a major factor of how much we’re able to give.

Burnout is now officially recognized by the World Health Organization as a “syndrome” tied to a variety of symptoms including a “weakened immune systems and even cardiovascular disease.” Though it will show up differently in everyone, the official description of burnout syndrome has three components: exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. Exhaustion can be emotional and spiritual as well as physical. Cynicism refers to a negative or detached mood about your work, your superiors, and your colleagues. It’s disengagement. Inefficacy means your productivity is down, you stop believing in your skills, and you don’t think that what you do matters.

Here are some sobering statistics: The average American worker works 47 hours per week (49% work 50+, 20% work 60+). Only one in three takes an actual lunch break. A quarter of American workers work night hours (10-6 a.m.) which is the highest in the world, and 27% work at least partly on the weekends. It’s no surprise that over the past three years, employee stress is up 28%, anxiety is up 74%, and depression is up 58%. An estimated 70% of workers aren’t passionate about their jobs. It’s one thing to give yourself to your job. It’s another to give yourself to something you don’t care about, are disinterested in, or detest. This mix of high time and energy commitment with low engagement and passion wipes us out (exhaustion). Then we stop caring about what we’re doing during those hours. We don’t enjoy who we’re doing it with or for (cynicism), and we stop feeling like it has a purpose (inefficacy).

Burnout also doesn’t just happen with age. I went through it at 19.

As a varsity high school basketball player and then as a freshman at Elon College (now Elon University), basketball was my life. I was a heavily invested athlete whose entire identity revolved around the sport. But during my sophomore year of college, my passion for the game waned considerably. I wasn’t miserable enough to quit the team, but not enjoying myself enough—or committed enough—to rationalize all the time I was putting in. I reached a point where basketball felt more like a job than a passion. I had to face it: I was burned out.

The person I was and the one I was becoming were no longer inextricably tied to basketball. It wasn’t just the time and energy, but that disconnect that was burning me out. Because I had to do it, I started to resent it. I was separated from the reasons I loved the game since I was five years old: the challenge, the camaraderie, the commitment, the competition. Mentally, I turned something I’d once loved and obsessed over into just a job. I’d think My job today is to go to practice 2-4. I was punching a clock, viewing this activity that once gave me joy like someone twice my age who rides a train to a cubicle and can’t wait for 5 o’clock.

I did the bare minimum to keep my scholarship and stay on the team, but deservedly, I rode the bench. And I didn’t even care. I was numb to the whole experience. My immaturity and lack of self-awareness at the time allowed me to blame the coach, make excuses to my friends on why I wasn’t playing, and complain about the entire situation incessantly. But the cold truth was this was all on me. I allowed my burnout to get to this point and I was the one who chose to hide behind blaming, complaining, and excuses.

As hard as that time was one me, I am grateful for the experience because it was so instructive. When I was working with an unmotivated kid at DeMatha or Montrose, I could say “I get it, I’ve been where you are. You’re at a fork in the road. I don’t recommend taking the path I took.” Going from playing every minute in high school to riding the bench at Elon also gave me empathy for those who don’t get in the game. “I know it’s tough for you to show up at practice every day and bust your butt,” I’d say, “and know there’s not a reward of more minutes.” Seeing that experience from the player’s perspective made me a better coach and more compassionate human being.

Are you losing interest? Energy? Focus? Are you too mentally wiped to do more than go through the motions? 1 in 3 workers consider themselves overworked and over 3 out of 4 feel burned out. It doesn’t help that fewer than 16% of companies have a program to help employees deal with stress, while 40% of the US population believes work/life balance is unattainable.

And burnout is not about work alone because it can spread to the rest of our lives. If we are disconnected at our jobs, there’s a good chance we’re not being the best partner, most patient friend, caring parent, or engaged hobbyist. Burnout is like a fire that can extinguish our passion, interest, and energy across all aspects of our lives.

Just like with stress and stagnation, burnout is a “a signal, not a long-term sentence.” The best thing we can do for ourselves is recognize when burnout is bearing down. If we can spot the early red flags, we can take action before we are fully extinguished. We can make those internal adjustments and pivots. Preventing is usually more efficient than solving, and being proactive is usually more effective than being reactive. We need to stop burnout before it takes hold.

Sustain Your Game teaches you how to bring your A game to every area of your life. With advice from top CEOs, journalists, social scientists, and more, you’ll learn the framework for how to beat stress, stagnation, and burnout. Sustain Your Game will help you be the best in your arena, wherever that may be.

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