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How Burnout Became Normal — and How to Push Back Against It

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Kirk Paulsen

River Oak Partners, LLC
Office : 8437930398
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If we’re exposed to something repeatedly, it seems we can become desensitized to almost anything. An event that once evoked shock can come to seem routine; what once prompted alarm can eventually inspire no more than a shrug.

As a burnout researcher, I sometimes worry that we’re becoming numb to just how serious this workplace syndrome actually is. Not only is the sheer number of people experiencing burnout higher than ever, recent evidence shows that burnout is affecting workers at younger ages — and its effects are more debilitating. The latest Stress in America survey reveals that 67% of adults ages 18 to 34 say stress makes it difficult for them to focus, 58% describe their daily stress as “completely overwhelming,” and nearly half report that most days their stress is so bad they’re unable to function.



Regardless of age, burnout remains an urgent concern. Employees who are suffering from it — a syndrome characterized by exhaustion, negativity or cynicism toward one’s job, and underperformance — are more likely to experience sleep disturbances, cardiovascular disease, gastrointestinal issues, depression, absenteeism, and job dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, burned-out workers are more likely to make errors and less likely to be innovative and productive. Gallup estimates that low employee engagement (a hallmark of burnout) costs the global economy $8.8 trillion, or 9% of the global gross domestic product.

Perhaps most shocking of all is that so little of this actually is shocking. From the 40% of Gen Z workers who believe burnout is an inevitable part of success, to executives who believe high-pressure, “trial-by-fire” assignments are a required rite of passage, to toxic hustle culture that pushes busyness as a badge of honor, too many of us now expect to feel overwhelmed, over-stressed, and eventually burned out at work.

In my book Burnout Immunity, I describe how burnout can sometimes sneak up on us so gradually we don’t realize we’ve entered a danger zone until we get sick, our motivation vanishes, or our performance plummets. I believe a similar mechanism is occurring on a larger scale, across work cultures and even societies. Slowly but steadily, while we’ve been preoccupied with trying to meet demands that outstrip our resources, grappling with unfair treatment, or watching our working hours encroach upon our downtime, burnout has become the new baseline in many work environments.

The Sweet Spot of Stress

Because burnout is caused by prolonged exposure to stressful workplace conditions, fully eliminating it calls for systemic changes to organizational conditions and cultures. That said, there are measures individual workers can take to help protect themselves, and to begin moving their personal baseline back to a healthy starting point. One of the best ways I’ve found is to learn to maximize our time within what’s known as the window of tolerance — or what I’ve come to refer to as the sweet spot of stress.

The window of tolerance concept was first developed by neurobiologist and clinical professor of psychiatry Dr. Dan Siegel to describe an “optimal zone of arousal” within which we can best process and respond to the demands of everyday life. When we’re within our window of tolerance, we are neither hyper-aroused (i.e., overstimulated, too stressed, or anxious) or hypo-aroused (i.e., understimulated, withdrawn, or shut down). In this “sweet spot” between too revved up and not challenged enough, we have access to our executive functioning skills, which enable us to plan and organize, regulate our emotions, and manage our time and priorities. This optimal state, psychotherapist Linda Graham explains, is our natural, baseline state of physiological functioning, when we’re “grounded and centered, neither overreacting to other people or life events nor failing to act at all.”

What Siegel and Graham are describing is a place of regulation and equilibrium: We are calm yet engaged, relaxed yet fully alert. This is the middle ground we’re aiming for — the “sweet spot” where we’re experiencing just enough stress that we feel energized and attentive, but not so much that we feel overwhelmed and ineffective. Low to moderate levels of perceived stress (the degree to which a person appraises events in their life to be stressful) have been found to enhance working memory and cognitive function, but once a person crosses the threshold into high stress, their ability to remember, concentrate, and learn new things begins to decline. This is the point when stress becomes toxic, which leaves us vulnerable to a host of physical, mental, and occupational woes, including burnout. Anytime we’re operating from within the sweet spot of stress, however, where we have the optimal level of stimulation, we are reestablishing a healthy baseline, and we are optimally positioned for our best health, thinking, learning, and performance.

It’s important to remember that everyone’s sweet spot of stress is different, as each of us has different thresholds for what we find stressful and draining and what we need to feel motivated and effective. How do you know when you’re no longer within your personal sweet spot of stress? Sometimes it’s obvious, but toxic stress can show up in a variety of ways, some of them not as well known.

Your body could let you know, for example, in the form of muscle tension, headaches, insomnia, stomach upset, shortness of breath, an elevated heart rate, or falling ill more often. Your brain could tell you in the form of anxiety, negativity, apathy, trouble focusing, or feeling out of control. Your moods could alert you through irritation, impatience, defensiveness, or becoming more quarrelsome. Your behavior could tell you in the form of poor decisions, disengagement, missed deadlines, avoidance, making more mistakes, or quiet or actual quitting. Being out of your sweet spot of stress can even show up in your language. If you find yourself frequently using words such as exhausted, defeated, demoralized, numb, overwhelmed, overloaded, or stuck to describe how you feel at work, you’re likely in the distress zone and at risk of burning out.

Reestablishing a Healthy Baseline

When pressures are mounting and your work environment continues to be stressful, it’s all the more important to take proactive steps to return to your personal sweet spot of stress and remain there as long as you can. Here are some techniques that work.

  • Identify the conditions that keep you in your sweet spot of stress.

Think back to the last time you felt calm, regulated, and fully engaged in what you were doing. Make an inventory of the conditions that enabled you to get to and maintain that state. For most people, “the basics” will always make the list: sufficient sleep, healthy, nutritious meals, some sort of physical activity.

From there, list any of the supports or resources you would need to stay within your personal sweet spot, and think about the triggers that would push you into the distress zone so you can do your best to avoid them. For example, before any big meeting, one of my study participants reserves the conference room a half hour early so she can get fully prepared and feel comfortable in the space, and she avoids caffeine because she knows it will make her jittery and anxious. These simple techniques keep her within her sweet spot of stress as she leads the meeting.

What’s on your list? Asking for help or feedback, calling a friend for a pep talk, engaging in regular exercise, planning ahead, and regularly connecting with people who uplift you are all good options. The list will be different for everyone, but knowing what ushers you into your sweet spot (as well as what will push you out of it) will help you remain there as long as possible.

  • Use emotional regulation strategies.

Emotional regulation allows us to manage our emotions in such a way that we remain effective and in control, even in the midst of high-stress situations. One of the best ways to get better at this invaluable life skill is to start practicing it while you’re still in a calm, regulated state. Regular mindfulness meditation, where you simply note your thoughts and feelings without judgment as they arise, enables you to become less reactive and dysregulated when high stress or other big emotions arrive.

You can also begin shifting your mindset by adopting the challenge response to stress: Assure yourself that whatever stressor you’ll face is a problem that can be solved, and that any of the physiological responses associated with high stress — elevated heart rate and a boost of adrenaline, for instance — are the sources of extra energy and excitement you’ll need to solve the problem. When you’re dysregulated, deep breathing works quickly to help calm a hyper-aroused nervous system, and pausing to label your emotions decreases their intensity and duration, ushering you back into a state of regulation.

  • Prioritize work recovery and make it a habit.

Instead of treating time away from work as a last resort only after you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, take a cue from professional athletes and give yourself regular “doses” of work recovery. Researchers have found that we need to fully detach from the demands of work on a regular basis in order to unwind, recharge, and recover from workplace stress.

Remember, it’s ongoing, unrelenting stress that leads to burnout. When we deliberately interrupt the stress cycle, stress doesn’t have a chance to become chronic and burnout can’t take hold. Even “micro-breaks” taken throughout the workday — five or 10 minutes to take a walk, have a social chat, or stretch, for instance — have been shown to be effective in lowering stress.

  • Identify what you’re able to change for the better.

A lack of control at work, whether it has to do with your schedule, your workload, your impact on decisions that affect you, or the conditions you need to perform at your best, is inherently stressful and a prime contributor to burnout. At the same time, prolonged stress and burnout have a way of eroding any sense of control or autonomy you do have.

To interrupt this vicious cycle, make a list of the things you can change, even to a small degree, and act on them. Perhaps you can redistribute tasks among team members, ask for extended deadlines or extra support, enforce boundaries around work hours, or adjust your schedule in a way that best supports your well-being and performance. Dwelling on what you can’t control will only increase your stress and give your burnout more of an in, but acting on what you can change for the better not only improves your situation, it restores your sense of agency and autonomy.

  • Get by with a little help from your social connections.

It’s been well established that social support has a buffering effect against the negative effects of stress on our physical and mental health. Likewise, having supportive relationships at work mitigates the stress associated with job demands and decreases the risk of burnout. Social connections increase our resilience to stress and provide us with a support system that can help us navigate challenging situations and manage work-related stress.

Make an effort to reach out to trusted colleagues to strengthen your relationship and to exchange views and strategies about how you handle stress. They may have tried tactics that you haven’t thought of.

  • Reconnect with your values.

Few things are more stressful (and will lead to burnout more quickly) than being expected to act in a way that is not in accordance with your values. Values conflicts are especially harmful because they cut to the core of who we are, what we believe in, and often, what we deem right and wrong.

And it need not be a flagrant ethical violation — for example, being asked to lie to cover up a superior’s mistake — to stress us out to the point that we enter the distress zone. Sometimes, values conflicts occur because we’re trying to please others or we feel the need to mold our personalities to our company culture in order to fit in or excel. The common core is that we are acting in a way that is in conflict with our authentic selves, which is inherently stressful.

Ask yourself, “What sacrifices am I making that are not in service to my values?” and “How much longer am I willing to make these sacrifices?” Identify the source of those conflicts and do whatever it takes to remove them, and then remain connected to your own core values.

  • Seek professional help.

If burnout has become your new normal and you don’t know how to get back to a healthy baseline, you’ve reached a point where professional help from an experienced therapist or coach may be your best way forward. Leadership expert Chris Bittinger has found that executive coaching helps prevent burnout, even when leaders are experiencing moderate to severe job-related stress. Besides the ongoing social support it provides, coaching helps us develop self-efficacy, improve our emotional intelligence, and enhance our ability to problem-solve our way through stressors — all of which help protect against burnout.


Pushing back against the systemic forces that have nudged our collective baseline closer to burnout will take the effort of many people working together. But there are plenty of things each of us can do in our own contexts to prevent our workplace stress from entering the danger zone and to help create healthy workplaces where burnout can’t gain ground.


Kandi Wiens, EdD, is a senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education and the author of the book Burnout Immunity: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Build Resilience and Heal Your Relationship with Work (HarperCollins, 2024). A nationally known researcher and speaker on burnout, emotional intelligence, and resilience, she developed the Burnout Quiz to help people understand if they’re at risk of burning out.

c.2024 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

Kirk Paulsen profile photo

Kirk Paulsen

River Oak Partners, LLC
Office : 8437930398
Schedule a meeting