Richard G. Petty, MD

Beating Burnout

I have been getting a number of requests to re-post some of my materials about burnout.

This is a summary of some of the information that we cover in our corporate wellness seminars. For people who are interested, we have also created a Powerpoint slide set, together with reference materials which are available for purchase from our website.

So let us begin at the beginning and ask:

What is Burnout?
This may seem such an obvious question, since the term “burnout” has become part of everyday language, but it is still the topic of a great deal of research.

The best definition of burnout is “a prolonged response to chronic physical, emotional and interpersonal stressors at work.” It is defined by three dimensions:

  1. Exhaustion
  2. Cynicism
  3. Inefficacy

It is more than just an individual experience of stress: it has to be seen in the larger organizational context of people’s relationship with their work.

It is often the case that individuals miss all the signs in themselves.

So what are the main symptoms of burnout?

  1. Worrying, particularly at night
  2. Trouble sleeping
  3. Feeling unappreciated or “used” at work
  4. Feeling less effective or competent than you used to
  5. Easily angry or irritated
  6. Dread of going to work
  7. A feeling of being overwhelmed
  8. Recurrent stress-related physical symptoms like headaches, or back pain
  9. Watching the clock and counting down toward the end of the work day
  10. Rigidly applying riles without considering more creative solutions
  11. Automatically expressing negative attitudes
  12. Finding excuses to be absent from work
  13. Alcohol or substance abuse

We need to ask questions about conditions at work. For instance whether individuals are asked to work extra long shifts, go without breaks and lack clear guidelines.

Who is at greatest risk?
Helping professionals and people who have great responsibility for others, such as  airline pilots and air traffic controllers.

Although there are some psychological predictors for who are more likely to suffer from burnout, with enough stressors just about anyone can become a victim of it. Some people have claimed that burnout is a physical illness resulting from exhaustion of the adrenal glands, but the research doesn’t show that. Burnout is primarily a problem of the system in which you work, interacting with your body and your mind. So now let’s look at how to transform yourself from victim to victor.

The major risk factors are:

  1. Feeling powerless
  2. Being caught in conflict
  3. Having inadequate information
  4. Lack of central visions
  5. Incoordination of the team
  6. Overload
  7. Boredom
  8. Alienation
  9. Ambiguity
  10. Conflict of values

What are the Solutions?

Dealing with burnout needs the help of all workers and the organization as a whole. Sometimes it also needs the help of an outsider. I was once working in a very unhappy place, in the days long before I realized that I had the power to change things myself. A psychologist friend working in the then new field of systems theory, told me that the problem was not with individuals, but that the whole system was “sick” and disorganized and what was needed was a system overhaul.

The opposite of job burnout is job engagement. If you feel that you are engaged in doing something valuable, for which you are appreciated, you are far more likely to have a satisfying life and enjoy doing your job well. There is good evidence that participation, engagement and autonomy are powerful predictors of health outcomes.

First, at the personal level:

The keys to preventing burnout are represented by the acronym REAP:


  1. Evaluate your personal goals and priorities: what do you really want to get out of life, and even more importantly, what do you want to put in to life
  2. Ensure that you have established your own core values, your purpose and your meaning. (My book and CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose spends a lot of time on helping you do exactly that.)
  3. Attend to your own health, through exercise, nutrition and sleep. (I have worked with countless individuals with burnout, whose problems largely evaporated once they were diverted from the coffee, soda and snack machines. Remember the close relationships between food and mood.)
  4. Make sure that you have some outside interests. Not just things that further drain your energy, but something that you enjoy.
  5. Learn some specific stress reduction techniques. (I also have some suggestions for doing so in my book.)
  6. Are you a micromanager who has to do everything yourself? If so, then it is a really good idea to learn to delegate. And don’t take on responsibilities that are not yours. (It took me years to learn that one: I was such a slave to perfectionism, that I always thought that I had to everything myself. Bad mistake)
  7. If your find yourself expressing negativity, work on substituting a positive word for every negative one.
  8. Learn to forgive yourself if things are not going well, and use reversals as the fuel to power you to achievement: it’s what I call “silver-lining:” How to find the positive in any negative situation.
  9. Try to form a support group or see if you can arrange for an outsider to some in and help you.
  10. Are there some specific skills that you need to build and develop?
  11. Can you tailor or change your job?
  12. Develop detachment

Second, at the organizational level:

  1. Evaluate overall work performance: if it declining, it may be an early sign that staff members are being afflicted by burnout.
  2. Consider changes in managerial practices, to move away from the dominator to a partnership model.
  3. Research has indicated that there are six key areas in which mismatches may lead to burnout: workload; personal control; appropriateness of rewards; sense of connection; sense of fairness and a conflict of values. So it is a good idea to break down any analyses and interventions along these lines.
  4. All the evidence suggests that a combination of managerial change and education are the best way to head off and to deal with burnout.
  5. There is also some research showing that a values-based spiritual program to prevent and deal with burnout. The recommendations include a short time for silence, visualization, reflection, active listening, appreciation creativity and playfulness.

What is very clear is that burnout is not just a personal problem; it is something that can affect an entire organization, and has to be tackled as an organization. If it is not, then in these difficult times in health care, we are going to have ever more tired and disillusioned people trying to care for sicker and sicker patients, and just not having the resources to do so.

Transcending Overload and Burnout
There is an important notion that is rarely even talked about. Why does stress and burnout exist? Is it simply bad overloaded wiring in the brain and bad overloaded wiring in our relationships and in our places of work? Well, yes, that is of course correct. But there is also something else: burnout occurs because multiple sets of systems are failing. Nature abhors a vacuum, so from the ashes of these failed systems a new and improved you can emerge. Remember the ancient story of the Phoenix that emerges from the flames. And you might know the statement by Richard Bach: “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”

We need to discard broken systems so that our true self can emerge.

I would like you to think about burnout as a state of consciousness that you are ready to outgrow. You can practice the psychological band-aids, or you can accept the invitation to grow.

There will inevitably be some transition pains, but that is to be expected as the new you is being born. This is also a good time to do an exercise that I recommend in Healing, Meaning and Purpose, and it is to establish where each part of you – Physical, Psychological, Social, Subtle and Spiritual – lies in terms of the Memes of Spiral Dynamics. If you do this exercise every few months, and at times of transition, it can provide powerful proof that the burnout is actually presenting you with a unique opportunity to grow.

About Richard G. Petty, MD
Dr. Richard G. Petty, MD is a world-renowned authority on the brain, and his revolutionary work on human energy systems has been acclaimed around the globe. He is also an accredited specialist in internal and metabolic medicine, endocrinology, psychiatry, acupuncture and homeopathy. He has been an innovator and leader of the human potential movement for over thirty years and is also an active researcher, teacher, writer, professional speaker and broadcaster. He is the author of five books, including the groundbreaking and best selling CD series Healing, Meaning and Purpose. He has taught in over 45 countries and 48 states in the last ten years, but spends as much time as possible on his horse farm in Georgia.

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