Why Burnout Saps Your Productivity (And How to Fix It)

Why Burnout Saps Your Productivity (And How to Fix It)
by Holly Ashby
August 17, 2016
When you are trying to build your career, working around the clock seems like a worthwhile sacrifice—but underestimating the importance of rest may well lead to burnout.
And that's pretty much the end of productivity. Hard work, determination and putting in that extra bit of effort to stand out from the crowd are all great things when you want to get ahead in your career. In fact, unless you are especially lucky and the sort of person who tends to land on your feet, they are a vital aspect of achieving success. 

The idea that no goals are reached without a sacrifice of time and effort is a key part of our working culture, and there’s a feeling that you can never really work too hard. Eighty hour weeks, checking your emails at three in the morning, pulling all-nighters to get a project off the ground—this behavior can be seen as necessary, and even laudable. 

Being noticeably busy is often a badge of honor, but constantly working at full tilt is a sure way to find yourself suffering from burnout. Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that overwork actually reduces productivity. John Pencavel of Stanford University found that not having a rest day from work damaged hourly output and that productivity barely increases if you work seventy hours a week rather than fifty-four - displaying that those fourteen extra hours are a waste of time. 

Combined with its negative impact on wellbeing, it’s important to ensure that overwork doesn’t end up standing in the way of your goals.
Burnout tends to begin with a desire to prove yourself. A combination of high ambition and perfectionism will make you work harder and harder, burying your head in the sand to any problems that arise—like a head cold that just won’t shift.

WHAT IS BURNOUT (and what are its symptoms?)

Burnout is the feeling of profound worry, exhaustion, and helplessness that comes when you have worked yourself into the ground. The result of excessive and prolonged stress, it’s something that can creep up on you, especially as being tired and stressed out is often seen as normal.

Made up of twelves stages that were defined by psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, burnout involves people neglecting their needs in order to work all the time. Considerations towards rest, health and relationships go out of the window, and those on the way to burnout find themselves in denial of the problems their lifestyle is causing. The most dramatic manifestation of burnout—and its final stage—is physical and emotional collapse. But the issues burnout causes (such as a feeling of emptiness, isolation, and chronic fatigue) will negatively impact you well before then.

Working long hours, not taking a holiday, burning the candle at both ends—eventually, it will all start to show. One of UK’s top doctors, Professor John Ashton, has even called for a four-day working week to tackle the high blood pressure and the mental ill-health associated with overwork, making it clear that working too much is something that health professionals take very seriously.

The coping strategies you may develop to sustain this kind of lifestyle can also contribute to burnout. From calming down with a cigarette to hitting the town until sunrise on a Friday night, temporary fixes can make things worse over the long term.

As far as your career is concerned, pushing yourself to the limit may end up throwing up some real barriers in your path. Burnout robs you of your motivation and optimism, to the extent that you’ll lose interest in work. This is indicated in the fact that, across the world’s richest countries, lower working hours actually correlate with higher productivity, and Sweden’s experimental 6-hour work day resulted in higher efficiency and lower staff turnover.
It’s something that can creep up on you, especially since being tired and stressed out is often seen as normal.


Burnout tends to begin with a desire to prove yourself. A combination of high ambition and perfectionism will make you work harder and harder, burying your head in the sand to any problems that arise—like a head cold that just won’t shift—or always finding yourself in tears over silly things.

Being constantly under pressure triggers the “fight or flight” stress response, where your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also redirects your energy to your muscles and raises your heart rate, neglecting non-emergency functions like digestion. When “stressed out” becomes your default state, this response becomes damaging. Too much stress makes you feel perpetually anxious, suppresses sex drive, and negatively affects your immune system.

Over time, this all builds up. Becoming bone tired, demotivated, unable to relax and habitually beset by niggling illnesses—in the end, burnout will affect your ability to live and work happily. But if success takes hard work, how do you give your all without damaging your health and wellbeing?

HOW CAN YOU AVOID BURNOUT and revamp your productivity?

The key to avoiding burnout is making time for stress relieving habits, and setting some clear boundaries—both for yourself and your employer.

1. Limit Your Hours

Staying up on the odd occasion to work on something you’re passionate about isn’t going to do any harm. However, if you find yourself working way into the early hours on a regular basis, or staying in the office well past the usual home time, you may well end up burning out.

If you simply have been given too much work and too little time to complete it in, be brave and raise the issue with your employers. Any sensible boss will much prefer to negotiate a reasonable workload than lose a colleague to burnout, especially as other people will have to take on your responsibilities if you become unable to complete them.

2. Set an Official Work Schedule

You should also set a strict working day (especially if you work for yourself) that you only deviate from occasionally. Workloads tend to fluctuate so working a couple of extra hours a day for a couple of weeks may be necessary from time to time, as long as you return to your usual schedule before too long. At the end of your working day, turn off your email notifications, put your various projects away, and mentally step away from your tasks.

3. Consider Your Priorities Outside of Work

Also, consider your responsibilities at home. Someone who has children may find it much harder to work a forty hours week than someone who doesn’t, and the right schedule for you may not correspond with the traditional nine to five. You just need to honestly assess how much you can sustainably cope with, and if you realize you’ve taken on too much, address the issue immediately.

4. Find a (Healthy) Method to Wind Down

Lastly, find a method of winding down that is healthy and works for you. Alcohol impairs the quality of your sleep even when consumed in small amounts, so a couple of glasses of wine at the end of the day will just make you feel more exhausted. Cigarettes, as we all know, are also very bad for you, so finding healthy alternatives is a must.

Taking up meditation will help you avoid burnout in a variety of ways. From reducing the levels of stress hormones in our systems by a third to inducing a state of profound rest that is even deeper than sleep, if you are feeling stressed out and frazzled meditation will help you recover.

You may also find that exercise (which is done for pleasure, rather than something you view as another time-consuming responsibility), going for regular trips into nature, or soaking in the bath with a book at the end of your day does the trick for you. Whatever it is, making sure you dedicate time to relaxing every day won’t only help your peace of mind, it may just help you get ahead.

How do you avoid burnout? Is it even possible in this day and age?