Photo by Lechon Kirb on Unsplash

Leadership responsibilities can leave us “worn out.” Other times, we become “burned out.” How can we tell the difference, and what do we do about it?

Here is an illustration to help you tell the difference between “burn out” and “worn out.”

Think of burnout as what happens when you run a car engine without any oil. The oil allows the various parts of the engine to move powerfully without doing any damage to the engine. When you run out of oil, you run out of what keeps the engine from damaging itself. The problem here is that the engine can keep running for a while without oil – all the time doing more and more damage to itself until it finally damages itself beyond repair.

This is different from running out of gasoline for a car. When the car runs out of gas, it simply stops working without necessarily damaging itself. Burnout happens when we keep running and end up hurting ourselves.

When we are “worn out,” we simply need rest – because our bodies were made to go through cycles of exertion and rest. When we are burned out, we need more than rest alone.

Why? Because true burnout consists of three dimensions, as pointed out by research in the 1980s that led to creation of the Maslach Burnout Inventory. All of us experience varying amounts of these three dimensions in our daily life. When all three of these are present in a high degree, you have burnout.

(1) Emotional Exhaustion

Have you ever been so tired at the end of the day that you felt “numb” or experienced “brain fog”? These can be signs of emotional exhaustion. We want to pay attention to this because it is usually the first symptom to arise when we are on a path toward burnout. If we don’t address this, other issues appear as well.

(2) Depersonalization (Disconnection/Cynicism)

It makes sense to think that once we are really tired, we begin to withdraw or disconnect from the world – including relationships at work and home. For leaders, this can be especially problematic because positive relationships and trust are what help us stay effective in our positions of leadership. Since we inevitably have to make decisions that are unpopular, we need to keep investing in “social capital” with our teams so that we don’t run out of those positive relationships. The same thing is true for our home lives. When we find ourselves withdrawing both at work and at home, we are setting ourselves up for burnout and it impacts the people we care about – not just ourselves.

(3) Lack of Personal Effectiveness (Ineffectiveness, Lack of Power/Control)

If you’ve ever felt like a hamster in a wheel where you are endlessly running but going nowhere, then you have experienced a sense of ineffectiveness. This strikes us when the choices we makes seem to have no real impact. It can happen when we lack the skills to do the work in front of us or when we feel poorly managed by those we report to.

The first place to start when you feel yourself slipping into burnout is to take intentional action that moves you into better energy, healthier relationships, and a greater sense of personal effectiveness. Find the things that energize you, help you connect with people and purpose, and help you feel effective both at work and home.

A friend of mine who is a therapist gives this advice to his clients struggling with anxiety/depression, and I think it holds true here as well:

“Each day, do something necessary, something meaningful, and something fun.”

When you do something necessary, you push back against ineffectiveness. When you do something meaningful, you are reconnecting with your sense of purpose. And when you do something fun, you reenergize yourself.

Finally, consider working with a coach. A good coach can help you identify and take action on the things that will move you away from burnout. If you find yourself dealing with high levels of anxiety or depression as part of your burnout, connect with a counselor. Please understand though, the work is ultimately up to you – a counselor or coach can not do the work for you. Where they will provide benefit is they can help you see the path to take.

In this episode of Upward Trajectory, I share some of my own story with battling burnout and tips for how others can overcome it.

If you are serious about beating burnout, and you want to do it for yourself, as well as your co-workers, be sure to check out my book How to Beat Burnout for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Team.