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When it comes to taking control of burnout, we can take an organisational or individual approach. In this week’s blog, we look at the theories surrounding burnout, what it means for employees in practice and the research evidence, which points to practical ways we can all stay healthy whilst managing professional challenge.

What is “burnout”?

Burnout is the meeting of high job demands and minimal work resources. When these two factors come together, strain develops and it is this strain, over a prolonged period of time, which can lead to symptoms of burnout. It is characterised by exhaustion and disengagement from the job role. Exhaustion refers to the prolonged physical, cognitive or behavioural strain, whilst disengagement refers to distancing oneself from the role, and at worst, becoming cynical about the job content or the work in general (Demerouti, 2015).

Top-Down or Bottom-Up?

Strategies designed to prevent burnout can come from the top down, initiated by the organisation, or bottom up, designed by the individual. High quality work design is just one way that an organisation can minimise the potential for employee burnout. Ensuring that work is at least challenging within a pre-defined skill set, with the resources to meet that challenge, can contribute to positive work attitudes (Parker, Ven den Broeck & Holman, 2017). However, in some roles, even the most meticulous work design cannot override the emotional, cognitive or behavioural demands an employee can face on a day to day basis; for example, in the health, social or educational sectors. So, could getting creative with bottom up strategies help to fill the resource gap, and reduce burnout factors?

Coping Strategies…

We often resort to one of two coping strategies when demands are high and resources are low; a passive emotional strategy of avoidance, or an active problem focused strategy. The evidence regarding emotional vs. active coping strategies suggests that flexibility in coping styles can be useful adapting to variable wellbeing demands, i.e. when the situation can be managed vs. when a situation cannot (Demerouti, 2015).

Five ways to take control…

  • Recover between work periods
  • Set goals and priorities
  • Use of humour
  • Job crafting
  • Set clear work-life boundaries

So, what’s the evidence…

Making sure that we get sufficient periods of between work helps to restore both physical and psychological wellbeing and, one excellent relaxation resource is Headspace. Focusing positively on what can be achieved in a role with diminished resources, can help to maintain focus on what is within an employee’s control. Sometimes, this can be as simple as joining forces with a colleague to pool expertise, streamlining a process with technology or applying previous training to improve priority management.

Laughter and light heartedness have been shown to help individuals to regroup and gain perspective on a stressful situation and, healthy working relationships can be invaluable support structures for amusing others and reflecting humorously on outcomes beyond our personal control. Individuals who have been able to craft their jobs by increasing their own resources have show decreased levels of burnout but interestingly, reducing demands was not a significant factor in decreasing exhaustion. Whereas clearly separating work and home life has been shown to limit just how much  work strain can spill over into home life.

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Demerouti, E. (2015, October 1). Strategies used by individuals to prevent burnout. European Journal of Clinical Investigation. Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Parker, S. K., Van den Broeck, A., & Holman, D. (2017). Work Design Influences: A Synthesis of Multilevel Factors that Affect the Design of Jobs. Academy of Management Annals11(1), 267–308.

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