The Underlying Issues of the Term “Burnout”



Liberally using the term “burnout” is a sign of bigger problems. Here’s how to address them.

I heard from a big employer recently that some of his staff were suffering from burnout. Talent was falling by the wayside, and money was being wasted.

But in my experience, calling it burnout is too easy — and doesn’t lead to the proper responses. Burnout is a blanket term that can obscure other real issues that should be addressed, or better yet prevented. With attention and communication between staffer and manager (and more importantly a thoughtful diagnosis that goes beyond the catchall label of burnout), you, as a leader, can take the actions that save time and money and keep your talent happy and productive.

I’ve seen the term burnout used to cover a whole range of scenarios, including lack of sleep and/or time off, dissatisfaction with one’s work environment, anger towards management/co-workers and lack of progress within one’s role.

Lumping these all under the catch-all heading is probably just a way of covering up a number of things that are fixable. It implies long hours and fatigue (though in some circles these are seen as a badge of honor!). And it can lead to the “easy cure” of giving the staffer a day off or a trip to the spa. But is this really going to fix things? Or will it just give the boss a feel-good moment while in reality it’s just papering over the cracks?

Here are some prompts for team leaders who want to head off these problems:

  1. Communicate: Keep communication between yourself and each individual team leader always open — and not just at review time. Be sensitive not only to their words but to the way they talk about their work, so you can spot the issues before they cause trouble.
  2. Understand: Be sure you really know what excites each member of your team. Remember that each one will have a different set of drivers that you need to understand so you can keep them motivated.
  3. Stimulate: If the project du jour is boring, make sure that the staffer has a second stimulating project to work on — one that will get their juices flowing.
  4. Acknowledge: For most creative professionals, a sense of ownership in their work is a huge motivator. So find an aspect that they can feel responsible for and acknowledge that it’s theirs.
  5. Listen: Keep your ear to the ground. If team members are unhappy working together, not only will the project suffer, but your talent will be looking for the exits. This doesn’t mean having a team of like-minded clones. Mix it up for best results — but do make sure they can stand to see each other.
  6. Challenge: Make sure your creative staffer is doing work that challenges them. They’ll be happier and more productive. Support hack weeks, (or weekends or nights) so that creative brains and skills can stretch and develop as they work on their own ideas.

Burnout means that enthusiasm and performance have fallen off for some reason. Even if you didn’t see it coming, it’s never too late to consider the root causes and treat them. When you are working on a thrilling project with people you love, then you never get tired, right? You can’t wait to get back to it and you’ll burn the midnight oil for as long as it takes. You feel alive and rewarded. I know that. I have been there.



The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched BusinessCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Image credit: CC by Bianca Moraes

About the author: Michael Pollock

Michael Pollock is an Executive Coach and Consultant for Creative and Media Professionals. He brings his unique set of experience to the service of creative professionals, helping to build careers and businesses.

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