A doctor's prescription for successfully curing burnout

The root cause of work-related burnout is less about where you are, or what you do, and more about how you feel about where you are and what you do.
Written by Vala Afshar, Contributing Writer

Morning sunlight streams through partially raised, white fabric blinds. The glorious glow illuminates two flourishing, potted plants suspended from the ceiling by macramé knots reminiscent of a bygone era. Amidst the serene scene, Dr. Naveed Ahmad smiles warmly into the camera, inviting a shared moment of tranquility. Dr. Ahmad is the co-founder and CEO of Flourish. His aspirational personal mission statement is to create a just, peaceful, prosperous world by helping all realize their full potential. Prior to co-founding Flourish, Dr. Ahmad was a healthcare executive focusing on innovative care delivery and business models. 


Dr. Naveed Ahmad, co-founder and CEO, Flourish 

The brief pause feels like a rare invitation to temporarily suspend reality. A welcomed respite from surfing the waves of uncertainty that we all face. Navigating a global pandemic -- where the lines between work and life have nearly vanished -- without capsizing is new. The implications of being always on, always in motion are timeless.

Has "always on" at work and in life suddenly become your new routine? You're not alone. Beyond the warnings from the experts, let's bring it back to a personal question: Is that always-on routine serving you? Putting you at your best?

As Dr. Ahmad and some of us discovered the hard way, always-on routines result in burnout more often than breakthroughs. Unless you get deeply curious about the source of your burnout.

Author and thought leader Adam Grant describes burnout as the sustained combination of:

  • Increased job demands
  • Feeling or experiencing a lack of control over outcomes
  • Lack of connection to social support systems (colleagues, peers, friends, family)

Sound familiar? The good news is the cure is universally available.


Adam Grant, Organizational psychologist @Wharton and author of GIVE AND TAKE and ORIGINALS

Physician, Heal Thyself.

Before Dr. Ahmad became the picture of calm, he lived in constant chaos. He recalls the moment he applied the acute diagnosis of burnout to himself. He was in Switzerland for a high stakes meeting when two emails changed the trajectory of his life permanently.

"Those two emails represented the two extremes of emotion I could have experienced at that point in my life," Dr. Ahmad recalls. "The first was from my boss' boss congratulating me on a new promotion that I earned ahead of schedule. That should have been a moment of joy and satisfaction and excitement, but I didn't feel any of those things. The other email was from my girlfriend breaking up with me. Over email. Which, by itself is bad enough. It's hard to even put into words how I should have been feeling in that moment. But, again, I didn't feel anything."

Dr. Ahmad unceremoniously closed his laptop, collapsed on his hotel bed -- still fully clad in his tailored suit, silk tie, and perfectly polished shoes -- and fell fast asleep.


Karen Mangia, author of 'SUCCESS WITH LESS'

Karen Mangia knows the theme of his story is eerily familiar. Because she's been there, too. And maybe you're there now. At the apex of accomplishment and on the cusp of collapse. Mangia shared in her book, Success With Less:

"Earning a promotion was important to me. And I had been working toward the promotion for years. So, I invested. Not only did I invest, I over-invested. Nights. Middle of the nights. Weekdays. Weekends. No hour was too late. Or too early. No slide deck was too elaborate. No voicemail was too detailed. No email was too lengthy. I ran full speed into a burning blaze of activity every single day. Without hesitation. No matter how I might get burned or fully consumed at every moment. Because I overlooked one important safety procedure. Divest. When you invest in something new, you must divest of something else.  To make room in your schedule and in your mind to make the most of your new path. When I chose to invest in the high stakes project at work, I failed to divest of any of my other responsibilities. Inside of work. Or outside of work. When you fail to divest before you invest, you lay the foundation on which to build damaging stories. And habits. "I have to keep all the plates spinning!"  "I'm sure I can do it all if I just try a little harder!"  "I don't want to be seen as a quitter!"  "I'm so busy that I must be important!  And successful!" -- Karen Mangia

When you were forced to invest in surviving a global pandemic, what did you choose to divest in response? The answer, for most people, is nothing. Rather than lament what might have been, press pause to run a personal diagnostic on your current state.

Silent Symptoms of Burnout

Some symptoms of burnout are easily overlooked. That's why Dr. Ahmad recommends testing these six vital signs on a regular basis.

  1. Sunday Scaries: "By Sunday afternoon at 4pm, you begin to dread Monday. And you spend the evening planning so you are ready for your jam-packed week ahead."
  2. Snooze addiction:  "The blaring sound of your alarm goes off across the room, and you go to retrieve it. Only to go back to bed. Repeat the cycle 9 minutes later. Then 18 minutes later. Then 27 minutes later."
  3. Increased consumption:  "This manifests as the Netflix binge, eating that extra pint of ice cream, increasing consumption of caffeine."
  4. Planning your escape: "You research a cabin to get away to but have no plans of actually making the trip a reality. You fantasize about just getting in the car and driving aimlessly."
  5. Sharp weight changes: "You unexpectedly gain or lose ten pounds in the course of a month."
  6. Counting the minutes: "You look at the clock, and literally count the minutes until the end of a meeting or the day."

Dr. Ahmad cautions there's no shame in any of these symptoms. Your body is simply trying to figure out what it needs. 

The Prescription to Cure Burnout.

The root cause of burnout is less about where you are or what you do and more about how you feel about where you are and what you do. Have you ever noticed that one jam-packed day can feel totally different from another?  Why is that?

The cure to burnout lies in the one-word answer to that question. Fulfillment. 

"We all want to live rich, satisfying lives," Dr. Ahmad shares. "Burnout is about a lack of fulfillment." 

When you and I spend our time and energy on activities we find fulfilling, we not only feel, we feel energized. By contrast, activities we don't find fulfilling leave us feeling depleted. And sustained depletion is the very nature of burnout. 

There is a path forward -- even in isolation.

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive," said Howard Thurman, author, philosopher and civil rights leader. Give yourself permission to explore what makes you come alive. And extinguish the flames of burnout one spoonful of water at a time. What's one micro-experience you can enjoy as soon as today that helps you come alive?

How are you overcoming burnout? Share your ideas with us and our extended virtual community @karenmangia and @valaafshar 

This article was co-authored by Karen Mangia, vice president, customer and market insights, at Salesforce

Karen engages customers globally to discover new ways of creating success and growth together. From Executive Advisory Boards to strategic consulting engagements, her insights are central to Go-to-Market strategy, product development, marketing, and branding. In addition, Karen influences industry thought leadership in her role as Chair of the Customer Experience Council for The Conference Board. Formerly responsible for Insight Innovation at Cisco Systems, she led a global team with oversight into Customer Satisfaction and Experience, Diversity Business Practices, and Global Offset and Countertrade. Karen is also the author of Success With Less and a TEDx speaker.

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