Why We Burn Out

Why do knowledge workers burn out after working for a period of time? Knowledge workers aren’t doing much in the physical sense to tire out their bodies. They need breaks to eat and sleep, of course. But why is it that after working for so many hours, we can’t get going with the same efficiency, accuracy, or vigor? Why do we get cranky if we work too much? Most of us know that it happens. We’ve all experienced burn out. But what actually causes it?

The best answer we have so far comes from research on stress.

Stress and Resources

Stress was a hot topic in the 1980s and 1990s, as much of a buzzy word as “productivity” is today. The public was starting to become aware of psychology in a way that was much more visible and less stigmatized than it was in previous decades. Stress, which was once believed to be acute, was now being seen as a ubiquitous and constant force. And people were aware of it.

In 1988 and 1989, researcher and private practice psychologist Stevan E. Hobfoll came up with a model for explaining stress as a ubiquitous, rather than acute, force and how people deal with it. His theory has become an important piece of work to productivity researchers. He called it “the model of conservation of resources.”

The point of the model was to give researchers, and perhaps the public, too, a new way to conceptualize what stress really is, how it affects us, and what we do about it.

It’s based on the premise that everyone has resources, and we use our resources to get through life. At all times, “people strive to retain, protect, and build resources,” and the ultimate threat “is the potential or actual loss of these valued resources.”

The Threat of Losing Resources

Hobfoll gives several examples in his paper about loss of resources to show how varied they can be. For example, he talks about how a divorce causes a loss of not only a relationship, but also some kind of resistance to stress that people in a good marriage have that may be similar to the kind of stress resistance people get from tenure or seniority. Losing that resistance is a stressor. A person faced with this loss of resources will start taking measures to counteract it. The person will seek out other ways to build up or obtain stress resistance to replace what was lost.

All this work on stress comes in handy for productivity researchers who were looking for a way to explain burnout. Burnout is what happens when a worker works too long or too hard and starts to lose the ability to keep going with the same intensity and results. In some circumstances, we can say the worker is tired. The worker needs to stop working, take a break, and sleep. But it happens over the long term, too.

We all know the feeling of working through a week when energy is low and we aren’t able to focus our minds well on the work that needs to be done. We can’t wait for the weekend to come. Or we can’t wait for our next holiday. Work is stressful!

Most of the time, we combat that stress using our resources. But at some point, if we don’t rebuild our resources, we’ll run out of them. So beyond feeling tired, we might also be running low on resources to handle other stressors, like an aggressive driver or an annoying co-worker. Because we’re out of resources, we might experience road rage or snap and say something nasty to a colleague. When we’re all out of resources, we are unable to cope with stressful situations.

Remember, stress comes from not only specific moments, like a driver cutting you off in traffic, but is also a ubiquitous force. When we’re running low on resources, we typically don’t deal with anything well.

Dealing With Scarcity

In their book Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (2013), authors Mullainathan and Shafir explain how this concept of having resources to deal with stress applies to all areas of life. They extend the idea of resources to what they call bandwidth.

To function and get through life, everyone needs a little extra bandwidth, or slack. When we have no slack whatsoever, or no extra resources, we don’t just crack under the pressure of stress, they say. We also forget stuff and perform poorly. Someone who is experiencing scarcity of resources or bandwidth is prone to forgetting to take his or her medication, for example. Someone who is experiencing scarcity of time might not pay bills on time.

While Hobfoll’s theory is a little different, it is on the same track. He says time, energy, and money are “energies,” which is one of the four types of resources we have. (The other types are object resources, e.g., a house; conditions, e.g., tenure or marriage; and personal characteristics.)

Why We Need Time Off

What all this work suggests ultimately is that we can’t be 100 percent productive all the time. We can’t work at 100 percent efficiency all the time. Our human bodies and minds don’t allow for it. We need to stop losing resources and build them back up again.

So how do we do that?

To stop losing resources, we need to stop doing the activity that is using them up, which in this case is working. We need weekends and holidays, and what we do on weekends and holidays matters. A shitty weekend doesn’t help us recover. We need to do pleasurable things, like socialize and play and indulge our creativity (Eschleman et al., 2014). We need different kinds of mental stimulation.

Time off combined with pleasurable activities allows us to rebuild the resources that we lost.

What Can You Do?

In practice, anyone striving for greater productivity needs to value time off. Time off isn’t wasted time. It’s necessary for building resources that allow us to be productive again.

Take time off when you feel yourself starting to burn out. Stop working at the end of the day and the end of the week, and make sure to spend your time off doing things you enjoy.


Eschleman, K. J., Madsen, J., Alarcon, G., & Barely, A. (2014) Benefiting from creative activity: The positive relationships between creative activity, recovery experiences, and performance-related outcomes. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology.

Hobfoll, S. E. (1989). Conservation of resources: A new attempt at conceptualizing stress. American Psychologist, 44, 513–524.

Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why having too little means so much. Macmillan.

Image by Satish Indofunk, CC.


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