Burnout is a modern euphemism for exhaustion depression. Burnout happens after prolonged periods of extensive work and the symptoms are similar to those of a classical depression:

  • social withdrawal
  • meaninglessness
  • sadness
  • lethargy

People with burnout need months to recover. Recovery is spent alone without doing anything and retracted from social life. This is all well depicted but how come some people burnout and others don’t?

To burnout long periods of extensive work isn’t enough. At the core of a burnout is the personal failure to attain one’s goal. People who burnout work excessively to further their career with conscious or unconscious goals. Goals pushed on the individual through societal pressure, from an inner lack of self-worth or through sheer ambition. If months or years of exhausting effort doesn’t bear fruit their world collapses and they burnout.

This isn’t a phenomenon merely occurring in competitive consultant houses where young consultants spend years finishing one report after the another on everything from climate friendly pesticides on east German farms to cooperate tax minimization. It is also openly visible on Twitter where hoards of tech entrepreneurs sacrifice their well-being by tying their personal self-worth to the success of their startup. In their mind they already define themselves as successful tech entrepreneurs. When the startup fails after years of effort they realize that the goal is unattainable and they lose a sense of purpose and meaning and retreat defeated with a burnout diagnosis. The successful entrepreneur on the other hand who worked just a hard experiences the exact opposite: fulfillment and satisfaction.

The remedy to burnout isn’t to avoid ambition or retreat in cynicism but to have multiple resources for self-worth and identity. Family, friends, and hobbies contribute to this. Keep a healthy distance to work, don’t let work define you, and realize that you are good enough just as you are.

Additional people susceptible to perfectionism, over-accommodating or being bad at setting limits are more at risk of burnout.