Battling burnout with purpose and meaning

May 25, 2018

By Jennifer Gregg, PhD

When my kids were toddlers, my husband and I had a complex division of labor. We both worked full-time and, as is often the case for working parents of little ones, there was always way more that needed to be done than we had time for. It felt like we were constantly in motion trying to keep on top of all the chores and errands and general management of our house and tiny kids.

To manage the flurry of activity that took take place at the end of each day, we decided early on that one parent would take care of the dishes after dinner while the other gave the kids their nightly bath. Sleep-deprived and mentally exhausted by the end of the day, I soon found myself looking forward to “dishes nights” and feeling tired just thinking about “bath nights.”

Luckily for me, not too long into this routine I read an article about personal values and childrearing and had a much-needed wake-up moment. You see, I had really wanted kids. Like really, really wanted them, and nothing can describe how happy I was to become a parent. And yet, there I was dreading the so-sweet-and-gone-before-you-know-it bath time, trying to figure out how to bribe my husband to let me do extra dishes to avoid it.

So what was wrong with me? In a word, burnout.

What burnout is

Researchers usually talk about burnout in terms of work, and it’s described in slightly different ways depending on the type of work causing it. It is generally a combination of emotional exhaustion, feelings of ineffectiveness, and a sense of disconnection or profound negativity. In other words, it’s feeling so overwhelmed and detached, things that used to matter don’t anymore.

What burnout isn’t

We often think that being busy or working too much is the same as being burned out, but they’re actually different in important ways. Work overload, or the perception that work demands exceed our capacity to get them done, is a pretty common experience in many professions and is a part of burnout, but not the whole thing.

Beyond being overloaded, situations that cause burnout also include a lack of autonomy, a lack of fairness, or some ambiguity about what we’re supposed to be doing — which takes us away from what’s meaningful about our work.

How to prevent burnout (or pivot if you’re experiencing it)

First, let me say that there are many things that seem like they would help alleviate burnout that don’t. Most of the things we do to relieve short-term feelings of mental and emotional exhaustion – zoning out in front of a screen, unhealthy food and alcohol consumption, combing through social media feeds – don’t actually improve our overall energy or solve any of the issues that are contributing to burnout, and tend to make us feel more exhausted or disconnected in the long run.

“The way out of burnout for many people is to bring back the meaning that’s been lost in the overload. Think about the things that are the most important to you in terms of your life.”

The way out of burnout for many people is to bring back the meaning that’s been lost in the overload. Think about the things that are the most important to you in terms of your life. How do you aspire to be at your job? What are the most meaningful elements of your relationships with your coworkers, friends, partner, and family? What are the adjectives you would most want to describe you in these different roles?

As I mentioned, thinking about my most important values as a parent was a wake-up call for me. So I set aside time to sit down and really think about my values, writing them down to give myself a physical touchstone. What I came up with was “present, playful, and connected.” That night, I tried to focus on bath time in a new way. I really paid attention to the experience my kids were having in the water, and I engaged with them in a fun, silly way. Rather than wearing me out, focusing on these things brought vitality, purpose, and connection to my evening, despite my end-of-the-day exhaustion.

This isn’t just my experience. Multiple studies show that connecting to what’s meaningful matters when we’re stressed and overloaded. One study found that people who spent time thinking and writing about something that was meaningful to them had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in a stressful situation.

Another study showed that while being overloaded at work clearly contributes to the emotional exhaustion, disconnection, and negativity of burnout, that’s not the whole story. “Values congruence,” or the degree to which work is connected to personal values, was also related to these aspects of burnout, as well as the feeling of being generally ineffective. So while overload matters, being connected to your values may matter even more.

Values Are Your Superpower

If you want to reduce or prevent burnout, managing your workload is important, but probably not as important as connecting what you’re doing to your highest intentions and values.

For me, although the days of giving my kids a bath have long since passed, I continue to check in with my “mom values” when I interact with them – particularly in the interactions that sometimes feel like a chore or challenge my patience – like driving them to practice or getting them out the door in the morning. I lean in, think about how to be present, playful, and connected with them, and find myself remembering again how lucky I am to be their mom.


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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

Jennifer Gregg, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at San Jose State University and a clinical psychologist who researches, delivers, and trains acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and other evidence-based mindfulness interventions with difficult populations. She is co-author of The Diabetes Lifestyle Book.