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Learn / Balancing Act: Managing High-Performer Burnout

Balancing Act: Managing High-Performer Burnout

By 
Kayla Gill
|
 December 30th, 2023|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Key Points

  • Because of stigma, high performers are less likely to seek help for burnout.
  • Burnout is a real and serious condition that has long-term health consequences.
  • Preventing burnout and healthily coping with stress can improve your well-being.

Burnout is a state of deep exhaustion that results from overexerting yourself for an extended period of time. It can happen to anyone, but it’s common among high achievers, who place high value on their demanding professions. Burnout dysregulates the nervous system and sleep patterns, and can show up as physical symptoms, long-term health problems, or compromised immunity and mental health. 

We often think of burnout as a result of our own failure to achieve the perfect work-life balance. But more often, it’s the result of a larger cultural expectation that values productivity over human needs. Thankfully, as more people talk openly about their experiences with burnout, workplace culture is changing.  

Recognizing early warning signs can help you address burnout before it becomes acute. Eventually, you’ll learn to make lifestyle changes that prevent it from happening in the first place. 

Understanding High-Performer Burnout

High performers—driven, ambitious people who excel in their fields—are often admired for their relentless dedication. But beneath the surface of achievement can lurk a hidden threat: burnout. Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by prolonged excessive demands and pressure to succeed. 

This is not simply feeling tired after a long day; it’s a chronic depletion of your internal resources. It’s not uncommon for people with burnout to feel unable to get out of bed in the morning, or exhausted in everything they do. Burnout can sap the very motivation that caused you to work so hard toward your goals in the first place.

Once burnout sets in, its effects are serious and recovery takes time. That’s why it’s so important for high achievers to learn to notice its signs.

Signs and Symptoms of High-Performer Burnout

Here are some common signs of burnout in high performers:

Emotional

  • Cynicism: Once-passionate projects feel meaningless, colleagues seem distant, and the spark of excitement is gone.
  • Irritability: Even minor setbacks trigger disproportionate frustration.
  • Loss of sense of accomplishment: Despite your achievements, successes feel meaningless.

Physical

  • Constant fatigue: You feel exhausted even when you get enough sleep.1 Even simple tasks feel draining.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: Difficulty falling asleep, restless nights, and excessive sleepiness are red flags.
  • Physical ailments: Headaches, muscle tension, and digestive issues can all be stress-related manifestations.

Professional

  • Decline in performance: Missed deadlines, errors in judgment, and difficulty concentrating become common.
  • Withdrawal from work: Socializing with colleagues feels like a chore, and work avoidance behaviors increase.
  • Loss of motivation: Ambitious goals seem insurmountable, and the drive to excel fades.

It’s easy to miss warning signs when we’re driven by the constant pursuit of success. This is especially true if we come from a culture that values hard work and struggle. 

Tricia Hersey (also known as the Nap Bishop),2 founder of the Nap Ministry, espouses rest as a way of reclaiming our right to personhood. “We think grinding and not sleeping is going to get us to the end,” she says, “but actually nothing generative can come from it.” 

Self-Assessment Tools to Gauge Your Burnout Risk

There are also clinically recognized self-assessment tools that can help you gauge your risk of burnout: 

  • The Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) is considered the gold standard for self-assessing burnout and takes around 15 minutes to complete. It measures emotional exhaustion, disengagement, and reduced accomplishment at work. 
  • The Oldenburg Burnout Inventory (OLBI) also assesses exhaustion and disengagement, focusing on your frequency of experiences in 16 categories. 

Both of these can provide insight, but they’re not diagnostic tools. While high scores on each may signal burnout risk, a professional evaluation can offer a more accurate and complete picture of your mental health. 


Explore Burnout Treatment Centers


Causes and Triggers of Burnout in High Performers

High-performer burnout isn’t simply a consequence of hard work; it’s fueled by internal and external factors: 

  • Certain professions are more demanding than others. Nearly half of healthcare workers in the U.S. reported burnout3 in 2022. 
  • Excessive workloads, demanding schedules, and a lack of work-life boundaries breed burnout.
  • Imposter syndrome, the nagging suspicion of being a fraud, erodes confidence and motivation.
  • Perfectionism might be valued in grind culture, but the stress of constant striving dysregulates the nervous system. 

“This quest for perfection4 is based in the assumption that we must change ourselves to belong…Imperfection is not our personal problem—it is a natural part of existing.”

Tara Brach

Societal norms that glorify the “grind” mentality and equate self-worth with productivity also play a major role. The continual pressure to maintain an image of success leaves people feeling like they’re running on empty with no end in sight. 

Hersey explains how grind culture breaks down our self-worth:5 “We feel like we’re not anything if we’re not producing, making, going. What a lie.”

Preventive Strategies for High Performers

Preventing burnout it’s about sacrificing ambition. It’s about cultivating a smarter, more sustainable approach to success. 

“There’s no work-life balance equation that works for everyone.6 It needs to be tailored to your needs and to your own aspirations, and that’s highly variable,” says clinical physician and burnout coach Dr. Azad John-Salimi.

High performers can try these small shifts:

  • Use stress-reduction techniques: Identify your stress triggers and develop healthy coping strategies. Your stress-relief practices7 might include walking outside, journaling, morning affirmations, or sharing a meal with a loved one. 
  • Embrace mindfulness and self-care: Carve out time for activities that nourish your mind and body. Regular mindfulness practices like meditation or deep breathing reduce stress and improve focus. Engage in activities you enjoy, prioritize sleep, and nurture healthy relationships to replenish your emotional reserves.
  • Set boundaries and manage workload: Learn to say “no” to excessive demands, delegate tasks effectively, and schedule breaks throughout the day. Disconnect from work emails and notifications outside of work hours to create clear boundaries and protect your personal time.

Big, overnight changes aren’t always possible—not everyone can reduce their hours or take significant time off work. It’s important to honor this as a reality: burnout is often created by conditions beyond our control. But even when we can’t change our entire situation, we can make small changes that, over time, noticeably impact how we feel. 

“For some of us, we’re not able to make such swift changes, because there are other things at play or other people who depend on us. There is a process, and you can map it out, in terms of making strategic changes that allow you to make bigger changes later,” says John-Salimi.

The key here is evaluating your relationship to work, reclaiming your right to recharge, and finding the right balance for you.

Recovering from High-Performer Burnout

If you’ve crossed the threshold into burnout, the road back can seem daunting. But remember, burnout is not a permanent sentence; it’s a call to course-correct and reclaim your well-being. These key steps can guide your recovery:

Prioritize Rest and Relaxation

Carve out time to truly rest. Disconnecting from technology and engaging in nurturing activities like nature walks or creative processes can be deeply restorative. Listen to your body’s cues and prioritize sleep: the ultimate recharge for a stressed mind and body.

Seek Professional Support

Don’t hesitate to seek professional guidance from a therapist or coach who specializes in burnout. They can equip you with tools for managing stress, setting boundaries, and rebuilding your self-worth outside of work. 

Reassess Goals and Adjust Expectations

Burnout often signals a need to recalibrate your goals and expectations. Revisit your priorities, identify what truly matters, and adjust your goals accordingly. For many, this means embracing a more sustainable pace. True success isn’t measured by constant hustle, but by the fulfillment you find in the journey.

Hersey describes the changes she saw when she started resting more8 after a period of severe burnout in college: 

“I started to see so much happening from an intellectual perspective, from a spiritual perspective. It boosted my self-esteem. I felt better, I looked better, I was getting better grades. I began to get ideas that I wouldn’t have gotten from an exhausted state.” 

Emerging from burnout is a process—and it might take longer than you expect. But the rewards of healing are so worth it. 

Cultivating a Healthy High-Performance Lifestyle

True high performance isn’t fueled by exhaustion, it’s powered by balance. Success is the result of consistency over time—and to achieve that, you need a sustainable approach. 

You may not be able to quit your job and move to a mountaintop, but you can integrate downtime into a busy schedule. Start by carving out time, however brief, to do what brings you joy on a daily basis. These moments allow you to reconnect with yourself and remember who you are at your core, regardless of what’s on your plate that day. 

This doesn’t just make you feel better. Work breaks refresh focus, reduce stress, and rekindle creativity. Even famously high achievers like Bill Gates take time to recharge, and other executives are now applying Gates-inspired “think weeks9 to their schedules. 

Fostering a Supportive Work Culture

Communicating about burnout at work can help you reduce isolation and advocate for change. Talking to a trusted colleague, mentor, or supervisor about burnout and mental health can pave the way to a more supportive work environment. 

Fortunately, workplaces are starting to shift toward a more employee-centered culture. More leadership teams take burnout prevention seriously. Some companies are shifting to shorter work weeks, adopting more liberal PTO policies, or offering free subscriptions to wellness apps. While none of these is a complete solution, it is a sign that the conversation around workplace culture is moving in a positive direction.

Seeking Professional Assistance

Stigma is one of the biggest barriers to mental health treatment, especially for high performers. Executives are less likely to seek help for burnout10 because of their position. But burnout isn’t a shortcoming; it’s a natural response to chronic stress

Professional support can be hugely helpful in addressing burnout. A therapist or coach can help you grow your toolkit for managing stress, setting boundaries, and cultivating self-compassion. Some even specialize in treating high-performance clientele. 

Proactively addressing your burnout by getting professional help is a testament to your commitment to your well-being and your career. By taking charge of your recovery journey, you can reclaim your balance and return to work with renewed resilience.

As Hersey says: “If you’re not resting, you won’t make it. And we need us to make it.”

If you’re looking for an intensive opportunity to focus on your recovery, search for burnout treatment programs and reach out to centers directly today.  


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