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What Keeps Burnout Going?

The “What Keeps It Going?” series is a set of one-page diagrams explaining how common mental health conditions are maintained. Friendly and concise, they provide an easy way for clients to understand at a glance why their disorders persist, and how they might be interrupted. What Keeps Burnout Going? is designed to help clients experiencing burnout understand more about their condition.

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A PDF of the resource, theoretical background, suggested therapist questions and prompts.

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A PDF of the resource plus client-friendly instructions where appropriate.

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An editable Microsoft PowerPoint version of the resource.

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Languages this resource is available in

  • English (GB)
  • English (US)
  • Polish
  • Spanish (International)

Techniques associated with this resource

Introduction & Theoretical Background

Most people go through periods where they feel tired or unhappy at work. However, if your job leaves you feeling emotionally exhausted, beyond the point of caring, or unable to function normally, you might be experiencing burnout. Key signs of burnout include:

  • Feeling exhausted and drained – emotionally, mentally, and physically.
  • Becoming more distant, disinterested, or detached from your work.
  • Finding it difficult to cope with the demands of your job.
  • Losing interest in your colleagues, customers, or activities outside of work.
  • Having an increasingly negative, cynical, or pessimistic attitude towards your work.
  • Feeling less productive, enthusiastic, or effective in your role.
  • Struggling to concentrate, remember things, and pay attention.
  • Problems with your mood, sleep, or health (e.g., headaches or stomach pains).

Research studies have shown that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a helpful psychological therapy for burnout. CBT therapists work a bit like firefighters: while the fire is burning they’re not so interested in what caused it, but are more focused on what is keeping it going, and what they can do to put it out. This is because if they can work out what keeps a problem going, they can treat the problem by ‘removing the fuel’ and interrupting this maintaining cycle. 

CBT models of burnout suggest that several things keep burnout going once it starts. The What Keeps Burnout Going? information handout describes some of these key factors, which act to maintain burnout, illustrating them in a vicious flower format in which each ‘petal’ represents a separate maintenance cycle. Helping clients to understand more about these processes is an essential part of cognitive therapy for burnout. Therapists can use this handout as a focus for discussion, or as a template from which to formulate an idiosyncratic model of a client’s experiences.

Therapist Guidance

One interesting way of thinking about burnout is to look at why, for some people, it does not get better by itself. This handout shows some of the most common reasons why some people keep experiencing symptoms of burnout. I wonder if we could look at it together and think about whether it describes some of what is happening for you?

References And Further Reading

  • Ahola, K., Toppinen-Tanner, S., & Seppänen, J. (2017). Interventions to alleviate burnout symptoms and to support return to work among employees with burnout: Systematic review and meta-analysis. Burnout Research, 4, 1-11.
  • Perski, O., Grossi, G., Perski, A., & Niemi, M. (2017). A systematic review and meta‐analysis of tertiary interventions in clinical burnout. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 58, 551-561.
  • Towey-Swift, K. D., Lauvrud, C., & Whittington, R. (2022). Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) for professional staff burnout: a systematic review and narrative synthesis of controlled trials. Journal of Mental Health, 1-13.