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Three steps to stop the burnout cycle

“It’s happening again! How do I stop from burning out?”

This question really got to me. My client’s comment had me thinking about burnout in a different way, especially about how to prevent recurring burnout.

I also thought about how my client’s question might resonate with you.

Did you know burnout can be a recurring cycle? 

Burnout is a Systems Problem

Burnout at work is NOT solely an individual problem. It’s the result of two sets of responsibilities colliding—that of individual employees and employer organizations. It’s a systems problem where workplace environments create recurring problems for individuals that perpetuate a burnout cycle. 

On the one hand, individuals desire balanced lives so that their work and personal lives work harmoniously. Things that contribute to individual burnout include:

  • Striving for perfection
  • Refusing to accept help with heavy family responsibilities
  • Frustration with the lack of autonomy or control over how tasks are completed 
  • Avoidance of tackling difficult relationships 
  • Settling for jobs with low-pay or without appropriate benefits
  • Not receiving appropriate acknowledgement of individual contributions

On the other hand, nonprofit employers want to provide excellent client services while budgets are squeezed tighter than ever. Staff burnout is the result. 

Workplace causes of burnout include:

  • Short-staffing
  • Expecting unreasonable workloads or work hours
  • Offering low rates of pay and lack of appropriate benefits
  • Micromanaging employees
  • Toxic behaviours like workplace bullying
  • Lack of acknowledgment of individual contributions

As nonprofit leaders, we are responsible for both the personal and the organizational issues. 

What can you, as the leader of an organization, do to reduce burnout and interrupt the burnout cycle?

Learn to recognize the common signs of burnout

Burnout at the individual level looks like:

  • Lack of motivation
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Cynicism, irritability, impatience, disillusionment
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Over-reliance on alcohol or drugs
  • No job satisfaction
  • Headaches, stomach issues and other physical complaints
  • Low or no energy

Address the underlying causes of burnout

We need to go deeper than symptoms to stop the burnout cycle. 

It’s incumbent on leaders to be curious about what is at the root of burnout and to address the specifics. Taking the time (and money) to invest in fixing root causes saves the expense of backfilling vacancies that are the result of people being off work due to  burnout. 

Some examples of root causes:

Workloads: can we reorganize or reassign responsibilities? Can we streamline or eliminate tasks? Do we need to stop or downsize some programs or services to meet our staff capacity?

Compensation: are our compensation levels appropriate? What benefits can we offer that require less cash such as additional (paid) time off? 

Toxic behaviours & difficult relationships: do we have a clear zero tolerance policy for workplace bullying and harassment? What additional training or support do team members need to manage toxic behaviours and difficult relationships? What courageous conversations are we avoiding at the expense of everyone and the benefit of a few?

Change behaviours and mindsets to stop the cycle

One common misconception leaders often have is the belief that the best solution for burnout is rest. But, if individuals return from rest and go back to the same workload, with the same mindset, and the same behaviors, they will get the same result. Repeated burnout.

This is true for each of the causes of burnout.

When I look at the burn-out cycle through the Mental Fitness lens, I see how many leaders make decisions driven by their negative inner voices that exacerbate rather than relieve burnout. 

We can call these inner voices by many names; in Mental Fitness we call them Saboteurs because of their negative impact on our mindset.

When we let Saboteurs, like Stickler, Controller or Hyper-Achiever, influence our mindset and our decision-making, we contribute to employees going around the burnout cycle.


  • A leader’s Stickler Saboteur might say that rules are inviolable and can never be changed. 
  • An employee’s Controller Saboteur could be micro-managing their subordinates. 
  • Hyper-Achiever Saboteurs are constantly looking for the next “shiny object” to chase and driving themselves and others to exhaustion.

Recognizing these negative inner voices and learning to shift from a negative to a positive mindset is a crucial step in stopping the burnout cycle in your organization or stopping you from slipping back into burnout.


As leaders, we are responsible for providing physically and mentally healthy workplaces.

To effectively reduce burnout and prevent the burnout cycle, leaders need to revisit the causes and solutions to burnout at both individual and organizational level.

I invite leaders who are motivated to break the cycle of burnout – for your employees, your organization and yourself – to enroll in the Mental Fitness for Nonprofit Leaders course so you can tame those saboteurs. The next course starts in January. Join the waitlist here.

Can’t wait until January? Start now with my new Bust Stress: Mental Fitness Bootcamp starting November 6. Sign up here.

Burnout is really costly for everyone. Let’s acknowledge the TRUE price of it.