No More Burnout: How to Fight Back, Find Time, and Stop Letting Technology Win

Anyone can struggle with burnout. It’s not a weakness. And it’s not binary. We all have some element of burnout; we just need to be better at managing it. Find out how in this Mind Matters session featuring Alyson Meister from IMD, Basima Tewfik from MIT Sloan School of Management, and Jon Jachimowicz from Harvard Business School.

Are you concerned about addiction to mobile phones? Do you limit the screen time for yourself or for others? Research shows, in fact, that it is not necessarily how much you use your phone that could be a sign of addiction, but how you use it. 

Do you believe that those who are passionate about their work are protected against burnout? On the contrary, research points to higher levels of passion making us more prone to burnout. 

Perhaps you save up your stress for a summer vacation, thinking two weeks on the beach will make it miraculously go away? If you return to the same toxic work culture, however, you are simply going to return to the stress. 

Rather than beginning with solving the symptoms of burnout, you have to identify the cause and find organisational solutions to complement personal strategies for recovery.

Mind Matters is a Thinkers50/Silicon Guild initiative in support of Mental Health Awareness Month.



Des Dearlove:

Hello, I’m Des Dearlove, co-founder of Thinkers50, and welcome to this special series of webinars entitled Mind Matters. Thinkers50 is delighted to be collaborating with our friends at Silicon Guild to bring you this important and timely series to mark Mental Health Awareness Month. This is the third of our four webinars. Recordings of the first two are available on the Thinkers50 channel on YouTube.

Now the title of today’s session is No More Burnout: How to Fight Back, Find Time, and Stop Letting Technology Win. Our moderator and instigator for the Mind Matters series is Morra Aarons-Mele. Morra is the author of The Anxious Achiever and host of The Anxious Achiever podcast. She was also shortlisted for the Thinkers50 Leadership Award in 2023.

Today, Morra is joined by three very special guests. Alyson Meister is a professor at IMD and a member of the Thinkers50 Radar Class of 2021. She’s an expert on leadership and organisations with a focus on health and wellbeing, identity, and diversity, as well as interpersonal dynamics.

We’re also joined by Basima Tewfik, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, and a member of the Thinkers50 Radar Class of 2022. Basima’s research examines the social self at work and includes among other things, a reappraisal of imposter syndrome.

Finally, we have Jon Jachimowicz from Harvard Business School, who is a member of the Thinkers50 Radar Class of 2024. Jon believes that people with passion can change the world for the better, something very close to our hearts at Thinkers50. His research focuses on how to empower passionate people, and make the world a more equitable place for all of us.

So welcome to you all and everyone joining this session from around the world. We do like to hear where you are joining us from, so please let us know and share your questions, insights, and reflections as we go along. Well, Morra, it’s over to you.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Thank you so much, Des. Hello everyone from an absolutely gorgeous day in Boston, Massachusetts. If you hear birds in the background, it’s because we take good days very seriously here. We don’t get a ton of them. So welcome.

As I was reflecting on this session, I was laughing because I was thinking about this past Sunday morning when I was emailing with one of my clients at 5:45 in the morning, and it was actually a very happy email session. It was a mutually consensual email session. She was prepping for a big media event that we were working on. I was very jet-lagged and full of energy, had been up since four. It worked for us and it was fun. I love to work early on the weekends. Alyson, you and I were talking about that. We feel guilty, but we love that early weekend work.

One of the things that I stress all the time is that we’re all different and we all like to work differently. We all have our own work-life fit, as Cali Yost calls it. I work with a lot of anxious achievers and really intense, successful, hard-driving people who are extremely online and actually feel their best at work and want more of it. So I try not to judge.

The question that I ask them is, is this working for you? Is this serving you? And if you’re a leader, is this working for your team and the people around you? And if you’re a parent or if there’s people in your life who you love, is it working for them? And that’s really the question, is this serving me? Is it working for me? Is there a better way?

I think everyone I talk to right now feels like there’s got to be a better way to manage technology and all the incoming from work, those of us who work in knowledge spaces. There has to be a better way. But we feel stumped, trapped, puzzled by the cycle of responsiveness and overwork that this extremely digital age has wrought. But we have more agency than we think, we do, especially those of us with power and influence. But like any behaviour that we want to change, any addiction, right, Aly, the first step is acknowledgement and a willingness to change.

So with that said, we have incredible experts here who are going to bring us their insights on how to really honour and act on this question, is my behaviour at work serving me and the people that I care about? With that, I’m going to hand it over to Dr. Alyson Meister.

Alyson Meister:

All right. Hi everyone. So happy to be here and talk about this topic that’s really dear to my heart and one that I think we all identify with. I read one study that came out that showed that they looked at certain white collar workers and they found that over 90% of them were checking their mobile phones and their work even on every break from their work. So the first thing we do is say, we’re going to take a break, then we pull out our phone and check our Outlook or look at our Slack or Teams. And so it is a topic that I think most of us resonate with.

And I’m not going to put a blanket statement out there, like technology is evil and it’s so horrible that we need to abolish it from our lives because I think that’s just super unrealistic in this day and age. The mobile phone and our access to the internet and technology is just bringing such huge benefits as well to society when it comes to economic wellbeing and wellbeing around the world.

There’s so many exciting innovations that I see when it comes to technology and AI-driven technology. Workplaces around the world are really capitalising on different things like personalised diagnostics and preventative statistics, AI coaches and therapists. There’s games and apps where you can train yourself to become more self-compassionate, mindful, self-aware, how to have better conversations and lead with more empathy.

So there’s so much going on that’s really exciting and I am no stranger to hooking myself up to every device I can find to measure heart rate variability and all my diagnostics and statistics to see how I can optimise wellbeing. But I think sometimes all of this comes also at a cost and we have to be really intentional about our deployment and use of technology.

Other studies are showing, and I’m sure our colleagues on the line, we’re going to talk about some of these studies that show us how being connected is also keeping us unable to detach and recover from work. It’s extending our workday. It’s damaging relationships, decreasing productivity for some people. It’s increasing loneliness, social anxiety, sometimes perceived conflict with others, emotional intelligence, empathy. It has a lot of costs, our constant connection and our use of technology. So it’s really about being mindful.

As I have just a few minutes, I want to tell you about a recent study that I’m working on at IMD with Nele Dael, a research fellow at IMD, where we’re looking at the intersection of technology and wellbeing. And why we started this is really because I work a lot in the executive classroom, I work with executive teams and leaders, and over and over again, this love-hate relationship with technology is coming up.

So I conducted this micro experiment in class. So just picture the professor coming in and saying, “Who wants to engage in this micro experiment where I’m going to take your phones for the night?” Yay. And it wasn’t forced at all. It was optional, had everybody think about the benefits and some of the costs. And then we decided on a day and I collected mobile phones.

And what ensued after this was utter chaos. I had people calling from their friends’ phones and emails coming in. People reflected on their emotions. They felt anxiety and panic and that compulsively checking your phone and thinking it’s … You’re looking for it in your pocket and thinking your phone is stolen. There were a lot of positive benefits, but they came after some time. So just imagine that, how connected we are all the time. They’re like extensions of our body.

So we took this and we said, “All right, let’s explore what’s going on.” And so around 160 executives across several organisations, we looked at problematic phone use behaviours. So there’s actually scales that you can use to measure what’s called problematic phone use, along with screen time, pickups, notifications, and other objective data. And what’s coming out of this? So experiences of overwhelm, overload, exhaustion, burnout.

And let me just start with saying, what is problematic mobile phone use. People are probably wondering that. So while the scales are evolving and the measures are evolving, it’s really connected to the experience of addiction. The American Psychological Association would say addiction is really a complex condition manifested by compulsive substance use despite the harmful consequences. And so this was literally, it was later extended to behavioural engagement as well, not just substance, but actually engaging in behaviours that you can’t stop doing despite its harmful consequences. And that really came from the gambling research.

So problematic mobile phone use is really connected to this. Think of four categories of what makes a problem. First, loss of control. Do you feel that you can’t control your usage of your phone even when you don’t want to use it? You can’t stop. I have been there, scrolling through those videos and then thinking, “I just can’t stop myself.” For me, it’s diving into Reddit and getting lost in those rabbit holes.

Two, there’s dependence and withdrawal. You’re mentally occupied with this. You feel anxious or stressful if your phone is out of range. If you’re feeling nervous that you might not have it with you, and if it is out of your sight, being preoccupied about where it is.

Emotional coping. So this one is if you’re using your mobile phone to really numb yourself. You feel stress or even boredom, and so you pick it up compulsively to cope with negative emotions you feel. Okay, so that actually is limiting your use of, not only your emotional intelligence, but your emotional regulation skills of developing other emotional regulation skills.

And then fourth, those negative life consequences that any kind of addiction can have. Does it make you feel bad? Are you feeling imposter syndrome every time you open it or fear of missing out, depression or shame, loss of performance at work, on motivation, or harm to social relationships? So when your kids are asking you, “Mommy, mommy, mommy, pay attention to me.” Or you’re asking someone else, “Hey. Hey, can I get your attention for two minutes?” That can damage relationships.

So we look at those four things and how that relates to stress and overwhelm and burnout at work. And just quickly, I’ll give you my outcomes, then we can go into it after we hear from everyone. But a few things we found is that one, on average, these 160 were interrupted by their phones every 13 minutes, every 13 minutes with pickups on average around 72 to 75 times per working day. And younger working individuals, interrupted every nine and a half minutes on average. Over 50% of the people in that study would be classified as at risk of problematic tendencies according to the cyber addiction standards used for the scale. So it’s really not uncommon, it’s pervasive around most working individuals.

We found that it was really related to feeling. So problematic phone use was really connected to indicators of cognitive and sensory overload, so that overwhelm that you feel. Imagine you’re doing all these things and you’re trying to check your phone. Now of course, this is not causal, this is connected. So, well, there’s more work to be done, but it’s showing interesting directions.

And we also found that, importantly, I do want to highlight, what was the most interesting I think is that problematic phone use, what is related to the negative outcomes like stress and feelings of overwhelm isn’t time spent on the phone. It’s not how much you use your phone, it’s actually how you use your phone. It’s that feeling of compulsion and dependency on your phone that actually is much more related than the time use.

So I think that’s interesting because me, who spends a lot of time on my phone, I can somehow maybe tell myself that it’s not compulsive. Like you say, Morra, it’s for good work. And so we shouldn’t be looking at indicators just as time spent, but more about the feeling that it brings up. So yeah, I’ll leave it there with one study that we’re working on because I think it’s just such an interesting topic. And I’m excited to hear from everyone else about it too.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Wow. I have to ask you a question though, to the point of feeling, I think we can all relate, so anxious without our phone, like what if someone needs me and I’m not reachable? I know you study leader identity. Do you have any thoughts about how our identity as leaders has become wrapped up in our responsiveness, in our ability with one Slack to come in and solve a problem quickly? Does that reinforce any identities that we have?

Alyson Meister:

Oh my gosh, absolutely. I think when it comes to change, and many leaders that I work with say they want to change things, like be more connected to their families or to really listen more or delegate more. That kind of responsiveness, that need to be always available, always on, has really stemmed from, I think, first of all, things like it gives us a boost to our self-esteem and dopamine when we can solve problems for people, we can be there. We feel useful. Humans like to feel useful and feel like we have a purpose. So solving problems and being available is giving us some of that sense.

And I think also this comes down to people’s fundamental definition of what leadership is and what a leader does. What is your assumption about how responsive a leader has to be? And I think when you start pushing people and getting really to the bottom of this it’s, “Well, I feel like I always have to be there. I don’t want to let people down.” And a leader can’t let people down. A leader has to be available, those ‘what ifs.’

And if you start doing some real deep level work on, well, maybe it is okay if I put my out of office on or if I shut down and I don’t respond, and then really start practising some different behaviours around that. It’s not easy at first when your identity, your sense of self, your sense of reward is linked to being responsive. But it is possible to change, and I think it’s really important.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Thank you for that. Jon, I’m going to hand it over to you.

Jon Jachimowicz:

Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m really grateful to have this forum and this opportunity to talk to all of you. When I think about burnout, I think about two trends that on its face don’t necessarily look like they’re super connected, but I actually think are super closely connected.

I think on the one hand, we have this trend that work, over the last 10 or 20 years there’s this expectation that it should be something that we’re passionate about, something that we love doing. And then on the other hand, we have this growing understanding that people in knowledge work, work longer hours now than they did in the 1980s. I actually think that these two things are very closely connected.

I think that people are working longer hours because they are passionate. And look, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We all love being fired up at work and loving what we do, and we love the fact that it drives us to new heights and perform better. But I also think that there’s an important challenge that we’re missing. And we miss it, I think in part because when we think about passion, we think about it as an attribute of a person, something that a person either has or doesn’t have, like I’m passionate about X or I’m passionate about Y.

But in addition to that more stable component, like this is what I’m passionate about, there’s also the day-to-day experience, like how fired up do I feel right now? And contrary to the myth that passion protects against burnout, that if you’re super passionate you will never burn out, what we find actually in our research is that higher levels of passion can actually make you more prone to burnout. That flame of passion can actually burn you out.

And here’s the underlying logic of what we find in our research. Imagine a day when you are really fired up, you’re really passionate, it makes sense that you’re going to invest more of yourself into your work, right? You’re going to work longer hours, your boss asks you to take on a task or two, you take on five. You do whatever you can in order to make a difference because those are the expectations that you have that day.

And so you work longer hours, you come home, you have a harder time letting go of what happened at work because you’re so connected to it. That also means you have less time to psychologically detach from work. You have less time to engage in potential recovery activities. So you show up the next morning at work and you’re more emotionally exhausted. You’re more burned out, and it’s harder for you to then have the emotional resources necessary to actually then feel that passion again.

So there’s something about passion that burns people out. And I think part of that is that we have a really hard time, I think particularly in our most passionate moments to be self-aware, to know what it is that we need. So I’ll give you an example. I ran this experiment with a tech company based in Europe, and I told half of all people, I said, “Look, tomorrow please set a break. You can put it into your calendar. Put it into your schedule, and just tell me when you’re going to take a break and what you’re going to do in that break. And I’ll follow up with you tomorrow to see what happens.”

And so I followed up with people the next end of the work day and I asked, “How was your break? What did you do and how do you feel?” And here’s what was surprising. Perhaps not surprisingly, half of all people who said that they would take a break didn’t end up taking a break, and they gave me a variety of reasons why it was impossible. But people who were more passionate on that day were even less likely to take a break. And they told me, “I don’t have to take a break. I feel so much energy right now.” So you focus on what you have right now rather than on what you might need in the future.

So I think there’s part of this component that is internal, but I think there’s also an interpersonal, external component, and that’s how our coworkers and how our managers see us. Imagine you’re a manager and you look at your subordinate and they look super passionate that day. They talk animatedly, their eyes light up, kind of how I’m talking right now. If my supervisor were seeing me right now, they would say, “Amazing. I’m going to give this person more work.”

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Right. I mean, he’s the guy that I want on my team. He’s into it. He’s committed. Yes, totally.

Jon Jachimowicz:

Exactly, right? And so for a lot of reasons that might be benevolent, they have benevolent reasons for why they want to do that, they want to help me, they look at me and they say, “Awesome, this person is passionate. Because they’re passionate, I’m going to give them more work.” And because I am passionate, as a result I’m less likely to say no. I’m more likely to say, “Hell yeah, I’m going to go and do that.” So it becomes this reinforcing cycle.

There’s also some malevolent reasons. You can think of managers saying, “Great, my more passionate subordinate that day, they’ll do it for the passion. If I think of who will volunteer, they’re more likely to do it or who’s going to do this for less money.” But in this way, managers actually end up contributing to the burnout. They don’t actually do the things that are most helpful for me in moments when I’m particularly passionate.

So I think there’s really two takeaways for how to think about this. One is I think for us personally to know that our most passionate moments are also the most dangerous for burnout. So rather than passion being this protective shield that protects us from burnout, it actually is something that makes us prone to experiencing more burnout. And so what does that mean?

It means that maybe on our most passionate days, we should be careful of what we say yes and no to. Maybe we hold off until we cool off a little bit, or we actually use that as an opportunity to ask our friends or colleagues or trusted mentors whether or not this is something that I should be doing. Maybe on our most passionate days, rather than using that passion to work longer hours, maybe we use that as a signal to leave work earlier and plan some time for recovery knowing that the passion that I experienced today propelled me to work really hard and really long. And so maybe I actually need more time to recover because I took more of myself to do that.

And what does it mean for managers? Well, it means that when we’re managing other people who are passionate or who appear passionate, that rather than giving into our instincts and our instincts being we should give that person more work or we should lean into that, to actually caution that person in saying, “Hey, I think you’re really fired up right now. Are you sure you don’t want to take a little break?”

Or maybe even just taking that person, say, “Hey, I’m going to take you on a walk outside and enjoying the sunshine,” just so that that person actually gets that reprieve that they might not necessarily know they need in the moment. Or maybe taking a project away that they have so excitedly said yes to and say, “You know what? Let’s revisit this conversation on another day.”

So I think as we’re thinking about burnout, it’s really thinking about the day-to-day and thinking about how things that seemingly seem to be so good for us, like that passion that drives us to work harder can also really backfire and lead us to burning out.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Wow, Jon. First of all, I’m chuckling because as someone who has bipolar disorder myself and who works with a lot of leaders who manage bipolar disorder, when you are … And I’m talking more about bipolar 2, not extremes with bipolar 1. But when you are feeling hypomanic, you are everything you’re talking about. And I know that that’s when you tend to take everything on. And then you might wake up three days later and think, “Oh shit, what have I gotten myself into?”

And you have to have people around you who can rein you in. You have to because you’re not reliable. And it’s coming from the best place of, “Yes, I love this. I’m so happy. I want to do this. Yeah, let’s go.” You have to have, I call them guardrails. Do you teach people guardrails?

Jon Jachimowicz:

I try my best. It’s hard because even if you tell someone in your most passionate moment you need a guardrail, in the moment, people will say, “Well, I don’t …”


Morra Aarons-Mele:

No, I don’t.

Jon Jachimowicz:

“… I don’t need it.” I mean, prospectively people know, but in the moment it’s really difficult. It’s kind of like the old issue of if you ask people ahead of time what they want to eat and you have them order food. Ahead of time, people are more likely to order healthier food because they know this is what I should be doing. But if you then ask people in the moment, “I know you ordered the healthy meal, but I have this amazing meal, maybe not so healthy, but it’s going to taste better,” in the moment, people are going to be more likely to choose and just give into their temptation. So it’s really challenging and, I think, difficult to do that.

The best way I think, is to try to make it a habit and try to make it something that you literally cannot say no to. So if you schedule something in your calendar, say at five o’clock today you’re going to go play pickleball, it’s a commitment device. You’re going to see your friends, you’re going to do it. Come hell or high water, you’re going to have to go or else you are going to disappoint your friends. Or as the German that I am, I’m going to upset my schedule, which would be extremely painful for me, not something that is possible for me.

So I think just making sure that I have guardrails that I cannot say no to in the moment or where the cost of saying no are higher. Whether that’s roping in other people or making a commitment to myself that is harder to actually renege is going to be really important.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Thank you. Basima, over to you.

Basima Tewfik:

Great. Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a treat to be here today and also hear Alyson and Jon’s thoughts. The angle I would love to take us in is to really think about what does, and more importantly, what does not cause burnout.

Having too much to do, role overload is definitely a factor that is associated with burnout. And so it makes a lot of sense to think about a 24/7 work culture. But often when we talk about burnout, there’s also a number of other additional factors that get roped in there. And these factors tend to be more intrapsychic or things that are in the minds. And so, one that is really relevant to me and my research is thinking about what I call imposter thoughts or what is popularly known as imposter syndrome.

So just as a definition to get everyone on the same page, I know we’ve all heard about this phenomenon, but I define it as the idea that other people think you’re smarter than you think you are. So think about the classic thoughts of, “Oh, I think other people overestimate my capabilities.” Or, “I think other people see me and my abilities as better than I think they are.” And conventional wisdom would suggest that when you experience these intrapsychic factors like imposter thoughts, it’s going to cause burnout.

And the logic behind this would be something around the notion of, “Hey, if I have imposter thoughts, I think other people think I’m smarter than I think I am,” I’m going to do maybe one of two things. So either I’m going to ruminate a lot and think about, “Oh my gosh, I’m not as good as other people think I am. What am I doing? Am I supposed to be here?” Or I might do an opposite tactic of, “Okay, I better invest my whole self into this. I better muster all my might and effort to try and achieve the task that is in front of me so people don’t discover that maybe I’m not as smart as I think I am.”

But either way, you’re ending up feeling as if you’re at the end of your rope. You’re burned out cognitively, emotionally, and physically. And so yeah, it makes a lot of sense that hey, plausibly imposter thoughts are going to cause something like burnout or strain. But what my research is really about is actually revisiting some of these assumptions that we have around a phenomenon like this. And one that I’ve been particularly interested in is this relationship between imposter thoughts and burnout and strain.

And what’s really interesting, at least to me and hopefully interesting to others, is this notion that I actually don’t seem to find a consistent causal effect between having imposter thoughts and burnout. So what I mean by that is it doesn’t seem to be the case necessarily that when you have imposter thoughts that you’re necessarily going to also experience this burnout and strain contrary to what we seem to think is the prevailing wisdom.

And so really back this up or actually garner support of this, I want to talk about one experiment that I recently ran. So it was an experiment in which participants were sorted into one of four conditions, essentially. They were either presented with higher role overload and high or low imposter thoughts.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Could you define role overload for the audience?

Basima Tewfik:

Yes. So when I say role overload, that’s a great question, I want you guys to be thinking about too much to do in too little time. So really thinking about, okay, you have an hour and how many tasks do you need to get done in that hour? And you’re thinking, “Ah, there is no way in hell I’m going to get through everything that is on my plate in this period of time.”

And so that’s exactly what I had half the participants experience. They were doing this task and they had this Post-it note, and there were additional tasks that kept getting added to their Post-it note as they were working through. And they were just like, “The time is not expanding, but suddenly my workload is.” And then they were also, some of them were induced to have imposter thoughts, so this idea that other people overestimated their capabilities, while others were not induced to have these thoughts.

And what’s interesting is exactly what I said to you guys at the beginning. When you experience more role overload, you certainly experience more burnout. So there was that causal relationship. But what was particularly curious to me is this notion that if you also experienced imposter thoughts, there wasn’t actually any additional burnout or strain that appeared to come about. And really to unpack this even further, what I actually found is that imposter thoughts actually almost helped you rise to the challenge when you had more on your plate.

I’m still unpacking the logic of why that might be. I think it changes how you view role overload, but essentially it brought me back to this original point which is that, hey, we might not have a really full understanding of imposter thoughts and maybe this relationship with burnout isn’t exactly what we expect. But there’s probably this lingering question that you’re all having here, but why do we still have this persistent wisdom that when you experience imposter thoughts, you’re also going to report being burned out?

And I think it might actually have to do with some sort of, what I call mechanistic reasons or the way that we’ve been studying this phenomenon. A lot of the time, we’ve been studying it correlationally. And so basically what that means is I’m filling out a survey about my imposter thoughts, and then I’m also at the same time or maybe a little bit later, filling out how burned out I feel or how anxious or how strained I feel.

And when you’re doing that, there’s something that’s really possible, which is you might experience a halo effect of sorts, which is that if I’m reporting imposter thoughts, we know it doesn’t feel great. So whenever I see other things that are also going to tap into this idea of it doesn’t feel great, I’m also going to rate those highly. And so what does this actually mean for us and what is the recommendation here?

What I’d like to encourage us to think about is that when it comes to burnout, that we don’t necessarily fall back on these intrapsychic factors, this idea of imposter thoughts or there’s something wrong with me and that I need to necessarily manage it. It might actually have to do with what is on your plate, how connected you are to technology, what that might be.

And so the next time you’re getting a task from your manager or a peer, it’s worth that conversation of saying, “Okay, I already have task X, Y, and Z on my plate. Task A that you’ve just added seems really, really important. How do you want me to prioritise that? How can we shift something that’s already on my plate maybe to someone else, or maybe do we push that to the back burner? Is it no longer something important that we need to think about?” Essentially zooming out.

What I really want when it comes to imposter thoughts and burnout is for people to stop being so hard on themselves when they’re having these imposter thoughts thinking that I’m the one who’s deficient in some way, that I really need to work on this so I’m not always thinking that other people overestimate me, which doesn’t always necessarily make me feel great.

Rather think about what’s going on in the workplace, what’s going on in the relationship with your manager or your peers that you can actually have a direct conversation about, which actually might be the thing that is causing you to report that you’re experiencing burnout as opposed to something like imposter thoughts, which actually might not have a causal relationship.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Oh, sorry. Was one of you going to jump in? I was just going to say I love this so much. I love your research. I cited it in my book also because it really re-frames things that we’ve been told are bad for us, and I love that. It sounds like the intentionality behind addressing these larger systemic issues is actually good for other people. You’re saying, “Hey, boss, maybe we don’t need to prioritise this.” I’m just curious what you find in your research about how people can actually take these thoughts that they’re having and turn them into positive outcomes for the team.

Basima Tewfik:

So one of my papers is really looking at the interpersonal effects, which is what is the effect of having imposter thoughts on other people? And what I find across two field studies, so one was a study in a finance firm, one was doctor-patient interactions, as well as two experiments to again get at this causality question is that when you have imposter thoughts, you essentially seem to be doing this unconscious overcompensation effect where you’re like, “Uh-oh, I think other people think I’m smarter, so let me actually try and distract them and dazzle them with my charm.”

And when you ask people about this, are you actually being more other-focused? You don’t find that to be the case. So people don’t actually realise that they’re doing this. But what it’s showing is that sometimes imposter thoughts in some ways can have this really nice silver lining when it comes to interacting with others, and that might feed into having these better conversations. Linking this back to our discussion around burnout, it might lead to better team dynamics.

One thing I do want to highlight though is I don’t want people or managers to think, “Oh, great, I’m just going to hire everyone with imposter thoughts so that all these teams are working smoothly and everybody’s more interpersonally oriented,” because I do want to return to the earlier comment, which is it still doesn’t feel great.

So it’s this really interesting balance of how do you balance the negative affect or negative emotions you might be feeling with these interpersonal upsides? And are you in a space where you can actually capture these interpersonal upsides? So if you’re working, for example, very solo, you’re not interacting with others, imposter thoughts overall are not going to be that great for you. But if there is that opportunity to interact, it might actually be better and it might lead to more productive conversations when it comes to things like burnout.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Thank you. Okay, I want to ask a question. We’ve got some great questions from our audience. This is a question from Indira and I’m going to let anyone jump in. What are the most common misconceptions about burnout that you’ve encountered and how can they be addressed?

Alyson Meister:

I can kick off.

Morra Aarons-Mele:


Alyson Meister:

I was thinking with that question, one thing I really want to highlight, and I think it really relates to what Basima was mentioning around anyone can struggle with burnout. It’s not a sign of weakness. There’s this misconception that somehow burnout is weakness. And I liken that to taking a really healthy fish, when you get a goldfish, and putting it in a fishbowl for the first time. You have this healthy, happy fish. If you don’t clean that water and provide food and nutrients and light, that fish, no matter how strong it is, can’t survive in a toxic environment.

So I think one of the misconceptions, and then I’ll pass it on, I’ve got many that I’ve done within the classroom, I think is that burnout is a weakness and somehow you are responsible for fixing it all yourself and you can fix it all. If you are in an environment that’s toxic, it is very, very difficult to create that protective bubble around yourself.

Jon Jachimowicz:

I think one thing that comes to my mind is that burnout isn’t binary. It’s not like you either have burnout or you don’t have burnout. To some extent, we all struggle with burnout, and I think the challenge is that we often think that burnout is something that you need to address reactively, when you are burned out, you should do X. When in reality, if you think of all of us struggling with burnout to certain degrees and certain extents, I think the broader question is what are you going to do to manage your burnout? What are you doing day to day? How are you treating yourself to make sure that your levels of burnout are within limits that you are comfortable with?

And it’s really this, there’s no such thing as no burnout. We all have things in our lives that are stressing us out, but there is such a thing as too much burnout. And again, it’s fine to be in a state of too much burnout for a little bit. There’s things in life that we cannot control. They’re going to happen, they’re going to stress us out, we’re going to feel emotionally exhausted. But it’s more about what mechanisms do I have to then bring it back to a level of exhaustion that I’m comfortable with? How can I manage that in such a way that I really feel comfortable with how things are going? And that comfortable level might be different for different people.

Basima Tewfik:

And for me, jumping on both Alyson and Jon’s comments, one thing I’m hearing from you guys and it’s occurring to me right now is also this idea of we’re very reactive when it comes to managing burnout and this idea that actually we need to start being more proactive about it. I think many of the people probably listening today as well as many of us on this call, are people who push ourselves to the limit.

And maybe thinking about, okay, if we know that we have a tendency to do that, what are we making sure that we’re doing to prevent us from getting there? So I think about Jon’s comment about pickleball earlier. What are the built-in activities that you’re treating as just as important as your work meetings, that you’re making sure that you’re engaging in to prevent getting to the end of your rope, essentially?

Alyson Meister:

Yeah, it’s so funny. So many people think you could just save up your stress for the summer vacation and then somehow miraculously you’ll get rid of it all. And then they’re very disappointed to find that two weeks back in that same fishbowl, we feel bad again. So it’s something we need to address daily, our strategies for recovery daily, weekly, monthly, not just saving it up for that next beach vacation, although it’s lovely. I’m not saying don’t do that.

Jon Jachimowicz:

Something that both of you remind me of is this research showing about the long-term effects and benefits of going on vacation. And what they find is that you go on vacation a week or two weeks and you feel great for a day or two when you come back, but then two things happen. One, you’re back in the same environment that stressed you out and two, while you were gone, work still continued and so now there’s more work waiting for you.

So you’re more likely to have to work or feel like you have to work longer hours to make up for it, putting you back into the burnout negative. And so it’s actually, I love the perspective, Basima and Alyson, it’s exactly that. It’s not just something that you can save up. It’s something that you have to do.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Recover a little every day.

Jon Jachimowicz:


Morra Aarons-Mele:

The other thing that I’m also hearing from all three of you in very different ways is really taking a minute. I’m going to shift to systemic stuff in a minute. We have a good question on that. But just sticking with what I can do personally is really understanding your motivations for the behaviour that might be promoting your burnout, right, Alyson? Like, why do I need to pick up my phone and respond right away? Jon, is my passion really serving me in this moment? And Basima, these very anxious thoughts that I’m having about my self-worth in the office. How is that affecting my role and what I’m taking on? And so just curious, even personal reflections about looking at your own motivations for taking on behaviours that, again, like ordering that meal, you know are going to make you feel bad?

Alyson Meister:

Ordering that meal. In fact, one study we have under review that we presented at Academy last year is on performance-based identities, which is with Ben Walker and Dan Caprar. We looked at professional rugby players, and in particular how their professional identity has become so tied to performance or perceived performance. And I think that’s really something I’ve had to take note of in the business world. I started in strategy consulting and I worked in that before coming into academia. And I think academia itself promotes this point of, you’re only as good as your last paper or your last publication.

And I think when our identities become so tied to our work performance, I think that can be really, really dangerous. And I think that ties into a lot of what Jon was saying around passion. So passion and performance, if that becomes who you are instead of what you do, for me that has been a very important revelation in helping me, and with the executives I work with, create some distance and create room for failure and for just taking a break.

Jon Jachimowicz:

I couldn’t agree more with you, Alyson, not because you said my favourite word, passion, obviously, but I think the broader challenge is that this is not just something that people deal with themselves. We’re also in a context where we’re surrounded by other people. Emma Frank and Kai Krautter and I, we did this study where we looked at what it’s like being on a team surrounded by other people who are really passionate.

On the one hand you’re like, “Great, I’m going to go and be surrounded by other people who are really passionate. That is the team where I’m going to feel the most energy and maybe the least burnout.” And that’s partially true, but what we also find is that we feel a social pressure to then also be just as passionate as everybody else. And that can also then be really exhausting.

The practices that other people adopt may work for them, but they might not work for us. And we might not necessarily be privy to all the things that other people do outside of the work context that I can observe or what they might be feeling on the inside, but I take my cues from how I look at them and what I interpret from them.

So there’s this, I know very oft said saying, “Don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides.” I think it takes on particular importance in the workplace because not only do we see only what’s happening in the workplace, we also don’t see what’s happening outside of the workplace, what people are doing to then show up at work and be their best selves.

Basima Tewfik:

And I think to add to what Alyson and Jon are saying, I think some other motives might also be around what you think good enough is. So when it comes to imposter thoughts, some people ask me, who’s right? Is it, I am right about my own abilities or is what I think other people think of my abilities potentially more right? And I tend to argue that actually we might be the wrong one.

If we’re having imposter thoughts, we might be underselling our own abilities. We might be thinking about all the things that we don’t know how to do because of information asymmetry or whatever it might be. And so because of that, we have this standard of what we think we need to reach in order to excel at work and at our tasks. And so we’re pushing ourselves to a standard that maybe other people actually are like, “You don’t need to go to that standard. It’s great that you do and it really benefits the workplace, but that’s just not where you need to go.” So I do think sometimes we might be self-deceiving in a way that is really counterproductive.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Oh my gosh. I tell my anxious achievers to keep a brag book. That’s also evidence. So if you’re struggling and you’re going into the sales meeting and you think you’re a total failure and you’re going to get fired because you haven’t made your numbers, have your numbers from the last three quarters in front of you, and I bet you they’re good. So that when you start feeling like, “I stink. I’m a failure. I don’t even belong here,” there’s literal evidence. I have a clips file of people saying nice things about my work that I literally have to consult a lot of days because, you know.

Basima Tewfik:

I love that. I love the brag book. I was like, “We should all do that.”

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Well, everyone needs a brag book, a hundred percent, and a friend who will also tell you how great you are. Okay. Audience, dive in with questions. I’ve got a couple of good ones here. I’m going to shift outwards a little bit. We have a question from Jasper. What are your thoughts on implementing organisation-wide interventions and policies based on your findings? And that’s for anybody.

Alyson Meister:

Who do you want to start? I can jump in. Okay. Well, first of all, I guess it depends on what the finding is. Is it around exhaustion or overload or too much work or toxic cultures? But I think if we say, Jasper, it’s so important to start at the level of organisational culture. One of the things organisations shouldn’t do is say, “Oh, people are tired and people are exhausted and burning out. Let’s give them more yoga classes and more mindfulness classes. Go ahead, fix yourselves,” and then lament when it’s not working. And I think it’s great that they’re doing something, yes, but that’s not going to fix the problem, the problem of people being tired and exhausted.

We really have to take a systemic approach and look at factors like meaningful work, like I’m sure Jon will talk about, inclusion and inclusive climates and belonging and psychological safety. Things like sustainable practices, how are people learning to work? Do they have some balance in their life? And then at the very basic level, what kind of systems and supports do you have for people? If you’re in an organisation that does not offer any provision for mental health, then no matter how great the work is, people can struggle.

And so I think it’s a complex question and I think it’s just really important to start at that systemic level. Rather than start solving the symptoms, you have to really get to the root cause of what’s happening.

Jon Jachimowicz:

I am going to talk about my favourite word again, sorry. No, but I mean I think there’s three things that are challenging and I think that we need to think differently about when we’re thinking about this at the organisational level.

I think one right now when we’re thinking about how to manage people who are self-driven and passionate, we stop at the hiring phase. We say, “All you’ve got to do is find these passionate people and they will manage themselves. They will take on things, they’ll do things. They’re super proactive and we love them.” But actually thinking of passionate people as being worse at managing themselves than people who are less passionate because they have a distorted view of themselves and what they might need. I think it creates this really interesting way of thinking about how organisations might need to show up, actually getting a bit more involved, and not just letting passionate people be by themselves.

I think the second one is for all the things that passion is great, passion is also not the be all and end all of everything. People should have the ability to be motivated to work for a variety of reasons. And that might actually be really helpful to have people that have a variety of different motivations, meaning they have a variety of different approaches for how they work and what they do outside of work.

But in some work that I’ve done together with Mijeong Kwon and Julia Lee Cunningham, we find that people who love their work more are also more likely to moralise loving your work. Meaning that they will judge other people based on why they work and they will judge people harshly if they don’t also love their work. So a passion-driven organisational culture can be quite hostile to people who themselves are not passionate. And that’s bad because then you just create an echo chamber of people who all want to work 60, 70 hours a week and want to give it their all for their organization and who all end up burning out.

And I think the third thing is to think about where the organisation draws its sources from. If you’re a senior leader in an organisation and you say, “Ooh, I see a lot of burnout around me,” do you see what’s happening at the front line or at the lowest level of the organisation? Because that is where the organisation’s norms are going to be most visible.

Jen Danos has done wonderful work showing that if you want to understand what your organisational culture is like, don’t look at the people at the top of the organisation. They might be the ones that set the culture, but they’re also the ones that are least bound to it. They have the greatest leeway not to comply with the norms. You got to look at the bottom of the organisational hierarchy. Those are the people who are most punished for violating some sort of organisational norms.

And so if you are more likely to see burnout at the bottom than at the top of the organisation, maybe think of all the ways in which people at the top of the organisation are deviating from organisational norms and figuring out what is happening here in this organisational cultural context that might actually create issues. So if your senior team isn’t burned out, but you’re hearing a lot of burnout towards the bottom of the organisation, it’s still your responsibility. It’s not their fault.

Basima Tewfik:

That’s great. The only thing I would add is organisation-wide policies or interventions when it comes to burnout, they’re incredibly, incredibly difficult to do due to the nuances of given individuals. We’re all different. So what Alyson was talking about with yoga classes, that’s not going to work for everyone. Maybe it’ll work for one person, but it’s not going to work. We also hear about having no-meeting-Wednesdays or whatever that might be. But really what ends up happening is that a bunch of tasks get moved to another day. So you’re just pushing off and creating backlogs.

What I would argue, going back to a comment I made earlier, which is just actually encouraging a culture where people are talking about what is on their plate and really making it top of mind for everyone that we need to make decisions about what is most important to get done here and what is not most important to get done. What can be shifted to someone else or completely eliminated from the list of tasks? And I think really that proactive mindset, that being very clear about the workload that everybody has is the only way that we can start to really address burnout in a way that actually has observable consequences or observable benefits.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

So workload is really important at the end of the day?

Basima Tewfik:

I think that’s where I fall, and I think that’s where organisations can really come in. I definitely think there are definitely other factors, but that’s the one that really stands out for me. And I’m curious, Alyson and Jon, if you agree or disagree.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Gregory has a great comment, Monique, if you want to throw that up. “The organisation is burned out and we’re victim blaming our human capital? It shouldn’t devolve to wellness programs.” Yeah, I think that’s really true.

Alyson Meister:

Exactly. And I think there’s really one thing that’s really important, and you’ve talked about this on some of the other podcasts that you’ve had this month, is the role of leaders. Leaders really do set the culture. As Jon was saying, if you’re a passionate, excited leader, you’ll expect that of everyone. But also if you’re an under-slept and completely exhausted leader, that will be contagious to people too.

I always say leadership is contagious. So it’s so important to be aware of the energy that you’re projecting, the habits that you have, the role model that you’re setting because you can have an awesome environment to work in and you love your work. But if you have a leader that is someone that is acting in ways that are really promoting burnout, then it’s tough to fight against that, right?

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Oh wow, my brain is just humming with so much great new information, but it’s time to wrap. I want to assign each of you a speed round before I hand it over to Des to clear us out here. I want to come back to tech. I want you to tell me one way that you are fighting back against the undeniable intrusion of digital responsiveness in our lives. And I’m going to start with Jon.

Jon Jachimowicz:

I actually think that one of the challenges that we have is that it’s actually really hard not to be online, especially in knowledge work. We derive a sense of self-efficacy and comfort in feeling needed by other people and saying, “Hey, I’ll be on vacation, but if it’s urgent, you can email me.”

My wife and I went on vacation a couple of weeks ago and we went to Hawaii for two weeks, which was magical. And I tried out this thing where I went into my phone settings and I just turned off the email. You can just turn off the email because it’s hard to not be on my phone. But at the very least, I could not receive any emails from anybody. I had an out of office. And I told people, if it’s urgent, call me.

Now, the barrier to calling someone in this society and current culture is very high. It turned out I got one phone call over a two-week time period, and about after four or five days, I stopped worrying about what emails I’m missing, but it took about four to five days. So figuring out when you are switching off to actually use that switching off time and thinking about the ways in which technology has seeped into our lives in ways that actually makes fully switching off and detaching harder.

There are great phone settings. You can turn it off and then it’s going to take a couple of days and I promise you it’ll be okay. If there’s an emergency, people can call you, but people are not going to call you for small things anymore.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Thank you. Basima?

Basima Tewfik:

Like Alyson, I was a strategy consultant before I went into academia, so this is actually one that I’ve been doing since I was 22, which is, and it’s related to Jon’s comment, I actually do not have a push on my mail, on my phone. I realised when I was in consulting that I would get pings constantly, and it didn’t matter what time of the day it was, it didn’t matter if it was a weekend. And I realised I was actually coming away with a lot of anxiety or just operating at a high level of anxiety of like, who’s going to contact me next? I need to respond right away. And it took a while to actually get over this, I don’t need to check my email all the time. But it’s something that I do really deliberately.

The second thing that I do in my calendar is I have no tech periods that are purposely scheduled. I typically bind this with a social type of activity or something that’s related to exercise. But just making sure that I’m not going to be using my phone or not even going to have my phone in my vicinity and someone else is around me that can actually hold me accountable and make sure that that’s not happening.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Love that.

Alyson Meister:

Love it.

Morra Aarons-Mele:


Alyson Meister:

Well, for me, I think as we know, tech is activating, right? The second we look at our phone, it’s activating our systems. There’s awesome studies by Jeanette, I don’t know how to pronounce her last name, Skowronek, but in nature, human behaviour around even the presence of our smartphone is reducing our attentional performance. So our tech is activating us. And I think in an era where tech is pervasive, I’ve been really focusing on what it means to be human and really trying to constantly connect to my body, to my emotions, to my breathing.

And so, one skill I’ve had to actively learn and actively practice is just the skill of breath. I find myself when I’m getting overwhelmed and I’m checking email and I’m on my phone and I’m getting calls and you’re getting texts to just stop and breathe and look at nature and say, “This is really, really overwhelming at the moment.” And just regulating my physiology, for me, that’s been a strategy that I’ve been employing personally that I found has made a huge difference throughout the workday. And so I really recommend the power of breath.

Morra Aarons-Mele:

Breathing right now. I want to thank you all so tremendously for your time and your excellent work. I’m going to hand it back to Des to close us out.

Des Dearlove:

Thank you. Thank you all of you. Just some new things I’ve learned I’m taking away, problematic mobile phone use is like an addiction, but overwhelm isn’t how much we use it. It’s how we use these devices and we’ve got to find better strategies. Passion can make you more rather than less prone to burnout. And someone described it in the comments as the Icarus effect. If you fly too close to the sun, we know what happened to Icarus. And imposter thoughts are not causally linked to burnout and may actually be helpful to help us cope with what actually may well just be role overload. So that’s my new learnings.

My key takeaways are that burnout is not a weakness. If you put a healthy fish in a toxic fishbowl, they will become burned out. And even if they go on holiday and you put them back in the same fishbowl, we’re going to be in trouble. Burnout is not binary. We shouldn’t think about it in those terms. We all have some element of burnout and we just need to be better at managing it. And we need to be more proactive instead of reactive. So thank you to Jon, Basima, and Alyson, and of course to Morra.

Our final session in the Mind Matter series will be at the same time, same place next week. Our topic will be Leaders Speak Up: Unlocking Mental Health in the Workplace. And Morra will be joined by the wonderful Megan Reitz, author of Speak Up, the fabulous Amy Edmondson, author of The Fearless Organization and originator of the concept of psychological safety, and the tremendous Peter Sims, founder and chairman of BLK SHP, Inc.

Recordings of the first two webinars in the series are already available on the Thinkers50 channel on YouTube. This one will be available shortly. Big breath everyone. Plenty of breathing, and see you next week. Thank you.

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