Is it possible to break the cycle of burnout for good?

<span>‘In late 2020 the cumulative toll hit and, after six months of working almost around the clock, I broke down at my computer mid-sentence.’</span><span>Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian</span>
‘In late 2020 the cumulative toll hit and, after six months of working almost around the clock, I broke down at my computer mid-sentence.’Illustration: Rita Liu/The Guardian

I burned out for the first time at the age of 18. I was studying part-time, working part-time and writing on the side, amounting to more than a full-time workload. I was also partying most nights, wanting to make the most of the last of my student days – and needing to blow off steam.

I thought I was handling the tightrope act pretty well, and in terms of output, I was. But one day, when I turned up to my office job, something about my frazzled response to my boss’s friendly inquiry about my day prompted her to pry further.

I listed everything I was juggling – and the weight of it hit me. My manager immediately reassigned all my shifts bar those I needed to pay my bills.

I’m forever grateful to her for recognising what I couldn’t see myself. I might have been managing my responsibilities, but I couldn’t carry on for much longer.

That time, I avoided the worst of burnout, but it’s continued to periodically resurface. Usually, I wave it off as just another busy time, spurring myself on with mantras like “the only way out is through”.

But in late 2020 the cumulative toll hit and, after six months of working almost around the clock, I broke down at my computer mid-sentence.

After coming to that brutal stop, I changed my life. I went to stay with my parents for a few months, and worked a short-term, shifts-based contract to put some parameters around my work hours. Then I moved to a smaller city for a slower pace.

Since then, I have managed to keep burnout at bay – mostly. Every now and again, I’ll take one job too many, other responsibilities will pile on top, and I’ll find myself back on the brink.

Twelve years on from my first experience of burnout, the cycle has come to seem grimly predictable. Many of my friends also seem to be either recovering from a period of overwork and overwhelm, or on the brink of the next. “I think I’ve got one more burnout in me,” one said recently, grimly, of a looming promotion.

Is this just the nature of modern life: doing our best to keep our heads above water between bouts of drowning? Or is it possible to break the cycle for good?


Kandi Wiens says it is. Now a senior fellow in the medical education master’s programme at University of Pennsylvania, she left a lucrative consulting career to study solutions to burnout after her own extensive experience. In her first book, Burnout Immunity, Wiens shares how to learn the signs of mounting overwhelm, and break the cycle for good.

“It’s about getting very clear with yourself about what your definition of success is, and where that definition came from – and then challenging it,” she says when we connect over Zoom. “Is that the definition I want to live the rest of my life by?”

Wiens grew up in poverty in rural Montana, with a family history of mental illness and alcoholism. She became the first in her family to go to college, and supported herself by working three jobs.

The exhilaration Wiens felt about achieving at such a high level combined with external validation and fear of sliding back into poverty to create a deep-seated work ethic. This powered her into higher-level roles and greater responsibility, even as she began a young family.


Like me, Wiens now traces her tendency to overwork back to lessons picked up in childhood. For years, we both put safeguards in place and struggled to change.

In 2011, Wiens received a blood pressure reading of 200/110, indicating a hypertensive emergency – associated with organ damage, failure and even death. Her doctor immediately prescribed medication and bed rest, warning her to present to the ER if she felt so much as a headache.

Despite herself, Wiens felt relief: she finally had an excuse to sleep. Since then, she tells me, she’s been on a mission to help people protect themselves from burnout, and even develop lasting “immunity”.

Her health emergency was “incredibly painful”, in part because of the shame she felt for struggling. “The last thing I wanted to do was let anybody down, or let myself down,” Wiens says. “I’d worked really hard to get where I was. To give it all up, because of my health – that was scary.”

But it prompted a reckoning in her personal and professional lives. Through her job, Wiens came across the then-emerging research into emotional intelligence, and recognised its relevance to burnout resilience. In 2013 she gave up on consulting to study the subject full-time.

Though the term has been applied widely in the years since, burnout is an occupational phenomenon, recognised by the World Health Organization as resulting from chronic workplace stress. It is characterised by feelings of exhaustion, negativity or cynicism about one’s work, and reduced efficacy – but not everyone is equally susceptible.

In Wiens’ study with chief medical officers at 35 large hospitals, 69% reported stress levels that were severe, very severe or “the worst possible”. But they didn’t show signs of burnout, or even seem to be on track towards it. The same pattern showed when Wiens did further research, interviewing hundreds of people in high-stress professions – suggesting the exciting possibility of some possessing what she calls “burnout immunity”.

In Wiens’ survey of 30 finance professionals, one told her that they loved their job and woke up every day feeling energised. Another was at breaking point, commenting: “I can’t do this any more.” Wiens was shocked to discover that the two individuals worked in the same department of the same office, shared a manager and had nearly identical workloads.

“Different values, past experiences, personality traits and temperaments” all factor into how we fare under stress, she says: “Some people are just naturally more tolerant.”

But developing your emotional intelligence can help you to cope. Cultivating knowledge of yourself and others, and learning how to recognise and regulate your responses, can buffer against burnout and cut stress spirals short.

For Wiens herself, it took “deep work” to reveal those early influences driving her anxious achievement and tendency towards people-pleasing, and to identify the triggers that reliably made her stressed.

Armed with that clarity, Wiens learned breathing and mental “recasting” techniques to manage her nervous system in the moment. She credits the work of the Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal for teaching her to identify when her stress is healthy, even productive – and how to stop it from ramping up.

Now, Wiens regularly assesses her levels of overwhelm on a 10-point scale; a score of seven or higher constitutes a “distress zone” that she should take steps to get out of. “I find it deeply reassuring that when things get really stressful, I can just remind myself: I’ve been in the sweet spot of stress before, and I can get myself back,” she says.

In a lot of professions, there’s a belief that burnout is an inevitable part of success

Kandi Wiens

Part of developing “burnout immunity” is better understanding and even befriending one’s stress, so that it might be better managed and its impact curtailed. By paying closer attention to the quality of my stress and its reliable triggers, I’ve been able to be a better boss to myself – like my manager at 18, who saw the writing on the wall before I did.

But it’s tough to institute these measures in workplaces where burnout is normalised, or even rewarded.

“In a lot of professions, there’s a belief that burnout is an inevitable part of success,” Wiens says. She remembers working alongside her consultancy colleagues until midnight, sometimes over glasses of wine.

Now she looks back on herself as the metaphorical frog in boiling water, oblivious to the increasing heat. “My organisation had willingly, gladly taken advantage of people like me who will give and give and give,” she says.

Sometimes, Wiens says, no amount of self-awareness is enough to protect against burnout: the root cause is the workplace itself. “You can’t heal in the same place that’s making you sick.”

Organisations must take responsibility for chronic stress within their workforce, and take meaningful steps to address it – not just organising lunchtime yoga sessions, or “throwing a survey out”, says Wiens. “One of the number-one drivers is dysfunctional leadership.”


Wiens’ research suggests that aligning your work with your values is key to holding burnout at bay. Not everyone is able to work for themselves, follow their passions or take time off. But people with less flexibility can seek to do this in even small ways, she says: “It’s looking at the intersection between the work that you love to do, what you can get paid for, what the world needs and what you’re good at.”

Wiens is already at work on her next book, which will help people to drill down into their individual circumstances, and assess where the sacrifices they’ve been making aren’t paying off.

She is adamant: it is “absolutely” possible to break the burnout cycle. Right now, she’s under as much stress as she’s ever been – but “I have the skills that I need to deal with it,” Wiens says.

I sometimes find myself on the same tightrope I started walking at 18. But now, instead of doing everything I can not to fall, I’ve learned to recognise when I’m wobbling – and how to safely step down.

Burnout Immunity: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Build Resilience and Heal Your Relationship with Work by Kandi Wiens is published on 23 April by Harper Business