Can you be responsible for your own burnout?

by Jun 6, 2024

Responsible for your own burnout?


Can you really be responsible for your own burnout? If the post on LinkedIn from a content marketer / recently turned “career coach” is to be believed, you can



 A coach suggested an individual is responsible for their own burnout and warns people that a post on mental health could be potentially triggering, in Mental Health Awareness Month. This indicates that said coach may want to think about enlisting a coaching supervisor to do some further reflection and learning. There are many factual inaccuracies in that post, but mainly it demonstrates lack of understanding of the human nervous system and how some people respond to acute stress

Today’s workplace

Today’s workplaces are competitive, uncertain and highly charged. Our wider cultures – ditto. When we are in the workplace for many of us our nervous systems are in a state of hyper-arousal. This  a state of high responsivness to external stimulii and while good stress energises us, there is a tipping point. It’s important to have that good stress in our lives, but after a certain moment it impacts our well being.

Definition of Burnout

Burn-out is defined in ICD-11 as follows:

“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

We shouldn’t conflate this with fatigue and boredom.  Although everyone is responsible for their own choices, the burnout spectrum like many others needs to factor in the significant inpact of the external environment within organisations and our wider cultures.

Burnout is a primal freeze response intended to protect. In today’s world, it’s no longer about the protection of the food supply or the survival of the fittest. It could be for many 21st-century reasons which include responses to toxic workplace, bullying, systemic trauma, or work overload. In extreme circumstances it is called the “possum state” and fresh from my Trauma Informed Coaching Certification the correct term would be Polyvagal Shutdown 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Let’s look at this through Abraham Maslow’s lens of The Hierarchy of Needs. This is a psychological theory that arranges human needs in a hierarchy and is presented as a pyramid.  Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress, often related to work.

Burnout doesn’t fit neatly into a single level of Maslow’s hierarchy, because it is nuanced and covers a range of situations that can impact multiple levels simultaneously. It also helps us understand the reasons that people are unable to make alternative decisions. This becomes clearer when we go through each phase of the Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid



1. Physiological Needs

At the bottom of the pyramid, we have our most basic needs. There are a multitude of factors that cause stress, especially around job insecurity, including economic or other uncertainties. We might have a bully boss who exercises coercive control (direct or implicit) which we can do nothing about. Maybe opportunities in our region are limited or there are special circumstance in our lives. It could be the sole employer in a region is closing down and you are a single parent with caring responsibilities. It is rarely cut and dried.

2. Safety Needs

Instability and insecurity caused by overwhelming demands, and lack of support, are threats to our basic needs which can also lead to burnout.  Someone will feel vulnerable if they can’t afford their rent, have to sell their car or pay medical bills. Oftentimes, some or all of these issues are outside their control.

“Burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work,” Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter  The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It.

3. Love and Belonging Needs

When individuals feel isolated or disconnected from colleagues, friends, and family, this impacts their need for relationships and feelings of belonging. They can be deliberately excluded by their peers or bosses physically or professionally (bullying or mobbing) and they lose a sense of connection. Perhaps they work remotely for a boss who has no training in inclusive leadership.

4. Esteem Needs

If individuals are not recognised, appreciated, or respected or are perhaps the target of ongoing microaggressions then they will feel demeaned and isolated. At this point, individuals can be caught up in a cycle of low self-esteem and shame which could damage their performance. When they are unable to perform at their best, their confidence and sense of competence can suffer. This adds to their stress levels and lack of self worth and they may either work even harder or start to shut down.

5. Self-Actualisation

At the highest level of the pyramid when individuals operate under signifcant levels of stress they are unable to be effective  This reduces creativity and self-fulfillment. Does the lack of self-actualisation cause burnout? That is doubtful. Boredom and burnout are suggested to develop from opposite conditions. Boredom is associated with low job stressors, burnout is driven by high job stressors and has its own category  – boreout. Many people conflate the two ideas.

People don’t get burned out because they are bored. They get boreout. I wrote about Boreout in 2017.

responsible for your own burnout



So who is responsible for burnout? It’s complex and overlapping.

  • The individual

Individuals are responsible for their responses to any situation, but in a hypo-aroused state (under -responsivelness) and at the extreme possum state, that can be difficult.  Hopefully in the first instance friends, family or colleagues will suggest the person seek medical and professional support and implement a programme of self-care. This will allow them to get on the path to recovery and take whatever action they need to better manage the stressors in their lives.

Could they have made better choice to protect their well being – possibly but as discussed there could well be extenuating circumstances.

  • Organisations

Organisations have a duty of care to their employees and if the individual has no recourse to correct the situations in their place of work (toxic boss, bullying, excessive demands) now would be the time to contemplate moving on. This should only be when they are well on the road to recovery.

They also have to take care that if they do eventually change jobs they are vigilant about the organisational culture, because this plays a significant role.

  • Cultural

But at the heart of this is we live in cultures that value overwork, 24/7 availability and going the extra mile, all of which contribute to burnout. Layer on concerns about job security and financial instability in our volatile worlds,  then employees feel pressurised to pushing themselves to the point of collapse. There is also a stigma to being unemployed and unemployment bias is very real.

Worth a read: Presence and availability culture revisited – 3 Plus International

Burnout is nuanced

Not everyone responds in the same way to each challenging or threatening situation. While individuals have some control over their own behaviour, it is not helpful to suggest that they are solely responsible for their burnout. And shaming people who struggle is definitely not the role of a coach.

If anyone is feeling this way or has any of the symptoms listed in our comprehensive pre-burnout post they should first of all seek medical help.


If you are experiencing toxic behaviour in your workplace ask for a complimentary discovery call with a coach who has been trained in workplace trauma.


Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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