The Flourish Burnout Model: what causes it, how does it feel, and what happens after?

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Over the past six months, the team at Flourish has been laser-focused on user research and design around the problem of burnout. If you’re not familiar with where our journey with burnout started, you can read more about it in this post.

Our goal was not only to understand the experience of burnout but also its underlying causes and resultant effects — with a broader aim of mapping out all the pieces in order to better-inform the most effective solution to this seemingly elusive problem that’s not well-defined by experts.

After 50+ hours (and counting) of interviews and dozens of team debriefs and brainstorming sessions, we’ve arrived at a model for burnout that outlines what we believe are the causes, experiences, and results of burnout.

As a result of this research, we’re pushing full speed ahead toward a product we’re really excited about sharing with you — more on that in a future blog post 😉

There’s a lot of information laid out in the full model, so I’ve broken it into three sections and highlighted the most interesting points to focus in on in each:

The core causes of burnout exist across a spectrum of levels, ranging from those that are systemic (like patriarchy, capitalism and societal values) to one’s mindsets (like desire for control, meaning, and impact). Just because some are systemic or structural doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about them.

As shown in the model above, we’ve bucketed the causes of burnout by level — ranging from the extremely personal (mindsets) to the societal (systemic). The bucket where the majority of causes fall in your situation influences the “flavor” of burnout you have and how you can address it. You need not have them all.

For example, if you work in a toxic work environment (i.e. one with an abusive boss or work unreasonably long hours), you might be able to address your burnout by quitting your job. This is a surprisingly common “flavor” of burnout.

Perhaps the most interesting bucket in our model is Mindsets, particularly because it’s really common and, although it can be difficult to change, it’s one we have internal control over.

How many times has someone told you that if you find a job you love you’ll never work a day in your life? For many of us, finding a job we love means finding one that creates a greater sense of meaning and purpose in our lives, like we’re doing something that’s truly impactful (whether in the world or our community, within the company we work for, or in some other way).

The trouble with this mindset is that by placing so much weight on what we expect work to bring us (a sense of fulfillment, happiness, and more) we inevitably feel frustrated, disappointed, and unhappy when work doesn’t deliver on these lofty expectations.

Similarly, as high-achievers, many of us have been trained to see our self-worth through our work. In elementary school, we were praised for getting good grades and made to feel disappointed in ourselves for getting bad grades. This mindset intensifies and becomes more complex as we go through college and into the working world.

These two mindsets are extremely common in high-achieving professionals and are major risk factors for burnout. But the beauty is that, even though these mindsets were formed without our direct awareness, when we recognize them we can transform them and, in doing so, address the problems (like burnout) that stem from them.

Expect to hear more on mindsets in future posts.

The core experience of burnout, emotional exhaustion, can manifest in many ways. One commonality is that most people initially search for ways to cope with the pain, but many of these coping mechanisms only help temporarily and ultimately reinforce the root causes of burnout.

The emotional exhaustion that comes from burnout is painful. Human nature pulls us to find a way to escape from or cope with this pain. These coping mechanisms can take the form of vacations, excessive caffeine consumption, alcohol consumption, addiction to dating apps, binge-watching Netflix, endlessly scrolling through Instagram, or eating a lot of sweets. Although some are more destructive than others and all will make you feel better temporarily, none are lasting solutions because they do not address the root cause.

Instead, these escapes often reinforce the causes — e.g. binge-watching Netflix as an escape after a long day at work leaves you with little space to process the day’s events and almost certainly means you’ll stay up late, suppressing melatonin production by exposing yourself to excessive screen time right before bed. These things are a recipe for waking up the next morning feeling terrible — like a burnout hangover of sorts.

The physical component of burnout manifests across causes, experiences, and results — and they’re all interconnected:

The emotional exhaustion often at the core of the burnout experience usually manifests physically as well. Folks often have trouble sleeping and feel tired, which sets off a chain reaction of other physical events like not exercising, stress-eating, and heightened cortisol levels.

The unfortunate irony is that these parts of the burnout experience can intensify the root causes of burnout, which can cause a downward spiral that culminates in a “breaking point” for some.

The corollary to this is that, if you are burned out, making changes to your physical routine — increasing quality and duration of sleep, exercising regularly, eating high-quality nutritious meals during a restricted window of time, and managing physiological stress markers through mindfulness practices — can really help manage the symptoms of burnout. Unfortunately, these changes typically aren’t enough to address the root cause of burnout altogether. For most, that requires deep personal work that results in meaningful mindset shifts.

These are just a few of many insights we gleaned in the process of pulling this model together. As you read through it, make note of what resonates with your own experience — the Flourish team would love to hear your stories and feedback, either in the comments below or directly via email.

(The full model is embedded below).

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At Flourish, we've helped thousands of professionals everywhere take control of their burnout and create rich, fulfilling lives with more energy and space for happy, healthy relationships.