Personal Development, Stress & Avoiding Burnout, Well-being

Burnout – A Square Peg in a Round Hole

There’s a lot written about burnout, its causes, and treatments yet we can all still fall prey to its temptations. Do we, like Odysseus, in Homer’s Odyssey, need to be bound to the mast to stop from leaping overboard and swimming to our deaths? How can we, metaphorically, be protected from the sirens and not succumb to the irresistible call to work harder and longer and be driven beyond our capacity placing ourselves, or our colleagues, in such a vulnerable mental health position?

In 2016 the Journal of the World Psychiatric Association (WPA) defined Burnout as ‘a psychological syndrome emerging as a prolonged response to chronic interpersonal stressors on the job. The three key dimensions of this response are an overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from the job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.’*

We are not talking here of workplace trauma such as bullying, sexual harassment, and toxic atmosphere etc. These are not specifically burnout through overwork and exhaustion and require different intervention, generally towards specific people rather than roles and job responsibilities.

Early contributing causes of burnout were exhaustion, and it was seen as an occupational hazard from over work. Treatments were designed to get the person back to work. Later researchers broadened their view to include not just the negative implications but also the positive elements that might act as preventers to burnout. This was defined in the research as work ‘engagement’ and seen as the opposite of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. It consisted of a state of high energy, strong involvement, and a sense of efficiency with one’s work. Another approach defined work ‘engagement’ as a persistent, positive affective‐motivational state of fulfillment that is characterized by the three components of vigour, dedication, and absorption*. Here, unlike the earlier studies, ‘engagement’ was a separate concept, and not just the opposite of burnout.

In order to treat burnout many try after it has occurred while others focus on prevention through promoting ‘engagement’. In general, the primary emphasis has been on individual strategies, and the most common recommendations have included:

  • Changing work patterns (e.g., working less, taking more breaks, avoiding overtime work, balancing work with the rest of one’s life)
  • Developing coping skills (e.g., cognitive restructuring, conflict resolution, time management)
  • Obtaining social support (both from colleagues and family)
  • Utilizing relaxation strategies.
  • Promoting good health and fitness.
  • Developing a better self‐understanding (via various self‐analytic techniques, counselling, or therapy.)

Unfortunately, very little research has evaluated the efficacy of any of these approaches in reducing the risk of burnout.

Okay, there is another way to look at this. While there are no studies to quote from, this process does look at the issue of burnout from a different angle. The struggle of being a square peg in a round hole. It makes sense when reflecting on work engagement with vigour, dedication, and absorption. And it highlights the simple truth that, if you love what you do, and it’s consistent with your values, and it satisfies and fulfills, then you can do it, day in and day out, and you won’t suffer burnout.

To begin let’s accept we are all talented people, and we can all do many things but not all these things are satisfying. And, depending on the work we may be required to do, many tasks can drain us. Think of a set of traffic lights. We GO with Green; we SLOW with Yellow, and we STOP with Red, or at least that’s what we are supposed to do.

Our actions and responsibilities all fall into these same 3 categories. Some actions are GREENS, some are YELLOWS, and some are REDS. The greater the percentage of GREEN responsibilities making up our job description the less we are at risk of burnout. These give us energy or work ‘engagement’. The greater percentage of RED responsibilities the less engagement and greater chance of burnout. Red responsibilities are stress inducing, they decrease our energy and work engagement.  Yellows can provide some energy in the short term but if they must be done, day in and day out, they can soon become stress builders adding to the risk of burnout.   

So, understanding what actions, tasks or responsibilities make up our GREENS, YELLOWS or REDS is important information. Here is a basic way to help you discover your Greens. Of course, another way is to contact us, and we can lead you through a process that will provide you with an accurate assessment of your GREEN Light Profile based on your own personal story.

Green responsibilities: You can competently do them, and they are satisfying and fulfilling. They come easily and give you energy. People say you did that well, you’re a natural. You can feel like you were made for them, or you’ve been doing similar or related things all your life, even in play as a child.

Yellow responsibilities: You can do these, and some of them very well, but they do not satisfy and are not fulfilling. They can give you some energy in the short term, but they become draining over time. You wouldn’t want to do them day in and day out. A job made up with a majority of yellow responsibilities can lead to burnout.

Red responsibilities: You can do these, and some of them quite well but they drain you of energy and bring no joy. These are the things you usually avoid or procrastinate with.

Here is a helpful form that you can fill in to help you access your current work responsibilities:


Job Matchup helps us see how well the key list of responsibilities or your job(s) fit your Greens, Yellows and Reds. If you are considering a major shift in your responsibilities, do this match up exercise using those new responsibilities.

Write in your key (main/priority) responsibilities. Also, estimate the percentage of time you are involved in it. When doing matchup, ask yourself: To what extent does that responsibility use my Greens?

I.Key on-the-job responsibilities% Of TimeMatchup*(Circle One)
  1     G  Y  R
  2    G  Y  R
  3     G  Y  R
  4    G  Y  R
II.Key off-the-job responsibilities as a Volunteer e.g., community, sport, church etc.    
  1     G  Y  R
  2    G  Y  R
  3    G  Y  R
* G = a lot, Y = some R = little

Taking information from the chart above, rate below the Overall Matchup of your Job descriptions (JD) for job I (on- the-job) and job II (off-the-job), and your Greens, Yellows, and Reds.

Job IJob II  
    GREEN  You will be using Greens more than 40% of the time. The JD is okay
      YELLOW  You will be using Greens 20 – 40% of the time. The JD needs to be changed to have more Greens and less Reds. If not now, it should be changed within the next 3 to 9 months
REDYou will be using Greens less than 20% of the time. The JD should be completely changed, or you should consider other responsibilities that would use more of your Greens.
©2021 Hagstrom Consulting Inc.

If you would like to be led through a process that will provide you with an accurate assessment of your GREEN Light Profile based on your own personal story, contact Chris Harding through or  at

* World Psychiatry. 2016 Jun; 15(2): 103–111.
Published online 2016 Jun 5. doi: 10.1002/wps.20311

Chris Harding

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