Feeling Burned Out? How to Regain Your Mojo When You're Running on Empty

PER Resource Depletion BANNER
Businessman working late at night, exhausted. Uwe Umstätter/Getty

Have you ever come home at the end of a day too worn out to cook or even order dinner, and fallen asleep with your clothes on? That point of being too tapped out to better your own condition is known as "resource depletion." It's part of a theory called "conservation of resources," a way of thinking about stress, trauma and burnout that has become increasingly influential since psychologist Stevan Hobfoll introduced it in 1989.

Everyone needs food and sleep, but the specific damage a "Hungry Night" does depends on each individual's circumstances and resources.

Consider three different people:

Alex is a 56-year-old ER nurse who planned to move into a less demanding job before the pandemic struck. She is married with a teenage child. She has nights like this several times a week and resents her husband Lonnie for not picking up slack at home.

Miguel is a 22-year-old immigrant working in a meat-processing plant to support his family back home. This has been his nightly routine for the past year. He has no health coverage and his English is poor.

Sandra is a 42-year-old attorney coming home from a night on the town with colleagues celebrating a big win in court. She is divorced with no children and earns a six-figure salary with excellent health benefits.

For Miguel and Alex, each Hungry Night chips away a little more at their mental and physical well-being. Sandra, on the other hand, may suffer headache and indigestion the next day, but experiences her Hungry Night as an overall positive event and source of happy memories.

The P&L of Life

The conservation of resources (COR) theory can be thought of like a profit-and-loss statement for one's life. Universally, humans desire the same fundamental goods: a positive self-image; health and well-being; a peaceful life; a sense of meaning and purpose; family and friends (and all those good things for them, as well). We are deeply motivated to achieve these things.

This requires investing our personal resources, which Hobfoll divides into four categories:

Personal characteristics, including education; self-esteem; health; a sense of humor; optimism; stamina; ability to organize tasks; self-discipline; the feelings of accomplishing goals and being valued by others.

Material possessions, such as personal transportation; clothing; housing and furnishings; necessary equipment needed for work and housekeeping; necessities and "extras" for children; savings and emergency funds; insurance; retirement security; growth assets.

Energies, such as the time to spend maintaining one's health, relationships, and possessions; good credit; continuing education and training; practical help at work and home.

Conditions, including a loving and supportive family in good health; status at work; at least one close friend; a good boss and colleagues; involvement in a supportive community group.

These resources enable us to take action, feel good about ourselves, understand the world around us and respond to it. They enable us, crucially, to get more resources. And this is what we spend a great deal of time doing. Managing life successfully involves putting resources where they will do the most good.

Stress, in Hobfoll's analysis, is defined as anything threatening or entailing a net loss of resources. A sufficient series of negative events can do damage to even the most robust personal resource portfolio. This is when a person enters the state of resource depletion—a Hungry Night that lasts forever. A person can become globally depleted, to the point where they have no resources whatsoever to sustain themselves, or depleted across any particular range of resources (for example, financially bankrupt but with a supportive community and in good physical health).

What Is Resiliency?

Resiliency, according to COR, is not an inner quality that some people possess in greater quantities than others, but a reflection of the depth and breadth of people's resource portfolios—crucially, their access to social support from other people and organizations. Individual grit and willpower only go so far.

Extensive research indicates that when people are under chronic, extreme stress, their personal characteristics will, at some point, be unequal to the task of managing their circumstances, and they will enter a loss cycle. During a loss cycle, small resource gains take on huge importance. The brief loss cycle of a Hungry Night is arrested by even a few hours' fitful sleep. The larger cycle in which this night is nested may not have been changed, but in the morning, even if exhausted, Miguel will have the energy and clarity to get some breakfast. A little rest leads to the capacity to get food, which provides enough energy to get dressed and go to work. A slightly bigger win can shift the balance in surprising ways. What if Alex came home one night and her husband had a pot of chili on the stove, and kept on cooking dinners and packing the leftovers for her lunch? Imagine the difference it would make to her health, their marriage, her whole mental outlook—and the well-being of her patients, to boot.

Practical Help for Yourself and Others

As the last example indicates, COR is not a zero-sum game—improving one person's resources benefits everyone around them.

Here are some tips to put the theory into practice:

For Yourself

Do a personal resource inventory. You may have a list somewhere of all of your financial assets and property. Now is the time to broaden that list to include all the resources—possessions, personal qualities, conditions, and energies—that make your life both livable and worth living. Understand where your portfolio needs strengthening and where you have a surplus to invest. Evaluate advice and opportunities through this lens. Personal testimony and psychological research alike differ on whether certain conditions—marriage, pet ownership, flextime—are beneficial or not. This is because these conditions can either enhance or threaten a person's other resources. Does a flexible schedule mean more time for your own pet projects—or blanket permission for your in-laws to ask for favors?

Engineer minor wins. If you see an emotional loss cycle developing, do anything you can to create a minor gain and then build on that gain. Just the feeling of taking action, or of knowing that another person is on your side, can give you the clarity and energy to take one more meaningful step and then another.

Give only what you can. Do not bankrupt yourself for others. This is a frequently made point—"put on your own mask before helping others." With its emphasis on the rapidly accelerating nature of loss cycles, however, COR provides an even clearer perspective on why depleting yourself for other people is unsustainable and harmful to everyone in the long run. At the same time, give what only you can: Everyone needs many different kinds of social support, and for any given person, you are in a position to meet some but not all needs.

Balance your group's portfolio. Because people have different resource portfolios, tasks or situations that deplete one person may take little or no toll on another. Families and close project teams, in particular, should be aware of their differences, and allocate tasks accordingly, particularly during times when demands on everyone are high.

Empower others by letting them help you. Feeling competent and able is, itself, a key psychological resource that can transfer from one situation to another. This means that asking others for help that they can afford to provide can, in turn, provide them with something of value.

Helping Others

There is no bright line between helping yourself and helping others in the COR paradigm—mutual aid and gain cycles reinforce each other. Keep COR in mind when listening. People react to loss in many different ways—sadness, anger, fear, paralysis, humiliation.

When friends, family or colleagues are expressing these emotions, listen for what loss (or threatened loss) is behind it. Acknowledge, validate and sympathize with the emotions. Seek to understand the nature of the loss. Is there some aspect of it you can offset? Don't extract a sympathy tax. Sometimes people sustain losses that you cannot offset. When this happens, it is natural to feel frustrated and powerless. These feelings are yours to deal with.Do not ask for sympathy for saying "no" to the person you are saying "no" to. Process those feelings with someone else.

Bad choices have good reasons. A basic tenet of COR is that people inherently want and pursue what is good: health, relationships, meaning. We make the best choices we can given our resources and environment—which means some people's choices may be, objectively, terrible. Miguel smokes even though it is expensive and unhealthy, for example, because it keeps him focused and gets him break time at work. Consider this before judging or offering advice.

Improve supply, reduce demand. Helping people make better choices is about either increasing their resources, or reducing the demands on those resources. What would help Miguel stop smoking? Surgeon General warnings in Spanish? Probably not. Miguel is not lacking in knowledge of the effect of cigarettes on health. The resources he needs are a job where he is not at risk of losing a hand if he loses focus and where all employees are given regular breaks.

Robin Abrahams is a research associate at Harvard Business School. Boris Groysberg is Richard P. Chapman professor of business administration at Harvard Business School and co-author of Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power their Organizations (Harvard Business Review Press).