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How to Prevent Burnout: The Surprising Role of Sleep

To prevent burnout, focus on keeping your sleep debt low and practice a consistent nightly wind-down routine.
Written by
Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
Reviewed by
Chester Wu, MD, Rise Science Medical Reviewer
Our Editorial Standards
We bring sleep research out of the lab and into your life. Every post begins with peer-reviewed studies — not third-party sources — to make sure we only share advice that can be defended to a room full of sleep scientists. Learn more.
Updated Regularly
We regularly update our articles to explain the latest research and shifts in scientific consensus in a simple and actionable way.
Published
2023-01-16
Updated
19 MINS
Man sitting at desk with hand on forehead due to burnout and lack of sleep

We’ve all experienced the feeling of being stretched thin and overwhelmed by obligations. Most of the time, it’s a temporary state — a new baby, a new job with a steep learning curve, a sick parent, a seasonal side-hustle, a dissertation to write, etc. But what happens when this state of overwhelm becomes our “normal” for too long? Often, the result is burnout

A common knee-jerk response to the first signs of burnout is to get ahead of it, push through, and work harder. We may be inclined to scrub our schedules of all activities deemed non-essential, and things like downtime, self-care, and sleep are often the first to be deprioritized. But, more often than not, skimping on me-time does nothing to prevent burnout—and can in fact hasten its onset. Though it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on rest — and sleep in particular — is actually the best way to protect yourself against burnout during periods of high stress and never-ending to-do lists. 

At RISE, we recognize that prioritizing sleep while stressed may sound like an impossible task, but we promise it’s doable. And the RISE app can help. Here we’ll walk you through the science behind burnout, what you need to do to set yourself up for sustainably sufficient sleep, and how RISE can make it easier. 

What is Burnout?

While it’s common to feel tired and dull at the end of a long, demanding week, burnout is more pernicious than simply needing a night or two of GrubHub and Netflix. 

Burnout is a state of prolonged stress and exhaustion. It’s the feeling of being constantly swamped by various pressures and responsibilities, often with no end in sight, leading to a depletion of our mental, emotional, and physical faculties across all the different areas of our lives. This makes it increasingly harder to do what we need to take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and get good work done, and often gives way to demotivation, disengagement, loss of sense of purpose, and even depression. So even though we’re burning the candle at both ends, we often feel like we don’t have anything worthwhile to show for the long hours we’re putting in. 

Christina Maslach, Ph.D., psychologist at the University of California and one of the pioneers of burnout research, defines burnout as having all of the following three criteria

  • Emotional and physical exhaustion
  • Feelings of cynicism related to work 
  • Guilt and/or self-blame (i.e. you believe you’re at fault for your performance declines at work or lack of engagement at home, and feel frustrated with yourself for your inability to “just push through”)

Additional research has linked burnout to things like cognitive impairment, mental health issues, and “cognitive weariness,” which includes slowed decision-making processes and reduced mental agility. And it may also affect our physical health: there’s evidence of increased rates of hospitalization due to cardiovascular problems for those experiencing burnout.  

It should be noted that while most burnout research to date has been conducted within occupational contexts, the effects of burnout are by no means exclusive to our work lives. 

In addition to workplace burnout, we can also experience it on the home and family front — parental burnout, which is becoming increasingly common, is a perfect example. 

By blurring the set boundary between work and home life (both in terms of time and physical space), the pandemic-necessitated WFH lifestyle and the continued popularity of remote work have also compounded the issue of burnout for many — not being able to “leave it at the office” certainly contributes to an “always on the clock” mentality that can snowball over time into full-blown burnout. 

A word to the wise: Burnout develops gradually. Even if you’re not experiencing full-blown burnout, consistent lower levels of emotional exhaustion and stress can be warning signs of impending burnout and so shouldn’t go unchecked! Ideally, the burnout prevention behaviors detailed below should begin before the first stages of burnout take hold.

What Are the Causes of Burnout?

Burnout has long been associated with a lack of work-life balance and chronic stress related to taking on more than we can handle at work, home, or elsewhere, often combined with a deficit of support and/or recognition in the face of these increased responsibilities. However, recent studies show that sleep loss may be a leading cause of burnout as well. (Not only that, but the absence of a buffer between daily obligations and sleep — aka a consistent nightly wind-down routine — is also a contributing factor to both sleep loss and burnout. More on this point in a bit!)

For example, in one recent study, 15 so-called “burnout cases” were observed over the course of two years and regularly assessed for things like stress levels, sleep habits, and severity of burnout symptoms. While “work demands” and “thoughts of work during leisure time” contributed to burnout in the study participants, “too little sleep” (defined here as less than 6 hours per night) proved to be the primary predictor of clinical burnout.   

So what is the connection between sleep and burnout? Research indicates that chronic stress hijacks the intricate biological processes related to sleep, making healthy, naturalistic sleep harder to come by for those in the throes of burnout. And, to make matters worse, sleep deprivation further interferes with these biological processes, worsening the problem. As such, sleep loss and burnout quickly become intertwined in a hard-to-break negative feedback loop, where each perpetuates the other. 

How Can I Prevent Burnout?

On the flip side, precisely because sleep plays such a key role in the onset and continuation of burnout, this means that sleep is also a lever we can use to limit our risk of burnout. Put another way, keeping burnout from closing in, in most cases, requires making sure we’re getting the sleep we need. 

As the value of sleep isn’t fully understood or endorsed in our 24/7 always-on culture, focusing on sleep when your schedule is filled to the brim may require a bit of a mindset shift: keep in mind that productivity and sufficient sleep aren’t mutually exclusive, but are in fact allies. The more seriously we take our sleep, the healthier, happier, and higher-performing we’ll be during our waking hours.

For example, we may feel that being a great parent is fundamentally at odds with getting enough sleep; however, chronic under-sleeping can slow our reaction times, increase our sensitivity to stressful stimuli, and even diminish our capacity for empathy — potentially making us less patient and present with our kids. Like it or not, showing up as our best selves each day requires sufficient sleep. 

How do you know if you’re getting enough sleep? Good question! The first step is familiarizing yourself with the concept of sleep debt. 

Keep Your Sleep Debt in Check

Each of us has a biologically predetermined amount of sleep we need to get each night in order to function optimally and keep burnout at bay. When we don’t meet this sleep need, we accrue what’s called sleep debt, which is defined as the amount of sleep we owe our bodies relative to our sleep need. 

Most of us don’t actually know how much sleep we should be getting each night — it’s not simply eight hours for everyone. In fact, one study suggests the average sleep need is 8 hours 40 minutes, plus or minus 10 minutes or so, but 13.5% of the population may need 9 hours or more sleep a night. The RISE app can work out your sleep need for you (more on this soon). 

The more we short-sleep, the higher our sleep debt climbs, and the more ill-effects we feel during the day (and the more we’ll need to sleep on subsequent nights to pay it back). High sleep debt (greater than 5 hours over the last 14 days) is more than just a drowsy inconvenience–threat of burnout aside, sleep deprivation takes a sizable toll on our overall health and well-being. 

Even after just a night or two of under-sleeping, we can experience:

  • Worsened mental health, including a bump in depression and anxiety 
  • Plummeting energy levels, making it more difficult to stay on top of daily tasks and be present with our friends and family members
  • Stark declines in our alertness and ability to focus, reducing our performance and productivity
  • Impaired driving, which can be potentially fatal; according to one study, sleeping only six hours increases risk of car accident by 33% 

And there are also long-term effects to health and wellness: 

But keeping sleep debt low is a burnout prevention tactic that is universal: it cuts across all professions and domains of burnout (be that at work or at home), and is something you can prioritize without quitting your job or mentally and emotionally detaching from your loved ones. 

It can be difficult to assess on our own whether or not we’re sleeping enough. Because it’s an objective, quantitative measure, keeping tabs on our sleep debt is the best way to gauge if we’re meeting our need.

Luckily, the RISE app can track it for you in real-time. First, RISE uses a year’s worth of phone use behavior and proprietary sleep-science-based models to work out your sleep need. RISE then works out how much sleep debt you’re carrying.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to view your sleep debt.

Of course, getting enough sleep requires time, and time is a finite resource; sleeping more naturally means we’ll be spending less time awake, responding to work emails or making nutritionally-balanced bento box lunches for our littles. But schedule-related tradeoffs we have to make in order to meet our sleep need are worth it in the long-run—not only does low sleep debt have myriad physical, emotional, and mental health benefits, we’re also less vulnerable to the depleting symptoms of burnout (which comes with its own set of both short- and long-term consequences to health, performance, and well-being). So while our waking hours may be fewer when we’re sleeping enough, the hours we are awake will be more potent, productive, and positive. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have
The RISE app is the best way to determine how much sleep debt we’re carrying on any given day.

Strategies for Keeping Sleep Debt Low and Burnout at Bay

Here are some sleep-promoting and burnout-busting initiatives to try:

1. Keep a consistent sleep-wake schedule

Once you know your sleep need (which the RISE app can calculate for you, down to the minute), make sure you’re getting enough sleep consistently with the best sleep-wake times for you. 

A good sleep schedule is one that fits your sleep need, chronotype (are you naturally an early bird, night owl, or something in between?), social clock (the timing of your work and home obligations), and helps you feel your best each day. Plus, you can stick to it consistently. 

If pinning down a schedule feels like a daunting task (or you need help shifting your schedule to better meet your sleep need) look no further than the RISE app–once you’ve determined your sleep need and sleep debt via the app, RISE can tell you your ideal bedtime each night. 

But keep in mind that no matter what time you go to bed and wake up, consistency is key — try to keep your sleep and wake times consistent from day to day if possible, even on the weekend. Our circadian rhythm or internal clock functions best when it knows what to expect, and by keeping a regular schedule you’ll find falling asleep at your desired bedtime (and, in turn, waking up with your alarm) to be easier and more natural. 

We cover how to reset your sleep schedule and how long it takes to adjust to a new sleep schedule here. 

2. Squeeze in more sleep where you can

Keeping a consistent sleep-wake schedule is important in the long-term for circadian health, but when you’re recovering from a period of sleep deprivation sometimes getting more sleep where you can temporarily takes precedence. 

High sleep debt can be paid down by going to bed earlier, sleeping in a bit in the morning, or by leveraging a well-timed nap. You can also work to improve your sleep efficiency (the amount of time you spend in bed vs. the amount of time you actually spend asleep) by making adjustments to your sleep hygiene. We’ll get more into sleep hygiene in a moment, but for a deeper dive, you can find our sleep hygiene guide here. 

 

3. Build a buffer between work and sleep

One of the most impactful facets of sleep hygiene — aka the collection of the sleep-promoting behaviors we can perform daily to improve our nightly sleep — is our pre-bed wind-down routine

Building an intentional buffer between our daily obligations and sleep not only helps us improve our sleep efficiency, but also helps with stress management by giving us a chance to relax and disconnect from the demands and anxieties of the day. Your wind-down should focus on calming activities, and should begin an hour or two before your planned bedtime. 

While everyone’s wind-down will look different, here are some things to keep in mind when designing your pre-bed routine: 

  • Be mindful about late-night exercise: High-intensity workouts too close to bedtime can make us feel more alert and energized than we should be for sleep, so should be avoided. If you’re craving some movement in the hour or two leading up to bed, gentle exercises like yoga or stretching are great sleep-conducive options. 
  • Schedule personal cut-off times for consumables: In the same vein, consuming caffeine or alcohol, or eating a heavy meal too late in the day can throw a wrench in our sleep. RISE can help you figure out your personal cut-off times for each of them, depending on your schedule and biology.
  • Say no to bright light at night: Light inhibits production of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin. While this is helpful during the daytime, it can mess with our circadian rhythm when we’re exposed to bright light at night. And, unfortunately, the blue-light emitting screens of our iPhones and tablets are especially disruptive. If you can’t abstain from your bedtime scrolling and streaming altogether (we get it), it’s a good idea to invest in a pair of blue light blocking glasses, which can mitigate the effects.
  • Purge your worries before bed: Get out your worries or tomorrow’s to-dos by journaling or performing a “brain dump” before lights-out. This tactic can protect against the anxious rumination that so commonly interferes with our sleep. If paper and pen isn’t your forte, you can do this in the RISE app—simply add “Brain Dump” to your Habits! 
  • Take a warm bath or shower: Not only does it feel nice to be clean against our sheets, but a warm bath or shower also relaxes our muscles and, perhaps unintuitively, brings our core temperature down to where it needs to be for better sleep. 
  • Try a science-backed relaxation technique: While they might not be for everyone, many swear by guided relaxation exercises as a part of their bedtime routine. You can find the four most common ones — autogenic training, diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and soothing sounds — in the RISE app.

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their nightly wind-down routine and reminder.

RISE app screenshot showing guided relaxation techniques
Find the four main science-supported guided relaxation techniques in the RISE app–all you need to do is sit back, get comfortable, and hit “play.”

4. Daytime behaviors can make or break sleep, too

While the wind-down is a big piece of the sleep hygiene puzzle, what we do (or don’t do) during the day can impact our sleep as well, for better or worse. Improving our sleep (and preventing burnout) begins as soon as we wake up.  

The RISE app can guide you through 20+ sleep hygiene habits to help you sleep better and avoid burnout. 

RISE users on iOS 1.202 and above can click here to set up their 20+ in-app habit notifications. 

Here are a few highlights:  

  • Sunlight restarts our circadian clock: Sunlight first thing in the morning cues our circadian clock to begin the slow countdown to bedtime, making us more likely to feel sleep-ready at our ideal bedtime.
  • Daily movement combats stress and boosts sleep: While strenuous exercise late at night is a no-go, that doesn’t mean we should abstain altogether. Regular exercise, when performed earlier in the day, has many health benefits, including stress reduction and improved sleep. We look at what science has to say about the best time to work out here.
  • Think twice about evening naps: Though napping is ultimately good for us, if we nap too close to bedtime we run the risk of messing with our nightly sleep, and setting ourselves up for sleep debt the following day. As a rule of thumb, don’t nap past the afternoon. RISE will tell you the perfect time to nap for you.

Harness Your Natural Energy Peaks and Dips

In addition to dictating our sleep-wake schedule, our circadian rhythm is also responsible for our natural energy fluctuations during our waking hours. The precise timing and duration of our energy peaks and dips shifts from day to day depending on when we wake up and how much sleep debt we’re carrying, but the overall pattern is consistent:

  • You wake up and feel sleep inertia, or a period of grogginess
  • You get your first peak in energy in the morning 
  • You go into your afternoon slump 
  • You get a second-wind energy peak in the late afternoon or early evening
  • Your energy winds down until bedtime

How can you make the most of your energy peaks and dips? 

Take advantage of your two daily energy peaks to complete tasks that require more brain power or emotional strength, like writing, giving presentations, or having a difficult conversation.

Save easier tasks like admin, emails, errands, and cleaning for the predictable afternoon slump.

Matching your activities with your energy means you’re more likely to accomplish what you set out to do during these periods, which helps with time management and makes a dedicated, stress-free wind-down possible.

It also gives you a greater sense of agency over your day in a way that is conducive to burnout prevention. (The RISE app can determine the exact timing of your peaks and dips each day, so you can plan out your day accordingly!)

Bonus tip: If you’re paying down sleep debt (or simply need a boost for the second half of your day), your afternoon energy slump is the perfect time to squeeze in a power nap.

Keep Sleep Debt Low and Prevent Burnout with RISE

If you’re staring burnout in the face — or concerned that your current habits are quickly leading you down that path — sleep should be the first thing you address. 

Sleep is central not only to our health and happiness, but also our ability to stay on top of daily demands both at home and in our work environment. Despite what you may have heard, there are no shortcuts or life hacks when it comes to getting the sleep we need. 

While the key ingredient to burnout prevention is keeping sleep debt low (and building a consistent nightly wind-down to help you do so), it’s important that you don’t let sleep become another thing you’re stressed about. 

Aim for improvement, not perfection (sleep debt doesn’t need to be zero — less than 5 hours is a great goal!), and take it one day at a time. 

Make sure you’re also outsourcing some of the scheduling guesswork by using the RISE app, which calculates your sleep debt and keeps your day running smoothly with energy-aligned suggestions and reminders. It’s your one-stop-shop for keeping burnout at bay by empowering you to get the healthy, naturalistic sleep you need each night in order to feel and perform your best each day.

Related Reading

Summary FAQs

What triggers burnout?

Burnout has long been associated with chronic stress, whether that stress is work- or life-related, though studies are increasingly showing that sleep deprivation may be a leading cause of burnout as well.

How to prevent burnout in the workplace

Preventing job burnout starts at home. Make sure you’re getting enough sleep each night, and have a relaxing nightly wind-down routine in place to act as a buffer between work and sleep.

How to prevent burnout working from home

In addition to prioritizing meeting your sleep need each night, make sure you have a buffer between work and sleep built into your pre-bed schedule. A dedicated nightly work-free wind-down routine will go a long way in giving you a break from the stressors of the day and preventing burnout.

How to prevent burnout in healthcare

Preventing burnout in healthcare starts with your sleep. Prioritize keeping your sleep debt low, and make sure you have a stress-free nightly wind-down routine in place to act as a buffer between your work obligations and your sleep.

How to prevent burnout without quitting your job

Begin by prioritizing your sleep and intentionally engaging in relaxing activities in the hour or two leading up to bed. Though it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on rest — and sleep in particular — is actually the best way to protect yourself against burnout during periods of high stress at work.

How to recover from burnout

Burnout recovery begins with prioritizing rest, and sleep in particular. Make sure you're getting enough sleep each night, and blocking out time before bed to disconnect from your daily obligations and stressors.

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