By: Melissa McElroy


The unrelenting, breakneck pace of hustle culture takes its toll over time. Dr. Emma Topf, a Colorado-based psychologist, recently presented a seminar on the effects of burnout and how to prevent it. She participated in a Q&A on the subject, giving some insight for self-employed real estate professionals.


In layperson’s terms, what exactly is burnout? How is it different from regular stress?

 With stress we can identify an end point once the stressor is over (long day at work, difficult conversation, argument with someone we care about, studying for and taking an exam, obtaining a client, and closing on a house etc.) and the process to the endpoint may be difficult. 

Burnout occurs when there is a cycle of negative emotions and withdrawal. This happens when what we are giving is imbalanced with the level of restoration we are taking.  In other words, we have invested too much of our energy and resources (physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, cognitive/intellectual etc.) without doing enough to restore those resources.


What are the signs of burnout?

 Dr. Christina Maslach’s theory of burnout is one of the most well-known and consists of three parts: 1. Emotional Exhaustion – strain and depletion of emotional resources. 2. Depersonalization – detached and cynical responses towards others. 3. Reduced personal accomplishment (self-evaluative) – feeling like you’re doing nothing.


What are ways to avoid burnout?

 In terms of models of professional well-being; often organizations focus on top-down approaches, meaning they rely mostly on person-directed self-care where self-care is performed outside of the workday (ex. working out, eating well, taking a mental health day). However, by taking this approach we’re ignoring how the policies and practices of the organization or system itself perpetuate stressors that result in the need for individuals to engage in self-care. As a result, self-care has become perceived as self-soothing behaviors, or more about coping with stressors.  This has resulted in “self-care” becoming a triggering word for some.

 Research suggests we reorganize this top-down approach, and my colleagues and I have proposed and implemented this nested model of well-being. In real estate, the three nested layers may include the company in the outermost layer, tucked inside that layer is the office or team, and the innermost layer is the self. By offering increased organizational and office-level support for well-being, we have seen increases in staff perceptions of support, decreased staff absences, and increases in retention. It can also be useful to think of this model in terms of what you can influence at all three levels: 1. Self: What can you control (how you create efficient systems for doing your job – scheduling, communication, taking a break, etc.) 2. What you can influence at all three levels: (supporting the development of a streamlined system to reduce stress on the job, better facilitation of meetings, discussion of shifting specific policies and procedures in place, etc.) and 3. What is outside your control and your influence (legal closing requirements).


What are practical ways to prioritize self-care? Some might hear that term and think it’s a grandiose routine involving spa days and extended vacations.

 Although systemic change often needs to occur to reduce burnout within a profession, self-care is also what’s the most in our control. There are two types of self-care:

 Temporary self-care activities that release hormones and neurotransmitters that produce positive feelings but wane after the activity ends. There is also a spectrum of temporary self-care, like having a spa day, having dinner with a friend, laughing, or reading has a minimal lasting effect on us, whereas eating right, sleeping, budgeting, or creating a healthier work-life balance etc. have a longer effect if we continue the practice. From a systemic perspective, temporary self-care might look like offering a luncheon or a company get-together.

 Enduring self-care is the more challenging aspect of self-care as it requires engaging in exercises that lead to the phenomenon of neuroplasticity to change the physical structure of the brain, resulting in fundamentally greater focused attention and self-regulation. This may include mindfulness practices, identifying triggers and specific coping strategies, determining if you have a mental health disorder (depression/ anxiety, etc.), seeking the appropriate care, and essentially, turning inward and evaluating what we need for long-term wellness and success. These long-lasting changes in the brain increase the ability to choose how to respond in a stressful moment vs. being hijacked by the amygdala into reacting without thinking. Systemic, enduring self-care may look more like the shifting of policies, procedures, and/or environmental factors to reduce the level of burnout occurring within the profession, company, and team. Both types are beneficial for self-care and help us to develop a more optimistic outlook on life.


Some practical ways to reduce burnout may also include:

  • Setting limits at work.
  • Adjusting your expectations for yourself.
  • Create a long-term self-care schedule.
  • Seek mental health support if needed.
  • Set time in your calendar to regulate during the workday (eat lunch, take a walk, spend a minute thinking of what you are thankful for, step away from a computer, personally connect with a colleague/friend, read a joke etc.). This can be 1 minute or 30 minutes.
  • Create efficient systems to do your job.
  • Be intentional about what is on your calendar.
  • Advocate for systems change as possible.