An Unexpected Solution for Professional Burnout: Association Membership

Why is it the more successful you get, the more hours you end up working? And, your work doesn’t always stay at work—we’ve all been guilty of checking our email after hours when we should be focused elsewhere. When you work too many hours or with too few resources, you end up bringing home more than your inbox. Professional burnout, stress, and anxiety come home with you too. 

These conditions are serious concerns. They wear on your mental and physical health—and make you plain miserable to be around. You might be surprised to hear about this solution for professional burnout: association membership. You won’t see the burnout benefit mentioned in membership brochures, but it’s there all right. You just need to read between the lines. 

The cause of professional burnout: workism

In a recent issue of The Atlantic, Derek Thompson says that work has evolved “from a means of material production to a means of identity production.” He describes how work has taken on new significance for many professionals. “For the college-educated elite, [work] would morph into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community. Call it workism.”

Thompson points to the decline of traditional faith over the past decades, yet “...everybody worships something. And workism is among the most potent of the new religions competing for congregants… the belief that work is… the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose.”

Does this ring true for you? How about for your colleagues, friends, or acquaintances? You’ve seen the symptoms of workism: people who can talk about nothing but their jobs, and the “busy” humblebrags. 

“How are you?” 

“Busy. How about you?” 

“Yup, same here, busy.” 

These days, everyone is too busy to be interesting. Thompson says, “Long hours are part of an arms race for status and income.” 

And it’s a race to mutual assured destruction. The sad thing is, workism is not only affecting workaholic Boomers and GenX, teenagers are already sinking into a work-driven mentality. In a Pew Research report on youth anxiety and depression, 95 percent of teens said “having a job or career they enjoy” would be “extremely or very important” to them as an adult. They put a meaningful job in front of helping people in need (81 percent) or getting married (47 percent). 

For many professionals, self-actualization, the highest level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, comes from their job. Every generation has been exhorted to follow their passion and to see a job as a calling. But, the reality doesn’t always live up to those expectations which “might explain why rates of depression and anxiety in the U.S. are ‘substantially higher’ than they were in the 1980s.”

professional burnout

Millennials: bait-and-switch victims

Poor Millennials. “They passed through a childhood of extracurricular overachievement and checked every box of the success sequence, only to have the economy blow up their dreams,” said Thompson. Now don’t you feel bad for calling them “entitled?”

Millennials are up against a soul-killing trifecta: student debt, wage stagnation, and social media, which “has amplified the pressure to craft an image of success.”

But what do you have to show for your success? “The output of white-collar work—algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns—is more shapeless and often quite invisible,” said Thompson. You can’t always see the fruit of your labor. You have nothing to show for your work, except for the appearance of being busy, which is worn like a badge of honor. 

Millennials hunger for purpose, but instead they end up with overwork and burnout.

The causes of professional burnout

If you do any research on burnout, you’ll keep running into professors Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter. They identified six risk factors for burnout:

•    Overwhelming workload
•    Limited control
•    Unrewarding work
•    Unfair work
•    Work that conflicts with values
•    Lack of community in the workplace.

Hopefully that doesn’t sound like your job. But, “unrewarding work” is more common than you’d think. According to a Gallup poll, 87 percent of employees are not engaged at their job. We can only hope the robots will make things better.

professional burnout

Association membership as a solution for professional burnout

The benefits of association membership act as a counterweight to those burnout risk factors. You may not want to advertise your association as a remedy for burnout, but you may want to rethink how you market membership and start focusing on the impact it can make on a person’s life. 

More importantly, don’t ignore the possibility that many in your profession or industry may be suffering from burnout and stress—a target audience you may never have considered before, but an audience in desperate need for the benefits that association membership provides.

Professional development

In many articles discussing solutions to burnout, Maslach recommends taking control of your destiny—change what can you change. When someone doesn’t have control over their daily tasks or workplace, they need to feel in control of something. Take control of your future by empowering yourself with new ideas, skills, and knowledge. Professional development can set you on a path with purpose. 

Education leads to self-improvement, self-actualization, and self-esteem. The learner self-identifies as someone who is taking steps towards achieving professional goals and moving forward in their career. The credentials or digital badges they earn give them social and professional status. 

If they see their work as unfair or believe their values conflict with their employer’s, professional development makes them more marketable. They’re in a better position to find a job in a workplace that better reflects their values.

But if they’re stressed out working too many hours, how will they find time for professional development? First of all, you’d be amazed at the sacrifice someone will make when they’re desperately driven to get to a better place in life. But, you can make this journey easier by offering microlearning programs—a manageable and sustainable way to fit learning into a busy life.

Career resources

Help members find the support they need by offering a formal mentoring program or helping them find an informal mentor. Allow career coaches to advertise their services on your career website. Coordinate coaching sessions at your conferences, like ASAE does at its Annual Meeting.

Publish and link to articles on coping strategies. Educate members on what causes burnout and what they can do to alleviate it. 

Provide resources to help members find a healthier workplace. Host an online career center with a job board and other resources


Winston Churchill said, “We make a living by what we get; we make a life by what we give.” Giving feels good and provides purpose. It can fill up someone who’s feeling empty. 

Publicize all the different ways members can contribute to their association and community. Look beyond the usual suggestion, committee service. Identify microvolunteering opportunities that fit more easily into a member’s life and tolerance for commitment. 

Peer support

Every article on burnout recommends the same cure: establish a supportive network and new relationships. Feeling connected to others is a buffer against stress. Humans crave a sense of belonging whether they’re burnt out or not. 

It’s comforting to know you’re not alone, to know that others are in same position and facing the same challenges as you. Association membership provides the opportunity to seek the positive and minimize the impact of the negative. In an association, a member can surround themselves with people who are investing in themselves, making the effort to move forward, and contributing to their community. Membership helps to minimize the effect of a toxic workplace and co-workers. 

Your educational programs and membership benefits help people advance in their careers, but your association can also be a lifeline to members in distress, a saving grace in time of need. 

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