\Q & A\

Protecting Against Burnout

Kandi Wiens’ latest book aims to help readers build resilience to stress and heal their relationship to work.


health scare led Kandi Wiens, GRD’16, to her life’s work. Almost a decade ago, while working a high-stress consulting job, earning her doctorate from Penn GSE’s Chief Learning Officer (CLO) program, and juggling her responsibilities as a mom to three young children, she had a hypertensive emergency during a routine check-up. While she was tapping away at her phone, still conducting work from inside her doctor’s office, a nurse was checking and rechecking her blood pressure, not believing the numbers she was seeing in a seemingly healthy young woman.

portrait image of Kandi Wiens standing in front of an out of focus, busy Pennsylvania street, she wears a serious and determined expression with her right hand in a pocket of her lime green gold buttoned blouse

Photo credit: Robbie Quinn

“I could have had a stroke. I could have had a heart attack,” said Wiens. “I could have died right then and there.”

Instead, she had a wake-up call. Stress was literally killing her, and she needed to find a way to manage it better. In the week that followed, during her doctor-mandated rest, one of the things she pondered was why the stress had impacted her so profoundly. Many of her Penn GSE classmates were also busy working parents with high-stress jobs, but their blood pressure readings hadn’t made medical professionals do a double take. What were they doing differently? She decided to make that question the heart of her doctoral dissertation, exploring stress and burnout.

That research became the basis for her new professional path—one that could not be more timely given the rise of post-pandemic burnout. Wiens is now a senior fellow, director of Penn GSE’s Medical Education (Med Ed) master’s program, and academic director of the Penn CLO master’s program, as well as an executive coach and sought-after speaker. Her new book, Burnout Immunity: How Emotional Intelligence Can Help You Build Resilience and Heal Your Relationship to Work, which synthesizes all her research, was released by HarperCollins in April.

“I’ve been so fortunate and blessed and lucky to be able to research something that has been personally helpful for me,” she said, “and that it’s turned into this whole passion where I get to teach people about how to protect ourselves from burnout.”

Do you think that people are more burned out now than they have been in the past or are we just talking about it more?

There is definitely more scholarly research coming out around burnout. We’re measuring it more, and we’re definitely hearing about it more because it’s being measured more. The thing I worry about a little bit is a lot of people throw the word “burnout” around, and I feel like it’s getting overused and misused—to the point where I started asking myself, “If everybody’s burned out, is anybody really burned out?”. . . The way to think about it is that the difference between stress and burnout is like the difference between a really bad headache and a migraine. Burnout is the migraine that won’t go away. It’s excruciating. No matter what you do, you just can’t get rid of it and it just feels hopeless. Whereas a lot of chronic stress for a long period of time might feel like a bad headache, but there are things we can do to regulate that. So, the goal is to help people manage their headache before it turns into a migraine.

The way to think about it is that the difference between stress and burnout is like the difference between a really bad headache and a migraine.

Is burnout different for people in different industries? Does it look different in teachers than it does for management consultants or doctors?

That’s a really good question. How people experience or feel burnout—and in terms of the consequences for their health, their work, their relationships, and their overall wellbeing—is pretty similar, regardless of their role or industry. I’ve interviewed a lot of law enforcement leaders, educators, bartenders, baristas, lots of leaders in different types of organizations. People who are burned out often experience three common symptoms. One is they’re just incredibly emotionally exhausted. And educators are particularly prone to feeling this symptom the most, because they give so much emotional energy to the kids and to parents. They can deplete their emotional reserves much more quickly than, say, a bartender or a barista or a leader in a corporation, who has a different type of stress. With other types of people who experience burnout, they might feel the second symptom, which is cynicism—just feeling really negative about other people who you work with. Sometimes educators feel that way as well—especially towards problematic parents, or if the culture is not one that that invites a sense of wellbeing that can make educators feel cynical towards the people that they work with as well. And then the third symptom of burnout, which educators don’t feel as much, is a lack of professional efficacy. What I mean by that is, the feeling that they’re not effective in their job. For example, a teacher or a counselor who has been doing their work for many years, they often feel very effective in what they do. And that can actually protect them from burnout.

If you are already burned out, how can you heal from it?

The last chapter of my book is what I call the “3Rx prescription” for healing from burnout. The first of the three Rs is “recover.” The second is “reconnect.” And the third one is “reimagine.” I get chills when I think about this, but one of my study participants—an ER physician—told me when she was incredibly burned out during COVID, she realized that she could not heal in the same place that was making her sick. Her form of recovery meant that she had to leave the health system that she was working in to recover—get herself out of that environment because it was so unhealthy for her. Then she was able to progress into what I call the “reconnect phase,” which is reconnecting with what’s most important to you—your family or friends or things you love to do outside of work—and also connecting with your identity beyond your work identity. Then, she could eventually move on to that third R, which is reimagining your relationship with work. How do you want work to fit into your life so that you don’t go back to an environment that is likely going to burn you out again?

Your book’s thesis is that people who are immune to burnout have high levels of emotional intelligence—what does that actually mean?

In its most basic sense, emotional intelligence has four main competency domains. The first two sets of skills have to do with an awareness of yourself and your ability to manage yourself. That’s what we call self-awareness and self-management. It includes understanding your strengths, your personality, your temperament, what you want and need in a work environment, understanding what you really value, and what type of recognition you need. Then, that self-awareness piece helps us regulate ourselves, regulate our emotions, our thoughts, and our behaviors. And my research shows it also helps us regulate our stress response and our nervous system. The next two sets of skills have to do with your awareness of your social environment and your ability to develop and manage strong relationships in your work and social environment. Those skills include empathy, the ability to manage conflict in a productive way, and the ability to have a positive outlook, even when your environment feels like chaos.

But aren’t some people just naturally glass-half-empty folks? Is that something they could or should change?

Generally, yes. Optimism is something that can be learned. Dr. Martin Seligman, who’s at the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, wrote a book called Learned Optimism, and his research with Dr. Karen Reivich is all about how people who profile naturally as pessimistic or cynical can learn to be more optimistic. So, yes, it can be learned. And should we learn it? Yes, absolutely! Especially if it’s if one of your goals to learn how to manage stress better and protect yourself from burnout. I write a lot about how having a positive outlook protects us. Think of it this way: Let’s say you and I are faced with the same stressor—we have the same boss who throws us a big project when we’re both already up to our eyeballs with other projects, and our boss tells us that it’s due in a week. If I have a more cynical outlook, I’ll look at this like, “I can’t do this. There’s no way.” But if you take a different attitude that, “Yes, this is going to be really hard, but I will also have the opportunity to learn something here. I’m going to grow from this, and I might also get some bonus points from my boss for putting in a little extra effort.” Then, you are taking a more positive approach to dealing with that stressor, and your level of stress is going to be subjectively lower than mine.

What is next for you?

Number one, I’m on a mission to help people protect themselves from burnout. So, I’ll continue this research. But what I’m really passionate about right now is research I’m doing with one of my friends who was in the Penn CLO doctoral program with me, Darin Rowell, GRD’15. He and I have been researching how to create a burnout-immunity culture. It’s about organizational resilience. And we hope to write a book together focused on it. People can, and should, try to work on their individual resilience. But that’s not what’s causing burnout. What’s causing burnout is the work environment—often the high pressure, the culture, and the demands of the job. So, the root cause of the issue needs to be assessed, and there needs to be interventions at the organizational and/or systemic levels.