Marissa Mayer: Why Work Burnout Is About Resentment

Getty Images

Ambitious business owners face a delicate balancing act. You want your team (and yourself) to work as hard as possible, but you want to avoid the serious long-term decline in productivity and employee turnover that burnout brings. How hard should you push? What measures should you take to prevent getting burned out?

These are questions former Google exec and much chattered about new Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer has an interesting perspective on. Mayer—who clearly must know a thing or two about extreme hours—believes burnout is a myth. It simply doesn't exist, in her opinion.

So what is this thing we perceive as burnout? Not the fall-out from working too much, she says, but another subtler problem we mistake for burnout. Speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York she explained her views, reports:

"I don't really believe in burnout. A lot of people work really hard for decades and decades, like Winston Churchill and Einstein," says Mayer, a former Google engineer and one of Google's earliest employees.

Avoiding burnout has nothing to do with making sure you eat three square meals a day or get eight hours of sleep a night. "Burnout is about resentment," she said. "It's about knowing what matters to you so much that if you don't get it that you're resentful."

If burnout isn't about long hours (Mayer reportedly spent 130 of the available 168 hours a week at work in the early days of Google, a feat, she said, that required strategic showering), how can bosses put this insight to use? Mayer recently elaborated on the practicalities of her philosophy on burnout to author Hanna Rosin for her new book, "The End of Men: And the Rise of Women."

(Read more: Mayer Gets $70 Million Pay Package to Lead Yahoo)

Mayer reiterated to Rosin that people "'can work arbitrarily hard for an arbitrary amount of time,' but they will become resentful if work makes them miss things that are really important to them." So she makes sure that she knows what is most important to those working under her and insists they have time in their schedule for those things. Mayer offers Rosin an anecdote from her Google days to illustrate:

Katy loved her job and she loved her team and she didn't mind staying late to help out. What was bothering Katy was something entirely different. Often, Katy confessed, she showed up late at her children's events because a meeting went overly long, for no important reason other than meetings tend to go long. And she hated having her children watch her walk in late. For Mayer, this was a no-brainer. She instituted a Katy-tailored rule. If Katy had told her earlier that she had to leave at four to get to a soccer game, then Mayer would make sure Katy could leave at four. Even if there was only five minutes left to a meeting, even if Google cofounder Sergey Brin himself was mid sentence and expecting an answer from Katy, Mayer would say "Katy's gotta go" and Katy would walk out the door and answer the questions later by email after the kids were in bed.

Could similar resentment-busting measures at your business make burn out as rare as unicorns and fairies, or is this view of burn out only true for a select group of highly ambitious workers?