The Antidote to Burnout – It Isn’t What You Think It Is

The Antidote to Burnout – It Isn’t What You Think It Is

“I’m burned out,” Mitch told me.  “Work shouldn’t suck this much.”

“How much SHOULD it suck?” I asked him.

I suggested he check out this humorous video about careers and burnout .  It would be funnier if you didn’t see yourself in it, right now.

Children dream about their futures, they imagine things they can do to effect change, to have fun.  They don’t voluntarily choose tedium and stress.  They know that work shouldn’t suck.  And, by the way, before you think to yourself that work isn’t supposed to be fun, research has shown that the opposite of play isn’t work, it’s depression.

My client, Mitch, was convinced that if he switched firms and made more money he would feel happy and engaged again.  Of course he would, for a little while.  But the story would continue to be the same one he’d lived through three prior firms.  Mitch’s stress was through the roof, he was sleeping less than 6 hours a night, felt frantic about finances and hadn’t had time for friends, let alone time for himself.  He was constantly doing triage and felt like everyone else was driving the direction of his life, not him.

I broke the news to him that if he didn’t dive into what was driving his burnout, it would follow him to his new firm.  Probably quicker than he even thought was possible.

“What do you mean ‘what’s driving my burnout”?  It’s the crazy people I work with and the fact I’m under appreciated and underpaid doing it.  That’s why I’ve gotta get out of here.”

“Perhaps,” I replied.  “But what will YOU do differently in your new firm?”

“I hear you.  But the first six months, I’ve gotta be head-down, really driving it hard to show them what I’ve got.  It’s gonna be a lot of ‘in the weeds’ work and then I can settle in and look at the stuff you’re talking about.  My family is cool with that.”

Work is where we can make ourselves, 

work is also where we can break ourselves.” — David Whyte

I’ve seen it for decades, how a move to a new firm with an increase in compensation actually does make clients happy.  Superficially happy.  For a short period of time.

Until the voice of their heart rises up again and says, “Are you kidding me?  We’re still doing this?” Then they think “If only …” they worked at another place, made more money, (you can fill in the blank) THEN they would be happy.  And they are, for another short period of time, until the voice speaks again.

HOW BURNOUT SNEAKS UP ON US

The 12 Phases of the Burnout Process were mapped by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North (and not necessarily in this sequential order):

  1. Compulsion to Prove Oneself (turns into compulsion to work harder)
  2. Working Harder (to prove yourself, irreplaceability, doing it all)
  3. Neglecting Their Needs (no time and energy for anything but work)
  4. Displacement of Conflicts (inability to see yourself as the source – 1st physical symptoms begin to arise)
  5. Revision of Values (your job becomes your new value system, hobbies & friends and needs get sidelined)
  6. Denial of Emerging Problems (intolerance, aggression, sarcasm, talk about time pressure & stress as “status”)
  7. Withdrawal (social contact becomes minimal, isolation, alcohol or drug use increases)
  8. Obvious Behavioral Changes (along with rebuffing anyone who points out these changes)
  9. Depersonalization (self and others lose value, focus only on present time and future success, increasingly blunt)
  10. Inner Emptiness (in an effort to overcome this, an increase in addictive activity & exaggerated importance of work)
  11. Depression (exhausted, hopeless, indifferent & a sense that life is meaningless)
  12. Burnout Syndrome (collapse physically and emotionally, may have suicidal ideation as the only escape from the situation)
IS IT REALLY BURNOUT – OR IS IT SOMETHING ELSE?
 
One of the questions I’ve been asking clients lately is whether what they are feeling is actually burnout – meaning they are fully depleted – or if it’s really “boreout” – a loss of meaning or purposefulness.
 
The literature and research on burnout seem to focus on its origin as stress and overwork.  
 
Few of the people I talk to are actually physically exhausted from the actual work they do.  These same people would easily tackle in their leisure time much more arduous physical endeavors than those they do in their work lives – that is, if they allowed themselves to HAVE leisure time.
 
So, if they’re not actually exhausted by the work they do, what is draining the life force energy from these people?  It’s the constant effort it takes to ignore the internal questions …What’s the point?  How does what I’m doing even matter?
 
I’m not one to say that our work lives aren’t stressful, but in most instances I encounter, the sense of being overworked and stressed comes from a sense of disengagement with the WHY of their work.
 
Time and again, I encounter people who ask me “Is THIS all there is?” or who say “I should be happy, I mean, other people would kill to have this job and this life I have.”  And, often, they say – “If I’m going to give up this much of my life, then I damned well better make more money to keep doing it.” 
 
The stark absence of meaning from what they are doing rears up and begins to gnaw at them, fueling this sense of unhappiness that may eventually even lead to terminal cynicism – about work, about their industry.  In fact, often, about life in general and their cynicism that they even deserve to be happy.
 
SO, WHAT’S THE ANTIDOTE?
 
Research shows that the antidote to burnout (or boreout) is engagement.
 
Burnout manifests itself as symptoms of long term exhaustion and a diminished interest in work, in cynicism and inefficiency.  It is that state of melancholy and listlessness known as ennui.  The book Diagnose Boreout (by Peter Werder & Philippe Rothlin) calls out the absence of meaningful tasks, not stress, as what saps people.  There is little incentive for people to approach their clients or employers or patients and say to them “What’s the point of what you are asking me to do?  This is meaningless and it’s doing nothing to fulfill my potential or to improve the situations in life that most pain my heart.
 
When a person is left questioning the meaning of their action and feels inhibited to make a change, the characteristics of learned helplessness take over and he or she becomes listless, disengaged, the sense of powerlessness increases and THAT, not the work itself, causes the stress.  
 
Interestingly, “boreout” got almost no attention from the media.  Burnout became the buzzword that has taken over.  Entire approaches to reducing stress have focused for decades on attempting to alleviate the escalating burnout that is cascading across industries, generations and swaths of our workforce.  Urging us to work more efficiently, to acquire things or experiences to counteract the stress.  Entire industries are built upon servicing our burnout, instead of asking what’s really driving it and how to fix it.
 
The remedy for burnout is not changing firms, earning more money or taking a luxurious vacation somewhere.  It’s wholeheartedness. Reigniting the embers of meaning and purposefulness in your work and in your life.
 
Burnout is actually a form of depression – anger turned inward – because there is no available outlet for it to be externalized, for the person to say – “What you’re asking me to do is mindless, nonsensical and the talents and treasures I have are going to waste and I feel angry about that!
 
Enhancing the engagement of people in the work they do, really evaluating the meaning and utility of the work they are asked to do is what cures burnout.  Working on engaging the potential of each person in the company and affording them official recognition for their efforts.  The sense of belonging, an ability to recognize that what they contribute is giving something back and that their risks to make things better are recognized.  These are the values that, if left unmet or violated in one’s work leads to the frustration and sense of disillusionment that sets in and has been wrongly diagnosed as burnout.
 
The generally articulated worry is that attending to a sense of purposefulness will mean workers will stop doing what needs to be done.  Bullshit!  In his book Why We Work, Barry Schwartz reminds us that people are uniformly willing to do difficult, even boring, repetitive tasks if they see a benefit from their work.  Over time, we have been lulled to sleep in thinking that doing mindless, endless, meaningless work is justified because the sole benefit is that we get paid.  Not if we get paid and that only allows us to survive in monotony for another 10, 20, 30 years … all in the hopes that we will finally earn enough money and be able to do something meaningful when we retire.
 
It breaks my heart to hear someone say, “Well, I only have to do it for 7 1/2 more years and then I can retire and do what makes me happy.”  Are you kidding me?  That kind of life force tyranny wears away people’s souls and their hearts and traumatizes our children as they watch us and think that’s what their future holds.
 
REKINDLING THE EMBERS OF LOVE FOR YOUR WORK IS THE CURE
 
Gail Sheehan, in her book New Passages, coined the phrase Middlescence, as a period of second adulthood.  A time when we ponder the questions we faced first in adolescence … Who am I?  Where am I going?  Where do I belong?
 
We look again for the meaning of our life and ask the questions Where am I and what has it cost me to get here?  And, was it worth it?
 
The reason these questions arise is because there is a breeze that stirs the embers lying under this seemingly burned out core.  It’s not that we are burned out, used up, left as ashes.  It’s that we keep dumping ashes on top of our inner fire, smothering the embers, instead of feeding them good dry seasoned heartwood.
 
When a fire has used up all its fuel, what is left is simply ash, the burnt up remains – what was unable to be used.
 
That’s not where someone is who is asking the questions you are.  Or where Mitch is.  No, you are beginning to uncover the glowing embers that reside under the blanket of ash.  The embers are the partially burnt pieces of fuel and still contain usable energy.  Energy that is so deep in the center that the air and oxygen hasn’t yet reached it and caused combustion.
 
That’s why these questions are “burning” in you, nagging you day and night … Is THIS all there is? Your heart cannot believe that is true.  In fact, it will NOT believe it is true.  Even as you shovel another layer of ash upon it to quiet it.  No, there is a gust of wind that picks up a single ember, or maybe even a shower of embers and floats it to something new that will catch the flame.
 
THAT is where you need to put your attention.  On that single spark, the ember that is floating, for now, waiting to find dry tinder upon which to land.  Your spark is not gone – and it will not be put out.  Right now, it’s fueling your disillusionment and your inner anger that you haven’t yet vented.  The anger that’s turning itself inward into a form of depression we call burnout.  It may be that you don’t even HAVE to vent it; it will gain its flight somehow.
 
Embers remain for a long time even after it appears that a fire has died out.  They are the more constant and enduring form of heat.  Different forms of fuel catch fire and burn at different rates and different temperatures depending upon the amount of energy expended, upon the surface area exposed, upon the shape and size of the fuel.  The combustible heartwood of your life is ALWAYS around you, it just doesn’t burst into flame because they haven’t been exposed to the spark.
 
What can we do to heat you up?  To expose you to the things that will energize you.  I promise that when you are energized, that spark will reignite those embers lying dormant within you.
 
And then, with your heart on fire, you will be a mighty force to be reckoned with.
 
Burn, baby, burn.