Burnout: It's Not Your Fault
by Brent Roy
"Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity. This is something that needs to be taught in business schools. This mentality needs to be introduced as a leadership and performance-enhancing tool." ~ Arianna Huffingtom
Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to:
- physical and emotional exhaustion
- cynicism and detachment
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment
The term was introduced into our language in 1974 but the World Health Organization (WHO) only officially recognized burnout in May 2019, classifying it not as a medical condition but rather an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
REVVING TOO HIGH
In the late eighties, I drove a 1985 Buick Somerset Regal. Not the greatest car I’ve ever owned, but I loved the digital speedometer. It would max out at 140 kph. I loved trying to get to that point and watch the green digital screen flash 140…140…140!
When I decided to sell the car, I had my mechanic check it out. He gave it a clean bill of health and before long, someone responded to my ad. An older couple bought the car, but within a couple of days, they called me to say the engine was blown. I said I would call my mechanic to see if he could have overlooked something. His first question was, “Ask them if they have a son or grandson who recently took it for a drive.” I did, and they sheepishly responded that they had indeed loaned it to their 16-year-old grandson.
Further inspection by the same mechanic revealed a connecting rod had punched a hole in the block. This was a result of “over-revving,” or keeping the RPM's far enough into the red for long enough that the internal engine components spontaneously blew apart. The kid had clearly abused the car.
CAN LEAD TO BURNOUT
The correlation to job-related burnout is similar, but not identical. Burnout survivors can easily be looked upon as people who just over-revved for too long. Had they done the proper maintenance and looked after themselves, this never would have happened. The major difference is, we’re not factoring in “the system.”
We must consider that these cars are on a racetrack and that there is a race director. There are race marshals, track safety workers, pit crews and more. That’s the system pushing these cars during every race. Cars are modified to handle the extra stress of the extreme conditions they endure for the duration of a race, yet many of them still “over-rev” and blow their engines. All of them need maintenance after each race so they’re ready for the next one.
INDIVIDUALS IN A SYSTEM
At work, you’re one of the race cars on the track. As long as there are enough cars in the race accomplishing what the system sets out to do, then all is as it should be. You're in the system and the system nurtures the system more than the individuals therein. It assumes your engine burnout is your fault, but in Maslach and Leiter's, The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Burnout and What to do about it, the authors believe there are six areas where organizations cause burnout:
Work Overload: Large organizations have been cutting staff for decades, yet they expect similar levels of productivity, often pushing people beyond what they can sustain. Work that is more intense, demands more time, and is more complex creates the exhaustion of overload, undermining effectiveness, health, and well-being.
Lack of Control is another way organizations contribute to burnout. Employees need some measure of autonomy in their jobs and micromanagement is not the solution. As Maslach and Leiter state, staff members interpret micromanagement as a lack of trust, depriving them of the chance to use their professional judgement.
Insufficient Reward: This includes both extrinsic (money, prestige, and security) and intrinsic (doing work you enjoy with respected colleagues and building expertise) rewards. The combined loss of both contributes to disengagement.
Breakdown of Community: When the focus is on the short-term goals of the organization or the system without regard to the people aspect, community is undermined. The sense of belonging dissipates, and it becomes a matter of individual survival.
Absence of Fairness: When trust, openness, and respect are present in the workplace, staff members perceive it to be a fair environment. In this situation, the organization acts fairly and values every individual. These components are needed to maintain an employee's engagement at work. Their absence contributes directly to burnout.
Conflicting Values: Maslach and Leiter believe “a short-term survival-and-profit value system is contrary to the values that the most dedicated employees hold about their work.” Personalized options at large corporations have largely disappeared, but smart companies have learned that there is a cost to removing personalized service in place of automated customer service options a la, “Please continue to hold. A representative will be with you shortly.”
For the employees, values are conflicted when the prevailing organizational culture sends the message that they don’t really need to do business according to the pious-sounding values that are framed on the wall.
If one or more of the above categories become a reality, burnout is very likely to be experienced. While it might be nice to know that it isn't your fault if you do burnout, it doesn't do much good to state it. The system lacks the agility to respond quickly to the individual.
NOT WITHOUT HOPE
But that does not mean you have no hope. You do need to remove yourself from the environment that caused the burnout, take the necessary time to recover, and once you’ve sufficiently recovered, proactively erect boundaries to protect yourself from another burnout.
“We have overstretched our personal boundaries and forgotten that true happiness comes from living an authentic life fueled with a sense of purpose and balance.” – Dr. Kathleen Hall
Don't "over-rev." Give your best during the hours you're paid, and take your breaks. Find things to do after work that renew your energy. Practice mindfulness. Exercise gently. Socialize. If your speedometer is often flashing "140", ease up on the accelerator. You cannot afford to blow another engine!
Burnout occurs when your balance between life and work is tipped too far toward work. Here’s a free tool you can use to find out where you stand.
Thanks for reading. I always appreciate your comments and insights.
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Brent is a life and leadership coach with a goal to help exhausted leaders reclaim their balance, so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time.