Job-Related Burnout: It Only Happens to the Disengaged…and other Myths
by Brent Roy
"Ninety nine percent of the time it's not urgent and to create a culture where you are constantly plugged in and expected to be always-on is to create a culture of burnout." ~ Arianna Huffington
Whenever asked whether I enjoyed my work, my common response, right up until the day I burned out was, “yea, I love it…I’m just freakin’ exhausted.”
Burnout is a form of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion often stemming from intense and relentless stress at work. Its appearance is often a surprise to both recipient and onlooker alike because the signs are not always that noticeable.
Burnout is certainly not as obvious as a physical injury like a broken leg but it’s not exactly a full-blown mental illness either. Unless you’ve experienced burnout or treated it, it’s difficult to understand.
MYTH#1: Burnout is not a thing.
Not true. Burnout was introduced into the lexicon in 1974 and has been studied prolifically and profoundly since. Burnout occurs when too many job demands (work aspects that take effort and energy), too few resources on the job (parts of your work that motivate and bring energy), and too little recuperation, both at work and outside of work persist over a long period of time.
Nearly one in four employees experience it in its most severe form, while another 44% report feeling that way sometimes. It’s real.
MYTH #2: Burnout happens to the disengaged.
Quite the opposite is usually the case, as burnout tends to affect the enthusiastic and energetic people with ambitious personal goals and high levels of engagement at work. This is how I would describe myself for most of my career. I liked the constant activity, creating calm out of chaos and the camaraderie of a supportive team working together.
Personality profiles would peg me as a “motivating inspirer” and highly social and engaged, ready to take on the next project with gusto. Until my good buddy “Gusto” left the building.
MYTH #3: Burnout happens to the weak.
Jenn Bruer knew what burnout was but because she was “even-keeled and rarely stressed out,” she didn’t think it could happen to her.
In her book, Helping Effortlessly: A Book of Inspiration and Healing she wrote, “Burnout carries a stigma as a sign of weakness and since I am not weak, I think my young helper mind couldn't reconcile how burnout could come knocking at my door.”
The truth is, burnout is a factor caused more so by the work environment than the individual. In Maslach & Leiter’s The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, the authors label burnout an occupational problem rather than “…an individual’s predisposition to grumpiness, a depressive personality, or general weakness”.
According to the authors, research emphatically indicates, “…burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work. The structure and functioning of the workplace shape how people interact with one another and how they carry out their jobs. When the workplace does not recognize the human side of work, then the risk of burnout grows, carrying a high price with it.”
It’s not about blaming, it’s about being self-aware and transparent enough for employee and employer to discuss it and work together to remedy the factors contributing to burnout.
Don’t let these myths prevent you from addressing what you suspect might be happening to you or someone you know. I will warn you, if you are experiencing burnout, be proactive. The longer you put off dealing with it, the longer the recovery period. You can recover from burnout, emerging from its clammy grasp to become more productive than ever before. It takes time, but I did it and I feel much better having regained most of the passion, creativity and balance I thought was gone forever.
Burnout occurs when you’ve become out of balance with your life and work. Here’s a free tool you can use to find out where you stand.
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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.