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April 22, 2022

A Different Take on Burnout

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Lately we hear clients talking about burnout more than ever. For many it seems that the pandemic has pushed them over the edge from simply being stressed out to being burned out. The subject is increasingly being observed and studied by professionals focused on workforce wellbeing.  Health care workers especially seem to be fighting on two fronts, both the pandemic of COVID 19 and the epidemic of burnout. But we see burnout sweeping through the world of tech, finance and startups of all kinds. For this reason, I think it would be useful to offer another perspective on a critically important subject. 

Before I offer my thoughts, let’s define the term. The ICD-11 (the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases) classifies burnout as an occupational phenomena and not a medical condition, though there are clearly medical implications. 

Burnout is defined in the ICD-11 as follows:

“[B]urnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  1. feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 
  2. increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
  3. reduced professional efficacy.”

According to Leiter and Maslach, both in their book Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship to Work  and the Maslach Burnout Inventory, exhaustion is the feeling of being overextended and exhausted by one's work. Cynicism is an indifference or a distant attitude towards one’s work, and professional efficacy is about satisfaction with past and present accomplishments in the context of  an individual's expectations of continued effectiveness at work.

Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism and a lack of satisfaction with personal effectiveness. 

As we look at the common understanding of burnout, we discover that there seems to be shared agreement on not only the effects of burnout, but also the preventative measures that one can take to minimize the chance of burning out. 

It seems to be understood that if we want to avoid exhaustion (dimension #1) we need to pay attention to sleep, diet, exercise, alcohol and drug intake, screen time and practices like mindfulness, breath work and yoga. 

Cynicism (dimension #2) and professional efficacy (dimension #3) seem to be dealt with by increasing engagement, which happens the more we have meaningful relationships at work, a personal sense of purpose that aligns with the mission of the organization, opportunities to grow and learn, a sense of empowerment, autonomy and fair compensation. 

It seems to me that if you're listening to podcasts or reading articles or books on work, or for that matter, health and wellbeing, that you’ve heard about all of the above. We don’t lack information about how to lead our professional lives in such a way as to minimize burnout. But even with all the support being offered by current experts, burnout is like a wildfire sweeping through the work place. 

What I would offer is that burnout is fundamentally a psychological, philosophical and spiritual problem more so than an occupational one.

Though all the prescriptions above are good and useful, even necessary, they are not sufficient to prevent burnout. 

From my observation, burnout is the result of:

  1. Living in victim consciousness
  2. Investing energy trying to change reality before we accept and even love reality and, as a result, 
  3. Believing that stress, being stressed out and eventually burned-out is just part of being a modern day human working in this modern day world. 

Victim Consciousness

When I ask people to talk about why they don’t do the things they know they should do to minimize exhaustion, stress and burnout (e.g. rest, sleep, healthy nourishment, exercise, meditate, move, breath, etc), the answers I hear can be summed up in the phrase, “I don’t have time. By the time I get done doing everything I have to do to keep the plates of my life spinning, I don’t have time to do the things I know I should be doing.”

Similarly, when I probe about engagement at work—purpose, meaning, mission, empowerment and fair compensation—what I hear back is usually some sort of complaint about their current employer, their manager or the “that’s just the way it is” resignation of people who are being asked to do more with less every month. 

What I hear in all these comments is, “It’s happening To Me.” This is the definition of victim consciousness. Even if one does many of the things listed by experts as good for one’s well being, but lives with a To Me mindset, there is a great chance they’ll experience meaningful stress and even burnout. It’s exhausting at every level to believe that we are at the effect of life; that life is happening to us. 

I’m suggesting that our psychology is the root of our burnout more than our circumstances. When one steps out of victim consciousness and into creator consciousness, one sees that they are burning themselves out; burnout is not caused by outside factors. At first this is a shocking realization, but once the shock is absorbed there is a realization of great empowerment that follows such an act of ownership. If I’m the cause of my burnout (or more precisely my psychology is the cause), then I can change and be the cure for my stress and burnout.

Investing Energy Trying to Change Reality

Another way of understanding burnout is to see that it is the end result of more energy being expended than energy being acquired. We are depleting our energy reserves rather than deepening them. 

One sure fire way to deplete energy is to try to fight with reality, to try to change reality before you have accepted it as it is. This, however, is the natural human condition and preoccupation. Something needs to be different than it is and it’s my job to change it, and until I change it I can’t rest or be happy. This is a formula for exhaustion, cynicism and burnout. 

For this reason we suggest that it is a far better investment of energy to learn to be with reality as it is, true acceptance, rather than to try to change it. One could argue that this is the point of many philosophical (e.g. Stoicism) and spiritual traditions. I would go so far as to suggest that all burnout is the result of not being able to be with reality as it is. To all of you (like me) who are or have been heavily invested in resisting reality, whether it be the reality of the weather, your parent’s beliefs, your customers’ complaints, COVID 19 or Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you are on the road that leads to burnout. You might not reach the final destination of being fully burned out but you’re on the road that leads there. 

Now to be clear, it’s perfectly OK and even necessary to be about changing what needs to be changed in your world…but only after you have fully accepted— and even loved it—for being just the way it is. Then your activism will come from love, not from righteousness and fear. You’ll then make changes without depleting your energy in wrestling with reality. 

Stress, and Even Burnout Are Just the Way It Is

At CLG we believe that dis-stress, the kind that leads to exhaustion and burnout, is optional. It might be normal, but it is still optional. By choosing creator consciousness and learning to be with reality from deep acceptance and appreciation, we can learn to live in the world largely without dis-stress. We have proven this to ourselves personally. Many of our clients are experiencing the same freedom, and with it, the power of full energetic aliveness, rather than energetic exhaustion. All this to say, burnout is optional. The sooner we embrace this, the sooner we can get about eliminating it from our lives.

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