1. The official definition. Burnout is described by the World Health Organisation as an occupation phenomenon, not a medical condition. It’s summarised as a ‘syndrome conceptualised as resulting from chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed’.
2. Looking closely at ourselves is where the gold lies. Whilst organisations and the modern world of work play a significant role, in my experience, overcoming burnout requires that we also look inside. And this is where the gold lies. There are very real personality traits, tendencies and behaviours that make it more likely you’ll experience burnout. Such as being an overachiever, having high standards, a tendency toward perfectionism, a tendency to people please, and put others’ or work’s needs ahead of your own. There is also the far from insignificant matter of using work as a distraction (in the same way that others use food, alcohol, and Netflix binges).
3. What’s being good got to do with it? Heard of Goodism? This is the cluster of personality traits, many of which are listed above, described by Dr John Sarno in The Mind-Body Prescription. ‘Goodists’ are those inclined to sacrifice their own needs for others, and have a strong, if not compulsive need to be good. It’s my hypothesis that ‘goodists’ are more inclined to burnout.
4. We can absolutely change these patterns. The good news: it is entirely possible, through self-enquiry and awareness, to change these ways of operating when we realise they no longer serve us. The other good news: as you’re already aware, these traits are very much a strength, too. You don’t need to drop your high standards altogether. It’s about channelling them in the right way, and being able to recognise when they become more hindering than helpful.
5. Our body has a voice, too, that wants to be heard. As overachieving, analytical, hard workers, we tend to be run by our task-master-like heads. We might occasionally consider our bodies with respect to exercise, trying yoga or meditation to ‘destress’, or eating well. But there’s another, very vital role our bodies play when it comes to burnout. Our bodies send us signals around the clock about what we have capacity for, and when we’re stretched beyond our limits. And we have to attend to these signals to move ourselves into a more sustainable, less stressed state. For those on a path toward burnout, living in a constant state of physical and mental stress may be so much our M.O. we barely notice. We may be so disconnected that we don’t hear our bodies’ signals at all, or we may simply be used to tuning those signals out. Our busy minds tends to keep us pushing, fixated on the next thing, always overriding our natural impulses to slow down, let alone truly rest.
6. The silver lining. My personal and client experience has taught me that burnout, whilst a challenging life experience, can in fact be the catalyst that pushes you into doing what you’re really here to do. To make the most of your remaining years in work. I call this the silver lining of burnout.
7. Contemplating change after burnout throws all our fears into light. And yet, it’s tricky to see how burnout could possibly have a silver lining when you’re in the thick of it. The list of fears about doing something different — perhaps changing careers, taking an extended break, or pursuing a passion you’ve left on the back burner — is infinite. Particularly when your identity is so tied up in work. It’s who you are, how you define yourself, and you’ve given so much of yourself to it. There seem to be so many risks in making a change, like whether you’re throwing a great thing away, whether you’ll be able to pay the bills, actually make a go of whatever you want to do next, let alone return to the workforce if it all fails. These fears are easily reinforced by those around you — workmates, family and society — because most of us rarely question the status quo way of doing things. As a result, it may seem ‘easier’ to stay on the traditional path.
8. The impossible may be possible. But what if the future you create could deliver not only deeper satisfaction, a solid pay check, and the balance and lifestyle you crave? What if you could make it work, and it just requires some myth busting and rule breaking on your behalf? You can have the impossible dream, the unrealistic passion, or simply a job that affords you work-life balance. The sooner you get cracking towards figuring it out, and moving toward it, the sooner you’ll be living it. And saying to others, ‘I’m actually doing the thing I could only imagine 12 months ago. I can’t believe it’.
9. Stepping away from the status quo requires courage. You’re going to keep encountering resistance. When pondering the idea of a big transition, and taking steps toward it, you’re absolutely going to encounter resistance. Big resistance. As Gay Hendricks says, “if I cling to the notion that something’s not possible, I’m arguing in favour of limitation. And if I argue for my limitations, I get to keep them. Ultimately we have to ask ourselves, ‘what’s the payoff for arguing forcefully for my limitations?’.
10. Let your 90 year old self steer you forward. When you reach the end of your life, will you be wondering whether you used the gifts you were given to the maximum, or wishing you’d spent more time in the office? So in the face of this ongoing resistance, consult your 90 year old self. What advice would they give you? And do you really believe he or she would send you wrong?
11. Choosing wellbeing and work-life balance is a continual choice, in a society where productivity is Queen. Our culture, at this point in time, is fixated with productivity, efficiency, hustling toward goals, and the idea that success is borne of hard work. When you choose to rewrite the rules of the game by making your wellbeing matter, you will get push back — you’re going against the grain. But the payoff in terms of your wellbeing, and enjoyment of life defined increasingly on your terms, will be far more compelling than the voice of any naysayers.
12. Wherever you go, there you are. One last word of advice.You may leave the job that has you pushed to breaking point, but you take yourself with you into whatever you do next. Whether it’s your dream job, your own business, or simply a side-step. Until you address those people pleasing, perfecting patterns, they’re going to keep cropping up. In other words, making the leap from your less than ideal circumstances now is not a cure-all. The good news is, with awareness and persistence, this is a tremendous opportunity for personal growth. Another silver lining to burnout, perhaps?
Whilst this post provides a summary, each of these points could be an in-depth article in its own right. For more on burnout, visit www.vickievanscoaching.com/articles, and get my free assessment of what drives you in work now, so you can assess what changes are being called for in your work-life.