Thursday, December 14, 2020

Understanding Burnout (Part 1)

An Epidemic of Burnout is Only a Few Steps Away

This is part 1 of a three-part posting on burnout: its nature, its causes, how modern management is exacerbating the problem, and how best to avoid it altogether.
Recently, I found a lengthy, but extremely thorough, article on burnout in the New York magazine. The author, Jennifer Senior, explains burnout as more a feeling of hopelessness than a classic sense of being stressed or overtired. I suspect that is right. Burnout is something like writer’s block: a feeling that whatever you do—however hard you work and however much you appear to achieve on the outside—none of it means anything, or has any real worth. It’s a sense of withdrawal and distancing from things you once found absorbing; to the extent that, after a while, you can scarcely bring yourself to do anything more than “go through the motions,” and sometimes not even that.

Psychotherapist Herbert Freudenberger, who first coined the term, noticed that when people became too discouraged, they would often push harder and harder at their jobs, only to feel as if they were achieving less and less. Not only do people suffering from burnout become mentally exhausted, they develop severe cases of cynicism and contempt for whatever they were doing that led to the burnout. I have felt the same things myself, in the past: a feeling that whatever I did wouldn’t make the slightest difference; and that the rest of the world was largely composed of idiots too self-obsessed and shallow to care about my work anyway.

Many sufferers from burnout are perfectionists, for whom anything less than winning in some truly spectacular way is tantamount to failure. I suspect they may be specially prone to the condition, not just because they tend to deal with any setback by throwing all they have into harder and harder work, but because they cannot accept the reality that much of the world is apathetic towards them anyway.

Hyper-extended expectations are the starting point of most cases of burnout. When impossible expectations collide with reality, something has to give. At first, people try to overcome reality by excessive work and effort. When that fails, they still cannot bring themselves to admit that their original expectations were little better than childish fantasy. Instead, they blame the organization, the people they must deal with, the f****ing bosses, idiot customers, or just about anyone else for their condition. It’s a short step from there to deciding none of it matters and experiencing the sense of hopeless emptiness and weariness that characterizes true burnout.

I wonder how common burnout really is? Just as many people claim to be suffering from the 'flu (quite a serious disease), when what they have is a heavy cold, I suspect that many cases of burnout are closer to simple mental exhaustion. Burnout isn’t necessarily caused by long hours or overwork. They are more the symptoms of people’s efforts to counter the anxiety and bad feelings that burnout induces. If a week’s holiday, or easing up for a few days, is enough to restore your equilibrium, you weren’t suffering from burnout. You were just overtired.

Tomorrow, I’ll continue this post with part 2 and a listing of the factors in modern management that most contribute to burnout and the pain it causes.

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Anthony Riley said...

Following the curve provided, I believe your assessment is correct and that few people actually achieve total burnout. They may either take a step back from their work or leave for a new job altogether.

A personal story I can relate is the last consulting job with which I participated. Over a year of 70+ hour work weeks, very little compensation for domestic support work and excessive micro-management. I reached the 'feelings of despair' and decided to seek employment elsewhere after a lengthy sabbatical.

Among the numerous list of reasons burnout occurs, in my personal experience too few organizations know how to celebrate the small victories and at least fain appreciation for a hard days work.

1:28 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Anthony. A great comment.

I think that you were wise to get out and preserve your health and domestic stability. Too many people get to a state that has much in common with clinical depression. At that point, there is little that can be done without serious medical support.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous said...

I believe I'm suffering from a case of burnout. I am not working and I am in treatment. I'm doing much better but I'm still having trouble sleeping.
How long does it usually take to recover from a pretty significant case of burnout? It's been about 7 weeks for me. (since I left my job)
Great article by the way!


2:08 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Well, Paul, I'm neither a medical specialist nor a psychologist, so I have absolutely no qualifications for answering your question. Still, in the interests of others who may read this response, I will offer what thoughts I can.

From what I have read, I think that serious burnout can take a significant time to go away: sometimes months rather than weeks. It seems that a prolonged removal of the sources of stress can be important.

But don't take my word for it. You say that you are in treatment, so you would be wise to ask your clinician and take careful note of that person's professional viewpoint.

I am glad you sought proper help. Depression is serious and too many people treat it as just a case of the blues and hope it will go away.

I hope things turn out well for you, and I'm glad you enjoyed the post. When you are through this illness, perhaps you could return with another comment to let readers of this blog share your experience.

Keep reading, my friend.

5:00 PM  
Jodi said...

I experienced a church/spiritual burnout, and also read Freudenberger's book. It certainly helped me understand what was happening to me. I also found a website of a guy who works specifically with leaders in the church who experience burnout, at It was a great help to me. Burnout doesn't seem to be talked about enough, and it's good that you are. It can affect anyone!

10:51 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

This post has been removed by the author.

7:09 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your helpful comment, Jodi.

One minor point. The link is, not .com.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:12 AM  

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