Monday, December 18, 2020

Understanding Burnout (Part 3)

How to Get Out of the Hole You’ve Dug Yourself

This is the third and final part of a three-part posting on burnout. Part 1 was posted last Thursday. Part 2 appeared on Friday. Today’s segment looks at ways of coping with potential or actual burnout, wherever you may be on the burnout curve, or (better still) preventing the problem occurring at all.

It’s worth repeating the image of the “Burnout Curve” that went with the first segment of this posting. It’s a downward slide into misery, depression, and eventual collapse. Depression is never something to be taken lightly, since it can be a serious medical condition, so I’ve marked a point on this chart suggesting that when things have gone from bad to worse, and then even further down the slope, you should seek competent medical advice and support. Don’t try self-diagnosis or treatment of depression. People end up as suicides that way.

However, assuming that you have dealt with any medical issues and started to pull yourself around, there is a series of steps that you should take to get away from that pit of emptiness and worthlessness that is burnout. The goal is to re-ignite your love of life and find satisfaction again in whatever work you choose to do.

The steps go like this, moving from low to high back up the burnout curve:
  • Take a long break. If you’ve reached somewhere near the bottom of the curve (true burnout), it’s going to take you a significant time to get yourself together again. Trying to hurry the process will likely cause it to fail. You need plenty of rest, peace, and a complete break from whatever caused the problem to arise. if that means giving up your job, so be it.

  • During this “sabbatical,” renew and repair your mental and physical resources. Burnout will leave you exhausted and depleted in mind, body, and spirit. Before turning to anything else, you need to repair the damage. Most of all, you need to recover your resilience. Even when we are down, life has a nasty habit of continuing to kick us. When we’re feeling good, we can ride with the punches. When we’re not, they become crises that threaten to overwhelm us. Take a vacation. Take up a new hobby. Spend time outdoors. Get back in touch with yourself and the world around you.

  • Reconnect with friends and family. One of the commonest symptoms of burnout is a growing level of detachment from other people. Families are ignored. Loved ones are treated as unimportant. Friends are avoided or left behind. The workaholism that drives burnout steadily pushes you away from all social and emotional sources of support. You need them. We all do. Research has shown that people who have poor support structures suffer more sickness and die earlier than those with a solid network of friends and loved ones. Getting your friends and family back may well mean eating a lot of humble pie, but it will be worth it. If they’ve packed up and left altogether, you need to find some new ones.

  • Become completely disillusioned. No, I’m not mad. Being disillusioned is an essential stage in finding a wiser way to live. All those illusions we carry around—that hard work will always be rewarded, that promotions will go to the best performers, that the bosses will look after the good guys, and that this is how working life has to be—were a large part of what got you into this mess. Remember that burnout is the result of massive disconnects between expectations and outcomes. Dump the illusions. Deal only with reality from now on. It may not look so pretty, but it won’t cheat you or trick you into expecting what you won’t get.

  • Quit blaming others. When people are headed towards burnout they go through a long phase where all the problems they face are seen as someone else’s fault. The trouble with that is that it makes you powerless. If “they” are cheating you and doing you down, however hard you work, only “they” can put things right. Once you stop blaming “them,” whoever “they” are, and accept that this is your life and that you’ll have to take responsibility for sorting it out, your future is back in your own hands. Don’t expect any group of “them” to be concerned about you. Take charge of your life, as far as you can, and start relying on your own thought, care, and rational decisions, instead of simply throwing all you have into work and naïvely assuming it will work out somehow.

  • If you’re going to be in charge, you need a plan. Don’t jump to accept the first ideas that come to you. Don’t blindly follow someone else’s advice. Stop . . . and take all the time you need to work out your true priorities. Any parts of our lives that conflict with our core values will feel unsatisfactory or worse. Dig down to what you value most and build your life around that. Get real. There will always be setbacks. You will always need to work hard sometimes. It isn’t hard work alone that causes burnout. Many people work horrendous hours and still flourish. Their secret is that they love what they are doing. It doesn’t feel like work. That’s what you need to aim for. Analyze, as carefully and honestly as you can, exactly what will make your life most worth living. Then go for it—whatever it is. Better to be a blissfully happy and poor nobody that an exquisitely miserable, burned-out millionaire.

  • Set an end point and keep your eyes on it. Even though you are now back on the right track, there will be those setbacks and upsets. The idea that doing the right thing will make life smooth is one of those illusions you’ve left behind, remember? It’s still entirely possible that things won’t work out as you want. So set yourself a goal and a time limit. If you aren’t very near your goal within that time, cut your losses and try something else. Killing yourself in pursuit of an impossible goal is another part of what caused your burnout. Don’t do it again.

  • Ration your efforts. None of us have unlimited reserves of resilience or strength. Wise investors in the stockmarket know that one of the keys to making money is to back your winners and cut your losses quickly. This advice works just as well in the rest of life. Don’t throw good energy and effort after bad. Save your efforts for where you get the best results. That’s another mistake workaholics make: they throw maximum effort into everything. They are so afraid of failure that they are prepared to kill themselves seeking success where it simply isn’t to be found.

  • Accept—once and for all—that hard work is not the answer. Nearly all of us have been brought up on the myth that those who work hard will always reap their just reward. They won’t. The universe is not just. Sometimes hard workers do well; sometimes the lazy bums do better. Outcomes are as much or more to do with blind chance as any individual efforts—let alone what you think that you deserve. The best way to insulate yourself from future descents into the hell of burnout is to accept that the only reason to work hard is because you enjoy it. If it isn’t fun, give it up—now. All that Puritan Work Ethic talk is total eyewash. If you are having a wonderful time working hard, go on doing it. If not, stop. Hard work will not, repeat not, guarantee that you will prosper. Sometimes it won’t even help. Do what you need to do, see what happens—and if it doesn’t work out, try doing something different.

  • Set yourself only realistic expectations from now on. Every common soldier does not have a potential future as a general. Almost none of them do. Every child does not have the potential to become President of the United States. That’s a fairy tale. Every athlete is not able to win at the Olympic Games, provided he or she trains hard enough. The vast majority have neither the talent nor the determination. We’ve become so eager to avoid any taint of elitism, that we’ve gone way over the edge into fantasy. What you can achieve in life depends on luck, talent, brains, some degree of application . . . and still more luck. Being realistic isn’t defeatist or cowardly. It nearly always takes far more courage than mouthing off platitudes about everyone being able to get to the top. Only fools try to believe that the world—and whatever abilities the universe has given them—is not what it is. Only organizations destined for collapse set themselves, and their workforce, objectives taken from “The Idiot’s Book of Wall Street Fantasies.”

Burnout is the result of a chronic chronic mismatch between expectations and results, made worse by trying to cure that mismatch by working harder and harder. It's an increasing hell of unabated ambition to succeed in situations where success is impossible and frustration never ends. Setting realistic expectations, becoming totally disillusioned, and maintaining a proper work/life balance will save you from going there again. All you need to do is stick to your determination to be yourself, not some fantasy version based on media hype and folk tales.

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Anonymous said...

have been low for a while and the 3 articles have given me serious room for thought. not cured - of course. but beginning to do some other kind of thinking. in fact i've aken the afternoon off!

8:03 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Anon.

I'm really glad that what I wrote has been of help.

8:42 PM  
Dannish said...

YES!!!!! That's it, exactly.

Part of the problem is that there's a large frog-in-slowly-heating-water component to this situation. Is it really an impending downward spiral, or am I simply having a bad week? Recognizing that you've had quite a few bad weeks strung together is sometimes difficult.

8:23 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Dannish.

You're right about the frog in the heating water. These things happen slowly and it's easy to miss them until it's too late.

That's why it's vital to take time out for reflection from time to time. This holiday season could be an ideal time.

If you recognize the symptoms, start reversing them right away.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:42 AM  
Raven said...

Great 3 part series on burnout and I also enjoyed your related post on How to avoid burnout. I've linked to all 4 of these excellent posts here:!17376F4C11A91E0E!3343.entry

Thanks for posting such great information - love your blog and it's focus.


11:20 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thank you for your kind words and your link, Raven.

I'm glad you found what I wrote useful.

Keep reading, my friend.

3:21 PM  

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