You feel tired, you can’t wait for the pressure to reduce but are you really burnt out, or just in need of a break.
The distinction is important because burn-out is recognised by psychologists as a very particular condition, which is the result of the toxic combination of individuals who are driven in their work finding organisations which reward them for that over-commitment. Author of “Learning from Burnout” Tim Casserley ( who owns that he was burnt-out) draws a dramatic analogy between burn out and addiction. The employee is addicted to work. They get a high from pushing themselves hard, and from seeing that they are doing more, achieving more, competing harder than those around them. And, then like all fixes, there is a come down. Work becomes joyless and only doing more, competing harder will meet the need.
For a time it seems to work, the individual will report being able to work punishing hours, but while they are unaware of the impact on them, their brain is not. The brain recognises the stress on the system, and kicks in the adrenal glands: the glands sitting on top of the kidneys which secrete the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. To the adrenal glands, the message is that the individual needs to be prepared for fight or flight, so it releases hormones in order to raise the pulse, increase focus, send blood to the muscles, raise the blood sugar levels and prepare you for escaping or facing off immediate danger. However, when the brain is sending the same message again and again, the adrenal glands become tired and less effective at secreting hormones. As the supply of the emergency hormones reduces the individual starts to notice they are getting more and more tired, They may notice they are less resistant to colds and other bugs, they may notice that their blood pressure is low because they get dizzy at times, or that they need to boost their sugar levels regularly, but they do not connect this with how they are working. The brain and body have lost sight of each other.
What they often do not notice, but others around them will, is that they are becoming less effective at what they are doing. What they may register but suppress are feelings of low connection with their work . What they experience but may not admit is that they feel disconnected from people.
Anyone watching the last series of Borgen will have watched the gradual burn out of Torben Friis, the driven TV news producer, who sees his life fall apart, when the total commitment he has given to his work over his home life, is shown to be faulty when a new young Head of Programmes challenges his capability. Suddenly, his total commitment to the news department offers no reward, and he is left visibly shaken and stressed. While he seeks an immediate fix in a clumsy affair with a member of his team, that affair in itself is an indicator of his disconnection to others. He has no sense of her emotional needs. For him it is simply respite before going back into the fray again.
Many of us complain of being burnt out at times, but as Ayala Pines, a researcher on burnout writes,
“In order to burn out, one has first to be on fire”. The Torbin Friis’s of the world continue fuelling the fire until it burns them out. At that point they are faced by existential choices about how they want to live their lives going forward. They are asked to confront issues they have avoided about purpose, about what success really means, about whether the price of success is worth it, and about the value which they put on themselves and relationships.
So if you think that you are in danger of burnout ask yourself these questions:
- How much of my identity is tied to the work that I do?
- How rewarded am I by what I do relative to the time I am giving to my work?
- How often do I find it difficult to get out of bed because I feel exhausted even after a good night’s sleep?
- What ways am I using to boost my energy levels, legal or illegal in order to keep going?
- How connected do I feel to people who are key parts of my life?
Your answers may reveal that you are simply in need of a holiday, but if you find that there is a correlation between how much you are giving to your work, and how much it is depleting you, then it is time to take time out to create a space for personal rehab and renewal.