It’s surprising how many books there are on burnout. It seems like every day I get introduced to someone else who has a book either directly on burnout or with a subtitle including the word burnout. When a friend introduced me to Peter Atherton, I hadn’t heard of his book, Reversing Burnout: How to Immediately Engage Top Talent and Grow! However, I’m glad that I did learn about the book, both because of its ability to share Peter’s story as well as the insights it can offer folks who are struggling.
Like many of his peers, Atherton connects burnout to stress. While I disagree with this framing, I understand the perspective, because stress does, in an indirect way, contribute to burnout. When Terri and I did the research for Extinguish Burnout, we discovered that the key was that feeling of inefficacy, what Martin Seligman and Steve Maier would have called “learned helplessness” decades ago and more recently recognize is the lack of learned control. (See The Hope Circuit for more.) For us, it’s about whether our expectations of ourselves and our perceived results are aligned when we are triggered into evaluating them. When they’re not aligned, we feel like we’re ineffective, we have no control, and burnout sets in with its exhaustion and cynicism.
Stress is a contributor in that it triggers a set of reactions that are like a payday loan. The person feels like they need their entire capacity to fight today’s fight and the result is shutting down the immune response, digestion, and anything else the body feels it can defer to another time. The problem is that restarting these processes and getting them back into homeostasis takes more energy than just leaving them running. The result is less long-term efficacy for a bit of short-term efficacy. Living in a constant state of stress has been linked to numerous health issues, but its role on burnout is simply the reduced overall efficacy. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers for much more on the impacts of stress.)
Overloaded Becomes Overwhelmed
At some level, the kind of biological stress that triggers the literal stress response in humans isn’t the kind of stress that Atherton is speaking about. Instead, he’s talking about the kind of gap between expectations and results. When you’re unable to answer all your emails, address every customer concern, take care of all the employees, etc., you feel the weight of the gap between your expectations that you can do it all and the reality that you can’t. The perception that we should be able to do it all keeps us in a perpetual state of being overloaded. Instead of prioritizing or delegating, we continue to believe that we can do it all, even when we can’t.
We all get overloaded at times. It’s a part of the normal ebb and flow of life. It’s not the idea that we’re overloaded that’s interesting, it’s the idea of what we do when we’re overloaded that’s interesting. Atherton’s point is that when we remain overloaded, we become overwhelmed – which leads to the inefficacy that we believe is at the core of burnout.
The solution, we believe, to managing the fact that you are overloaded is to ground yourself in reality. It’s unreasonable to believe that you’ll always be able to keep up. It’s unreasonable to believe that you’ll handle every complaint. You can resolve the problem of being overloaded by letting go of things you don’t need to do – or simply can’t do. You recognize these things by connecting yourself with what is reasonable for a human to be capable of.
Detachment and Disengagement
Atherton spends some time connecting burnout to disengagement and explaining what he calls the “burnout-disengagement cycle.” Here, too, the underlying message seems to harken back to learned helplessness. Of course, disengagement, like burnout, is bad, but one of the things that can prevent burnout, detachment, is strangely close to disengagement linguistically, and because of that they seem to be often confused.
Disengagement is giving up or shutting down. Detachment is accepting the limitations you have in controlling outcomes. While we have influence over the outcomes, the reality is we’re rarely in true control. There are always external circumstances that can interfere with our ability to do something. (See Resilient for more on detachment.)
The truth is that our world is probabilistic. We like to think A leads to B, but, in reality, A only leads to B in 90% of the cases. In this situation, it’s denying reality to say that anything we could do could truly cause an outcome we desire. (See The Halo Effect for more on the probabilistic nature of life.)
The best place to land is concerned for the outcomes, committed to our own behaviors, and, in the end, letting go of the poor outcomes we couldn’t prevent. We continue to care for the hurting, while not blaming or shaming ourselves because we couldn’t prevent it. (See our video post Kin-to-Kid Connection: Understanding Shame and Guilt for a video on shame and guilt, Dare to Lead for a collection of Brené Brown’s work on shame and guilt, or my review of I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) for a shame map.)
Shifting From “Me” To “We”
At the beginning of our careers (and our lives), we’re naturally concerned with “me.” We’re looking for the best job for us. We’re focused on us. Gradually, as we mature, we broaden our scope from “me” to “we,” initially defining “we” as our significant other and expanding it gradually as children are born. However, at some point, we make an even bigger leap from “me” to “we” when we expand our considerations beyond our immediate or extended family and instead focus our interests on our ultra-extended family in the form of the entire human race. Perhaps, you may say, that most folks never get to a concern for the entire human race. However, this is the path we’re on. (See The Evolution of Cooperation for more on the thinking about why this is true.)
Many of us built careers around some technical skill, and some of us became successful because of it. That success reduced the degree of challenge in our career, and our success plus the passage of time makes it possible for us to see that we can do more for our world than just deliver the technical skills. We get restless and want to do something more. Decades ago, it would have been called a midlife crisis, and it would have led to a divorce and remarriage – and a sports car. However, today it can mean finding a path to help others.
Fear of the Same or Fear of Missing Out
We’re afraid that nothing will ever change. We’re afraid that what we have today is all there is. Fear rules our lives. On the one hand, we’re afraid we’ll be stuck or we’re missing out on something. Our friends’ Facebooks are littered with vacations, parties, and accolades. We wonder why we can’t have what they have.
We forget that, from their point of view, our feeds on Facebook are glamorous too. We post our trips to conferences and the customer success stories. We don’t post the red-eye back from Seattle leading directly into preparation for the wedding of a child and the pain caused by a lack of sleep. No one wants to hear that, it’s not happy. So, we don’t post it, and they see only the trips and the weddings. They see the highlight reel we post, not reality.
We see the same thing from them, just the highlight reel. All good, no bad. The result is we feel like they’re doing things that are better than or more interesting than we’re doing, but the truth may be very different.
Making the transition from a successful career to one of uncertainty for the good of “we” at great personal risk to “me” isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s challenging on nearly every level – but it can be equally rewarding.
Golden Handcuffs are Still Handcuffs
Too many people become trapped in their success. They are being paid “too much.” They enjoy the symphony tickets, the new cars, and the mansion they call home. The result is the fear of letting it all go to respond to the calling of our heart and help others can speak too loudly, and we can turn away from that calling we all have to help our fellow men and women.
The good news is that golden handcuffs often create a margin – the ability to work on your own projects. That margin is fertile ground for rediscovery and regrowth that may imbibe us with the courage to conquer those fears. Maybe you’ve got enough margin to consider Reversing Burnout and finding your new mission.