Burnout is complex; it differs in intensity, duration and experience from person to person. The number of people who experience burnout continues to increase as we blur the boundaries between our work time and the rest of our lives. We prioritize and culturally value time spent being constantly available and on-call. The result is less and less time to regenerate, reflect, be peaceful, be full of fun and spontaneity. Burnout is revealing, it has meaning. It is a strong physical and emotional beacon for change and re-orienting ourselves. Burnout calls to us to re-think time, to begin re-prioritizing time so that we can be fully present, connected with ourselves and to our deepest values.
I see many clients with myriad manifestations of burnout. Physical signals can range from intense exhaustion, a persistent lack of energy, disruptions in sleep patterns to changes in diet and chronic headaches (and these symptoms should always be checked by a physician to exclude any underlying or chronic medical condition). These physical signals are often coupled with emotional fatigue, a severe lack of motivation, feelings of emptiness, boredom, stress and anxiety. Other expressions can include apathy, a lack of focus, disengagement, loss of orientation, not being nourished by work, being lost in work, cynicism, negative feelings towards others and hopelessness. Burnout can feel insurmountable and personal resilience often feels inaccessible.
I hear clients express further stress, anger and frustration for even experiencing burnout. They feel anxious and discouraged that they cannot simply cope and carry on with the physical and emotional exhaustion they are experiencing. I listen to clients who feel shame and guilt for not being able to work. I see clients who are constrained by the tyranny of the shoulds; a mix of attitudes and narratives both personal and internalized from the broader work culture. These include uncompromising directives to do better, work harder, be more efficient, be more productive, make no mistakes, be the best, be at the top of one’s game, be perfect.
When the balance in our lives tips substantially - and for a prolonged period - toward the functional, the duty-laden, the obligatory or when we are overwhelmed by the tyranny of the shoulds, we lose the purpose and value of our participation in and commitment to our own lives. When we live for goals that are primarily fueled by extrinsic motivation – social acceptance, recognition, respect, money, career advancement, self-esteem – we lose our connection to personal involvement, motivation and striving. We lose the felt experiences of personal engagement, we lose inner connection and meaning, we are unable to feel the value of what we are doing.
From an Existential Analytic perspective, we experience burnout when we are disconnected from what is personally meaningful, deeply valuable and intrinsically motivating. We are disconnected from how life feels and from our own experiencing. We are disconnected from the intrinsic value of what we do and therefore from the inner joy and personal satisfaction that is often a by-product. Experiencing and feeling the intrinsic value of what we do is an important buffer to burnout. Now of course no one’s life is immune to stress, difficult transitions, complex work, disappointments, mistakes, and periods of exhaustion. But when we feel connected to ourselves, connected to our lives and to what we value, when we feel ourselves present in what we are doing and experience its intrinsic meaning and purpose, we develop resiliencies that we can access and rely upon. When we are open, cognizant and experientially aware we develop the capacity muscles to integrate, process and manage the natural stressors that accompany life.
Experiencing imbalance and disconnection over extended periods of time opens the door to burnout. We begin to experience physical and emotional breakdown and a life that lacks fulfillment. Once again from an Existential Analytic perspective, experiencing fulfillment comes from Inner Consent. This is a personally felt and authentic positioning, a confident affirmation or “YES” to our choices and decisions. Inner Consent is an alignment or congruence between our subjective (inner world) and relational (outer world) experiences. We feel this congruence, we feel the value of our existence, we feel being fully ourselves. These experiences build our capacities to be committed, responsive and engaged in the present moment and in the world with our whole selves. Being fully ourselves in authentic engagement, being connected to our intrinsic values and motivations offers us a strong antidote to burnout.
Here is a sample of some personal questions for reflection:
- What is deeply valuable to me?
- Do I like what I am doing?
- Do I gain something meaningful from what I do?
- Am I driven by a goal, an accomplishment, or am I driven by a value?
- Have I ever experienced exhaustion from work? If yes, what were the triggers? What was difficult?
- Do I often feel exhausted – weekly, monthly? Do I understand the exhaustion and its triggers?
- What are the stressors in my work – what consumes my energy? Am I aware of these issues and why they are so exhausting for me?
- Do I know what helped me from burning out? Did I receive support from others, was it good sleeping habits, exercise or meditation? Do I have time to digest the week, time to reflect?
- How well can I relax? What are my personal experiences of relaxation? Do I know what helps me to relax? How long does it take me to relax?
Here is a sample of questions to reflect on about the work/organizational structures around you:
- Is there too little or too much autonomy at work?
- Are there interpersonal conflicts at work that are not dealt with?
- Am I supported at work? Is there little support?
- Do I understand what is expected of me? Are those expectations too little or too much?
- Am I surrounded by good communication? Am I able to communicate easily with colleagues/superiors? Is there feedback? Is the feedback positive and constructive?
- Is teamwork positive and constructive? Does each member of the team feel valued for what they bring to the work/project? Does each member understand what their role is?
- Do I feel isolated at work?
- Are the expectations placed on me too high while the communication with superiors and/or colleagues is poor?
- Is the quantity of work too much?