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Episode 199: Burnout

Burnout is a phrase coined by Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger back in the late 70's and although it exists in every walk of life the origins of it are in what you might think of as the helping professions, teachers, nurses, therapists, that sort of thing. Maybe back in those days they were the most stressful, but capitalism, greed, high volume for the lowest price the sort of culture that grew out of the 80s and has blossomed with knobs on now means that we can all get burned out. And this isn't depression, it can feel like it, and it could even lead to it if ignored but burnout is more specific, because it's not just in response to an overwhelming workload there's a bit more to it. And remember the life outside of our career can contribute to this, I've been on enough committees of charities and voluntary organisations over the years to see that its not just your job that can burn you out. So identifying it is the first place to start and one of the first things to go is our energy levels, as if it doesn't matter how much sleep you got the night before you're still exhausted.
I knew I was in a bad place once, when I was trying to juggle a job as Manager in a civil engineering firm as well as see therapy clients in the evenings and weekends to build up a practice.
I was driving up the M6 to Birmingham and I got this almost overpowering urge to just keep driving, I desperately wanted to just drive and never stop. And that's when I realised that something needed to change.
I underperformed in the role and waited for redundancy at the end of the year. But despite it being Christmas, was about to get married in the Spring and start a family despite having no proper job, I could not have been happier.
When I wasn't pushing leaflets advertising Hypnotherapy through peoples doors I was playing video games, learning about web design and loving each day as if it's the last.
All these years later I'm still a happy guy, but I can nevertheless feel burnout brewing sometimes and need to watch it. If a client cancels and I'm even slightly relieved, I know there's something wrong and it needs nipping in the bud right there and then.
If we don't, we tend to see next what is often referred to as Depersonalisation, which in burnout terms means feeling disconnected from other people.

It's when you stop seeing your customers or clients as people and they become unimportant to you, almost parasitic. You become not just impatient with them but really quite resentful that they exist because you're losing empathy and stopping caring.

Obviously, as a therapist we get taught all about this in our very basic training because theres no way you'd be a good enough therapist for someone if you dont prevent this from happening before it starts. But I think we all should be aware of it. Teachers are experiencing this, so are nursing staff, and it's not good for any of us.

Interestingly, the research into this doesn't seem to show a correlation between burnout and workload. It seems we can be overworked and stressed and not burn out, stress wont deplete our energy in quite the same way and wont make us lose empathy for others.
But what we do find is that there is something called an effort-reward imbalance. Which, in real life terms, means having to work really hard for little or no reward.

We know from previous studies that reward doesn't necessarily mean a financial reward. Instead, we can feel rewarded in other ways.
If what we do is meaningful or we feel appreciated, that's probably more important the any financial reward. Which is why we can be stressed and busy but not burn out if we are getting emotional support.

We can look after kids as well as elderly parents and still hold down a job in the middle of all that and not burnout because these might be stressful things but if we're lucky we might still actually want to do them.

So if we're burning out, what can we do about it?

First of all, look after your body. I know its a cliche but it might be the only part of your life where you're actually respected. And if you're the only one that's prepared to respect you, then make sure you do.
Ensure that you're not drinking too much alcohol or eating too much junk food. Actually take a break during your working day. Try not to eat at your desk at work, leave the space you work in and take time out, even for just 15 minutes (thats always a magical number I find). It's easier then to think about things other than work.
There might be better things to think about in your lunch break but maybe that's the time where you're able to figure out why you feel as bad as you do.
Often there are themes to burnout, common areas that if they were improved would make it ok to tolerate everything else. It's worth figuring out what it is, so as to try and make some changes.
Maybe it is the workload that makes it so hard, this feeling that no matter what you do to the bottom of the workpile there's always something else piled on the top that makes it feel as if there's no end in sight, no moments of feeling as if you're up to date. I experience that often as I juggle so many commitments in my career. But, stressful as it can be, it's probably never going to burn me out because of the rewards I get from doing it.

What I do matches my values. I'm not a lawyer trying to get people off of crimes that they know they committed. I'm not trying to trick old ladies into switching to a more expensive energy supplier.

What I do in my career matches the effect I want to have on the world and this will help prevent burnout. Also, the other ingredients to burnout aren't there, such as a lack of control.

If you feel that you have no control over what you do, when you do it and when it's supposed to be done then it's a slippery slope to burnout.
It's hard to take control over those sets of things, but if you can see that that's where the biggest problem is then you can do something with your expectations.
If you know that thats what's going to happen then your goal can't be to have a clear desk. If you can try and set your own deadlines then you can be realistic with how long things take and crack on with one thing at a time hopefully with a sense of accomplishment when each thing is done.

If you are working against you morals, if you work in animal testing but you're a big animal lover, then it might be hard to reframe it but isn't it nicer that someone who works in animal testing actually supports the welfare of the animals rather than some Nazi who couldn't care?

And if you can't reframe your job then obviously it's time to look for another one isn't it, they don't get offered to you by accident.
So take action.
Maybe you stay where you are but in a different role, but maybe you do have to jump ship.

Whatever you do, make sure there's more to you than the stuff that burns you out.
Vary your time. By the time we've burnt out we've become really quite one dimensional, life begins to feel as if it's just work and nothing else other than chores.

So think about what you actually want to do, rather than what you feel that you should do. Whether it's reading, watching live music on youtube, carving chess pieces out of old rocks you find in the yard, absolutely ensure you make time for you too.