Whose fault is it anyway? The three key players in our current burnout epidemic. (Part 1)
Updated: Feb 22, 2022
Last year, I wrote a LinkedIn article about my experience with burnout. Since that article was published, people have been reaching out to me to share that they are either experiencing burnout themselves or they’re witnessing the devastating effects of burnout on their team, their friends, or their family.
One thing seems clear: we are experiencing and witnessing a high level of stress and burnout. It’s impacting our health and well-being as individuals. It’s also threatening the stability and growth of many teams and organizations. How did we get here? Whose fault is it? More importantly, what can we do about it?
A lot of people I talk to point the finger at the pandemic. While I think the stress, anxiety, and isolation of the pandemic has definitely exacerbated the issue, I don’t believe it is the root cause. For me, to get at the root causes of burnout, we need to look at the three key players in the game: individuals, organizations, and society. That’s where we will find the solutions.
In today’s article, I’d like to focus on the individuals because this is the level that is most accessible and within our control. It’s also the essential building block for the next two levels, organizations and society, which I will focus on in subsequent articles.
We all contribute to our own burnout in some ways. I know, that stings. But it’s important, so let me repeat that again: we all contribute to our own burnout in some ways.
For me, my beliefs about success, ambition, and accomplishment drove a lot of the behaviours that led to my burnout. I used to believe that the only path to success was through a lot of hard work, and there’s no other way around it. This meant that overworking, obsessively thinking about work after hours, and being so busy that I barely had time to pee in between meetings weren’t really bad things. They were actually signs that I was on the right path: the path to a successful and fulfilling career. Once in a while, I even let myself believe that those were signs that I’ve made it.
I also believed that rest must be earned. Any guess as to how I earned my rest? Bingo! It was indeed my dear friend “hard work”. Rest should only be granted once I’d done enough. The trouble was, I rarely felt like I'd done enough. There was always more that I could do and should do. So any rest that I took was filled with guilt and worry. I felt guilty for being lazy while there was still so much to be done. And I constantly worried that I hadn’t done enough, that I’d let others down, and that I was failing at my job. Even on vacation, I had such a hard time detaching from work that it usually took me a week into my vacation to finally stop checking work emails and stop thinking about work. By then, it was almost time to start thinking about what's awaiting me upon my return.
As a hyper-achiever, I only felt good about myself when I was getting recognition and validation from others that I was doing well and achieving the desired results. On the outside, I was holding up an image of someone who was confident, competent, and accomplished. But on the inside, I never felt good enough for long. I was constantly criticizing myself, mostly in the name of self-improvement. I believed that I needed that self-critical voice to improve, to push harder, to work smarter, so that I could achieve more.
As a giver and a helper, I believed my role was to make sure others were well-supported. When I was working as an advisor, that meant taking care of my project and administrative tasks after hours because I was too busy meeting students’ needs during office hours. As a leader, it meant thinking about what would be best for my team and twisting myself and my family’s schedule to meet those needs. I couldn’t see a way to meet others’ needs without sacrificing myself. To be honest, it even felt good at times to give up my needs to take care of others. It affirmed my sense of purpose.
In my work with clients on their burnout recovery, I uncover a similar pattern in their beliefs and behaviours. And let me be really clear here, this has nothing to do with how smart or logical someone is. We all get it, logically. We all know it. But the gap between knowing and doing can feel impossible to bridge at times.
I shared all of this not to blame the victim. There are larger forces at play that contribute to one’s burnout, as I will explore and explain in my next articles. But at the end of the day, if you carry the same bricks, you will end up building the same house, no matter how many times or how far you move.
This is why I’m so passionate about working with individuals to help them address their current burnout episode and identify the patterns to make sure it doesn’t happen again. It’s something I wish someone had helped me after my first burnout experience.
On Friday, March 11 at 1 pm, my business partner, Angela Smith, and I will be facilitating a workshop on stress and burnout management. In this 2-hour long workshop, we will unpack the definition, misconceptions, symptoms, and early warning signs of burnout. We will also share the most common root causes of burnout and our top four strategies to deal with burnout. If you’re struggling or know someone who is, check out our event page for more information. You can also connect with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any further questions about the workshop.