This is the second of a three-part series on burnout, moral injury and workplace exploitation. In part one, we kicked off by discussing how medicine, one of the most notorious careers for extremely high levels of physician burnout, can set people, just like me, on the rocky path to burnout.
Then I invited you to explore whether you might be at risk of moral injury, a concept that not many people have heard of and that is certainly under-reported and under-appreciated. I also asked you to reflect on just a few of the behaviours commonly seen in burnout.
Now it’s time to turn our attention to some traits that may set you up for burnout. You may be surprised to discover that most of them are highly desirable,
Are most of us being exploited but it's so commonplace that we don't even question it?
Let's spend a few minutes looking at the qualities that make you more vulnerable to burnout.
People at higher risk of burnout are more likely to:
- Be mission-driven. They believe they have a purpose and that they are here to make a difference.
- Be prepared to work exceptionally long hours, stay late, work evenings, weekends and holidays… at least until they’re floored by chronic fatigue or some sort of life-changing event occurs.
- Set extremely high standards of themselves and others. This perfectionistic trait can drive them and other people a bit bonkers.
- Struggle to delegate. Often this goes hand in hand with feeling that others won’t get the job done to their standard and they’ll have to go back and do it all again… properly this time. It’s that perfectionist thing again and it gets in the way both at work and at home. It can also be a sign of difficulties with control and some teensy trust issues.
- Have a very strong sense of duty and responsibility that may transcend their commitment to their employers. This goes along with being mission-driven. When you realise that your job is more than a tick-box exercise and that there’s a real person, animal, ecosystem, or something somewhere relying on your performance for their wellbeing, you feel more pressure not to make mistakes.
- Be instilled with a good work ethic, determination and focus.
- Identify strongly with their job or career, to the point that they live for their work. They may even worry about what they’d do if they were unable to work.
- Get to work, come hell or high water. They’ll struggle on and show up for work with their legs hanging off. It’s that sense of duty and not wanting to let other people down.
- Be high-achievers. They may not even realise this because everyone else around them is also a high achiever (incidentally, most of the people around them are also stressed out and may be burning out!).
- Believe that they don’t have the time to burn out – there’s too much on their shoulders. While they know that nobody is indispensable, they secretly believe that everything will crumble if they aren’t there to keep things running.
- Feel ashamed by making mistakes and insecure about not being good enough. Actually, nearly everyone worries about these things. But this sense of shame about not coping can make you feel really lonely and isolated because you think it’s just you. Secretly, a lot of the people around you are feeling this way as well, deep down. But they may not even be able to admit this out loud to themselves.
- Believe it’s unprofessional to let their personal life and health issues interfere with their work-life, and that you should leave your personal life at the door when you arrive at work.
- Believe that in addition to working hard, keeping a good house, looking after and nurturing their kids, when anything else goes wrong at home or in work it’s perfectly reasonable (and expected) to be able to just juggle it all without dropping the ball… even though they’re already functioning at full capacity.
- Be willing to go above and beyond in all aspects of life, not just work.
- Struggle to ask for help. This one’s a combination of shame from not coping, belief that they and everyone else can do ALL the things (yeah, right!), not being aware of what resources are available, not wishing to burden other people, and there genuinely not being the right resources to get help from.
- Struggle to say no to people. This may be due to a belief that they shouldn’t say no to an opportunity in case they miss out. But can also be from politeness, fear of repercussions, believing that it’s simply expected of them, and other reasons.
Do many of those traits really look like weaknesses?
No, I didn’t think so either. In the right sort of nurturing environment, a lot of them have the makings of strengths found in star players. But they’re also traits that may see you being taken advantage of or exploited if you’re not careful.
I don't think there's a conspiracy to exploit everyone until they're burned out
Look, I’m not saying there are lots of employers or managers out there who are deliberately trying to exploit their employees. Or that employers’ intentions are to prey on vulnerable people during the selection process, just to find individuals to grind into the dirt without complaining.
Quite the contrary. There are a lot of empathetic employers, managers, and companies who genuinely care about their staff and want the best for their welfare. In fact, employee wellness and compassionate leadership are two very in vogue phrases these days. After all, staff wellbeing is staff well-doing.
But having spent a lot of time researching burnout, reflecting on my own experiences, and talking to people suffering through it or who’ve been through it, we are definitely facing unrealistic cultural norms and beliefs which are colouring people’s expectations of what is fair and achievable. Society expects something unattainable from us.
The opposite of burnout is not engagement
Frustratingly for me, when I’ve looked at a lot of the burnout research, they tend to discuss employee engagement as its antithesis.
Disengagement may be associated with burnout, but I can’t find any evidence that it’s the cause. Or that focusing on employee engagement will help to reverse burnout.
What are some of the very real physical consequences of burnout?
In fact, looking at the physical effects of burnout, which include changes within your brain (particularly in parts used for memory, focus, attention, fear, planning and regulating emotion), as well as alterations in your production of stress hormones, and changes in your immune system, it seems clear that it’s the constant suppression and management of unrelenting stress that takes its toll on your body and results in disengagement.
To me, it appears that the opposite of burnout is vitality. Particularly when you consider that burnout is one type of vital exhaustion.
Isolation and productivity-chasing contribute to burnout
Add to this changing work patterns leading to isolation and loss of community support both in work and at home, and increased pressure to constantly improve productivity at the expense of time spent taking breaks, eating, chatting, daydreaming, or going for a walk, and you start to see how your work environment can unwittingly be increasing your risk of burnout.
Pressure comes from EVERYWHERE!
But it’s not really just your work environment, is it? These unattainable societal and cultural expectations are now deeply embedded in all of our psyches: Our own, our families, friends, colleagues, employers, and even our doctors! Just take a look around at your stressed-out boss or line manager, spinning all the plates with an eye on that promotion, while run ragged.
Remember your own parents, teachers and trainers as you were growing up. Did they instil their work ethic and attitudes into you?
Think of the advertising that influences us all and makes us believe that, yes we can have it all and do it all while looking gorgeous and smelling like a rose.
Is it any wonder we have these beliefs when practically everything and everyone is perpetuating them? And we equally play into it by expecting the same of others. Your CEOs in work may have their focus on productivity and profitability, but societal expectations reward the exploitation of hard-working people. And far too many of us believe that we can be more productive and efficient if we just go into work, get our heads down, focus and work as hard and for as long as we can. But is this really the recipe for enhanced productivity?
In the third and final instalment of this series of posts on burnout, we’ll look at a few ways that both you and your employer can work together to improve your resiliency and vitality to reduce your risk of burnout. Sound good?