I return to the topic of burnout often, and when I do, it’s always in the context of the Maslach burnout inventory (there’s a book [Amazon] but I think a good summary is sufficient). Most interesting to me are the five causes of burnout that are not overwork, which I think are key to understanding why doing less doesn’t necessarily heal.
The six causes of burnout are:
- Lack of control.
- Lack of reward.
- Absence of fairness.
- Lack of community.
- Conflict in values.
- Work overload.
As we start – at least in some countries – to see a way out of this situation, and a return to a more “normal” way of life, a recurrent theme I see is people describing burnout. This is unsurprising, given the list above.
Lack of control. It is normal, possibly even healthy, to feel powerless in the face of a global pandemic. Coming from a relatively privileged existence, I have never in my life felt like my wellbeing was so contingent on the competence of the government in the country I live in. However once I’d registered to vote, there was nothing more to do about the most useless man in Ireland being the health minister.
It is hard to live with so little control. Some coping mechanisms are harmless – like running a marathon around your living room, or obsessive crafting. Some are mixed, like the people who become armchair epidemiologists (impact dependent on reach and the quality of the armchair epidemiology). Some have done a lot of damage, like the people who protested, denied reality, even up to their dying breath.
I have come to see much of the bizarre behaviour over the past year as the search for some semblance of control where there is none.
Lack of reward. The reward for following the “rules” of living in a global pandemic is largely not getting sick, and not dying (YMMV). There is no dopamine hit here. Particularly not relative to all the things we gave up – the vacations we didn’t take, the meals out we didn’t enjoy, the art we didn’t experience, the hugs we didn’t share.
What did you celebrate over the past year? What achievements did you mark, what milestones did you commemorate?
There was such a dearth of celebration in 2020. Why? There were still new jobs, promotions, major achievements, birthdays, engagements. But there was nowhere to go, nothing to do, and a backdrop of misery that made happiness seem inconsiderate, somehow.
Absence of fairness. From people who are frustrated by the inequity of vaccine availability to the racists who view suffering as something for “other people”, unfairness – however perceived – is one of the core themes of the discourse.
Lack of community. This period has been one of loneliness and isolation. Offices closed, social engagements cancelled, curtailed or held on Zoom. Feeling low emotionally causes people to withdraw socially, which impacts their own sense of community, but if enough people you know are doing that, it will also impact your own sense of community.
Beyond that, it turns out that navigating a public health crisis where every interaction carries some component of risk is a social minefield. We have learned things about others we can’t unknow – and that has impacted our relationships.
Conflict in values. I am not a rule follower, but I have rigidly followed the rules of public health. I strive not to be a judgemental person, but it turns out I have a deep well of uncontrollable judgement for people who are unable – after a year of mask wearing – to put their mask over their $expletive nose. I deeply value my freedom, but I have accepted months constrained to a 5km radius. It turns out, some values around science and collective responsibility override everything else.
The way we have been living is not a way in which most people would choose to live. However we have coped, there is likely some level of dissonance there.
Work overload. Finally, the cause of burnout that everyone recognizes, and I’m sure a factor for many people’s pandemic burnout. Work is (often) harder, because we lost structures we relied on in normal times, because people are more likely to be out or struggling. Life is harder, because the logistics of many things got more rigid and often more difficult. Because there is no respite from our homes, and our homes are more demanding when they are home and office and gym and entertainment (and school and playground). Because downtime is lower quality so we just keep working instead.
Perhaps you see yourself in these factors, what can you do with that?
Awareness can be a powerful tool, and understanding the causes of our burnout can be key to helping us address it constructively. Quitting your job might help, but if the key cause of your burnout is lack of community (and you like your coworkers), it might well make things worse. Each cause has at least one potential antidote.
- Lack of control >> focus on what you can control.
- Lack of reward >> celebrate more!
- Absence of fairness >> push for equity, contribute what you can to addressing inequity.
- Lack of community >> make effort socially.
- Conflict in values >> explore the conflict, what values are you honoring instead?
- Work overload >> high quality rest.
Something that I have found great comfort in, as I have tried to rebuild some semblance of creativity amid the exhaustion of this dark timeline, is following instructions. Whether it’s a peloton class or a crafting project, there is something reassuring about knowing that if I can mostly follow the steps, I will find some level of adequacy. This has given me a sense of control and reward, where previously there was none.
It’s not a magic wand, but it is a significant improvement, and if you’ve also been struggling with burnout, I hope you can find some manageable things that can help you address it, too.