Updated: Jun 26
As a result of today's 'always-on' work culture, and the perceived importance of professional attainment, I see people experiencing professional burnout much earlier in their careers than they used to, and in alarmingly increasing numbers.
My own story mirrors that of so many that have gone before me.
Starting out in my 'dream' corporate job all those years ago, I literally gave it my all in an effort to not only prove myself, but to 'succeed'.
I was in early, stayed late, worked weekends, lived and breathed my role and my company - all the while taking an almost obsessive approach to my personal performance, and future career path.
Looking back on this time in my life, the lack of any kind of personal fulfillment and sustainability is glaringly obvious. In fact I often wonder how I lasted as long as I did - trying to balance an increasingly precarious tower of work, family, relationship, and personal commitments.
Like many before me, especially those reaching senior positions, my stress levels paid homage to what was universally acknowledged as a highly successful career.
To this day I cannot pinpoint exactly at what point the exciting, and highly stimulating career I had loved for so long swallowed my real self, and replaced it with a dull and apathetic me, running ever faster on a treadmill that never seemed to stop.
As any semblance of work life balance went out the window I found myself; without energy and apathetic to what was happening around me, withdrawn from friends and family, without any interest in participating in leisure activities or self care rituals. My health declined at an alarming rate, and I became a highly disillusioned, and disengaged employee.
And yet there was not one single catalyst that I could point to as the cause of all this, rather it was a case of multiple stressors over an extended period of time that had literally turned me into a shell of myself, wondering what my career actually meant, what meaningful contribution I had made, and what contribution had it in turn made to my life in exchange for all that I had lost of my whole self along the way?
The common misconception is that burnout is a direct result of the unhappy by-product of long work hours which create an imbalance in that precarious balancing act we call 'work and life'.
However, burnout is about far more than that, it is essentially about a fundamental mismatch across 6 key areas as identified by Christina Maslach, creator of the Maslach Burnout Inventory - interestingly, only one of these key factors (in fact the least important one) relates to the number of hours worked.
So where does it all go wrong?
Lack of Control - according to Maslach we all need to feel like we are in control of our roles, and the outcomes required of us. A lack of autonomy to truly own our roles, and execute them in a way that is congruent with our value system, will over time, lead to sense of futility, defeat, and ultimately disengagement.
Insufficient Reward - while important, financial reward is actually one of the least important factors in feeling valued. In this sense we are talking about the soft, or intrinsic rewards associated with feeling good about making a meaningful contribution to something of personal importance. The reward that comes with having made an impact, or left a lasting legacy becomes increasingly more important over the long term and is what keeps our hearts, and souls singing during the tough times when the gloss and glamour of a new job have long worn off.
Lack of Community - a healthy community is critical to mediating the every day stresses associated with any job. People thrive when they feel a part of a community they value, and feel valued by in return. A community where praise, comfort, happiness, and humor are shared among people they like, identify with, and respect. Most critically for long term workplace happiness, a functional community reaffirms an individuals membership in a group with a shared sense of values.
Absence of Fairness - a perceived lack of fairness can lead to individuals feeling disrespected and powerless in their roles. The key element here is that the process is 'seen' to be fair, more so than the outcome. It is about being part of a system that is perceived to be fair and equitable for all, which goes back to our fundamental sense of right, and wrong. Working for prolonged periods within systems that are overtly lacking in fairness, and equity leads to disillusionment, and apathy.
Conflict in Values - this is probably the most critical of all 6 factors, and a key driver of the kind of debilitating stress that leaves employees unable to perform their roles, let alone perform them at their peak performance. A mismatch between our personal values, and the values we are forced to espouse as part of our professional life is what I see as the ultimate career deal breaker. Maslach writes 'contributing to a meaningful personal goal is a powerful incentive for individuals'. In essence this comes down to our ability to answer the fundamental question of 'am I being true to myself' at any given moment. If as a regular part of our every day life we find ourselves denying our true self, unable to express who we are, and be valued for our uniqueness we begin to lose sight of ourselves until we reach a point where we no longer recognize the person looking back at us in the mirror. It is at this point that the slow burn becomes the burnout, and we begin to question every aspect of our personal, and professional lives in an effort to re-establish some meaning, and value in both.
Work Overload - perhaps the most commonly associated with burnout, work overload is simply an unsustainable workload, or the result of being under-equipped to perform the role. It is interesting to note that the impact of this factor on our burnout rate is directly proportional to our satisfaction (or lack of) within the other 5 factors.
Tune in to next weeks blog to find out how to turn the tide on professional burnout by finding ways to bring your whole self to all that you do, to find the value in your unique brilliance and to ensure that others value it too.
And in the meantime I invite you to visit me at www.deidredattoli.com to learn more about my personal development and leadership programs and to take advantage of my complimentary '20 minute, ask any question' session.