Burnout was first coined by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in his 1975 paper “Staff Burn-out”. His study emerged from his observations on an addiction clinic staff (particularly volunteers), who experienced sleep issues, exhaustion and irritability due to the high demands of the work environment, as well as their high work-ideals.
Since then, burnout widened in scope, it is now a prevalent condition that manifests not only in helping professions but in any profession. It did take a considerable time to be acknowledged in the eyes of the general population. In fact, it has only recently been acknowledged in the ICD in its 11th edition. The ICD refers to burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” congruent to its broader manifestation. Students, housewives and mothers are also included – finally!
ICD states burnout symptoms as:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.
Well, therapy is not the most popular place to be and we all prefer having a drink by the lake after work instead of reflecting on our inner conflicts.
So, most people show up in the therapy room due to a pretty nasty cocktail of symptoms, such as disturbed sleep, concentration problems, apathy, anxiety, physical and mental exhaustion.
The internal consolation repeating “it’s just tiredness” or “just the stressful period at work” drags things along. Not to mention the insidious perfectionist inner critic of ours…
Jungian take on burnout
According the Jungian theory, conflicts arise from a misalignment between the inner and outer life, that is when we live according to the wrong convictions, values.
So can be explained burnout: if we chose an occupation based on wrong reasons (this is the topic for another post) we will gradually start experiencing our job as pointless and robotic. It is the loss of meaning, the loss our sense of self. There are certain personality aspects set fertile grounds for burnout:
Work as the external self-worth resource
Work, besides being a lucrative activity that we enjoy and find meaningful doing, is a platform where we make use of our skills and knowledge to produce a certain outcome. It makes us feel proud, successful and worth. And there is nothing wrong about feeling good about our work-success.
The issue is when work is one’s sole provider of self-worth.
This is risky business as work is an external resource, and depending on any external factor (this can also be a relationship, physical appearance) will eventually enslave us. In other words, when work fails, we feel like a failure and when work succeeds, we feel worthy. Our performance at work is only a part of our selves, which can also be impacted by unforeseeable factors: i.e., our project can fail regardless of our efforts and hard work. Hence, this high correlation eventually bring despair.
The usual suspect perfectionism, praised by many as a great way to thrive, is like a snake in the grass. Perfectionism rejects the limitations of human being; it imprisons the person in an impossible quest of excellence in exchange of a feeling of superiority and omnipotence (usually unconscious to the person). More frequently than not, people with perfectionist aspects tend to be rigid, serious and people-pleasing. In the midst of inexhaustible tasks (including social life) one loses playfulness, creativity and perspective. It is a pretty bad deal singing up for conditional appreciation in exchange of giving up the sweet side of life.
We “do”, we perform until reaching perfection – which is unattainable. Work takes all the space, we can’t relax until all tasks are excellently executed, we get preoccupied with thoughts until late, we cannot let it go, we cannot sleep. So might we be sucked in a vortex.
Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries
Our understanding of the work-life balance has come quite far, yet we can still spot job descriptions seeking candidates that are ready to lose themselves in their jobs. Most probably the “working in a dynamic and fast-paced environment” is appealing to some – who potentially exhibit one of the above points.
In fact, the ability to work under pressure, to be flexible, to go beyond one’s job description when meaningful require a strong capacity to set boundaries. Therefore, a job-personality mismatch can be the recipe for burn out. We all have had that colleague who never said no, and got burnt out. The stakes are high in burnout as the healing process is fairly long – not to mention the internal damage it causes. So, it is actually worthwhile to explore one’s personality with regards to one’s occupation aspirations.
For further Jungian perspective on burnout, check out This Jungian Life Podcast on the topic.
How to navigate?
Listen to that friend who raises concern about your state – of exhaustion, cynicism, isolation. S/he is probably right. Then “undo”, in other words “take a break“, immediately. In Switzerland, general practitioners are well-informed about the burnout symptoms, as well as its consequences on your overall health. Bound by medical ethics, they will (should) prioritise your health and give you the best advice – usually they insist on the person taking a sick leave.
It is not a pleasant situation to admit that one needs to take a break from work, there are feelings of guilt and worthlessness that arise, among others. That’s the part to look deeper into, and there are various ways for that: journaling, drawing, well obviously therapy…
Rest assured, burnout is also a business case, meaning that it has significant economic consequences on the employer or the unemployment office (hence the economy in general). It is best to fight with your inner critic, and make sure to take that break ASAP.
Like all predicament, burnout can also lead you to grow self-awareness. From the ashes new life emerges. With the right help you can draw the hidden gems of a dark period.