Reflection on burnout
What brought me to writing this?
Quite a while ago now I watched a documentary on TV about burnout (in Swiss German and subject to geo-blocking), which has stuck in my mind ever since. It’s not my intention to describe burnout in detail, I’m not a health professional, but to reflect on the implications for us as career professionals.
Dr. Niklas Baer, who manages WorkMed, a support centre for psychological support in the workplace, explains in the documentary that burnout, while very real, is a trivialising expression of what is really going on, the psychological problems the individual is struggling with. These can consist of fear and anxiety, stress, extreme sense of duty, perfectionism, overworking linked to a permanency of these feelings and conditions, etc… The potential list is long. This are the inner ingredients for burnout. When this is combined with pressures from outside, then ‘burnout’ can follow.
What made me think more about this…
The documentary goes on to explain that burnout is not just one experience, it can vary a lot between individuals in what the underlying conditions are that can lead on to burnout, the situation in which it presents itself and the way in which people deal with burnout and its aftermath. The documentary presented three case studies of people who suffered burnout.
The effect of burnout can be long because of the extreme sense of duty some people feel for instance. They go to back to work too soon, often with the help of medication, but the underlying situation is not fully resolved. This can then in turn lead on to (further) illness and job loss. Burnout is only the symptom of the underlying issues and employers have a role to play. From that, we as career professionals can benefit from knowing more about what burnout is and the multi-faceted effect it has on the client.
One participant described it as follows: “I’m on fire for the work I do, but when the fire gets too strong it burns me out”. The key is to use that fire for your work and the energy it creates in an efficient and productive way; to find a balance.
In the documentary, it’s made clear that burnout specifically happens when the build-up to it is constant, and the individual doesn’t have the opportunity to recover or they don’t have the resources to handle the situation through no fault of their own. The underlying conditions then often resolve themselves in one dramatic event: a breakdown or eruption. This can take the shape of existential fear and anxiety, anger and stress, and generally an inability to continue working or coping. It’s a breakdown in the individual’s mental context in combination with external pressures; a mixture of their way of being or values, of having to keep going, taking too much upon oneself out of anxiety, a pressing sense of duty, of being extremely hardworking, which can stem from them liking their work ‘too much’ and being extremely invested, and then becoming completely overwhelmed. In other words, the mechanics of ‘burnout’ could be boiled down to feeling tremendous internal pressure and not having the resources to cope during a time of increasing external pressures or an external ‘trigger’ event. This can result in depression, insomnia and other longer-term effects, or what we call by the shorthand term: burnout.
The process of burnout as deduced from the documentary:
Responses to burnout
How the employer responds is crucial, both as a preventative measure, but also as a restorative response for the individual. This is a key point in Baer’s argument. Employers often don’t respond ‘when things are not right with someone’, or they respond too late. The three case studies in the documentary show that negative situations prior to burnout, such as unfounded accusations, overwhelming (for the individual) expectations, a mismatch between employee and employer, can be examples of direct causes that can a trigger event for a longer term build-up of tension to lead to this sudden breakdown or burnout.
As a consequence of burnout, the three people followed in the documentary experienced insomnia (two mention they slept only one or two hours a night), crying, depression, feelings of isolation and helplessness etc… Subsequent consequences in their place of work, if they are capable of going to work in the first place, resulted in either job loss or them having to leave their job off their own accord.
Niklas Baer goes on to say that the root to burnout is often found in the person’s childhood and that it’s important for employers (and us?) to notice the signs early. This happens long before the signs are very obvious, such as increased absenteeism or the person not appearing to cope, but can often be found in inconsistencies in interpersonal behaviour, which should be taken seriously. Obviously, my remark would be that it’s also important not to ‘over-interpret’ but to be vigilant as we are not medial professionals. We should at all times be aware of the boundaries of what we can and can’t do. In one of the case studies, the longer term build up to burnout and ongoing difficulties maintaining a job, were founded in an undiagnosed bipolar condition and in another in an sense of responsibility that grew out of proportion, with a shocking outcome as a result, followed by a trigger event. The third person had underlying interpersonal and anger issues.
It’s important to look less of what the person has and more about how they cope with what they have, which resources they bring.
There is also a stigma linked to mental health and burnout which has long term effects. The documentary makers claim that one in 5 people has underlying psychological challenges (they claim 1 in 5 mental illness) in the workplace. This is not always apparent, they claim in the documentary, which means that many people function well in the workplace in spite of this. Even though this may be the case, I would argue that maybe some of these people are trying to cope the best they can while really struggling, in a situation where they feel they can’t afford to lose their job. However, as Baer states, it’s how a person handles their underlying condition that makes the difference. He argues that the level of resources the individual takes to the workplace, and the career intervention, is crucial, not how ill a person is.
Baer argues that burnout is not a separate illness. It’s mainly a crisis after being in a difficult situation that gets even more difficult. It’s far more complex than the name suggests. It’s also more than a moment in time, i.e.: the moment the burnout event occurs. It has a build up long before the event and has consequences long after the event as well. In the programme they claim that on average, it takes 6 months for someone suffering from burnout to re-enter the world of work. There is also no quick solution.
This is an adaptation from Baer’s work. According bot Baer, employers needlessly worry or reject people who are perfectly able to cope in the workplace, in spite of sometimes serious mental illness. The people to ‘worry about’ in the workplace are those who fall in the yellow box at the bottom:
What tools can we use to help clients (within our limits)?
Apart from the fact that the professionals I watched in the documentary have a very different idea of how to set up a room (maybe due to Covid?) and the client being entitled to 35 (!!) appointments, the first of which is comparable to the NCS in England, the latter unfortunately not so much, there are some tools we can use.
- One technique mentioned was to regulate anxiety. The therapist used ‘finger breathing’, which was different from five finger breathing. This technique showed the client bringing their finger tops of both hands together almost in an open praying position or like Angela Merkel (maybe she was quietly using this technique when she had to talk to ‘more interesting’ politicians our world seems to have an abundance of at the moment!) and then moving both hands in and out in a breathing motion. I think this will also regulate your actual breathing, but it can be discreet and the purpose of the hands is that it distracts the client and offers focus, like any breathing technique.
- Another suggestion I found interesting was, and it all comes down to regulating anxiety, by finding out what the client’s ‘entry route’ was, linked to the five senses. Whatever their preferred ‘entry route’ they could then use a smell, a sound/song, a taste, a sensation, etc… either imagined or real, to take themselves away from the anxiety they are feeling.
- Contact with nature was also mentioned as a technique that links in with the above.
- Exploring underlying assumptions and values would be very powerful as well, but that is where I would feel I would need to bring enough awareness to the session, so I don’t drift beyond my abilities and drift into counselling or psychotherapy.
- A given is to explore the client’s coping strategies linked to their work and I can see a narrative approach working well here.
Some of these techniques are well known, or adaptations of well-known techniques, but I find it useful to be explicit about them and linking them to this issue.
What I took away from this and why it ‘stuck’ for so long.
While this is all very interesting and partly relevant for us in career guidance, I started thinking more widely than that and how we can sometimes, without even realising, make assumptions about how someone may be coping, what they may or may not be capable of, etc…
This is not necessarily our fault. It stems from our own context we bring to any intervention and what we know about any given condition. It’s also part of the process of ‘finding out’, learning about the client and ‘being with’ the client. We go with whatever information or assumptions we have at the start of getting to know the client and then we interact with the client to get a more detailed picture about their specific situation, feelings, implications etc… to be able to support them in the best way possible. This is why I reflected on all of the documentary because it gives me more context and helps me avoid assumptions that are too broad, or in the worst case completely wrong.
In addition to that, I feel that what Baer is talking about, his suggestion of how we can perceive burnout, can also be applied to lots of other situations, conditions and client contexts: whatever a client takes into a career choice or job (personality traits, neurodiversity, mental illness, disabilities, etc…) matters less than the resources they bring with them to cope in any given career context. If a person is able to do a job well, and they have the resources to manage what they bring into the workplace, this should not stop an employer from recruiting them.
I also ‘re-realised’ that Internal challenges, thought patterns or behaviour patterns that are not always helpful internally for the individual, or that not always fit in with the job, bring a context from which we grow. For me, it provides me with that dialectic process of encounter and challenge which brings something new to both my work and my personality from which I become somewhat a changed or new person. It’s a process of renewal and of learning, but also of creating and developing new resources, as long as I approach it with awareness and as long as the challenge in addition to the internal personality traits I bring to the situation are not such that they lead to burnout.
- Die Burnout-Gesellschaft.(2022). Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen – SRF. 27 January
- Baer, N. n.d., “Psychiatrische Probleme am Arbeitsplatz.” https://slideplayer.org/slide/14352596/, [accessed 13 March 2022], Slide 12 and 13.
- https://www.srf.ch/play/suche?query=burnout (in Swiss German – possibly subject to geo-blocking)