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Being A High Achiever Is A Risk Factor For Burnout

"Burnout" can be a misleading term, and it shows up in conversations regularly. Have you heard this from friends or family or thought about it yourself?

So, what exactly is this malaise that seems to be so common?

Burnout is about more than just being tired. It's about getting stuck at the halfway point in the cycle where there is only exertion and no recovery, and it's about being tired and lacking the resources to recharge.

One illustration I can give is for you to try this: Make a fist as tight as possible. Now hold that for a few hours. How will your hand feel afterward? Can you use it to get much done? Probably not. You may find that you can no longer make the fist after a certain period. Or, you may feel like your hand locks up and you can't release it. So even though you've let off the pressure, your hand still won't function. Burnout is a similar experience.

Others have described burnout as "compassion fatigue" or the inability to care anymore. When you think about the number of things calling for your attention and "care," that fatigue makes sense. We similarly know that "decision fatigue" affects those who have to make lots of decisions, so it only makes sense that those who care about a lot of things could experience similar compassion fatigue. And that fatigue can express itself in a variety of ways. For instance, I suspect the anger was an example of me running out of the ability to care, no longer motivated by positive emotional states like compassion and empathy. Instead, I relied on anger as a source of energy for getting things done.

Think of burnout as facing ongoing and increasing demands with decreasing resources until those resources are so depleted that the system stops functioning. The world needs you to keep working and do so in a healthy way. People who experience burnout are givers. So, to avoid burnout, you have to learn to give to yourself as well. Then you can be at your most effective when you give to others.

The World Health Organization focuses on burnout as an "occupational phenomenon" rather than a medical condition, though it can influence a person's health. According to the WHO:

Burnout is a symptom of chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. Three dimensions characterize it.

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

  • increased mental distance from one's job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's career, and

  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

While the WHO may emphasize that burnout is primarily work-related, I'm interested in how it impacts people's personal lives. For me, it's hard to draw a firm dividing line between my personal life and my professional life. When one is doing well, I experience the benefits of that in the other. And in the case of burnout, the opposite is true as well – when one is overtaxed, it impacts the other. So that's why our work together here is so important. We truly have only one life.

Maybe it's silly to title a chapter on what burnout is since, honestly, no one has ever asked me what burnout is. So many of us feel like we experience it. We know intuitively that something is wrong. We need to treat it, or better yet, prevent it.

What is the cost of burnout?

Burnout creates "waste" in individuals, organizations, and families because of the potential contributions it steals from all these groups. Who pays that price? You and those you care about.

Wasted resources aren't the only cost. The consequences of burnout can be numerous. Mayo Clinic and the Maslach Burnout Inventory suggest this list of problems related to job burnout:

  • Excessive stress

  • Fatigue

  • Insomnia

  • Sadness, anger, or irritability

  • Alcohol or substance misuse

  • Heart disease

  • Type two diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Vulnerability to illnesses

  • Inability to regulate negative emotions

Who experiences it?

Some of the most troubling discussions around burnout have involved physicians, which has been labeled "a public health crisis" because of its impact on both individual physicians' mental health and, by implication, the well-being of all those they treat as patients. Nearly half of all physicians report some form of burnout.

Anyone in a "caring profession" or "service profession" is at risk, and that includes ministers, teachers, counselors, healthcare workers, social service workers, firefighters, police, emergency medical services, and the list goes on and on. Given the rise of customer service measurements for those in business, anyone in sales or management can also experience the factors of burnout. It does not matter what profession – administrators, nonprofit leaders, CEOs, middle managers, executives – or industry. If you feel responsible for your work product and those affected by it, you may be a candidate for burnout.

If you put in long hours, no matter how well compensated, you still feel high demands, and you want to meet or exceed goals or expectations. You have a particular pride in your work. Layer in the needs of being a parent, spouse, caregiver to aging parents, community volunteer, whatever else you have going on in your life, and it is no surprise that burnout occurs.

Burnout scenarios are everywhere.

  • Consider the lawyer who already works over 60 hours per week and often needs to do work on weekends as well to keep up. This professional goes to annual reviews with the firm where the message is not "thank you for your hours," but rather "how can you give us more hours and increase the firm's income?"

  • Consider doctors who previously had help with record-keeping and transcription of their notes. Now, these highly trained professionals are expected to keep detailed records and treat patients, so they put in an additional one or two hours a day with electronic medical records and their long hours of patient care. Plus, there doesn't appear to be any relief soon.

  • Consider the increased pressures felt by university administrators as their schools become more and more dependent on tuition at a time when the college-going population of traditional students is shrinking. These administrators can't control generational birthrates or swings in the economy that impact families' ability to afford college, yet they are still accountable for filling programs with successful students.

The consistent message high achievers receive:

  • Do more.

  • Do it faster.

  • And use fewer resources.

That external pressure is tremendous, and it is made even more intense by the internal drivers of those who push themselves to work hard.

Perhaps you take pride in over-delivering. At one time, that deep passion and commitment to results was a superpower – but now it has become your kryptonite that can lead to burnout.

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