In David Whyte’s poem “Sweet Darkness,” he writes, “When your eyes are tired / The world is tired also. / When your vision has gone / no part of the world can find you.”
These powerful words capture the experience of no longer feeling connected to all that was important to us. For the most part, people who burn out due to unmanageable work-related stress find themselves without the passion to learn. When this desire is lost, nothing is created, and nothing can be shared. Everything seems to come to a screeching halt, but their minds race on in a tempestuous furry of regrets (Why didn’t I say something?), fear (What will happen to me?) and guilt (What will they do without me?).
Just this May, the World Health Organization included burnout as an “occupational phenomenon” in the 11th revision of the International Classification of Diseases. Although burnout has not yet been classified as a mental illness or a medical condition, it has been linked to indicators of ill health and depression. The sheer volume of data on burnout rates is a sure sign that academic researchers and government officials are paying attention.
Can One Burn on Without Burning out?
It is not unusual to walk into a corporate environment and notice the “busyness.” On the surface, everyone is working with steadfast determination to meet corporate objectives even in the presence of unsurmountable demands on their time, tight deadlines and an endless list of things they must do before the weekend. But, are they at the cusp of a burnout?
Research suggests that certain psychosocial factors increase the risk of burnout: emotional exhaustion, a sense of depersonalization and cynicism when it comes to work, and a perception of reduced personal accomplishment and professional efficacy. It is not known, however whether experiencing cognitive distance from one’s job over time leads to mental exhaustion, which then decreases the ability to experience a sense of professional efficacy. Perhaps it is a shift in one’s perception of professional efficacy as a result of contentions work-related situations that leads to energy depletion and cognitive distancing from work.
Although we have not yet established the causality, we can surmise that the presence of all three factors tips the scale from being a contributing and thriving member of an organization to becoming disconnected from everything that once gave the person a sense of accomplishment and connection.
The Role of Psychological Flexibility in Preventing Burnout
Empirical models such as the job demands-resources model consider the balance of demand with resources in reducing the risk of burnout. This model posits that on-the-job resources may buffer the impact of job demands so that employees can continue to “burn-on” without experiencing burnout. Such resources may include support that minimizes workload, access to personal growth and development opportunities, and direct assistance in achieving work-related goals.
It’s critical for us, as managers and human resources (HR) leaders, to pay attention to the ratio of demands versus resources, but this action may not be sufficient. We are, indeed, central to any approach aimed at preventing burnout; for instance, you may engage your team in redistributing the workload, provide leadership training workshops or even add one more staff member to ensure that you meet department objectives. However, some employees may still feel they cannot keep up, think they are wasting their time by attending the training workshops or continue to complain that objectives are still unrealistic. They may need to strengthen their psychological flexibility so that even in the presence of unrelenting demands, they can continue to burn-on and not burnout.
Psychological flexibility, a concept central to acceptance commitment therapy, refers to the act of noticing how we can bring our behaviors in alignment with who and what matters most to us. We can train our minds to focus on the present moment and to notice whether we should maintain or change our behaviors in service of what we value most.
Mindfulness meditation is one intervention that strengthens our psychological flexibility by sharpening our ability to notice what is happening to us without passing judgement. With practice, we learn how not to struggle with persistent unwanted thoughts, such as not being good enough, fast enough or smart enough, and over time, we may notice our sense of professional efficacy growing and solidifying. As a result, we are able to make decisions that align with what is important to us.
Another benefit of consistent practice is the broadening of our perspective of how to deal with the challenges that we perceive as creating obstacles to our work. As we strengthen our focus on what matters most, we become better equipped to notice a difficult emotion, such as anxiety, without becoming “hooked” by it. We are hooked by internal states (emotions or thoughts) when we notice ourselves engaging in behaviors that move us away from what we would have wanted to do instead. Since the brain is structured to protect us, the more we focus on these painful internal experiences, the bigger and more pronounced they become, which inevitably increases the risk of experiencing all three factors associated with burnout.
We know enough today about the impact of mindfulness-based interventions in the treatment of several disorders and the maintenance of well-being to suggest that they can help us realize when our state of burn-on may lead to a state of burnout.
It is fitting to end with the last few lines from “Sweet Darkness” that capture the essence of choice and the power that comes from knowing you can choose to shape your live according to what truly matters to you: “Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet / confinement of your aloneness / to learn / anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”