I am trained as a psychiatrist, therapist, brain researcher and executive coach, so when I think of the current battle to beat burnout, I am struck by how the current discourse goes against much of my training and experience. Research reveals that one out of four people globally are still burned out, despite companies providing yoga, meditation app subscriptions and well-being days. These individual-level interventions do not address the causes of burnout, such as the feeling of always being on call, unfair treatment, unreasonable workload, low autonomy and lack of social support. While all of these are credible contributions to burnout, they (and all of the solutions) miss out on one key aspect of psychological development: agency.
Many studies on the efficacy of psychological interventions emphasize how important it is to stimulate agency in the client. One study indicated that agency is a key factor to focus on if you want to see improvement.
Agency is compromised by externalizing the cause of your burnout and powerlessness. Marion Oliner, a psychoanalyst, framed this idea poignantly in “An Essay on Bion’s Beta Function,” in The Psychoanalytic Review, when she pointed out that certain people are unable to assess the role of their inner worlds in the disturbances for which they seek help because they believe that symptoms are caused by external factors, rather than intrapsychic conflicts. In other words, how we experience difficult circumstances has much to do with our own minds, yet we often neglect to look within.
Burnout requires you to examine yourself deeply. To help employees do this, run programs that help employees examine what they might be avoiding. Conflict? The challenge of expressing their own greatness and fear of success?
Secondly, agency comes from strong self-connection, and in the brain, the default mode network (DMN), a collection of brain regions that “talk” to each other, allows us to understand our physical and abstract selves. This network turns off when we focus, and it turns on when we stop focusing. You’ll often hear people who are burned out say that they have no time to take regular breaks. This essentially means that they have no time to connect with themselves. And this is a formula for burnout.
At Reulay, the virtual reality company at which I am chief medical officer, we are spearheading a downshifting movement. Any person interested in decreasing burnout must build a culture of regular downshifting. If you just leave it up to employees, they will not downshift.
Downshifting itself takes energy. The DMN uses 20% of the body’s incoming energy. It helps to put puzzle pieces together so that you feel energized by the finer details of who you are. Without these details, you’re not human. You’re a LinkedIn profile without a heart or soul. Burnout comes from this version of yourself.
When I run programs on burnout, I now focus on helping people activate a sense of agency. Without this, life is a choiceless domain in which you are endlessly waiting for a solution until you die. I recommend being a self- activist. It’s much more empowering than trying to change others. The fire in you is meant to ignite your greatest power, but only you can turn it on.