How to Defeat Burnout Syndrome Before It Kills Your Passions

Nearly everyone who puts him or herself on the road to burnout syndrome does it because it’s what we’ve been taught to do with our lives.

Burnout Syndrome

Welcome to Throwback Thursday, where we take a look at a past Agile Lifestyle feature that’s still as timely and relevant as ever. This article has been completely updated with the latest research and information.

When the psychological cost of adapting to change is too high, we cling to the Herd.
We stop thinking for ourselves.

And we accept the life scripts that others have written for us.

We begin to believe that working 70 or 80 hour weeks will put us on the path to success. We get frustrated when success never arrives, because spending is the ultimate bridge-to-nowhere.

The burnout lifestyle is more likely to cause chronic illness and alienation from our friends and family than any lasting success or fulfillment.

Whenever anyone suggests moving off the path of burnout, the status quo defenders step in to protect the unsustainable lifestyles we lead.

They say things like:

They’re wrong.

The negative attitude towards change, even good change, means more burnout for everyone.

More irritability, more depression, and more people trapped in thankless jobs, leading unfulfilled lives.

More burnout means everyone loses.

Why the Burnout Society Gets Nothing Done

We all seem to agree that healthcare, education, and infrastructure in the United States are a mess. Yet no meaningful progress happens.

We can’t muster the collective willpower to change course, even as American kids fall behind the rest of the world in math, science, and yes, even English language.

And tens of thousands die prematurely due to preventable causes like heart disease and lung cancer.

And bridges and roads crumble.

We can’t step up to face big challenges if we all become a nation of burnouts.

Burnout syndrome is working 70 to 80 hour weeks to fill our oversized homes with mass-produced junk.

Burnout syndrome is gradually selling off your energy and integrity for decades until you have nothing left with which to do great work.

Burnout syndrome is killing yourself with stress and lack of sleep, believing you will magically be healthy enough to enjoy your retirement (if you ever retire at all).

The burnout lifestyle doesn’t work on an individual level or a societal level.

You get home too burned out to even think about volunteering at a non-profit. Or putting your expertise to work solving big problems. Hell, you can’t even put your life in order, how can you help anyone else?

Weekends pass in a blur as you run all the errands that you couldn’t get to while you were chained to your desk for ten hours a day.

Burnout on a nationwide level leads to a society that’s too tired and depressed to get anything meaningful done.

It’s so much easier to turn on the TV and veg out.

The 3 Kinds of Burnout

We know that job burnout is generally associated with exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness at work. But are there different types of burnout even within the broad umbrella category of burnout syndrome?

According to research published in the February 2014 edition of open-access science journal PLOS ONE, there are three main types of job burnout syndrome.

They are:

The frenetic burnout:

the frenetic employee who works toward success until exhaustion — is most closely related to emotional venting. These individuals might try to cope with their stress by complaining about the organizational hierarchy at work, feeling as though it imposes limits on their goals and ambitions. That coping strategy, unsurprisingly, seems to lead to a stress overload and a tendency to throw in the towel.

The under-challenged burnout:

Burnout that stems from boredom and lack of personal development, on the other hand, is most closely associated with an avoidance coping strategy. These under-challenged workers tend to manage stress by distancing themselves from work, a strategy that leads to depersonalization and cynicism — a harbinger for burning out and packing up shop.

The worn-out burnout:

The ‘worn-out’ type gives up when faced with stress or the absence of gratification and shows lack of control, lack of acknowledgement and neglect.

Hat-tip: 99u via Association for Psychological Science via PLOS ONE

The research team identified overload, lack of development, and neglect as the three factors that influenced the three sub-types most strongly. Each type of burnout personality experiences overload, lack of development, and neglect to varying degrees, but you can think of the relationship between the burnout personality types and the dimensions as who suffers most from what:

Frenetic → Overload
Under-challenged → Lack of development
Worn-out → Neglect

If you’re trying to diagnose what kind of burnout you have, you have to start with the symptoms.

  • Are you being asked to do more and more with less and less? Are you risking your health and well-being to get results at work? Then you are probably a frenetic burnout type.
  • Has your personal growth stalled because you’ve stopped gaining new skills? Are you turning into the office cynic? Then you are probably under-challenged.
  • Are you hiding from your boss and your colleagues, hoping they don’t ask for the work that you owe them? Are you giving up more often and more quickly? Then you are probably worn-out.

Step one is diagnosing the problem. Step two is deciding whether you can salvage the situation (possibly by fighting for more autonomy, mastery, and purpose at work) or whether you should quit your job entirely.

It’s not easy confronting the truth of how we work today.

It’s easy to ignore the signs of burnout until it’s too late.

Our psychopathic organizations put their continued profitability ahead of the safety and well-being of their employees and customers. Bad bosses are still rampant. Wholesale corporate culture change is happening, but too slowly for many of us trapped in ineffective, rigid, and dehumanizing organizations.

The bright side is that it’s easier now than ever to create a second stream of income, generate startup ideas, and start a business with no money. Take that first step before you’re forced to by layoffs, disruption, or burnout.

You are your only security.

The Essential Steps to Avoid Burnout

The truth is the Herd has a vested interest in keeping you distracted. The people who exercise power over the Herd are interested in maintaining the status quo. Above all else, no matter who it harms, the Herd will keep everyone in line.

Even if the line is leading you off a cliff.

The good news is there are steps you can take the moment you start to see burnout syndrome symptoms in your life.

1. Guard your time.

The best way to prevent burnout is to say no. Jealously guard your time, because no one else will do it for you. As Chris Guillebeau says, people will take over your life if you let them. It starts with them taking over your time, minute by minute, and ends with you as a burned out husk of your former self.

Don’t let it happen.

2. Challenge the Herd.

If you point out poverty and income disparity is getting worse, they call you a redistributionist or socialist. If you call attention to the problems in healthcare, they accuse you of advocating for nationalized medicine. If you say education is failing kids, they agree with you while cutting the budgets of public schools.

It takes guts, but you have to remember that you can always opt out. That means recognizing there are problems to be solved and fights worth waging, even when everyone else wants you to shut up and watch more TV.

3. Remember your passions.

Whatever your dreams are, start taking them very, very seriously.

- Barbara Sher

Sometimes, it’s not enough to guard your time. Playing defense for so long, you may forget why you were conserving time and energy in the first place. Maybe it was to create art. Or start a business. Or build products. Or spend more time caring for your family and friends.

Whatever animates and invigorates you, hold onto it. Don’t let mind-numbing drudgery kill your passions.

4. Live your life the way you want to.

No one gets to live your life but you. Self-fulfillment is the one true measure of success — not money, fame, or power. Measuring your life’s worth against other people’s superficial success is poisonous.

An agile person recognizes the game of life is always changing. Today’s millionaire is tomorrow’s bailout case.

Don’t stop learning. Don’t stop growing. But everything else is up to you.

The Promise of Agility

The promise of agile living is that we can all win back the time and energy we recklessly sold away. We can still do great things, but it means attacking the burnout syndrome symptoms before they happen. Don’t spend more than half of your waking life upset, angry, and irritated.

Go make meaning instead.

A version of this article first appeared on May 8, 2012.

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