It’s true that organizations can contribute to our burnout. Unrealistic expectations, unreasonable deadlines, and lack of support create conditions that encourage burnout. But, at the end of the day, it’s up to us individually to make the life choices that either lead to our safety from burnout or allow us to travel down that road. This may be an unpopular thought, since it means that we must accept responsibility for our burnout, but it is a perspective that makes sense if you look at burnout holistically.
Burnout is characterized by exhaustion, cynicism, and a lack of personal efficacy. We believe the lack of personal efficacy is causal for burnout. Exhaustion and cynicism are simply the results of believing that you’re not effective. Exhaustion because you never believe that you can do enough, and cynicism because of the resulting frustration.
The important aspect to note in the burnout definition is that it contains no reference to work, job, or occupation. The connection doesn’t exist in the original literature on the condition. The title of Herbert Freudenberger’s landmark book, Burn-out: The High Cost of High Achievement, seems to imply work – but there’s no support for this in the text. The reality is that you can burn out from anything that you care about.
The real clarity that burnout isn’t your organization’s fault comes when you recognize that burnout can come from other areas of your life. Burnout can come from your family life, when your children aren’t growing up into the people that you taught them to be. You can feel powerless, hopeless, exhausted, cynical, and ineffective when they’re not making the choices you expect them to make.
You can be burned out on your friendships. You may feel like they’re always a one-way street, as you’re there for your friends in their time of need, but no one seems to be there to support you when you need it. It’s easy to wonder how much energy to expend on friendships if you don’t feel like your friends have your back.
In these situations, the organization that you work for is nowhere to be found. It’s not imposing a standard of children going to college. It’s not persuading your friends not to help you. It may accept the performance impacts of these issues, but it’s not causal to the burnout happening.
What organizations can do – and should do – is help employees learn how to be fire-retardant in their lives. That is, organizations should make it easier to avoid and recover from burnout. Like fire-retardant materials, these skills and structures don’t prevent the fire but instead prevent its spread.
Situations will occur that lead to burnout. A client will need something on an unreasonable deadline. In the struggle to survive, organizations will have high expectations for employees. However, the status quo should be supportive, accepting, and encouraging. Fire-retardant materials are rated for how long they can survive the fire. People, too, can develop the skills necessary to withstand burnout-causing conditions for longer – and more intense – situations.
The Organization’s Role
Organizations can absolutely contribute to increasing burnout – and, unfortunately, many do. They can also be responsible for creating relative safety from burnout in people’s lives. They can do this by reducing the factors that lead to burnout in the organization. Improving recognition so employees know they’re effective and ensuring adequate support are two direct ways of reducing the chances of burnout due to work.
By improving knowledge of what burnout is and how employees can combat it themselves in their own lives, organizations can help every employee discourage burnout in their lives – not just their professional life.