On the Burnout Treadmill

The alarm rings, and you want to tap snooze again.  Instead, you turn it off and stumble towards the bathroom.  It is another weekday, and the same routine repeats itself.  It doesn’t feel like you’re getting anywhere.  It’s like you’re walking up the down escalator or like you’re stuck on the treadmill of life.  It’s exhausting, and it feels like you’re becoming burned out.  Short of pulling the fire handle when you get to work, what can you do?

Gradual Changes

In your own children, it’s hard to see growth.  The changes happen slowly over the course of years.  While, at some level, you’re aware that they’re growing, on another level, it doesn’t seem like they’re changing at all.  The change is happening but very gradually.  We’re all bad at seeing slow changes.  Children and trees never seem to grow.  Our memories silently and subtly adjust our previous perceptions until the way they are today is the way they always were.

If, however, you go to visit a friend in another city and their children, the change isn’t so subtle.  Their children may have grown inches or feet since you saw them last, and the change is striking.  Visit an old home, and the sapling you planted may have grown to have a tire swing hanging from it.

One of the challenges that keeps us trapped on the treadmill is failing to recognize the small changes that are real – but imperceptible until you focus your interest on them.

Nothing Ever Happens

On the treadmill of life, it feels like things don’t change.  It’s like Groundhog’s Day every day with the same breakfast, drive, and endless string of tasks to be done.  It’s too easy to discount the changes that are happening because they don’t seem permanent.  Sure, you got to go to do something different or special, but it’s special, so that means it won’t happen again.

If you want surprise, look at the number of things you have done that aren’t the same – that are unique and different – go through the photos on your phone.  Look at the places, parties, and people.  Our brains find it hard to reconnect memories of the exceptions when we’re caught in the day-to-day.  We forget all the experiences we’re getting that prove we’re not doing the same thing all the time.

Stopping the Treadmill

Stopping the treadmill of life so that you feel like you’re accomplishing something isn’t as easy as pressing a stop button, but it can be as easy as looking back through the experiences you’ve had to see what you’ve been able to do and how those experiences have changed you.  If you want to avoid burnout, you must feel effective, and to do that you don’t have to look any further than the pictures on your phone.

Volunteer Fire Department

While today most municipalities have professional, career firefighters, fire departments initially formed as cooperatives of neighbors who wanted to collectively protect themselves from fires.  Many rural fire departments still run on a volunteer basis – as concerned citizens caring for each other.  These brave men and women are committed to helping protect life and property.  While preventing burnout isn’t the same as saving a life or protecting a home, it can be a great assistance to your peers, colleagues, and family.


At the core of the fire department is the concern for your fellow man and an understanding of how fires work.  By learning more about your own burnout and how it can consume you, you become more capable of helping others avoid it – and recover from it.  Forming the volunteer anti-burnout fire department starts with identifying those with the same desire to help others and enough personal experience with burnout recovery that they can share with others – or the training to develop some expertise.

Find those who are concerned about their friends and colleagues lives and assess and develop their skills in burnout prevention like you’d train a set of volunteer firefighters.

The Call Out

In volunteer fire departments, a call goes out for assistance with a fire.  Those who are available to deploy and help do so.  Not every volunteer goes to every event.  With any individual who is reporting burnout, it may take fewer people to help put the fire out, but there tend to be more of them.  They’re more like brush fires than house fires.  The key is that there’s a mechanism in volunteer fire departments to send the message that there’s a need.  In your anti-burnout team, the call may be more subtle and quiet than a radio call sent out to everyone, but having a clear mechanism where people can call upon the team is important.

Also, unlike a fire department, an anti-burnout team shouldn’t be lights and siren blaring to gather everyone’s attention, the response is likely slower and much more subdued.  Because of the nature of burnout, it’s much more like grabbing a hose and helping the homeowner put out their own fire than taking command and control of the situation.

Smoke Detectors and Fire Drills

Many fire departments offer public service announcements to have smoke detectors on every level of your home and ensure that the batteries are changed often.  Your anti-burnout fire department can also offer public service announcements about the signs of burnout – and what can be done to get help or help yourself escape.

Fire departments also help schools and families with small children plan for fire and run drills, so they know what to do when a fire happens.  So, too, can your volunteer anti-burnout fire department have training events, in which people who have had – and recovered from – burnout can share their experience and what it felt like to them.  Knowing what to expect – particularly in a practical way from someone you know – can mean the difference between them being able to escape burnout – and getting stuck.

Why We Made the Extinguish Burnout Course Free

As we touched down in Iceland, our phones blew up.  The world had changed in the few hours that we were on the plane.  The United States was closing its borders, and people had hours to get back.  However, Rob still had a keynote to deliver the next day, and it didn’t apply to citizens, it was only for foreign nationals.  We made the decision to stay and keep our eye on the situation that was being caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Rob gave his keynote, and we proceeded on a mini-vacation around the island country.  It was an amazing trip until the following Thursday.

After a peaceful day in hot springs, an amazing meal with fresh food, and a return to our hotel where the manager had shared the history of the property and some secrets about the surrounding area, we got a call.  It was Rob’s father letting us know that the United States was closing its borders.  Old news, we thought, until we checked and realized the US State Department had issued a global level four warning – DO NOT TRAVEL.  That’s it.  We tapped out and got home.

Meanwhile at home, our eldest daughter, an ER nurse, had gone to work – not to start a shift but as a patient.  She was admitted while we were on our flight home.  Though her COVID-19 test was negative, everyone believes she’s one of the 40% of false negatives that the test produces.  Three weeks later, she’s still not fully recovered, but thankfully she seems to be out of the woods and is anxious to get back to the fight against the virus.

Our son continues to wage war on the virus as a paramedic.  He’s on the streets every day helping stabilize and transport patients to the hospitals.  So far, he has not been physically affected by the virus – though we have no way of knowing if he’s been infected and is just asymptomatic or if he’s managed to avoid being infected thus far.

Terri came back to an request to reduce her hours at one of her clients but also to a new need: to teach long-term care nurse practitioners and nurses how to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in a nursing home.  For about an hour, the thought was that we’d have time on our hands before we were drawn into the fight ourselves.

The world changed.  Whether it was on the flight to or from Iceland doesn’t matter.  It was different.  Our other children were disturbed.  They struggled to learn all they needed with college courses now presented online.  How could they complete labs from home?  How was it possible that there was no toilet paper?  What was going on that there were entire aisles in the stores that were empty?  What happened that people cleaned out the baking supplies?

Terri quickly gained an understanding of how helpless many of our healthcare providers felt.  They were giving their all, but somehow it didn’t feel like enough.  They were afraid for their families and worried for themselves, and suddenly what was best practice changed.

In the clamor of rapid content development, we didn’t see what was happening outside healthcare.  People became idle and therefore ineffective.  Having written Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery, we knew what this would mean just as surely as we knew that people would start hording nearly everything.  Eventually, the reality of inefficacy would convert to feelings of inefficacy and, ultimately, to burnout.

The only additional thing we knew that we could do to mitigate the suffering was to make the Extinguish Burnout course available for free.  There wasn’t much to our conversation.  A few knowing looks and a statement to make the course available to everyone for free for a year.  Rob called our hosting company and let them know they might see a surge of traffic.  We created the code COVID-19 that discounts the course from its normal cost of $99 to free.

While we’re doing other things to fight COVID-19 personally and in the family, we felt like we could get ahead of the curve on burnout and help more people prevent it.  If you want to learn how to prevent burnout – or recover from it if you’re already there – go to https://ExtinguishBurnout.com/get-the-course, press the Buy the Course Now button, and enter the code COVID-19 at checkout.  You won’t need a credit card or anything else.  After you sign up, you’ll have the arsenal of tools that we’ve developed to help you prevent burnout.

Influencing Your Response to Control and Minimizing Burnout

While burnout is classically defined as exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, it’s inefficacy that drives burnout.  When you don’t have control, you can’t feel effective.  So, when you don’t have control, how do you stay out of burnout?

Control as an Absolute

We tend to see things in black and white.  It’s either on or it’s off.  We have control, or we have no control.  However, the truth is that the control we have is always just a degree of influence.  When we have a large degree of influence, we feel as if we’re in control of the situation.  However, there are always forces outside your sphere of influence that may get in the way.

We say that we’re in control of our car while driving.  However, the truth is that patches of ice, snow, or other vehicles may impact our ability to “control” our car.  Most people who’ve driven a boat or plane inherently have a sense for the degree to which they influence the craft – rather than the degree to which they control it.

The first thing we must do when we’re fighting burnout with a lack of control is to recognize that there is no thing called “control.”

Measuring Influence

Once we’ve let go of the illusion of control, we can begin to look at our degree of influence.  We may have a large degree of influence as in the normal case of driving a car and a lesser degree when piloting an airplane or boat.  So, when determining whether we’re effective, we need to assess how much influence we do have – and how much we expect to have.

No one would have expected that Mahatma Gandhi would have led a peaceful revolution.  He had nothing sufficient to draw upon to reach the outcomes that he wanted – however, through his persistence, he accomplished the labor reforms that he sought for the Indian people.  A self-described shy and quiet man accomplished a revolution.  How much influence did he have?  A great deal.  How much should he have had?  Not as much.

When Rosa Parks made the decision in exhaustion to not give up her seat on the bus, she became the flashpoint for a civil rights movement.  Her relationships helped connect her cause with a young, capable orator-preacher by the name of Dr. King, who would use Parks’ citation as a tool to free black Americans from what might be called second slavery.  Did Parks or King singularly have much influence before this event?  Some to be sure, but they were able to create huge influence – but only through perseverance.  Most people have forgotten that the Montgomery Bus boycott lasted 381 days.

What You Can Control

That may seem all well and good for a few isolated historical cases, but what about you and your control of your own burnout?  The answer is in the question.  If you want to prevent burnout while you’re in a situation you have no control over, find the things that you do have control over – and control them.  Influence your thoughts and behaviors in ways that are life-giving to you, and create the opportunities to stand at the moments when history can be made.

You may be thinking that you’re just a nobody.  Someone who can’t make big things happen.  However, everyone above were ordinary people.  They just wanted to go to work and take care of families – until they were moved by a passion.  They harnessed this passion to control what they did, and in doing so created more change and demonstrated more efficacy than anyone could have ever imagined.

Burnout Support in an Age of Diseases

As a society, we’ve become less socially connected than we used to be.  We have Facebook friends, but rarely can we spend face-to-face time with our real friends.  We text, snap, and tweet to each other but fail to tell our innermost fears and secrets – and we fail to touch one another.  Touching one another means more than physical contact. We’ve had to realize that even touching surfaces someone who is infected has touched can infect us.  However, we can “touch” someone without literally coming in contact with them.

The Need for Connection

Humans are created with an inherent need to connect with other humans.  We were designed this way.  We’ve survived this way.  We’ve thrived this way.  Our digital world makes it easier than ever to communicate with others, but somewhere along the line, we’ve confused communication with connection.

Connection is about knowing someone else.  It’s about celebrating them in their triumphs and supporting them in their losses.  We believe that we have thousands of Facebook friends, but far too few know the stories about being bullied as a child or even something as simple as your favorite color or movie.  Knowing other people has become a lost art.

Physical Touch

One of the proxies we use for knowing someone is knowing where they are by sight or touch.  Touch is a powerful tool that helps us feel connection with another person.  We literally share the same heat, and in doing so, we generate warmth between us.  While physical touch alone is not the same as a deep connection, it’s what we often use when we can’t find a connection.

Feeling connected helps us to feel supported – or like we can be supported if we have a need.

Burnout and Support

Burnout may be identified by exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy, but it’s created by a lack of personal agency.  Our personal agency is increased by the results we get (and accept), the support we receive from others, and the self-care we do.  Our tangible results may be hard to change (though we can shift our perceptions of those results).  How we perceive support, however, is much more malleable.

To get to support – someone being willing to do something for you – you must have some degree of connection.  You must have a belief that you know something about the other person – even if all you know is other people saying they’re a good person.  The tricky part comes when we expect that the only connection comes through physical touch – even in something as simple as a handshake or a hug.

Support without Touch

Whether you’re able to touch others on a regular basis through the kinds of social contacts that are culturally appropriate or not, you can form connections and receive support in other ways.  You may have seen people doing elbow bumps to make a safer physical connection.  But more powerfully, you can seek to understand the other person without any sort of touch.

Here are five questions you can ask if you want to develop a better understanding for others, so that you may support them or feel comfortable asking them for support:

  1. What’s your dream vacation?
  2. If you had all the money that you could ever want, what would you do?
  3. If you could leave one mark with your life, what would it be?
  4. What’s your greatest fear?
  5. Who is your favorite hero?

Listening to these questions – and the follow up questions that you ask for clarification – can illuminate who the other person longs to be and will help you understand how your request for support may actually help them fulfil their deepest desires.