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Stuff that matters - at least for me.

Burnout Is Real

Yes, it’s true. Debating about semantics like “it’s not in the ICD-10” is not helpful.

Disclaimer: I am no psychologist or psychiatrist. All of the following things are conclusions based on personal experience.

Let’s go through some myths:

Myth 1: Burnout does not exist

WRONG. As of now, the word “burnout” is a fashionable description of various syndroms footing in troubles all around work, recognition and work-life balance.

But: At the root of a so-called “burnout” is usually a multi-faceted depression syndrome. Just because there’s not standardization there is no accounting for a common word describing a well-known and ill-felt phenomenon.

Problem: While in a lot of states receiving psychological support is slowly being accepted, depression still has a lot of social stigmata and misunderstandings attached which keeps people suffering from depression from searching much needed help. And while calling it something else might superficially lift the stigma, in reality it does not. The next paragraphs will deal a lot with ways that burnout is being marginalized, scoffed at and reduced to one dimension.

Myth 2: Depression (or burnout) is mainly self-inflicted

WRONG. That’s about as smart as saying that cancer is self-inflicted. There might be factors that can be influenced by yourself, but not everything can be controlled just by say-so.

Problem: As long as this prejudice exists, people suffering from depressions/burnout are less likely to search help, but will feel like it is their fault alone, thus adding to the depression. A very dangerous vicious cycle!

Myth 3: People suffering from burnout can just work a little less to avoid it

WRONG. As with every depression or serious clinical behavioural state, the root of a depression and the immediate triggers are usually not the same. And the roots can be many, like missing respect or recognition, an overwhelming yet often blown out of proportions feeling of responsibility for co-workers, projects and the success of the whole company,

Problem: A sudden drop of workload will grow the depression. You will feel worthless and not up to the tasks she is responsible for. This will be reinforced by superficial acknowledgment of a “problem” by the colleagues paired with misunderstandings, thus forcing the depression into a new down.

Myth 4: Only managers/politicians/IT workers can suffer from burnout

WRONG. Depression is more likely to be detected and taken seriously in certain social circles. This does not mean that the rest of the world is free of it - just that it usually does not receive the treatment necessary.

Problem: See above. Not treating a depression does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. It’s just an elaborate form of denial.

Myth 5: If you suffer from burnout, you hate your job, and just have to find one you love doing

WRONG, WRONG, WRONG. Especially if you are very good at what you are doing for a living and feel responsible for every teensy bit of it, you are most likely to carry on during your free time, evenings and weekends alike. Not being able to find a healthy work/life balance is often key to a depression where you feel undervalued and misunderstood along with the strong feeling of being inadequate.

Problem: In our working world it is envied to be able to do what you love to do for a living. So, young programmers create software all day at work, only to do the same over night and in the weekend. Even if that satisfies them they will come to a point when they feel either their success at work or their success at their private projects is lacking, thus preparing the grounds for a depression. Unproven, but seen from personal experience: if you dislike most aspects of a job you are doing, it is easier to divide work from the rest of your life, and thus avoid a lot of depressing thoughts, a la: “it doesn’t work as well as it could? Hard luck, I’m not going to dive in and fix it.”

Myth 6: Everyone’s a burnout candidate - you can’t avoid it

WRONG: A short half-truth. Yes, in the “right” setting, almost everyone will at one point feel struck down and totally overwhelmed. If they are in a responsible work relationship and their managers/bosses/employers/whatever see the problem early enough, plans can be made to manage the workload.

Problem: Especially in customer-faced complex work or self-employment, the necessary screening via superiors is ofttimes missing - same with unexperienced managers etc. It needs a lot of understanding and awareness. If this can be achieved, a burnout can ofttimes be avoided.

Myth 7: Burnout is just a result of bad time management

WRONG: Bad time management, either brought on by yourself or your organization/boss/… is never the solitary cause of a depression. Yes, it can contribute to it, but only changing how the workload can be managed in a timely fashion rarely does change feelings about inadequacy and underappreciation.

Problem: Time management seminars and books have found a new lever: burnout as the evil witch to be burnt at the stake with better time management as the fuel. This can work in some cases and will not work in most. It will, however, smoothen any process towards a healthier work/life balance.

So, what to do?

There is not one single working recipe. There are a lot of things that can help, though.

For managers, it helps to watch your employees and help them to balance their workload. If you are building a business, having sustainable pace is more important than getting the stuff out right now.

For co-workers: try to not get too involved. Offer help if there is obvious signs like listlessness or stalling - but only take on what does not burden yourself. Sharing work is often a good start and helps both, reciprocating on that might turn into a blessed circle. Just be aware of your own work/life balance and don’t get burdened with responsibility for others overly much. It’s a really narrow path to walk, be aware.

For affected: lighten the work load, but find something else to put your energy into (dancing, hiking, biking, gym, …). Go seek professional help. And don’t listen to people that tell you that it’s “just” …anything. It’s never “just” an imagination, “just” working too much, “just” bad time management … it’s about the way you feel about yourself, towards others and your responsibilities. Maybe your coping mechanisms are not up to the task, but that can be trained as well as any other thing.

Don’t be disheartened. I won’t say your path is trivial and easy, because it’s not. And you will not necessarily become stronger by the experience. But you might become wiser after living through it.