I thought I was invincible to burnout. But I soon realized how wrong I was. I thought what I was feeling was temporary, like stress. I didn’t know if I was suffering from a short-spurt of emotions or something more. I burnt out, and I don’t want you to go through that.
This article is meant to help you recognize if you’re burning out; or if you’re already burnt out. In the midst of everything you’ve got going on, burnout can sneak up out of nowhere.
Luckily, science provides us with a framework for identifying the root causes of burnout. I’m going to share this framework with you in this article. I’m also going to share my personal story of burnout to help you see it in action.
What Actually is Burnout?
Dr. Christina Maslach from University of California at Berkeley has devoted a significant chunk of her life studying burnout. Her research led to the creation of the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which provides the framework for identifying burnout.
Essentially, the MBI defines burnout as a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur among individuals who work with other people in some capacity.
Let’s look at each of these in closer detail.
People who are experiencing burnout, either in the beginning stages or otherwise, suffer from emotional exhaustion. This is the feeling of being emotionally overextended, emotionally drained and emotionally overwhelmed by one’s work. Dr. Maslach defines this feeling as no longer being able to give yourself to work or others at a psychological level.
Tangible examples of Emotional Exhaustion:
- Blunted emotions
- Loss of motivation, ideals and ambition
Depersonalization is interesting and a bit frightening. Depersonalization is the development of negative and cynical attitudes towards one’s colleagues and clients. Dr. Maslach claims the development of depersonalization is related to the experience of emotional exhaustion. From my personal experience, I believe this to be true. More on that later.
Tangible examples of Depersonalization:
- Detachment with one’s clients and colleagues
- Feelings of anger towards one’s clients and colleagues
Reduced Personal Accomplishment
Reduced Personal Accomplishment in burnout is the development of negative feelings towards oneself. This looks like poor self-esteem, low self-efficacy, and an overall negative perception of your abilities. In spite of accomplishments on the job, you’re still dissatisfied with your performance.
Tangible examples of Reduced Personal Accomplishment:
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Decreased self-confidence related to one’s ability to perform
The difference between stress and burnout is that burnout is a chronic condition. While stress is fleeting, burnout is constant. When you’re experiencing the three components of the MBI ‒ emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment ‒ day in and day out, you’re experiencing burnout.
What Causes Burnout?
Dr. Maslach’s research has identified 6 risk factors for the development of burnout. When high levels of stress are sustained over time, the risk of falling victim to burnout increases. These 6 risk factors are the leading causes of stress-induced burnout. It’s important to note that not all 6 of these factors need to be present for burnout to occur. In my case, only 3 of these factors caused my burnout experience. Again, more on this later.
- Workload: Having too much work, with too little resources, in too short of time.
- Control: Being too micromanaged or not having enough influence within your work environment.
- Reward: Working for not enough pay, not receiving enough acknowledgement or feeling little satisfaction towards your work.
- Community: Working in isolation and experiencing conflict or disrespect with those around you.
- Fairness: Being discriminated against or falling on the short end of the stick in regards to favoritism.
- Values: Having ethical conflicts with the work or completing meaningless tasks (according to your own perception).
Not all of these factors need to be in play to experience burnout. The key takeaway is that if any of these factors are affecting you for a sustained period of time, the stress resulting from these conditions can lead to burnout.
It might be easier for you to understand this with a story. So, here’s my burnout story.
My Burnout Story
Note: I have nothing against the company described in this email. I was fortunate to work with very successful and smart businessmen, but the opportunity wasn’t for me.
I allude to this in my other work, but I was money-hungry at 21 years old. So money-hungry that I was willing to do what 99% of Americans don’t want to do: door-to-door sales.
I began my short tenure with this company, which we’ll call The Sales Company (I hope this isn’t actually the name of a company), in May. I was done in August. In my case, the three burnout risk factors that caused my burnout experience were reward, community, and values.
Like most door-to-door sales positions, the pay with the Sales Company was commission only. Again, my main motivation was to make as much money as possible in the shortest amount of time. The commission structure was laid out very well, and I was convinced I was going to make five figures in less than a month.
The problem with a commision-only pay structure is if you’re not selling anything, you’re broke. When you’re broke, you’re worried about how you’re going to buy groceries. When you’re worried about how you’re going to buy groceries, you can’t sell. And so the cycle repeats itself. For some reason, I couldn’t sell squat. The result? I was worried about money, which only made my sales pitches even worse.
Austin’s Burnout Cause No.1: Working for not enough pay.
The people in the Sales Company are awesome. Smart, caring, and intelligent. But, I was an outside sales representative. This means that for eight hours a day, Monday through Friday, I was by myself. Experiencing repeated failure in isolation made took a toll on my psyche. Ultimately, I began to dread leaving my home with 6 roommates for a lonely trek around San Diego.
Austin’s Burnout Cause No.2: Working in isolation.
The Sales Company product is truly innovative and one-of-a-kind for small business owners. Seriously, the value for the price is unparalleled in the marketplace. The only problem is that I wasn’t curious about the product, wasn’t passionate about the product. I didn’t really care about the product. The only thing I cared about was making money. So, after a couple of months without making any money, I became intensely disengaged.
Austin’s Burnout Cause No.3: Doing perceived meaningless work.
These three risk factors sustained over the course of four months led me to burnout’s doorstep. I will never forget the feeling of waking up in the morning legitimately depressed because I needed to knock on doors all day. I would drive to a location, walk around for an hour, and then go home early because I couldn’t stand approaching business owners anymore. When I did talk to an owner, I would literally give them reasons to not meet with me.
Here’s how these three risk factors morphed into the three characteristics of burnout mentioned above.
- Emotional Exhaustion: I would passively update my supervisor on the day’s events without a hint of excitement.
- Depersonalization: I began to view business owners as dumb people who couldn’t recognize a great offering.
- Reduced Personal Accomplishment: When I was successful at setting appointments, I wouldn’t want to actually attend them.
The Sales Company took steps to fix the problems listed above, but it was too late. I was burnt out.
What about you?
The purpose of this post is to help you recognize if you’re at risk for burning out, or if you’re already burnt out. It was a strange, weird, and horrible feeling. I don’t want you to experience it. You took the time to read this article, so you might as well get something from it.
If you feel at risk for burning out, try to determine which of the 6 risk factors listed above are hurting you. If you’re in a work environment that can help you resolve these issues, then great, collaborate with your boss(es) or whoever to resolve these issues.
If you’re not lucky enough to work with people who are willing to help solve these issues, you may want to consider leaving the organization.