Sadly, burnout can mark the end of a successful stage in one’s career. It mainly strikes highly-committed, passionate, hard working and successful people – and it therefore holds a special fear for those who care passionately about the work they do.
Burnout is a state of undetected exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations. It includes the frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward. Burnout therefore involves both exhaustion and disillusionment.
Anyone can become exhausted. What is so poignant about burnout is that it mainly strikes people who are highly committed to their work: You can only "burn out" if you have been burning with light in the first place. While exhaustion can be overcome with rest, a core part of burnout is a deep sense of disillusionment, and is not experienced by people who can take a more detached view of their work.
Psychological research has looked at the way in which animals handle long-term stress. What it shows is that after an initial period of adaptation, they survived very well for quite a long period of time until, then all of a sudden, their resistance collapsed without any obvious direct cause. A similar process was seen with bomber pilots in the Second World War, who would fly effectively for many missions, but who would then fall apart as pilot fatigue set in.
We have probably all seen similar patterns in the past, where people become exhausted and their performance suffers. We may all have worked so hard at something, for so long, that the easy things become difficult and life loses its flavour. These are times when rest (often in the form of a good holiday) helps us to approach the situation with a new vigour.
Exhaustion and long-term stress contribute to burnout, but they are not the most destructive parts of it. The real damage of burnout comes from the sense of deep disillusionment that lies at its heart. Many of us get our sense of identity and meaning from our work. We may have started our careers with high ideals or high ambitions and may have followed these with passion.
This is easy to see in doctors and teachers, who may have a strong desire to help other people to be the best that they can be. But it can happen to everyone – from the person devoted to a family business to a floor worker who sets off trying to do a good job. Others may be ambitious for promotion or may want to “make a difference” to people or organizations in some other way. In all of these cases, these ideals can drive a highly motivated, passionate approach to work.
It is incredible what we can achieve when we truly believe in what we are doing: We are hard working, effective, full of initiative, energetic and selfless. We can find ourselves doing much more than we are contracted to do, working much longer hours. Even more, we enjoy doing this. We find it easy to enter the hugely satisfying state of flow. Particularly when we are appreciated for what we do, and when we are able to see good results from our work, this satisfaction can help us to overcome enormous difficulties. It is not surprising that people showing this level of resilience and commitment to their work are often spectacularly successful.
The problem comes when things become too much. Perhaps exhaustion sets in because people have been working too hard for too long. Perhaps performance begins to slip because of this. Perhaps the problem being solved is too great, and the resources available are too meager. Perhaps supportive mentors move on and are replaced by people who do not appreciate the heroic job that is being done, or do not subscribe to the ideals that drive performance. Perhaps co-workers or team members make just too many emotional demands, or people being served prove to be ungrateful and difficult.
Being proactive, energetic, committed people, it is likely that we respond to obstacles like these by increasing our commitment and hard work. However, in these circumstances it is possible that these efforts may have little or no impact on the situation.
This can be where burnout begins to set in. As we get less satisfaction from our jobs, the downsides of these jobs become more troublesome. As we get more tired, we have less energy to give. If our organizations fail to support us, we can get increasingly disenchanted with them. We become increasingly disillusioned. In extreme cases, we can lose faith completely in what we are doing, and what our organizations are doing, becoming cynical and embittered, and feeling that our ideals and meanings in life count for nothing.
This is full-scale burnout.