Depersonalization: The Human Factor

February 18, 2024

This is the final article in my burnout series. And I’ve been looking forward to sharing some thoughts on this topic the most.

As a recap, there are three big factors to burnout: Fatigue, Stagnation, and Depersonalization.

Fatigue is the deep exhaustion that paralyzes and steals your ability to be present and enjoy life.

Stagnation is the feeling like you’re working harder than ever but getting nowhere.

Depersonalization, in many ways, is the most important factor. It refers to the sense that you are nothing more than a cog in a machine. A number on a spreadsheet. One datapoint among millions. Depersonalization is the absence of authentic human connection and care.

Let’s cut to the chase, depersonalization is just another word for dehumanization. And when anybody feels not-human, there is a serious problem. That’s when we reach the danger zone of burnout.

On the other hand, when authentic human connection is present, we can tolerate immense amounts of stress with relative efficiency. Said another way, we can put up with a lousy job a lot more easily. Countless studies have repeatedly shown that having strong, active social bonds is one of the most powerful protective factors you can have. But when it’s absent even the most cushy, high-paying job can feel lifeless. And difficult jobs become unbearable.

The good news is that almost every person on Earth has a deep capacity for connection, and opportunities to build those connections are everywhere.

Here are some of my favorite strategies for rehabilitating the human factor:

Tracing The Invisible String

One of the best books on grief and loss that I’ve come across is an illustrated children’s book by Patrice Karst called The Invisible String.

And it has profound implications for burnout and work-related stress.

A brother and sister are startled awake at night during a thunderstorm and their mom calms them down by telling them, “People who love each other are always connected by a very special String made of love… Even though you can’t see it with your eyes, you can feel it with your heart and know that you are always connected to everyone you love.”

The rest of the book is a simple and touching exploration of all the ways that String works: “When you’re at school and you miss me, your love travels all the way along the String until I feel it tug on my heart,” the mom tells her kids.

Then one of the kids asks, “Can my String reach all the way to Uncle Brian in heaven?”

“Yes, even there,” says Mom.

The book ends with the beautiful statement, “They now could clearly see… no one is ever alone.”

But… what if the people around us are the main source of our distress?

I’m glad you asked. (Keep reading.)

Finding the Need Behind the Need

One of the fastest ways to kill connection or burn the invisible string is through maladaptive competition and one-ups-manship. Really, any kind of ill-mannered behavior will do the trick, but these seem to be particularly common.

I’ve never heard a client talk about how Steve from the office down the hall encouraged them by making a show of outperforming them or how Melissa from accounting picked them up on a rough day by explaining that she had a much harder weekend than theirs… with the addition of the flu… and never felt the need to complain about it.

These bad social habits are easy to engage in. And let’s face it, we’ve all been guilty.

But here’s a trick.

When you notice someone using poor manners… or even better, when you catch yourself… pause and ask yourself what need is driving those actions. Find the need behind the need.

Let me offer a hypothesis that tends to be correct more times than not.

There are two fundamental questions that everybody has to answer in life:

Do I belong? And, am I safe?

Competition and one-upping others, though amateurish, are, at their core, ways of trying to satisfy those two needs.

So when you feel the temptation to out-show a co-worker, colleague, or friend, try taking the risk of offering a one-down response. Slow down your instinct to compete, and show genuine interest in them as a person.

“Wow, Steve, how did you get so good at (fill in the blank).”

“Geez, Melissa, it never clicked for me until just now how many roles you have to juggle.”

Take it to the next level by letting them overhear you talking about their strengths to others behind their back.

When you give the gift of connection to others, you build safety and belonging for everyone, including yourself. Just like karma, it comes back around.

Building Safety and Belonging

Do I belong? Am I safe?

When the answer to these questions are in the negative, we feel threatened.

By definition.

We are social creatures. Our survival depends on it. If our work place is sending us the message that we don’t belong or that we don’t have any security in our roles, our nervous system goes into survival mode. This triggers a cascade of physiological responses that create a feedback loop of burnout symptoms. Fatigue (because our bodies start running on a diet of adrenaline). Stagnation (because we start second guessing every action). You get the picture.

Treating fatigue and stagnation is often a matter of technique. We have research-backed principles like sleep hygiene, negotiation skills, and all the other strategies discussed earlier in this series.

But addressing the human factor goes beyond research. It transcends strategies, principles, and five-year plans.

It exists in the simplest of manners.

In the sincere moments between meetings.

In the way you let your spouse or partner vent after a long day of work.

In the bedtime story you share with your kids.

In the infinite number of small things that remind you of your humanity and say to you “you are never truly alone.”

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