The Process of Treating Burnout

February 18, 2024

Burnout is a cultural illness expressed at the individual level. That makes treating burnout difficult. But not impossible.

I like to compare it to growing a garden. It’s a process. (Stay with me while I assemble the metaphor.)

Burnout happens in the absence of human-focused systems.

Let’s break down the technical talk. Systems Theory looks at how multi-person patterns operate. The “system” can be just about anything. A romantic relationship. A family. A company.

A “human-focused system” is one that prioritizes people over other values like profit, ideology, theology, or the completion of a project.

Human-focused systems in a company are the nutrients in a garden’s soil. Deplete the soil, and you lose the plants. Lose the plants, and you lose the soil itself.

The solution?

Introduce nutrient-rich organics into the soil (i.e., human-focused systems) allowing for plants (i.e., people) to thrive and the soil (i.e., the organization itself) to become productive.  

To treat burnout, you have to inject human-focused systems into your work culture. When you do that, you begin to dismantle the conditions that allow burnout to happen in the first place.

This process takes time. With a garden, you know you did your job right if it comes back to life the next year. I like to use the same timeline as a guide for treating burnout. But don’t worry. A year passes by quickly, and, in the meantime, there are ways to treat the emergency-level symptoms you may be feeling.

But before jumping into an overview of specific strategies, I want to address some common fears and objections.

Objection 1. It’s too hard. (And I’m not the one in charge.)

You may think it’s impossible to effect change in your situation. Your company is too big, and you don’t have the authority to make any major changes. There are too many factors outside your control. This will always be true to some degree. But there is a paradoxical truth that accompanies it: Green things can grow through the tiniest cracks in the pavement. To quote Dr. Ian Malcom (you know… from Jurassic Park), “Life, uh, finds a way.” Start small and focus on incremental improvements in your own immediate context. Little changes add up fast.

Objection 2. It’s too complicated. (And I don’t have the skillset.)

Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to some fictional guru. You don’t need an MBA or a degree in corporate psychology. There are several small, practical steps you can take to begin transforming your work culture. Focus on trying one strategy at a time. Experiment with it. The Pareto Principle (also known as the 80-20 rule) suggests that if you try 10 different strategies, 8 of those will be a bust. But those last two can make a huge difference. So keep an open mind. Focus on the things that work for youand don’t get hung up on the things that don’t.

Objection 3: It takes too long. (And I need to feel better now.)

If you are in survival mode, the idea of a year-long project can be overwhelming. Challenge yourself to adopt a long-term perspective, knowing there are still short-term triage methods available for acute needs. Short-term methods are great for treating symptoms, but treating the root cause can take a little longer. If you only engage in short-term solutions, you may find yourself in an endless cycle of chasing after the newest self-care fad while secretly wondering why you’re feeling worse year after year. No amount of self-care can undo the effects of a toxic work environment, but there are tools that can help you leverage a shift at the root of the problem.

The truth is, work can be enjoyable and satisfying. But it takes courage and hard work to create that reality. Let’s make sure you have every tool you need to give yourself the best chance of succeeding.

Here is a sneak peek at some of the specific strategies I’ll be going over. Remember – start small, focus on practical steps, and have faith in the process.

To recap from the first article in this series, there are three big factors of burnout: depersonalization, stagnation, and fatigue. I like to work from a plan that addresses each of these areas in turn starting with energy (fatigue), productivity (stagnation), and connection (depersonalization).

Treating Fatigue:
Managing energy with the 80-20 rule.
Finishing the day with energy to spare.
Negotiating your time and space.

Treating Stagnation:
Staying focused on “good enough.”
Learning expectation management skills.
Documenting the moving goal post.

Treating Depersonalization:
Tracing the invisible string.
Finding the need behind the need.
Building safety and belonging.

Again, I’ll be doing a deeper dive on each of these points later. Be sure to subscribe so that you get the next article and all future articles delivered to your inbox for free.

Finally, a common underlying belief that drives a lot of the burnout that I see in my own practice is that of invisibility- that nobody really sees what you are going through. While you are waiting for the next article to drop, here is a challenge: find somebody to talk to about what you are going through. If you haven’t spoken to your significant other about what you’re going through, start there. If that’s the only person you’ve been talking to about it, try opening up to a friend, a trusted colleague, or a mental health expert. Sometimes a simple conversation can help you find your footing when you feel you’ve lost your balance.

Have faith in the process.


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