March 18, 2020
As far as I can tell, 100% of the google results for “burnout” or “recognizing burnout” boil down to victim-blaming; they’re all about you, and your symptoms, and how to recognize when you’re burning out. Are you frustrated, overwhelmed, irritable, tired? Don’t ask for help, here’s how to self-diagnose! And then presumably do something.
What follows is always the most uselessly vague advice, like “listen to yourself” or “build resiliency” or whatever, which all sounds great and reinforces that the burden of recovery is entirely on the person burning out. And if you ask about the empirical evidence supporting it, this advice is mostly on par with leaving your healing crystals in the sun, getting your chakras greased or having your horoscope fixed by changing your birthday.
Resiliency and self-awareness definitely sound nice enough, and if your crystals are getting enough sun good for them, but just about all of this avoiding-burnout advice amounts to lighting scented candles downwind of a tire fire. If this was advice about a broken leg or anaphylaxis we’d see it for the trash it is, but because it’s about mental health somehow we don’t call it out. Is that a shattered femur? Start by believing in yourself, and believing that change is possible. Bee stings are just part of life; maybe you should take the time to rethink your breathing strategy. This might be a sign that breathing just isn’t right for you.
Even setting that aside: if we could all reliably self-assess and act on the objective facts we discerned thereby, burnout (and any number of other personal miseries) wouldn’t exist. But somehow here we are in not-that-world-at all. And as far as I can tell approximately none percent of these articles are ever about, say, “how to foster an company culture that doesn’t burn people out”, or “managing people so they don’t burn out”, or “recognizing impending burnout in others, so you can intervene.”
I’ll leave why that might be as an exercise for the reader.
Fortunately, as in so many cases like this, evidence comes to the rescue; you just need to find it. And the best of the few evidence-based burnout-prevention guidelines I can find come from the field of medicine where there’s a very straight, very measurable line between physician burnout and patient care outcomes. Nothing there will surprise you, I suspect; “EHR stress” (Electronic Health Records) has a parallel in our lives with tooling support, and the rest of it – sane scheduling, wellness surveys, agency over meaningful work-life balance and so on – seems universal. And it’s very clear from the research that recognizing the problem in yourself and in your colleagues is only one, late step. Getting support to make changes to the culture and systems in which you find yourself embedded is, for the individual, the next part of the process.
The American Medical Association has a “Five steps to creating a wellness culture” document, likewise rooted in gathered evidence, and it’s worth noting that the key takeaways are that burnout is a structural problem and mitigating it requires structural solutions. “Assess and intervene” is the last part of the process, not the first. “Self-assess and then do whatever” is not on the list at all, because that advice is terrible and the default setting of people burning out is self-isolation and never, ever asking people for the help they need.
We get a lot of things right where I work, and we’re better at taking care of people now than just about any other org I’ve ever heard of, but we still need to foster an “if you see something, say something” approach to each others’ well being. I bet wherever you are, you do too. Particularly now that the whole world has hard-cutover to remote-only and we’re only seeing each other through screens.
Yesterday, I told some colleagues that “if you think somebody we work with is obviously failing at self-care, talk to them”, and I should have been a lot more specific. This isn’t a perfect list by any means, but if you ask someone how they’re doing and they can’t so much as look you in the eye when they answer, see that. If you’re talking about work and they start thumbing their palms or rubbing their wrists or some other reflexive self-soothing twitch, notice. If you ask them about what they’re working on and they take a long breath and longer choosing their words, pay attention. If somebody who isn’t normally irritable or prone to cynical or sardonic humor starts trending that way, if they’re hunched over in meetings looking bedraggled when they normally take care of posture and basic grooming, notice that and say so.
If “mental health” is just “health” – and I guarantee it is – then burnout is an avoidable workplace injury, and I don’t believe in unavoidable mental-health injuries any more than I believe in unavoidable forklift accidents. Keep an eye out for your colleagues. If you think somebody you work with is failing at self-care, talk to them. Maybe talk to a friend, maybe talk to their manager or yours.
But say something. Don’t let it slide.