The link between childhood adversity and burnout is examined in a new study, published in the American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s The Journal of Professional Nursing. Its results suggest that your childhood has a significant impact on the likelihood that you will experience burnout as an adult.

Childhood and adolescent experiences can have lifelong impacts on mental and physical health. Research has demonstrated that we often carry stressful experiences from adolescence with us throughout our lives in our brains. Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are no different. This study explores their relationship with burnout and depression rates among adult nursing students, but its implications range far beyond that particular group.

ACEs include a range of early-life experiences, from neglect and abuse to family dysfunction. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing study found that a higher number of ACEs in study participants correlated with higher levels of two kinds of burnout: emotional exhaustion and depersonalization (which includes “feelings that you’re an outside observer of your thoughts, feelings, your body or parts of your body” and “emotional or physical numbness,” amongst other symptoms, according to the Mayo Clinic). This correlation was especially strong in women.

Based on your childhood experiences, then, you could be more likely to feel symptoms of burnout. A predisposition, however, does not mean a sentencing. If you’re worried about your odds, consider these whether or not these three things, which in combination help stave off burnout, apply to you. If they don’t, we have some ideas on how to change that and work towards a work life that’s less at risk for burnout.

1) Do you find purpose in your life?

In a New York Times article exploring what characterizes his career and the careers of successful colleagues (in medicine, a field notorious for its burnout epidemic), Siddhartha Mukherjee, M.D., D.Phil., an author and research physician, suggests that there are three characteristics of a work life that avoids burnout. Mukherjee finds historical precedent for these tactics in works like Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning (Frankl was a neurologist, psychologist and Auschwitz survivor intent on figuring out where resilience, even in the bleakest of circumstances, comes from).

The first crucial characteristic is purpose: Mukherjee and his colleagues avoided burning out “by finding personal, often deeply specialized purpose in [their] work.” Because they found their work meaningful, and thus felt purposeful pursuing it, they were more resilient and more able to continue pursuing their medical careers even when the conditions were less than ideal.

Finding that meaning involved specialization for Mukherjee and his colleagues — picking a field that had personal resonance. If your work feels general, vague and without purpose, this turn towards specialization may be helpful for you. Think back onto why you entered your field, or look at the people who are doing work that inspires you within the industry. Move to specialize your work in those areas, and invigorate your workweek with the understanding that what you are doing is meaningful.

2) Do you feel mastery — or a trajectory towards mastery — in your specialty?

Mukherjee also emphasized the importance of feeling mastery in your career: He and his successful colleagues “seek mastery — expertise, skills, commitment and recognition — in [their] domains.” That’s not to say you have to feel you’ve achieved mastery. There is always more to learn and space to grow, especially if your work is in an area that is meaningful to you: You keep working because there is more to be done, more to be accomplished and more to learn. Feeling confident that you are moving towards mastery, however — acquiring ever more expertise, skill, and, as a result, recognition — can keep burnout at bay.

If you don’t feel that motion towards mastery, take steps to create it. That might mean acquiring a new skill that will improve your ability to perform at work, or reading up on subjects pertinent to your area of expertise. As you feel mastery approaching, you may find feelings of burnout are pushed farther away.

3) Do you feel freedom to pursue your work effectively?

Feeling freedom to pursue your work effectively is also a crucial factor if you want to avoid burnout. A major part of the burnout problem in medicine, according to Mukherjee, is an overwhelming amount of bureaucratic responsibility for physicians and little respect from administrators. This amounts to stifled freedom amongst doctors, who feel at the mercy of a system of that doesn’t respect them. “We need autonomy — independence — in what we do,” Mukherjee says. With that freedom comes the ability to pursue meaning and mastery unhindered by (meaningless) restrictions.

If you don’t feel freedom in your workplace, consider why that is and what might change it. Switching to another workplace within your industry might be the answer: Seek a work environment where you can perform to the best of your ability. 

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  • Nora Battelle

    Multimedia Staff Writer at Thrive

    Nora Battelle is a writer from New York City. Her work has been published on the Awl, the Hairpin, and the LARB blog, and she's written for podcast and film. At Swarthmore College, she studied English and French literature and graduated with Highest Honors. She's fascinated by language, culture, the internet, and all the small choices that can help us thrive.