Everyone is saying everyone is suffering burnout. It’s as if you’re nobody if you’re not. Same thing as with haters. You’re nobody if you don’t have any haters. Someone on Clubhouse asked if anyone had any haters to spare; he’d like to buy some, felt he didn’t have enough.

And how do we know when enough is enough? Therein lies the problem as I see it. Not everyone, but more and more it seems, people are trying to be someone, struggling to matter, and in so doing running themselves into the ground.

History of Burnout

Maybe you think burnout is a modern day affliction. And maybe you would be wrong. Harvard history professor, Jill Lepore, traces burnout back to at least Moses, who said to God, “I am not able to bear all this people alone because it is too heavy for me.” Elijah and Achilles are also reported to have said it was all too much.

Even though the I can’t take it anymore feeling may be part of our human condition, people tend to think burnout is getting worse over time. And according to numerous studies they may be right about that.

In one large scale study, already worrisome pre-pandemic burnout rates have skyrocketed to 76% of employees.

So what is Burnout? Why do we have it? And, (how) can we make it go away?

What is Burnout?

Herbert Freudenberger, a Psychologist and Holocaust survivor who was driven to help people day into night, coined the term in 1974 after suffering burnout himself. Lepore quotes him:

“You start your second job when most people go home” he wrote in 1973, “ and you put a great deal of yourself in your work….You feel a total sense of commitment…until you finally find yourself, as I did, in a state of exhaustion.”

And then when all of those burnt out people are exhausted, at some point they don’t feel committed anymore.

The World Health Organization dubbed burnout a disease in 2019:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Of course burnout can bring with it terrible physical, psychological, and occupational consequences. No surprise, studies show burnout to be very hard on relationships too. So why do we have it as much as we do? Who or what exactly is driving the burnout bus?

Causes of Burnout

We can point a finger at such factors as technology, financial pressures, let’s say, and now the pandemic exacerbating each of those. But who is creating the technology, and who decided how many promotions, or how much money is enough?

In 2010, we learned that people needed only $75,000/year income to be happy. More recently, we learned that there can even be declines in emotional well-being if people make too much. Then, we heard that’s not true either, the more the merrier, money that is. Researchers are saying It all depends on what’s being measured.

But doesn’t your gut tell you that there is something going on within and between us that is not quite right. Mine does. Mine says, as I wrote in Getting to G.R.E.A.T.:

From the Whitehall Studies on social position and health:

The Whitehall studies support the Hobbesian view of human nature as a war of all against all. To survive and prosper you have to do better than others. In a world of scarce resources, survival depends on constantly striving to outdo your fellow human beings.

Shameful indeed, to even consider such a thing about ourselves, let alone to expose it to anyone else. The Whitehall Studies began in 1967, before we had Facebook and FOMO but you get the idea. Same, Same. Humans are comparing animals, as ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ affirms.

So, just to be clear, if I have to put my own finger on a cause, I would say it is not so much what is happening to us as much as how we responding to whatever that all is.

The world does seem to be changing fast and furiously in such dangerously uncertain ways. Maybe that’s a big part of why people with basic needs already met are, nonetheless, driven to do, be, and have more and more—or at least what seems to be as much or more than everyone else.

But this is not the only response available to us. And if it is the case that we are at least in part responsible for our own burnout, then we ought to be able to turn at least some of it around.

Treatment for Burnout

Forbes recommends talking to family, talking to your boss, taking computer breaks, taking walks, getting some nature, some sun, some fresh air, take up hobbies, take days off, get a new job, diet, exercise, meditate, get help…

Those are all very fine things to do, even if we are not burnt out. But the real treadmill at issue here is not the one in your gym. It’s the one psychologists call the hedonic treadmill.

The hedonic treadmill captures the idea that we return to our previous mood state in a relatively short period of time, despite negative—and positive—life events taking place in our lives. It’s why lottery winners and accident victims who lost their legs both tended to return to their pre-event mood states.

On the positive side, it is easy to see how enough would not feel like enough to keep the initial feel good buzz permanently alive. And so we strive. And strive. And strive. Mindlessly into Burnout.

Unless we don’t. Unless, in addition to any of the above suggestions from Forbes, we pause periodically—stop ourselves in our tracks—to ask ourselves if whatever it is—is enough.

Try this and let us know what you find.

Warm wishes,