How Stress and Motivation Contribute to Burnout
When I talk about burnout, it’s assumed I’m talking about being too busy, taking on too many projects, being a member of too many associations, and overloading my schedule with conferences, initiatives, and community commitments. In all honesty, many of these things were fulfilling in and of themselves. They were safe spaces for creativity. They provided a sense of purpose and community. And most of them provided an outlet for expressing my disappointment with my day job.
It's Not About Your Schedule
Burnout doesn’t have anything to do with one’s calendar fullness. Burnout is a reaction to dissatisfaction, the stress of trying to make something of nothing, and the loss of motivation in something you believed in. It’s the realization of a slow, insidious defeat. It’s pushing that rock up that hill for far too long.
Although burnout manifests in many forms according to the individual, several markers can become evident. The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences identified several items to monitor for signs of encroaching burnout symptoms. They include watching for a reduced sense of accomplishment, a devaluation of performance, physical and emotional exhaustion, reduced professional efficacy, and cynicism (https://tinyurl.com/y5nvoyr6).
Stress is a key indicator of burnout- but not in the way you might think. A normal amount of stress from your job and pursuing your goals is healthy and keeps us engaged and alert. Stress provides motivation. Oftentimes people assume that when these pursuits and workload become too much, we quickly approach burnout. This is probably more a fatigue or over-scheduling problem. The stress that contributes to burnout is the heightened tension resulting from not achieving goals fast enough, ongoing performance disappointments, and an overemphasis on the emotional satisfaction expected from achieving these points (and then never seeing the goals truly be met). We get stressed because of frustrated aspirations. We get stressed because we lose motivation in something we previously pursued with vigor. We get stressed because without outright failing, we’re not achieving our goals. The invisible hand that holds us back seems insurmountable. Thus, burnout.
When Burden Becomes Burnout
At this point a stressed person becomes unable to meet intentions. The burden of unfulfilled personal performance is heavy. What good is our work if it’s unable to meet our goals? It may be exhausting to carry on, and worse, carrying on seems pointless. This is burnout. All sense of motivation evaporates, at least for the particular area of our work or life.
The Path to Recovery
Therefore, it is extremely important to monitor goal progression in our work. The responsibility is both ours AND our community’s (with significant accountability given to bosses, managers, mentors, advisors, and life partners). We must oversee our goal progression, including all progression benchmarks. We must celebrate milestones and minor accomplishments along the path of our endeavors. We must pace ourselves and set elevated yet realistic stages of our progress. We must own our success, see our failures as lessons or disguised opportunities, and understand our contributions to the whole. We must allow emotional and physical rest. Most importantly, we must have a system for feedback, redirection, evaluation, and objectivity. If there’s no exit plan, how would you know when to quit? How would you know when the job is finished, the goal is met, or the objective needs to change?
Ultimately burnout is an imbalance of stress and motivation. The decay of performance and the accompanying apathy are a dangerous combination. But like most diseases, we can be on the lookout for symptoms and we can be accountable to others for support.