Why We Burn Out

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“How are you doing? Are you stressed?”

People keep asking me this question a lot. Each time I’m asked this question, I stop and do a mini self-assessment. Am I stressed? No, I don’t think I’m stressed. Despite my heavy work load, I’m doing what I love. That is the answer that I give to those who ask.

Except, people don’t seem to take my answer as the truth, which has lead me to really question my work load, decisions, and my personal goals. Am I doing everything I can to ensure that all of these things are things I really “need” to be doing? Are these people trying to tell me something I don’t recognize? I value the many people who continue to check in with me and their observations of myself and my work. I am not upset by being checked-in on, but it does leave me second-guessing a lot of my work-related choices, which I have realized ends up leading to mild feelings of disheartenment.

I have additionally realized that when my resiliency and coping mechanisms are questioned, I begin to overthink my strategies. Are the coping skills I have in place enough and are they working for me? Perhaps there are changes I should make or things that I haven’t realized about myself in the midst of the amount of work I’m doing.

But, to be totally honest, I already feel like I’m doing all of those things enjoyably.

It is true, I have a lot going on. I seem to only ever add projects and responsibilities, even when trying to scale back. But I like those projects. They bring me joy.  My work and personal responsibilities certainly take most of my time and bring extensive mental work, but if they didn’t bring me joy, I wouldn’t do them.

People often talk about burn-out with hushed tones and avoidance like it’s contagious. The problem with pretending like it isn’t there is that everyone can feel the weight of the elephant in the room. I know I have experienced burn-out in the past, both in personal aspects of my life as well as my professional work. Those experiences are why I’ve made a number of changes over the years; to help prevent/combat those feelings. It also makes me perceive burn-out easily when it is occurring with others.

Burn-out is something that exists in any profession, but especially so within healthcare. Caregiving, secondary trauma, lack of emotional outlets, poor culture, and many more can lead to burn-out, and it will sneak up on you faster than you could ever admit. Sometimes, a result of recognizing burn-out amongst a group of people can lead to quick changes that eventually look more like a band-aid rather than an actual solution. In the working world, this “band-aid” can sometimes look like a reduction of shared responsibilities, attempting to streamline a process, or eliminating the extra “stuff” that people roll their eyes at or complain about doing on a regular basis.

Except, sometimes that extra “stuff” is important.

One of the things I have come to understand through experiencing these band-aid attempts is that quick attempts to fix burn-out or reduce stress without true resolution diminishes the magic of the reason why you were there in the first place.

Dealing with burn-out is cyclical. Everyone goes through it and it is unavoidable. The things that bring me drive and excitement now will eventually becoming boring to me. Or I will become unsuccessful at it and that will cause me frustration and exhaustion. I will get to a point where something long-term will have to change in order to no longer feel burnt-out. That long-term change cannot be decided by anyone except yourself and there aren’t any right or wrong answers. You know when you are at that point when simply realize, “I can’t go on in this way any more.”

I believe the graph below describes this cyclical feeling of burn-out. Although made to reference technology, it is easily applied to anything we begin, especially within our work. When a change is made, we often feel the “trigger” of excitement, which can lead to a wild spike in our energy levels and expectations of ourselves and our goals. But naturally, over time, we find ourselves second-guessing these goals or questioning our worth, success, or value. Eventually, through self-reflection and an adjustment of our expectations (usually a reality-check) we figure out our groove.


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The “Hype Cycle”

Sometimes this “plateau of productivity” can last months, other times years. There is no standard experience through this cycle but it is experienced by all. Finding the right groove for yourself and recognizing these feelings as they occur is what helps us determine how to combat and/or get out of burn-out. The enlightenment stage reveals to us the true magic of doing what we love. The key, I feel, is determining what it is that constitutes doing what you love.

I have a number of plates spinning in the air in my life and at work because it honestly feels magical. I not only find joy in the various things that I do, but it feels right. It sustains and provides passion and drive. The spinning plates offer a glimpse daily into my overall vision for myself and for my life. Sure, it can be exhausting, but more in a way that feels like after a long day out in the sun at the beach.

Don’t get me wrong. Not every day is completely fulfilling or without challenges but these challenges are what signal growth and growth fuels change and earns wisdom. It is a constant self-reflection in what is a challenge versus what is burn-out. Sometimes burn-out is just the challenge along the way and sometimes it’s the bottom-of-the-barrel moment to make that long-term change.

Either way, remaining open in recognizing and admitting burn-out may be vital to maintaining “the magic” for each individual, whatever their magic may be.

So am I stressed? Am I burnt-out? No, I don’t think so.

I think you’re just feeling the fire of my magic flame.



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