“Burnout Empties You From Within”
Dr. Norbert Riethof explains why we burn out, how we recover, and the importance of meaning in our work lives.
I reached out to Dr. Norbert Riethof after encountering his name on a particularly awesome academic paper about burnout while researching for my book. Based in Prague, Dr. Riethof is a noted burnout expert and an executive coach — plus, he’s a wise and thoughtful conversationalist.
I learned so much from our discussion — here is a lightly edited version.
So, what is burnout?
Burnout is a syndrome composed of three key aspects: (1) emotional exhaustion, (2) depersonalization or cynicism, and (3) decrease in personal efficacy. To my mind, exhaustion is the most important component. It’s not just emotional, but a total exhaustion of your resources — mental, psychological, physical, spiritual.
Burnout usually occurs in the context of work as a result of stressful conditions which may take anywhere from weeks to years to manifest. I’ve met people who had been suffering from burnout symptoms for decades. And this is what is dangerous about burnout: people continue to go to work and do what they are supposed to do, while burnt out, and don’t admit that there is a serious issue which requires change or treatment.
What happens when we burn out?
Burnout empties you from within. You may become emotionally detached, yet still function. You may become very cynical. I’m not talking about having a sense of humor in the workplace; a lighthearted joke can be a way of letting off a little steam.
Cynicism in burnout is different — it’s more like using humor or sarcasm as a weapon. And you become cynical about yourself as well. Some people are able to live like that for a very long time. The big question still unanswered by the research and all the studies I’ve read: how is that possible — that people are able to persist in burnout for a very long time? Perhaps it has to do with a motivation they hold.
Can you tell me a little about the existential or logotherapy approach to burnout?
Logotherapy is the third school in psychotherapy. Freud’s psychoanalysis viewed will as related to sexual desire and “achieving” pleasure; Adler’s individual psychotherapy focused on “will to power”. Victor Frankl’s contribution to psychotherapy was on the topic of “will to meaning”: the main drive humans have is a spiritual one, to find a meaningful way to live. In this approach, burnout can resemble what Frankl would call an existential vacuum.
In burnout there is very little meaning left: you do something you believe you are supposed to do, but you don’t enjoy it anymore. It is a struggle. Cynicism and inefficacy creep in. Eventually, it damages other relationships and can affect your health.
“People who burnout have created motives or drives that are not truly their own.”
One of the signals for experiencing burnout is that you are starting to put your needs or the fulfilment of your needs last. You have to work first; you have back pain but you don’t go to the doctor. This is one of the first signals that you are becoming demanding on yourself and sometimes you lose the connection with your reality. You’re not seeing things as they are. You live in your mind.
What causes burnout?
In our research, we found that people who burnout have created motives or drives that are not truly their own. For example, you want to prove to your parents that you are good enough, that you can do this job. Or you want to prove to your friends that you can earn a lot of money. Or in order to feel worthy, you want to have a prestigious, sought-after career.
Alfried Längle, who worked with Frankl, called these ‘pseudo-motives’ — you don’t do the work because you like it or because you’re good at it or because it resonates with you, but for some other reason. This often happens subconsciously. Perhaps this is why people stay in unfriendly, unfavorable circumstances for a very long time: because they have these inner pseudo-drives.
In our research we made correlations between burnout and Längle’s Existence Scale, between burnout and traumatic stress symptoms, because some aspects of burnout (for example detachment or depersonalization) are also typical symptoms of some post-traumatic states. We also compared burnout to depression and made correlations between burnout and alexithymia, which involves a decreased ability to feel and describe emotions.
What do you see as possibilities for preventing and reducing the occurrence of burnout?
From an organizational perspective, we need to be much more careful about the stress levels people are forced to endure. Which, particularly in light of COVID, is easier said than done. 2020 has been very stressful for many people.
Be very attentive to whether and why people feel stressed, especially if you are a leader in an organization.
According to the existential analysis, there are four main motivations, and stress is a signal that something is wrong with one of these:
- I am able to do my work
- I like what I’m doing
- My work resonates with me; I can be myself
- My work has meaning for me, for society or for the future
Imagine something is wrong with the first aspect: perhaps I don’t have the right training so I can’t do what I’m meant to, or there is too much work to do.
Liking your job is also very important. Some people like structure, some like figures and spreadsheets, some like planning, some are demotivated by any of these things. Organizations need to look at whether people enjoy what they are doing. Because then you can spot the pseudo-motivations — you don’t like it, but you endure it for the money, or the prestige.
Thirdly, does your work resonate with you? Can you express your true self and feel authentic? This is important for preventing burnout.
And finally, do you find it meaningful? Is your work of value to you, your clients, society, or the future?
And how about from an individual level — how can you as an individual avoid burnout?
Have a good relationship with yourself. Listen to yourself, to what’s on your mind, to your body, for example if you’re tired and you need to rest. Observe when you’re bored and why, or when it’s overwhelming or too much, and make changes accordingly. Have what I’d call a ‘self-care plan’: know yourself, remain alert, and avoid environments of long-term stress. This kind of plan is both a preventative and a restorative measure.
If someone comes to me with burnout, first I would look at what they could do to reduce the amount of stress immediately, and then if they have this kind of self-care plan.
Therapy and coaching can help tremendously to create such a plan. People need a sounding board, someone to talk to openly and then someone who will help them to implement the change.
I think it’s hard for young people. You study a particular degree, unaware of what’s a true motive and what’s a pseudo-motive, and embark on a career without being aware that your motivation might not actually be true to you.
Absolutely — and you don’t come to realize that by yourself. Sometimes you really need an independent third party to talk to. If your parents or your partner are worried, you might not listen to their concerns.
Perhaps, as part of university degrees, we could do a short course on self-knowledge, to ensure that young people who are entering professional fields have some time at an early stage in their life to think about those things. Because not everyone has had that opportunity as a child growing up.
That’s a great idea! I’d support that 100%. Learning to become self-aware should really be a part of any education. Looking at yourself from this meta level. Be reflective. The question is, when is the right time — for some people, they’re not ready for that even at 30. Others will be ready at 16 years of age.
This needs an individual approach, something that unfortunately in our current world is not very common. We focus on the average, the mean or the approximation, and overlook the individual, because we want scale, large numbers, higher sales, identical products.
Alfried Längle defines meaning as the most valuable possibility in a given actual situation of an individual. This is clever because it shows that as a coach or therapist you need to really work on an individual level. You need to look at the situation from your client’s perspective, because they need to find their meaning.
I cannot say to you or to any other person “this is what you should do”, because I’m not you. I can create an environment in which we can look at this together, and maybe I can get some idea about how you feel and offer insight. I think would be great if we can use this kind of individualized approach to finding meaning in peoples’ lives.
What steps could leaders in organizations take to change that, and prevent burnout within their organization?
I have two answers here, on two different levels.
Let’s call the first the ‘big dream’. We re-examine the set of values according to which we live and how organizations and the corporate world are framed. What do they truly want to achieve and does it hold real value? Is it just increasing the amount of money in shareholders’ pockets, and more exploitation of the planet and human workers? Or is it something else — creating a greater good, a more ethical society, more beauty into the environment in which we live, respect for nature and for others? And to really examine this with a truthful and sincere intent. This would be my big dream: that we as a civilization and as humankind really reconsider this, particularly in light of what is happening now — the pandemic, global warming, deforestation — things that can really damage our life forever.
The other level at which we can approach this is to look at the environment organizations and managers are creating. Corporate values or goals impact how leaders and managers behave.
It’s paradoxical — some companies are setting up the perfect environment for burnout. “I can give you another project? Great! You don’t want more money? Even better! You don’t need to go and see a doctor? Perfect, no absenteeism!” Companies seem to almost seek out these kind of pre-burnout people — up to that point of total collapse, they are ideal employees in the corporate world. But leaders and managers do have the capacity to change this.
“What are the costs to you of doing this work: psychologically, spiritually, physically?”
We need to educate leaders. When I’ve conducted lectures and seminars on burnout at companies, managers often approach me afterwards and say, “I can see now that some of my team members are on track to reach burnout. I need to change my behavior — not send emails after hours, not expect them to respond on the weekend. Check in with them more often whether they enjoy what they’re doing and how their stress levels are. Whether their work resonates with them, and whether they derive meaning from it.” In the one-on-ones managers have with their team members, they can start to have these conversations.
And right now, with people working from home, it’s even more important. If people are socially isolated, they quickly lose their pseudo-motives: they are no longer going to their fancy office in their fancy new car. They don’t have these rewards that they’d been using, so now there’s a real question mark: is this work truly meaningful to me?
When you work with clients in burnout, what are your recommendations in terms of immediate steps to take?
First of all, they need to admit they are burnt out and acknowledge that the situation is serious. Because burnout can coincide with diseases such as depression, or even post-traumatic states, they may need to speak to a trained psychologist or psychotherapist to find out if it’s truly burnout or in fact something different.
Coaching offers a great, accessible opportunity for people to talk to someone who is experienced with burnout, but without feeling as significant or serious as to warrant more formal types of therapy — especially in the early stages of burnout, when people are more likely to be in denial.
Secondly, it’s essential to reduce the stress levels and the workload — even if it means that there’s a risk of losing your job, or of the organization responding poorly. Some European countries offer health insurance coverage for burnout, but there’s a large debate going on due to the significant danger of labelling, and misuse or misdiagnosis. Burnout is still a grey area; it has many different aspects and connotations.
On the other hand, it’s important that we take burnout seriously. The workload should be reduced to permit the employee to work on themselves more, to really redefine and look at what they find meaningful. Conversations need to involve questions such as what is it that drives you to do your job — not the superficial motives, like it pays well, or my friends are in the same field, no. What’s the underlying motivation? And what are the costs to you of doing this work: psychologically, spiritually, physically?
In essence, in coaching you create time and space for people to evaluate what actually drives them on a real level?
And recognizing the circumstances in which they operate. It also involves reevaluating their boundaries: how much they want or are able to give to the organization. And sometimes they really need to learn how to say “no” more often, to projects or requests from colleagues or a manager. So, they might need some training to acquire that skillset.
I feel like that also relates to the organizational culture. As a lawyer, a partner once approached me and asked me to take on a new matter. When I said “no”, he said, “well, you have to.” And I did it! It’s a culture of, there is no space for no. When I burned out, I had to leave because part-time work or only working 40 hours a week wasn’t in their culture. So, I’m grateful to hear that your work with managers is helping them to see how important their own perspectives are, but also the individual needs and traits of each team member.
There’s a long way to go. The system is rarely conducive, and effective interventions are not in place. And, at the same time, we need to be careful not to over-use the term ‘burnout’. We need to get to the real issue, which is the humanity and the individual meaning. People need to feel good about what they do.
Burnout is interesting; in one building you have very similar conditions — you have 50 people working there in the same position, at the same level, for the same managers, and only 5 of them will burn out. 45 are fine! So, it definitely has this individual aspect.
We need to look at it from both sides — what the individual person brings that can create the conditions for burnout but also what are the conditions we are creating as an organization to induce that process of becoming burnt out. Because burnout is a process. There are stages of burnout, which many authors have described. True burnout does not occur overnight — it usually takes months or even years.
People use the term ‘burnout’ almost colloquially, whereas it is a syndrome which has now been defined by the WHO. In the same way we should be careful when we say, ‘oh I’m so depressed about XYZ’.
Yes, and I also find the connotation of ‘burning’ useful. Freudenberger used the term burnout for the first time when he noticed he and his colleagues were losing their ‘glow’. And Ayala Pines said that “in order to burn out, a person needs to have been on fire at one time” – you must have had some real interest in something at one point.
So, burnout recovery can be very meaningful in terms of getting people back to their real core, to who they really are. It’s a great opportunity to take notice of a signal that there’s something you are overlooking or forgetting. And maybe you should look at things differently, find a new perspective, look within. That’s where Frankl’s logotherapy is so valuable, because he talks about this noetic or spiritual dimension.
Yes! For me, burnout forced me to address exactly those kinds of questions which empowered me to live a life that I love. There’s absolutely a spiritual aspect to it.
In post-traumatic psychology they refer to post-traumatic growth, and I think we can analogously say that there is something like ‘post-burnout growth’. It is possible to experience post-burnout growth, because going through a burnout encourages you to address those important existential questions.