Reflections on Burnout: Chris Nichols reflects in conversation with Mindfulness Works colleague Liz Hall

I’m no expert on “burnout” so, I was delighted to have the chance to have a conversation with coach and author Liz Hall, who has worked with the issue extensively in her coaching practice. This Mindfulness Works event attracted a great group of people and involved a lot of sharing of insights and ideas. I thought it was worth sharing some of the reflections I took away from it.

Burnout and the road to burnout

The clinical definition was news to me. I hadn’t realised that there’s a WHO definition where burnout is “an occupational phenomenon” rather than a condition or disease (I’ll come back to that!). There are also several “inventories”- clinical assessment tools for the diagnosis of whether someone is suffering from burnout or not.

One of the most established of these is the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which focuses on three dimensions of burnout:

  • Exhaustion and over-extension – a physical and emotional wearing out, with depletion, debilitation, and fatigue.
  • Cynicism – a depersonalisation, a separation of the self from personal attachment to work, loss of idealism, withdrawal, and irritability
  • Personal inefficacy – a reduced capacity or capability, lower ability to cope and reduced morale.

The clinical definition is therefore quite demanding. To yield a clinical diagnosis of “burnout” the instrument requires a high score on all three dimensions.

It strikes me that a person could have a desperate and dangerous experience by scoring significantly on just one of these dimensions. There will probably have been a lot of warning signs along the way long before the time someone reaches the stage of becoming clinically “burnt out”.

At the same time, I came to realise that I experienced burnout in this sense over the period 2014-2016.  I just didn’t know it because I had no idea about these diagnostics.

My burnout story

I was a director on the leadership team of a consulting practice in a business school. In 2012 or so, the school began merger talks (at that time described as a strategic alliance). The consulting leadership team spent months trying to protect the community and practices of our group in the face of the merger. It was hard work, and ultimately fruitless. The consulting group was wound up – it didn’t fit the ambitions of the acquiror, and the team dispersed or were absorbed into the business school under new management. I tried to make it work. In the end I failed and left to form GameShift.

I was in a bad way by the time I left. In March-April 2016, suffering from what I can only call significant life-death ambivalence I went for a long walk. I took several months to walk the whole of the South West Coastal Path, a 1,000 km walk around the south west peninsula of the UK. I’ve written about that walk elsewhere, but I do just want to pull out a few words here.

Speaking of why I walked, I wrote: “ … leaving wasn’t just a change of job. I didn’t lose my job, I lost my faith in the nature of my work and in its purpose. I was angry and depressed, and saw no hope left in the form of work I’d been doing for almost twenty years. If I couldn’t protect the legitimacy of that work in the very place it was created, what hope was there for carrying it anywhere else? If people in a human focused workplace didn’t value this work, what was the point of trying to do this work anywhere tougher?”

As I read that back now, and reflect on the clinical diagnosis of burnout, I realise just how deeply into burnout I was at that time. There were many points during my walk at which the cliff edge became a temptation. I was certainly exhausted physically and mentally, but that wasn’t the worst of it.  It was a much deeper depletion. I’d lost faith. I no longer believed in the nature of the work I had stood for. I had lost faith in people and organisations. It was a very dark time.

So, I was delighted when Liz talked about the practical ways that using mindful practice can help in tough situations. I’m not going to rehearse them all here. They’re in the recording and are covered thoroughly in research by Michael Chaskalson and Megan Reitz (2016). The AIM model, building the capacity for allowing, inquiry and meta-awareness, remains one of the most powerful approaches I know for using mindful attention rigorously in a difficult situation.

But at the same time, I’m not complacent about this. I already was using a mindfulness practice in 2016, so where did I go wrong with it?

How mindfulness practice helps

The first thing to remember is that mindful practice is a practice, not a silver bullet. The practice certainly enables you to work better with difficult situations, but it doesn’t make you immune to them.

I did use my mindful practice throughout the period of my burnout story, and in fact got much closer to my secular Buddhist practice during those years. I recall being very torn about the balance between compassion for others and compassion for myself when these appeared to be in conflict. I also remember being troubled in trying to decide at what point does “allowing” become a dustsheet to drape over shoddy and abusive practice that really needs to be challenged? It shouldn’t be used for that, of course. What mindful practice gives you is space in which to make your best available discernment. It doesn’t guarantee everything will turn out as you want, nor is it any kind of guarantee that you’ll act with more wisdom or skill. You can only act with the wisdom and skill you can muster at that time. There’s no magic here, just a practice that gives you a better chance of doing your best. It offers a route to choiceful action rather than reaction from a place of aversion.

One thing I realised, but only in retrospect, is that I allowed myself to be too lonely. Buddhism is quite big on doing the work with others. We all need spiritual friends who will help us look out for ourselves in tough times. The community is part of the triple gem of Buddhism for a reason. Part of my burnout took the form of becoming more isolated from people who had previously been peers. That is both a symptom and a cause in burnout. As you become distanced from yourself and your work, you can lose your connection to people at exactly the time you need it most. There’s power to be had in having experienced and compassionate peers to help you spot patterns you’ve stopped seeing, and help you find options that you may have lost sight of for yourself. I probably sabotaged some of my mindfulness work by over-use of alcohol as a defence. No matter how good a bottle it is, wine is not a good spiritual friend.

In my case, my mindful practice helped me to get out of the situation and helped me to heal from it. I can’t honestly say that it improved the situation itself. Had I embraced it more fully and earlier, with the help of peers, I genuinely think I could also have made the change easier for myself and for others. I don’t think it could have avoided the change or affected the outcome materially. It was a takeover and the people, perspectives and practices that I valued were to have no place in the new organisation. It was not within my gift to alter that. I needed to be elsewhere, and now I am.

A closing thought

When things get commoditised, usually it leads to trouble.  There is a lot of that about with mindfulness. It’s a genuinely useful form of mind cultivation, with a 2,000-year heritage. But it’s a discipline, not a panacea and anyone who uses it ethically knows that. I’ve no doubt that mindful practice done well can help to address burnout, to prevent it or to heal it. But I do have reservations about where mindful practice might be misused or abused specifically in this context.

It’s no use slapping on a bit of mindfulness training as a sticking plaster on an abusive organisation. That’s not deep enough, and it wouldn’t be ethical work.  To do it well, we need to have rigorous practice with ethics, compassion and wisdom pulling in the same direction. Running a dreadful organisation just isn’t ok. Providing pop-psychology courses to sugar coat abusive practices won’t fix anything. Don’t do that.

I want to come back to that WHO definition of burnout as an occupational phenomenon. To me it sounds like burnout should be a Health & Safety issue. Too much of the organisational response to this amounts to “victim blaming”, treating the staff involved as the weak link.  If burnout really is an occupational phenomenon, why isn’t it a more significant issue? Failing to spot and treat burnout seems  as bad to me as asking staff to operate a machine without a safety guard. Maybe it’s time for a legal duty of care, so that this phenomenon gets addressed before people and organisations suffer a deeper harm.

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