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There is a certain irony to spending a brilliantly warm and sun-filled Saturday in late April attending a convening on the Science of Burnout. But there I was, feeling a bit burned out myself from a week of travels and deadlines and a never-ending list of to-dos, sitting in a grand auditorium beneath the grand chandeliers of the International House at the University of California, Berkeley, ready to absorb the day’s insights. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Burnout, I learned, is a multi-faceted state of being defined by feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and ineffectiveness. It has become almost endemic to life in the modern age and seems to be especially prevalent in health care settings, schools and universities, social services, and start-up companies where workers are often working long and demanding shifts that require them to give and give and give. It is thought to have its etymological roots in references to “burning the midnight oil” and “burning the candle at both ends,” but modern usage is also thought to reference the field of aerospace. Rockets sent into the stratosphere require booster engines to assist with lift-off, propelling the rocket upwards. But as that booster runs out of fuel, it detaches from the rocket, “burns up,” and falls away. The rocket/booster comparison definitely serves as an apt metaphor.
Our workplaces are the most common, although certainly not exclusive, sources of burnout. But there too, one encounters a variety of dynamics that can contribute to burnout and may operate somewhat independently. So a nuanced inquiry of these dynamics is key. Researchers have identified six key contributors to burnout whose interplay introduces important variations in how burnout is experienced: workload, autonomy, fairness, rewards, meaning, and community. Addressing burnout means looking at these contributors with a careful lens, examining what dynamics are really at play in an environment.
What is Burnout?
“…and they did give, and give, and give, until finally there was nothing left to give anymore…”
Many of the folks gathered for the convening were health care providers, psychologists, neuroscientists, researchers, U.C. Berkeley students, and teachers. I was none of the above. I was there as a communications professional and as a person with a strange but deep stirring of interest in the subject. Perhaps I was a bit of an odd tag-along, I mused. What was it that drew me to this convening and how was I looking to apply the insights from the day’s teachings?
One important reason for my attending was that I hoped that the insights I gained on the subject of burnout would inform some of the work around the science and practice of gratitude that I am engaged in with the Greater Good Science Center, the sponsors of this convening. Gratitude, it turns out, is one of many practices that has a whole host of positive effects on our mental and physical bodies and on our social bonds and relationships with others. And practicing gratitude has been shown to be one effective way to address and mitigate against burnout.
The other reason I felt compelled to attend? I think it gets at a deeper idea of what I believe social change communications, the practice and purpose of this here venture of mine, can offer to the world. Exploring the science and practice of pro-social behaviors like gratitude, compassion, mindfulness and the like gets at the very heart of human flourishing. There are thousands of nuggets of wisdom that can be applied to our daily lives. And drawing connections between those insights and communicating them to the world is fundamental to helping us all live more intentional, meaningful lives.
As a former theologian turned communications professional, I can’t help but see a lot of connections between what science and research reveals about our human behaviors and what the worlds’ religions have revealed over the centuries about our search for greater meaning in the world. I think that when we explore these kinds of questions and what it means to live lives of greater intention and awareness, the world can’t help but become a more welcoming place for us. As the great theologian and thought-leader Howard Thurman wisely expresses:
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
It’s a fascinating cosmos we live in. And here’s to more delicious insights from organizations like the Greater Good Science Center in helping us gain insight into its mysteries and the mysteries of the human person that we may grow, flourish, and come alive.
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May 1, 2017