The thing I remember most is the chuckle. Well, maybe it was more of a scoff. It's hard to recall exactly, because what I definitively remember in that moment is being enshrouded in a haze of shame. I wanted to crawl into a corner and hide.
That, of course, is not exactly the feeling you're going for when you first meet your girlfriend's parents.
The event I'm referencing happened almost 25 years ago. Only recently, during some focused work on sources of burnout, did it come back into my memory.
* * *
According to the World Health Organization burnout is strictly a work-related phenomenon:
“Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
reduced professional efficacy.
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”
While I'm certainly not a scientist, frankly, I disagree on the central notion that burnout's sole source is the workplace. (I do, however, agree with the dimensions they describe, which are almost universally accepted among those who study burnout.)
My own experiences with burnout have been significant and though work played a significant role, it was not the only stressor that got me to burnout. Other burnout factors for me included an eroding marriage, the challenges of raising young children while working full time, dealing with illness, disease & death of family members, and more.
* * *
Let's go back to my encounter with my future parents-in-law and their scoffing. What prompted that reaction from them, the one that triggered shame for me?
As is typical of these sorts of encounters - meeting your child's prospective life partner - they asked me about my career aspirations. Without giving it a second thought, I answered honestly.
I'm not a morning person, so I don't intend to work for some company that forces me to be in an office from 9 to 5.
In hindsight I realize I didn't actually answer their question. I did reveal a lot about my values and the vision I held for my life, though.
They responded honestly, as well. They couldn't restrain their dismissive laugh and, boy did it sting.
* * *
Remember that list of stressors that I named above?
Let's look at them one by one and see how they relate to my burnout, how they fall outside the WHO's "rules", and what I think they point us towards when dealing with burnout.
Yes, I ended up marrying the daughter of those people who scoffed at my values. For many reasons, including because I wanted to fit into my new family, I ended up doing something unplanned. You guessed it: I took a decades long series of jobs in offices that required me to be there from 9 to 5. (Actually, it was often both earlier and later than those times.)
Did working an office job ruin my marriage? Of course not. Not on its own. My choice to do that, however, did have an effect of tamping down my spirit, which absolutely contributed to the decline in that relationship.
Clearly, marital strain brought on by working in a job whose requirements run counter to one's personal values is not included in the WHO's definition of burnout.
Raising Kids While Working Full Time
I am, like many men of my generation, an enthusiastic parent. I love being a Dad and always have. There was nothing I wanted to do more than spend time with my kids when they were young.
And working a rigid corporate schedule simply isn't compatible with being present in your kids' lives, certainly not in the way I wanted to be.
Again, the demands of parenting do not apparently qualify for the WHO's definition of burnout.
Caring for Family Disease, Illness & Death
Some of the most stressful times in my life have included the death of my grandmother, who was a primary caregiver for me, as well as other family members' bouts with cancer, alcoholism, and other debilitating diseases.
In the moments when my family members were at their lowest points, when I wanted to provide care for them, I found it hard to be there. Besides the demands of my work and parenting roles, as noted above, my employers often provided limited time-off that was never suitable for dealing with such protracted issues.
By the way, I'm only talking about being able to show up for their needs; there was no way that I could then afford to take the extra time to deal with my emotional responses to my loved ones' pain & losses.
Nowhere in the WHO's guidelines are these sorts of issues recognized as contributors to burnout.
* * *
From a symptomatic standpoint, the WHO playbook would've clearly marked me as burned out.
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion?
Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job?
(Not only was a mentally distanced & cynical about work, I felt that way at home and in other areas of my personal life.)
Reduced professional efficacy?
Umm... Check minus?
(In many ways, I continued to succeed at work throughout this time. However, if we consider things like "happiness" and "sustainability" as part of 'professional efficacy', I was failing.)
Hey, two out of three ain't bad. And I believe it's enough to qualify you for your Burnout Badge.
* * *
So what does this all mean? I have a theory that I've been working on, one that incorporates the good guidance of the WHO (and others) and expands on it.
Yes, our work lives are a significant, and typically primary, source of burnout.
(Note: To be clear, I consider the home to be "work" if you are a caregiver of some variety. Stay at home parents can be burned out, too, even without the trappings of a fancy office.)
But let's not stop short here. When we try to separate work from our lives, as our culture often does via the bullshit term "work/life balance", we fool ourselves. Our work and life aren't distinct realities, the elements of which are never mixed together.
No. Our work is essential to our life. Our life is always being lived, whether we're on the job or not. So burnout has to include elements of our lives beyond our workplace activities.
* * *
If you've followed me this far, I have one more thing I want to invite you to entertain. It's what I believe is our way out of the burnout epidemic we're living through.
Since burnout is not a single-faceted problem, that means there is no singular solution for it. Rather, burnout should be treated as a multi-faceted puzzle that incorporates all phases of life.
Considering this expanded definition forces us to look beyond the well-intentioned and much-needed anti-burnout endeavors that are being talked about for the workplace: optimized work schedules, increased flexibility, broadened benefits, encouragement to take meaningful time away from the office, etc.
Beyond those, I believe the keys to truly helping people recover from burnout are, oddly, related to that shame-inducing laughter from my future parents-in-law:
Developing relationship skills that allow us to honor others' personal values and visions for their lives, while holding on to our own sense of those critical guideposts for our lives, provides a comprehensive way to truly alleviate burnout.
It makes me wonder, what might have happened had I been able to choose the work - and life - that I wanted, rather than allowing myself to be influenced by external expectations?
Who knows? But maybe I could've avoided burnout.
Jim Young is a Men's Burnout Coach. Having survived a several years-long bout with burnout - across all aspects of his life - he now focuses on helping other men recover from their own burnout. He especially loves working with entrepreneur Dads, because his firsthand experience in those roles has taught him that the pressures of that combination is uniquely challenging.
These days, Jim spends his time balancing his life across a wide range of activities that light him up. They include goofing with his lovely partner, laughing with his three ridiculous teenagers, creating rollickingly fun moments with his improv troupe (Not In Charge), geeking out on a range of nerdy topics, and having the opportunity to work on the vision he has and with the values he holds dear. (Also, on the schedule that makes all of that flow!)