Tag: burnout

Situations can be described but not given names

So said that most enigmatic of philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein. Today’s article is about the effect of external stimulants on us as human beings, whether or not we can adequately name them.

Let’s start with music, one of my favourite things in all the world. If the word ‘passionate’ hadn’t been devalued from rampant overuse, I’d say that I’m passionate about music. One of the reasons is because it produces such a dramatic physiological response in me; my hairs stand on end and I get a surge of endophins — especially if I’m also running.

That’s why Greg Evans‘ piece for The Independent makes me feel quite special. He reports on (admittedly small-scale) academic research which shows that some people really do feel music differently to others:

Matthew Sachs a former undergraduate at Harvard, last year studied individuals who get chills from music to see how this feeling was triggered.

The research examined 20 students, 10 of which admitted to experiencing the aforementioned feelings in relation to music and 10 that didn’t and took brain scans of all of them all.

He discovered that those that had managed to make the emotional and physical attachment to music actually have different brain structures than those that don’t.

The research showed that they tended to have a denser volume of fibres that connect their auditory cortex and areas that process emotions, meaning the two can communicate better.

Greg Evans

This totally makes sense to me. I’m extremely emotionally invested in almost everything I do, especially my work. For example, I find it almost unbearably difficult to work on something that I don’t agree with or think is important.

The trouble with this, of course, and for people like me, is that unless we’re careful we’re much more likely to become ‘burned out’ by our work. Nate Swanner reports for Dice that the World Health Organisation (WHO) has recently recognised burnout as a legitimate medical syndrome:

The actual definition is difficult to pin down, but the WHO defines burnout by these three markers:

  • Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion.
  • Increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job.
  • Reduced professional efficacy.

Interestingly enough, the actual description of burnout asks that all three of the above criteria be met. You can’t be really happy and not producing at work; that’s not burnout.

As the article suggests, now burnout is a recognised medical term, we now face the prospect of employers being liable for causing an environment that causes burnout in their employees. It will no longer, hopefully, be a badge of honour to have burned yourself out for the sake of a venture capital-backed startup.

Having experienced burnout in my twenties, the road to recovery can take a while, and it has an effect on the people around you. You have to replace negative thoughts and habits with new ones. I ultimately ended up moving both house and sectors to get over it.

As Jason Fried notes on Signal v. Noise, we humans always form habits:

When we talk about habits, we generally talk about learning good habits. Or forming good habits. Both of these outcomes suggest we can end up with the habits we want. And technically we can! But most of the habits we have are habits we ended up with after years of unconscious behavior. They’re not intentional. They’ve been planting deep roots under the surface, sight unseen. Fertilized, watered, and well-fed by recurring behavior. Trying to pull that habit out of the ground later is going to be incredibly difficult. Your grip has to be better than its grip, and it rarely is.

Jason Fried

This is a great analogy. It’s easy for weeds to grow in the garden of our mind. If we’re not careful, as Fried points out, these can be extremely difficult to get rid of once established. That’s why, as I’ve discussed before, tracking one’s habits is itself a good habit to get into.

Over a decade ago, a couple of years after suffering from burnout, I wrote a post outlining what I rather grandly called The Vortex of Uncompetence. Let’s just say that, if you recognise yourself in any of what I write in that post, it’s time to get out. And quickly.


Also check out:

  • Your Kids Think You’re Addicted to Your Phone (The New York Times) — “Most parents worry that their kids are addicted to the devices, but about four in 10 teenagers have the same concern about their parents.”
  • Why the truth about our sugar intake isn’t as bad as we are told (New Scientist) — “In fact, the UK government ‘Family food datasets’, which have detailed UK household food and drink expenditure since 1974, show there has been a 79 per cent decline in the use of sugar since 1974 – not just of table sugar, but also jams, syrups and honey.”
  • Can We Live Longer But Stay Younger? (The New Yorker) — “Where fifty years ago it was taken for granted that the problem of age was a problem of the inevitable running down of everything, entropy working its worst, now many researchers are inclined to think that the problem is “epigenetic”: it’s a problem in reading the information—the genetic code—in the cells.”

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

The title of this post is a quotation from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker. Having worked in a variety of organisations, I can attest to its truth.

That’s why, when someone shared this post by Grace Krause, which is basically a poem about work culture, I paid attention. Entitled Appropriate Channels, here’s a flavour:

We would like to remind you all
That we care deeply
About our staff and our students
And in no way do we wish to silence criticism
But please make use of the
Appropriate Channels

The Appropriate Channel is tears cried at home
And not in the workplace
Please refrain from crying at your desk
As it might lower the productivity of your colleagues

Organisational culture is difficult because of the patriarchy. I selected this part of the poem, as I’ve come to realise just how problematic it is to let people know (through words, actions, or policies) that it’s not OK to cry at work. If we’re to bring our full selves to work, then emotion is part of it.

Any organisation has a culture, and that culture can be changed, for better or for worse. Restaurants are notoriously toxic places to work, which is why this article in Quartz, is interesting:

Since four-time James Beard award winner Gabrielle Hamilton opened Prune’s doors in 1999, she, along with her co-chef Ashley Merriman, have established a set of principles that help guide employees at the restaurant. According to Hamilton and Merriman, the code has a kind of transformative power. It’s helped the kitchen avoid becoming a hierarchical, top-down fiefdom—a concentration of power that innumerable chefs have abused in the past. It can turn obnoxious, entitled patrons into polite diners who are delighted to have a seat at the table. And it’s created the kind of environment where Hamilton and Merriman, along with their staff, want to spend much of their day.

The five core values of their restaurant, which I think you could apply to any organisation, are:

  1. Be thorough and excellent in everything that you do
  2. Be smart and funny
  3. Be disarmingly honest
  4. Work without division of any kind
  5. Practise servant leadership

We live in the ‘age of burnout’, according to another article in Quartz, but there’s no reason why we can’t love the work we do. It’s all about finding the meaning behind the stuff we get done on a daily basis:

Our freedom to make meaning is both a blessing and a curse. To get somewhat existential about it, “work,” and the problems associated with it as an amorphous whole, do not exist: For the individual, only his or her work exists, and the individual is in control of that, with the very real power radically to change the situation. You could start the process of changing your job right now, today. Yes, arguments about the practicality of that choice well up fast and high. Yes, you would have to find another way to pay the bills. That doesn’t negate the fact that, fundamentally, you are free.

It’s important to remember this, that we choose to do the work we do, that we don’t have to work for a single employer, and that we can tell a different story about ourselves at any point we choose. It might not be easy, but it’s certainly doable.


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