By Laurie Cure

This week has brought me closer to the pain, suffering and exhaustion of those experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue. There is no doubt that 2020 marked a change in our world and the issue of burnout and compassion fatigue has elevated and expanded into our lives.  If we didn’t feel it before, we might feel it now and if we did have tinges of burnout and fatigue prior to the pandemic, these last two years have escalated those emotions, sometimes beyond our ability to cope.

The data is clear. Overall in the US workforce, between 52-68% share feelings of burnout. A recent Gallup report indicated that 67% of us feel burned out either some or most of the time. In certain industries such as healthcare and education, those numbers are higher, with employees in those fields feeling more stress, less emotional health and many expressing a lack of support from their colleagues and organizations to talk about their feelings of fatigue. 

At an organizational level, workplace stress costs the US economy $500 billion per year. Hogan reports that burned out employees:

  • Are 63% more likely to take a sick day
  • Are 18% less productive
  • Have 13% lower confidence in their performance
  • Are 2.6 times more likely to be actively seeking a different job

This lower productivity costs organizations 34% of the employee’s annual salary (a full 1/3of wages)

Ultimately, the greater loss is that this problem is resulting in many choosing to leave professions that they have committed their lives to. The Great Resignation serves as a wake-up call for us both individually and organizationally as we seek to find balance, health and workplaces that support us to more effectively manage our burnout and fatigue. 

As we look at these rising numbers  it’s also important to consider what we mean when we say burned out. Most of us can relate our own personal experience this past couple years and understand the feeling. After being in conversations and relationships with physicians, nurses , care providers, educators and other professionals over these past 20 months, their experience is compelling. Fears of bringing COVID home to family members, staff shortages, lack of access to safety equipment and other needed supplies, dealing with higher levels of death in ways they have never experienced before, fears that standards of care are compromised due to shear volume, unmanageable workloads, watching families try to cope with economic hardships and more recently, not feeling valued or recognized by their organization despite loyalty and personal sacrifices. Does all this feel familiar? 

When we talk about burnout in the workplace, we are often referring to people’s experience around varying levels of stress. While burnout has become somewhat of a buzzword, it is important to recognize the stress that underlies burnout occurs at varying levels. 

Prolonged exposure to workplace stressors does not always lead to burnout as we talk about it from a psychological perspective.  Burnout at the extreme is excruciating, debilitating, and its implications are just as such (health issues, deep withdrawal, higher diveroce rates, and suicidal tendencies). When we say we are tired, exhausted, burned out, or other such terms, it can, and often does, come with the risks above. 

Many of the individual contributing factors to burnout (lack of appreciation, disappointment, frustration, overextended, cynical) in and of themselves might not be burnout, but together or in combination, they form the recipe for it. 

In many professions, one prominent phenomena to burnout is compassion fatigue. While the data would suggest that these two are different, with burnout being something that sets in over time and has a relationship to work, while fatigue is more sudden and occurs as a result of taking on the pain and suffering of others, what we actually experience is similar. I would offer that in many professions and in our current environment, they go hand and hand.

One important point that is inherent in the definition of both burnout and compassion fatigue is an inability to COPE with the demands placed upon us. When we are in the midst of fatigue and burnout, we become helpless to find the path forward. We actually begin to engage in behaviors that keep us trapped in isolation, anger, fear and stress. The difficulty as we consider our coping ability is the fact that we are not always psychologically prepared to manage this rapid rate of change and transition and all of this continues to strengthen the grip that fatigue and burnout has on us. 

Some of the common signs of burnout and fatigue include:

  1. Detached and distant from co-workers, peers and family (patient and students if you are in those professions)
  2. Isolated, numbness, avoidance
  3. Mood swings, irritable, short tempered, sarcastic, tearful, lack of joy
  4. Anxiety, anger, resentment, depression
  5. Unable to name your emotions
  6. Lost sense of pride in your work
  7. Dread working with certain people
  8. Less empathy for others
  9. Sleepless nights/tired
  10. Forgetful, memory problems, poor concentration, loss of objectivity
  11. Poor judgement
  12. Physically, emotionally exhausted
  13. Health issues: headaches, backaches, GI, muscle tension
  14. Increased alcohol or drug use
  15. No work-life balance – “work is all I have”
  16. Sense of not being able to live up to others’ expectations – GUILT

So we land here. . . and wonder

  • Am I strong enough?
  • Is all this worth it?
  • I’m fed up and don’t care anymore
  • I just can’t continue
  • I am stuck
  • I should have never gone into this profession
  • I’m not even making a difference anymore

When we think of fatigue or burnout, what I want to emphasize is that the opposite of fatigue is not rest. It’s actually a return to energy and aliveness. Fatigue actually surfaces when we are unable to respect and appreciate the moments of purpose and joy in our lives. When our workload, feelings of unappreciation, or overextension results in breakdown as opposed to a sense of alignment with our values, burnout is the result. 

Right now, fatigue also sets in when we are unable to grieve difficult situations in a way that allows us to experience community connection and be supported by one another. 

Let me share a few myths that I hear regularly around burnout and fatigue

Myth #: Burnout is an individual’s problem.

Many people believe that burnout is about an individual who needs to “figure it out”  In reality, burnout occurs as a result of challenges at three levels: individual, team and organizational.

Individuals have the capacity to build their personal resilience and emotional intelligence and they should. We know these strategies are effective and include things like: 

  • taking different perspectives
  • deepening our values and faith
  • knowing who we are and how are personality contributes to our understanding of ourselves
  • maintaining composure
  • engaging in self care
  • setting boundaries and limits 

Teams are equally important. The more supported and connected we feel in a team, the greater sense of belonging we have and therefore the less likely we are to experience burnout and fatigue. The very nature of teams offers a support strategy that is critical and leaders must create environments where burnout is discussed, and addressed. 

Organizations are never off the hook. We know and can measure through assessments aspects of the organizational environment that contribute to burnout. These include elements of workload, recognition, and creating a sense of value. 

Myth #2:  Burnout results from disengagement.

In reality, those most likely to experience burnout are employees and leaders who love their job, are committed, and are highly engaged. They are often your top performers and you are most at risk of losing them.

Myth #3: People who experience burnout are just less resilient.

Our research and the research in the industry shows a correlation between higher levels of resilience and lower levels of burnout. So, on the one hand, we know that developing resilience and those skills will make you feel less burned out. However, resilience is not what we think AND it’s changing. Our research at Innovative Connections shows emotional intelligence as the path to resilience and that path is very different from the previous mantra of “be strong”, “suck it up” and the “just get through it” approach.

However, there is a common phenomenon called “resilience burnout” which occurs when we are trying to be so strong that we deny our daily adversity and the impact it’s having on us. 

The key to addressing burnout and fatigue is that we must elevate our ability to cope. We are in unprecedented times – where there has been little to no downtime from COVID in nearly 2 years. Our coping strategies are adjusting and evolving to meet different levels of stress, strain and frankly trauma.  

What we are beginning to realize is that resilience looks very different now than it might have 3 or 5 years ago and my guess is that it will continue to shift. At one point, people believed resilience was pushing through, sucking it up, staying positive, picking yourself up- over and over.

What we have come to discover is that resilience must actually be developed at a deeper level and emotional intelligence offers us some practices to support that. 

EI is a pivotal skill-set designed to more effectively deal with burnout and fatigue. As I mentioned, all our research, which includes thousands of participants shows 3 things:

  1. Individuals with higher levels of EI have lower experiences of burnout. They might feel just as much stress, but it doesn’t manifest into burnout.
  2. Our personality plays an important  role and we are sometimes fighting against ourselves. Those with certain personality types have a natural tendency to be calm and manage stress more effectively. We also know that those who seek personal connections and service might experience less burnout. Building our EI can help us understand where we have natural strengths and potential weaknesses as we build resilience. Some research shows that certain personality dimensions have correlations that align to less instances of burnout (adjustment, affiliation, altruism from the Hogan personality inventory).
  3. EI allows us to better navigate and integrate our emotional experience and when we do that, we can more effectively leverage our emotions. If this time has taught us anything it is that we cannot separate burnout from emotion- fear, anger, shame, guilt, and the path forward requires an even more intimate relationship with emotions of joy, passion, pride, and fulfillment.

As you navigate the challenges of your time, don’t do it alone. Contact us for an introductory coaching session.