10:14 PM. 10th of March 2012. I am just getting ready to lock the clinic and go home after my last session for the day. My phone rings. It’s an unknown number. Someone called George. He said he had my number from a friend and he thinks he might need some help. He asked me if we can meet.
Which we did. Two days later. He was a team leader for a team of paramedics working for a large hospital trust. He talked passionately and proud about his job and his team, but it was something about the way he was talking that evoked sadness, emptiness. He worked anywhere in between 80 and 100 hours a week and he constantly had the feeling that he had to be there, that everyone else depended on him, that is never enough. About feeling always stretched and exhausted and barely being able to spent time with his family. He felt at the end of his powers and started to withdraw and to get less involved at work. It was his dream as child to become a paramedic, and he loved every bit of it for years but now it started to feel like a nightmare.
I thought it must be horrible to go through this. Little did I know that only a few years later I would find out on my own skin how that feels. We had two sessions together. Towards the end of the second session whilst talking about how difficult it was for him to tell his colleagues how he feels because he does not want to worry them, he suddenly stopped talking and his eyes filled with tears. He said he just realized that almost everyone in his team probably feels the same. Going through the same struggles and was wondering how they can get support as well.
I offered him to work with all his team together. In a group. Individual therapeutic work can be really useful, but they were going through similar experiences. Working as a team. Being there for each other on the field. I thought that they can help each other here as well and that work would be so much more effective.
We had our first group meeting two weeks later. I brought my colleague Dan with me. George brought 11 of his colleagues. Their stories were ever so similar to George’s story. Together, we started a journey that lasted 4 and half months. 20 weeks. 18 sessions in total. And because of how rewarding the first experience was, we followed it over the next few years with many other similar groups.
This was the beginning of Twelve. And on this fantastic journey I learned a few things that I would like to share with you:
Firstly, many people believe that burnout equals extreme fatigue that can be dealt with by taking time off. But burnout is not a state of exhaustion that needs to be overcome, but rather a state of being which needs to be reflected upon. Is not just a natural reaction to “too much”, like stress is, but rather a way of our whole self to say “not enough”. Not enough resources, not enough resilience, not enough motivation, etc. And because our minds don’t always work in our self-interest we transform this in “I am not enough”
In all my years of practice this is the one constant that came rolling again and again in all individual and group sessions: “I am not enough”. In the absence of significant trauma, these 12 letters represent the main source of our psychological and emotional turmoil and the very basis of the burnout syndrome.
“I am not enough” creates fear. A fear that tells us that we need protection from our own self. We engage in a safeguarding process against ourselves, or better said, against our own insufficiency. A process that is highly energy depleting and is leaving us feeling overstrained, cynical and worthless. And interestingly enough these are the three dimensions of burnout.
Secondly, in the process of fighting that fear of not being enough we build walls in the form of defense mechanism, how they’re called in psychology. They’re not very helpful long term in turn, they transform into real mental blockages, which actually further feeds our state in insufficiency.
1. Some of us fight the fear by extreme competitiveness and become overachievers
2. Some fight it with extreme compliance, a need to liked and become people pleasers
3. Some fight it with passivity and become withdrawn and underachievers
So whilst we’re trying to fight these invisible threats we end up protecting ourselves from what is actually important to us, personal growth. Made to face the possibly of growth, by replacing the fighting with acceptance, some of us get scared. Because becoming aware of the impact of our own decision and responsibilities can get scary. It’s way easier to hide behind a difficult and overwhelming job.
Thirdly. There is no specific therapy for burnout. It is a unique condition that is created by such a mixture of individual, organizational and societal factors that calls for a highly integrative and tailored approach. Tailored for each individual, tailored for each team and tailored for each organization.
However I did found along the way that there are a few principles, or strategies that once employed have a tremendous positive impact on reducing the risk of burnout and empowering people to unlock their professional potential.
These strategies act like pillars that can sustain our inner balance in the long run.
They are: Togetherness, Openness, Resourcefulness and Finding Meaning.
If is one thing that I can vouch for is that creating a group approach and strongly promoting a sense of community and support within organizations have the strongest positive impact on reducing and preventing burnout. Just think of how many others were helped by George reaching out. On our own we are prone to isolation, to error. On our own, regardless of how capable, extraordinary and resilient we are we will not make it too far. We have to learn not to push away people when we most need them to be close to us. Sharing our experiences allows us to tap into the so important sense of belonging and acceptance. And sometimes we don’t even need to exchange words but just exchange space. And that’s enough.
When I say Openness I mean to be open towards your inner self. To be open towards our fears and embrace them by living a life of intention, of mindfulness and not a living on auto-pilot. Openness mean an unconditional and non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of who you are, of what’s important, what really matters to you and of your needs and wants. Openness is the realization that everything star starts with you. Your relationship with your own mental health will define how you bring mental health into your workplace and how you will be able to help others as well.
Resourcefulness is a mental state in which you allow yourself to use creativity, intelligence, courage, determination, passion and honesty to overcome obstacles using what you have inside. Resilience, vision and self-care fall into this category. It’s the ability to see the opportunity and the belief you have the wherewithal to succeed. Resourcefulness sees the end goal and expects some hurdles, but knows you have the right to get there. In fact, a resourceful person knows some mistakes or obstacles are just lessons to be learned and lead to even better outcomes. Resourcefulness makes you dig deeper to your essence and talents, rather than settle for conventional wisdom or the easy answer.
This is my favorite topic when it comes to human growth, overcoming burnout, depression or anxiety and unlocking our potential. As an existential psychologist I give finding your meaning a left, right and center role in my workshops and group sessions. My favorite definition of burnout is that it is a dislocation between who you are and what you have to do. So, the very basic of preventing and overcoming burnout is finding out who you are. Both in my professional and private life I have noticed that we have this tendency to just survive, rather than live. But the invisible force of our internal drive is the most important thing there is. And in our groups we look at what makes you feel alive when you work. We dedicate more of or adult hours to work than to anything else and if we cannot find meaning in our work, if we don’t know why we’re doing what we’re doing than we’re in big trouble.
8 years since my phone call with George, I can observe that the phenomenon of burnout is constantly increasing. The most recent Deloitte Burnout Survey indicated that more than 75 per cent of people in the workforce are believed to be affected by burnout in UK. That’s a scary, scary figure. But as scary as that figure is, the good news is that there are solutions, there are ways to wake up from the nightmare, to enjoy your life again and to rekindle the passion for your jobs. And it lies in your power. And in your organization’s power. Sit down. Talk about it. And then talk about it some more. And in the end you will overcome it. Together. Maybe in groups of TWELVE.