In our high-stress working lives, we’re competing to be the 'most shattered'

by Donna Chisholm / 13 January, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

Is burnout a badge of honour? A new book suggests we’re competing for the title of the “most shattered” as a kind of sport. 

Insurance lawyer Andrew Hooker was in Christchurch when the breakdown came.

After battling insurance com­panies on behalf of earthquake victims for more than four years, he was mentally drained, sustained only by his passion for the job. He’d start each day feeling physically exhausted at the prospect of spending the next 20 hours absorbing the trauma and distress of dozens of clients who trusted no one else to handle their case. He didn’t want to get out of bed and go to work, but he always did. Never turned off his cellphone. Always answered his emails. They needed him and he could help, so he never said no. Until 11am on October 4, 2015, when Hooker’s brain ran up the white flag.

“I thrive on pressure. I’m an incredibly well-organised person. My ability to handle volumes of work is astronomical. But it just suddenly happened,” he says. “I couldn’t work out what I was meant to do. I couldn’t get out of my chair. Suddenly I was overwhelmed. I just couldn’t cope. I was sitting at my desk, bawling my eyes out. And then wiping them and telling people I had hay fever.”

He says the long hours he worked wouldn’t in themselves have been a problem. “The thing that pushed me over the edge was living and breathing the distress of my clients.” It was four months before he was well enough to return to work.

Lawyer Andrew Hooker: “I’m no longer everything to everyone. I have a different state of mind.” Photo/Simon Young

We meet at his Auckland office hours after the devastating November 14 Kaikoura quakes – events that may trigger another tsunami of litigation similar to that which followed the Christchurch ones in 2010 and 2011.

But this time, Hooker – and Shine Lawyers, the company that bought his practice – has introduced safeguards to prevent a similar collapse. For starters, they’ve employed three more lawyers to manage his caseload, which he now oversees “like Yoda”. “I’m no longer everything to everyone. I have a different state of mind. I’ve learnt to just manage myself.”

Tell Hooker that a new book by UK-based academic Anna Katharina Schaffner describes exhaustion as something of a badge of honour we strive for and he’s astonished. “What a stupid thing to say. It’s not a badge of honour; it’s a badge of failure. It shows you’ve failed because you haven’t been able to manage your life properly.”

In Exhaustion: A History, Schaffner argues burnout tends to be seen as less stigmatising than depression, despite sharing some of its symptoms. She quotes German writer Sebastian Beck, who describes it as the “socially accepted, luxury-version of depression and despair, which leaves one’s self-image unharmed. Only losers become depressive. Burnout is a diagnosis for winners, or, more specifically, for former winners.”

Anna Katharina Schaffner: burnout can be cathartic. Photo/Shane Weller

Zeitgeist of weariness

Schaffner argues our struggles with exhaustion today “chime eerily with our weary zeitgeist. Is not ours the most exhausted age in history?”

Well, actually, Schaffner has found, it isn’t. She says although there’s much to justify debates about burnout and work-life balance, what’s changed is not so much our experiences of exhaustion – which are fairly constant through the ages – but our explanations for its mental, social and physical triggers.

Exhaustion theorists in many ages, she writes, “present themselves as the most exhausted, as if exhaustion were a badge of honour and competing for the title of the most shattered were a kind of sport”.

She told the Listener that today’s exhaustion “model” is primarily stress-based. “A lot of us will believe in the fight/flight response, that we’re chronically in that mode because of stress at work, that our bodies produce too much cortisol and too much adrenaline and we begin to become physically exhausted because we are always in a state of high alert and the body isn’t designed to cope with that.

“Most of us probably believe in the fact that being constantly connected, constantly reachable via mobile phones and social networks and spending a lot of time in front of the computer produces a very specific type of cognitive exhaustion.”

But based on history, Schaffner argues that even if we get our work-life balance under control, it’s likely that in future, there’ll be other, different things to blame for our exhaustion. The election of Donald Trump as American president and the resulting fear of a “Trumpocalypse” could be one, anxiety over climate change another.

“These kinds of anxieties will produce a different kind of exhaustion, a kind of resignation and hopelessness, and people will feel more disempowered about the inevitable outcome, especially with people like Trump denying the reality of climate change and trying to get the US out of all these international agreements.”

She says although people might initially see exhaustion and burnout as “a failure of sorts”, the “badge of honour” idea comes from the notion that the hard work that triggered it is still regarded as positive. “The idea that you gave everything, you invested more than you had into your work and gave it your all and now you are breaking down … because of that it’s not a ‘shameful’ diagnosis. It’s produced by positive activity. You’re ambitious, conscientious and a perfectionist. People are obviously not proud of being burnt out, but feel more at ease with that diagnosis rather than others. And it can have a cathartic effect, in that they make sure their work-life balance becomes healthier.”

Whereas the phenomenon of burnout has led to a relentless stream of “self-help” manuals in the US and UK, in Germany, where Schaffner was born, and Scandinavia, it’s regarded as a social and political problem the state needs to solve. “They don’t so much see it as a personal responsibility; they think in more systemic terms that the state has to protect workers.”

The book notes that many sufferers are creative high achievers, but she says boredom or under-stimulation can equally burn out the packer on the end of the production line at the widget factory.

“It can be very exhausting when you have monotonous, boring work that doesn’t challenge you creatively or intellectually. You just count the hours and the minutes and time passes very slowly.”

There might seem to be plenty of ways to expand the mind after work, but people can end up so tired, all their energy and creative urges have been sapped.

Sleep of the innocent: a tendency to nod off easily suggests a lack of shut-eye rather than fatigue. Photo/Getty Images

Motherhood and half-pie

Schaffner, who began researching the book after her own experience of exhaustion a few years ago, had her first child two weeks after finishing her manuscript. Eighteen months of motherhood have taught her that the “intellectual, spiritual type” of exhaustion she researched can be preferable to the sheer physical exhaustion of new motherhood.

Her exhaustion developed when she became disillusioned with academia and her work as a literary critic. “I wondered about the merit in what we do and it was quite a productive crisis.” She became, she says, “disenchanted, disillusioned and hopeless”, and felt so physically weary that even mundane tasks were beyond her.

When she began investigating whether her experience was a product of our age, she discovered a passion for medical humanities, a new discipline focusing on the history of medicine and why diagnoses change. “It was hugely energising.”

For self-described “Dr Stress”, Auckland counsellor John McEwan, finding effective ways for patients to recharge their mental batteries as Schaffner did is an important part of the job.

At this time of year, many people are trying simply to get through to the Christmas holidays, hoping a break will be all they need to face the year ahead with renewed vigour. Before the end of summer, McEwan usually sees a spike in demand from patients for whom a break has had the opposite effect.

“They’ve finished work, flown out that night and come back the Sunday before they start. They normally go completely nuts within the first 12 weeks of coming back.”

McEwan says even good changes such as holidays stress us, but people don’t factor that in. “A holiday can be incredibly counterproductive.”

Many people think they’re “smarter, younger or fitter” than they are and over-estimate their ability to achieve what they’ve planned, whether that’s physical activities, such as walking or hiking, or withstanding the effects of travel and change of climate, time zones – or even pillows.

“People realise how knackered they are when they get the flu on the third day of their holiday and it’s the one everyone else had in May. The bug was just being kept at bay by incredible ‘drivenness’. The second the holiday comes – ping! – the pressure is off, they’ve got the flu. It’s one of the signs of classic burnout. You’ve burnt out your body’s resilience and your immune system isn’t able to bounce back quickly.”

Early signs of burnout can include physical clumsiness. “You literally start tripping over things, bumping into things. You’re a danger on the roads, you nearly have accidents, your short-term memory suffers, along with your ability to make quick and easy decisions. Your thinking starts to get clouded, like your thoughts are walking through mud. It’s just a realisation the system is starting to close down.”

The main impetus for patients to seek help, says McEwan, is a feeling that they’re losing control over the details of their lives. It may have been sparked by a change in their work or personal lives, such as a relationship breakup, promotions or demotions, or even the departure of familiar colleagues at work. “They realise the job has changed because those people have gone and they can’t relate to the ones who are there.”

Sleep suffers. “Your brain is on edge and starting to feel threat. It’s waking you at 1am, 3am, 5am, because that’s the time when the lions kill on the Highveld. We are still hardwired to wake up to make sure the sabre-tooth tigers aren’t eating the children.”

Internationally, however, researchers say there’s more at play in burnout than simply overwork and stress.

Professor Michael Leiter is a world-renowned expert on the psychology of work, now based at Australia’s Deakin University after more than 20 years working with American researcher Professor Christina Maslach, inventor of the widely used Maslach Burnout Inventory. He says burnout is more complicated than exhaustion. “You can get exhausted simply by not sleeping enough and putting in too many hours and basically using up your psychological, cognitive or emotional energy at work.”

Feeling tired at the end of a day’s work isn’t a problem, he says. Feeling tired at the start of the day, however, is.

In the 1980s, Maslach wrote that one of the standard definitions of burnout was “emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation and reduced personal accomplishment”. The following decade, she and Leiter described it not so much as a negative state of mind, but as the erosion of a positive one, reducing engagement and commitment.

“Dr Stress” John McEwan.

There’s a limit

Leiter says the “badge of honour” argument in Schaffner’s book “has a point”. “There is a finite capacity in any human being and if you’re working to the full extent of that capacity, that’s a big deal and you want to make sure people know that, in one way to show off about how important you are, but also giving a message of ‘don’t lay anything more on me’, so there’s a protective function as well.”

But he says an important part of burnout is losing the capacity to connect with other people and ideas. “You get discouraged and you lose confidence in your accomplishments – that isn’t something you want to tell everybody about.” Another part is feeling disconnected with the values that drive us.

“We talk a lot about physician burnout, but they’re not complaining about having to spend time with patients; they complain about dealing with bureaucracy and hierarchies, which interferes with their role as physicians. It’s a power struggle – ‘Why am I wasting my time on this stupid work?’”

It’s an issue that’s resonating with doctors here. A study released in August by the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists found half of the nearly 1500 senior doctors and dentists questioned reported symptoms of burnout; 42% attributed their burnout directly to their work and more than half reported frustrations with management.

Leiter estimates 5-7% of the workforce experiences burnout that interferes with quality of life or performance. Burnout crises often bite at the start of a career or midway through it. At the start, it’s because young people come out of “idealistic” training programmes and hit the harsh realities of the working world; in the middle it can be the result of promotions that don’t come or the realisation the job no longer engages them.

Companies seem more willing now to try to address the problem, Leiter says, but because the kinds of things that burn workers out are “fundamental and important”, it’s hard to convince them to make the big changes. “They certainly don’t want to decrease workload because there’s such pressure to get things done.” Because many organisations don’t expect to keep their staff forever, they may be unlikely to serve their long-term interests.

Much of his work involves designing the job so it sustains people. “If we’re going to be a high-demand operation, we have to have an intense support framework.”

One successful strategy is improving the social climate of the workplace. “People really do want to be part of a community – it’s a major resource that will make a big difference as to whether people will get engaged and stay engaged, or burn out.”

He’s working with staff who are vulnerable to burnout “on a fairly mundane, subtle level” to change their social environment, by increasing the number of appreciative, respectful and civil interactions and reducing those that are neglectful or rude.

People who perceive their workplace as “unfair” are more likely to burn out, he says, as are those who feel their bosses don’t appreciate them.

But he says not all praise is created equal. He worked with one organisation that instituted an employee of the year award, only to find the “rank and file” regarded it merely as evidence of who was in the bosses’ pockets.

“You have to take the time to listen to people to know what kind of reward really makes a difference to this group. You can’t just take one out of the box and say this is how you show employees appreciation.”

Taking work home

He says burnout is usually not associated with the baggage of emotional fatigue carried over from workers’ personal lives.

“Work is interfering with people’s personal lives more than people’s personal lives are interfering with work.”

For Hooker, the solution to his burnout was learning to say no. Clients have been surprisingly understanding. “It’s like, ‘Oh! I thought you were going to hate me.’”

He’s still working as hard as he always did, but he’s learnt to turn off his cellphone when he’s not on the job. “If I’m going away for a week, I’m not available. I don’t even check my phone. Getting away to the beach for a weekend isn’t a break if you spend all your time reading emails.”

Hooker was seeing a psychotherapist for 10 years to manage his mental health before his breakdown. “I’m not one of those testosterone-filled gorillas who doesn’t realise that you have to look after yourself. You look after your body; you should look after your mind.”

But he admits he wasn’t listening when she was telling him his life was getting out of control, and ignored similar advice from his friends who saw he was on edge, argumentative and stressed. “If your friends and your colleagues tell you they think you’ve got a problem, then you probably have.

“I should have picked up the phone and said, ‘Guys, I need help. I’m not coping.’ But I didn’t. I just thought I could soldier on through it and then I’d be all right.”

As it was, he sought help not because he was burnt out, but because he worried he wasn’t fulfilling his professional obligations to his clients.

Taking four months off to recover was a necessity, not a choice. “The fundamental mistake is assuming mental illness is different from physical illness. It’s no different to having a heart attack – I couldn’t work. And the most cathartic thing I did? It was turning off the bloody emails on my phone.”

Are you at risk?

Deakin University Professor Michael Leiter has developed a questionnaire to help us discover our connection with work and potential vulnerability to burnout. (Use a scale of strongly disagree to strongly agree; answers on the “disagree” side are red flags.)

  • Am I getting the rest and exercise I need to stay energetic?
  • Am I contributing to how things get done at work?
  • Does anyone notice my contributions?
  • Am I feeling part of the workplace community?
  • Do I feel reasonably fairly treated?
  • Am I confident my work makes a contribution?

Balancing act

Experts we spoke to suggested ways to improve sleep patterns and reduce the risk of exhaustion.

  • Do regular relaxation exercises to take the tension out of your neck, shoulders and jaw. You can do this at your desk.
  • Increase your fluid intake. “Pee your way through the day,” says counsellor John McEwan. Getting up to go to the toilet also gives you a mental break.
  • Eat a balanced diet, with regular mealtimes.
  • Programme regular mini-breaks, either a short walk or a gym visit.
  • Limit time on devices before bedtime. The strong light tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime.
  • Don’t eat in the middle of the night – it confuses your circadian clock.

This article was first published in the January 21, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter. 


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