What is burn out anyway?

December 23, 2021

By Allison Iantosca

She looked rested and centered over Zoom. The room was bright from the sun but she was perfectly positioned; not backlit, no shadow. Just aglow. We’d been working together since before the summer maybe, took a break and then decided to get together again for a quick check in before the holidays.

Our original contract was to cover time management, saying no, creating a sense of self to manage challenging working conditions. She had grown, committing to awareness building, and creating choice. I admired the confidence she had found in our time together; the willingness to experiment with reframing, valuing her choices to date, understanding how they helped to protect and support her, allowing her to accept her goodness.

This Zoom was an update: A new, but not necessarily better, boss. Fewer tenured colleagues (some couldn’t stay under the new regime). Downsized team, but the same amount of work.

Not much new. Which was exactly the point. Not much was new. And yet she stayed. “Why do I stay?” she wondered out loud to our Zoom cocoon.

“How do I know when I’m burned out?”

What an excellent question.

We often define “burn out” as physical exhaustion. A feeling of fatigue, lethargy, of being overwhelmed, perhaps. Maybe we have headaches and can’t sleep at night. Or perhaps it’s when we can’t stand the thought of opening our email or joining a Teams call. But this wasn’t what she was inquiring about. She might have been feeling some of these things from time to time but the more we talked, the more we wondered if what she meant was “how do you know when it’s time for me to leave this behind?” I loved the inquiry.

I think “burn out” is often mischaracterized because we forget the part where we might have evolved beyond our current situation. Burn out from too much to do in too little time with too few people is equally potent, but burn out when hope turns to disappointment – that’s a whole other ball of wax. It’s a little bit harder to detect and preys on some of our deepest-seeded norms and myths.

First, we must wrangle with our ideals of being a devoted worker and then we have to stop believing we have the power to change the values of our organization to match our own. In other words, we must become something other than what we have always been. We must stop the train and live inside the discomfort of waning inertia. It is here where we might be able to acknowledge this kind of burn out.

Here’s the thing: We change. Which is harder to do when you are deep inside your old narratives.

So, the essence of coaching is to maybe spur this change on. A little bit faster. To see what you can’t see inside the boundaries of old operational systems around hard work, dedication, loyalty— the things that made you successful and gainfully employed but, as you get deeper into your career, may not be as abundantly sustaining. May, in fact, lead to what some could describe as “soul” burnout.

I so appreciated my client’s humor and calm. Her willingness to inquire of herself what she was holding onto and for what reason. Her ability to experiment with some old narratives and wonder if they were still serving her. Her inquiry on burnout. And on change.

It was a lot to ask of herself and I couldn’t do it for her because it was so critically up to her. But she invited me into her corner for support as she took the time to rewrite her definition of success knowing what burnout feels like.

What a great place from which to start.

Allison Iantosca is a Gestalt International Study Center (GISC) trained coach with extensive leadership and management experience. She is an Executive Coach and is the Owner and President of Boston based FH Perry Builder.

*Photo credit Kent Pilcher

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