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Chasing Success May Lead to Burnout

Burnout is a major problem affecting many people today; it is often associated with the accelerating pace of life, society's obsession with consumption, and the pursuit of success. Burnout can equally affect an office employee stuck in a monotonous job and a successful yet disillusioned entrepreneur, according to Alfried A. Laengle, Professor of the HSE's Department of Psychology of Personality and author of the report 'Burnout: Ashes after the Fireworks. Existential and Analytical Understanding and Prevention'

Burnout is a symptom of modernity, according to Laengle. Burnout is widely believed to be caused by stress; but even more importantly, burnout is associated with seeking success that is out of alignment with one’s actual values.

Laengle is the author of the existential fundamental motivation theory, president of the International Society for Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (GLE-International), and a student and colleague of Viktor Frankl, the famous founder of logotherapy.

Burnout has been a major subject of Laengle's research; he argues that despite its dangers, burnout can sometimes offer a struggling person a final chance to reacquaint themselves with their priorities in life.

There's a Limit to Trying Harder

Many people today force themselves – or are forced by circumstances – to go beyond their normal energy levels and resources, balancing on the verge of physical and emotional exhaustion. «Exhaustion can occur after prolonged stress, such as working on a major project, taking exams, or completing some study. A medical doctor may become exhausted during a flu epidemic, and a young mother may be driven to exhaustion by two young children,» Laengle explains.

Physical and emotional exhaustion, including symptoms such as insomnia or, conversely, sleeping too long, decreased motivation and a depressed mood, may be a sign of advanced burnout.

However, Laengle emphasises that people have a natural ability to withstand stress as long as they can see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Burnout can be overcome through awareness and rest. «Continued stress without any possibility to take time out and relax is what makes the situation dangerous,» Laengle warns.

Goals vs Values

However, stress and energy depletion from overwork are not the only possible causes of burnout, which can sometimes occur outside of a stressful situation.

The term burnout was first used in 1974 by the American psychiatrist Herbert Freudenberger who observed the work of volunteers and found that while initially delighted with the activity, with time they seemed to have lost much of their enthusiasm – burnt out leaving behind a handful of ashes, as Freudenberger put it – and adopted a cynical attitude towards others instead of wanting to help, and avoided communication, seeing it as an additional burden.

His study demonstrates that burnout is not limited to mental and emotional exhaustion or overwork. In describing burnout, Freudenberger divided it into 12 phases: in the early phases the subject feels a compulsion to prove themselves by working harder and neglecting their needs, while in the late phases they may suffer emptiness, psychosomatic symptoms, and even suicidal ideation.

Professor Laengle gives an example from his own practice: a successful businessman had been hiding his burnout, but his wife eventually detected a problem and convinced him to see a therapist. The businessman admitted that by then, he already felt like he could walk out of the window at any time and did not even have the energy to dial a phone number to make an appointment with the therapist.

According to Laengle, this condition often occurs when a person's activities lack or lose meaning for them and thus fail to bring joy and satisfaction.

This may happen when people set goals but see no value in the process of achieving them or perceive the goal's achievement as an end in itself, e.g. when someone with an ambition of becoming the first violin does not enjoy playing the violin, or when someone starts a business just to make money without appreciating the value and meaning of what they are actually doing.

Enjoying One's Work Protects from Burnout

Studies show that burnout is often associated with feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness even when the subject has enough time and resources available to fill this void. «One cannot buy meaning,» Laengle explains. «The question is whether one sees personal value in what he or she does.»

The state of fulfillment is the opposite of burnout. «One can be very tired but feel joy even when stressed; burnout does not occur in such situations,» according to Laengle. He notes, however, that fulfillment comes without bells and whistles and should not be confused with enthusiasm.

It is fairly easy to check out whether we genuinely love our work. «We feel sad when our vacation is over, because it has value for us. If we also feel sad at the end of a project or effort, it means
that we have made the right choice. In fact, if we cannot wait for something to be over, we welcome the passing of our time and the approaching end of our life,» notes Laengle.

This is not to say that any activity should always bring love and joy – but someone who spends 50% of their time doing something that brings them stress and frustration but no joy, faces a high risk of burnout.

In the worst cases of burnout, taking time off may not be enough. According to Laengle, such cases also require the adoption of a new working style after 4 to 5 months of rest; otherwise, burnout may reoccur.

Ironically, burnout may provide a salvation to someone trapped in a pursuit of meaningless goals by forcing them to rethink their life.


Author: Marina Selina, December 02, 2014