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HAVE YOU HEARD: People Who Love Their Jobs Are More Prone to Burnout

Even the most creative people on the planet deal with burnout. Here's how to avoid fanning the flames.

After nearly two decades of long-haul flights, early call times, and 12-hour days on set, hairstylist Nate Rosenkranz was at the end of his rope. He hadn't fallen out of love with his craft, but he had grown weary of everything that came with it — so much so that he began to question his career path. He was, simply put, burned out.

But for Rosenkranz, burning out didn't look like it does in the movies: A law student collapses at their desk after a string of late nights or an overworked executive has an office outburst and quits on the spot. Burnout is typically sneakier than that, says psychologist Michael Leiter, a leading researcher on the topic and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Burnout Challenge: Managing People’s Relationships with Their Jobs.

"Burnout is a slow wearing-down," says Dr. Leiter. Despite popular belief, the word "burnout" is not strictly interchangeable with exhaustion. "It's more complicated than that," he says. The concept of burnout is so complicated, in fact, that it took the World Health Organization (WHO) until 2019 to officially define it as a syndrome.

That timing, by the way, strengthens the evidence that shows while the events of 2020 made burnout an even buzzier buzzword, "we were already in a burnout pandemic before [that]," says assistant professor Kira Schabram. It's true: According to a Gallup study conducted in 2019, 76 percent of full-time employees reported feeling burned out at work at least "sometimes." (About 28 percent of those respondents said they felt burned out "very often" or "always.")

How to Tell If You're Burnt Out

The classification eventually released by the WHO solidifies that burnout is an "occupational phenomenon" resulting from "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed." Though burnout makes people vulnerable to illnesses like depression, it is not a disease in and of itself, says Dr. Leiter, whose research mirrors the definition. Burnout can be characterized more specifically by three symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.

Burnout can be characterized more specifically by three symptoms: exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of efficacy.

Those with burnout tend to have a combination of all three symptoms, but depending on the nature of your work and your point of view, you might experience one more than another. For example, a nurse might not be as likely to lose sight of the meaning of their work, but could easily fall victim to exhaustion — which senior associate dean of faculty and chief well-being officer Lotte Dyrbye, describes not as tiredness, but as "having nothing left to give... You’re emotionally empty."

Of course, the source of exhaustion for those in professions like health care can't begin to compare with that of those in creative fields. But for creatives, the same feelings of emptiness can manifest as a loss of the flashes of inspiration that allow them to capture powerful images or compose catchy rhythms that enhance our world. "When we talk about creative professions, what we're talking about is work that is useful but unusual," says Dr. Schabram. "My argument would be that burnout doesn't affect that useful part. Often, people are really vested in still doing good work. It’s the 'unusual' that can be really difficult, especially if you are feeling exhausted."

If you’re particularly passionate about your work — as creatives tend to be — research shows you may actually be more burnout-prone than your less enthusiastic counterparts. Dr. Schabram describes a study she conducted with people who had worked at animal shelters (which have notoriously high employee-turnover rates) for 10-plus years. The aim was to determine what had kept them there for so long. Her hypothesis: It was their passion for and commitment to the job.

However, "we found the opposite," says Dr. Schabram. "When you come into a profession and you care about it [but] you don't care about it with this burning flame, it means that you go home at five and you tend to have other hobbies." That's not to say your work shouldn’t make you excited, but that excitement may be more likely to peter out in the long run if your job becomes the sole focus of your life.

researcher and coauthor of aformentioned book Christina Maslach, who is widely considered one of the foremost burnout experts in the world, says as much without speaking a word: An emailed request for a phone interview is met with an automated out-of-office reply that reads, "I will be traveling this month and will not have regular access to email. I will read your message later." No return date, no contact number; a public display of boundary-setting at its finest.

Self-Care Can Prevent Burnout — To an Extent

Obviously, ignoring your inbox isn't always a realistic option. So if you thought this was the part where we'd tell you to take a few minutes to meditate each morning or draw a bath at night, you're not wrong. But before you roll your eyes, know that Dr. Schabram has conducted studies on the effect of practicing mindfulness and unearthed fascinating results. "If you're suffering from exhaustion, those acts of self-care that we make fun of sometimes, like slapping on a face mask or getting a pedicure, [actually] work," she says.

For hairstylist Adir Abergel, who spent the past three months away from home, hopping from campaign shoots to movie sets to red carpet events, a hotel room with a bathtub is a must. "A bath, for me, is self-care," he says. Makeup artist Daniel Martin makes it a point to practice Pilates twice a week, even if it means squeezing in a remote session. "The passion that you have for [your work] can only go so far if you don’t take care of yourself," he says. "And if you don’t take care of yourself, you truly can't take care of other people."

That said, Dr. Schabram's research has also uncovered that self-care is just one piece of the puzzle: "The problem is these gestures only work [to combat] exhaustion," she explains. So if you're exhibiting the other signs of burnout — cynicism, lack of efficacy — you'll have to turn to other measures.

Don't worry, that's not code for "sign up for a three-week yoga retreat." Dr. Schabram's research reveals that a simple act of compassion can go a long way in reducing feelings of cynicism. "We found that the only thing that pulls people out of cynicism is doing something kind for others," she says. That could mean carving out time to volunteer or even an act as simple as taking a colleague out for coffee.

The Onus Should Lie on the Workplace

The meaninglessness associated with inefficacy, the third symptom of burnout, is trickier to tackle. But breaking down your goals into smaller, actionable tasks can lead to a sense of accomplishment that may help, says Dr. Schabram.

We’ve spent a lot of time talking about what you can do to prevent and ease burnout, but lest we forget, this syndrome is an occupational (as in, job-induced) phenomenon. Dr. Dyrbye estimates only about 20 percent of the work — practicing self-care, taking vacation days, logging off at a reasonable hour — can be done by the individual. The rest comes down to the workplace.

To help gauge the values that matter most to you (so you can, in turn, seek out a working environment that prioritizes the same things you do), Dr. Leiter suggests keeping notes about what you liked and, perhaps more importantly, didn’t like about your workday. "Try it for a couple of weeks, then start looking for patterns," he says. "You'll start to understand who you were with and what you were doing that made the difference."

Considering the drastic changes to our collective way of working as of late, your priorities might look very different than they did three years ago. "The idea of pursuing meaningful work actually emerged out of the Black Plague, when Europe lost about a third of its population," says Dr. Schabram. "For the first time, people said, 'I don't just have to do the work that I'm born into. I can do what I’m interested in.' We're seeing a version of that [now]. These major life events really prompt people to reconsider what they want to do with their lives."

This article was originally published on Allure US.

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