An article by Anke Sommer
Why burnout is more than just a private matter
Well, it’s not always easy to be a consultant, seeing from outside what’s going on and being confronted with the person concerned who is apparently incapable of seeing anything and almost working him/herself to death…
But let’s go back to beginning of the story, on the beach. What do you do if you’re sitting on the sand and see a bottle sparkling in the sunshine? You walk up to it and see to your amazement that someone is sitting inside it. You’re fascinated; you kneel down and wave to the person. He doesn’t react.
Then you try knocking, but there’s still no reaction at all. Because it’s so hot, you decide to take the bottle and its contents with you, because your instinct tells you that it must be terribly hot inside the bottle and its inhabitant will soon be in danger of dying of thirst.
Back home, you risk another look into the bottle. You see this someone running around like a mad thing. He looks exhausted. You think, well, I’ll try offering him something to eat and drink. Since he doesn’t seem to be aware of you, you carefully insert some food and drink into the bottle. He sees it, but hardly eats or drinks anything – only just enough so he can continue to be active, but no more and no less.
The signals change
Hmmm, you think, and put the bottle to one side for the time being. As time goes on, you can’t stop thinking about the bottle’s contents. You find yourself wondering constantly whether this someone is OK, and whether he can manage to look after himself. Looking into the bottle increasingly becomes a burden for you, because by now you’ve realised that the someone does a lot, but pays no attention to his own needs. You try to calm yourself by saying that it wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the signals the someone is sending. The signals are becoming increasingly urgent. Just before you go to bed you take one more look at the bottle. As you do this, you regret it, because it costs you half the night’s sleep.
The vicious circle – guilty by association
This someone never stops. He looks exhausted, so you try again to make contact. You knock, you shake the bottle, you try loud music and finally flares: you send an SOS message.
Your signals are reflected by the someone’s eyes, so that you receive the signals too. But nothing happens to put an end to the mess – except that the someone gets furious, clenches his fists, shouts and rages, kicks the bottle, and then ‘cheerfully’ carries on as before with his self-destruction.
Now you realise that perhaps it wasn’t a good idea to have noticed the bottle. That was when the bad situation started. The more the someone destroys himself while you watch, the more it affects you as well.
The worst thing is that you can’t do anything; that makes you a victim of the situation. You’re an involuntary accessory.
You experience highs and lows in your feelings. You oscillate between telling yourself that the someone will surely come to his senses and feelings like, “When will this drama finally be over?” Sometimes you even wish that it would end quickly, but then you start making new plans about how to reach this person after all.
Collective responsibility – a burnout is by no means only the affected person’s business…
At this point in the story, it’s clear that we consultants are part of the positive side of the story, because our profession enables us to put an end to cycles like this – at least if we’re given the chance to do so. But we too are dependent on the affected person’s co-operation. It requires their insight, because only they can put an end to the destruction.
At some point, their body will do so – but unfortunately, not everyone survives the body’s stop sign. The physical stop sign is preceded by ‘thousands’ of warning signals. Each signal is an individual invitation to pause and turn around. We consultants translate the signals and make the client aware of them.
But what can the group of involuntary accessories do in that position?
For example, the patients who notice that the doctor is about to collapse but is pretending that nothing is wrong, or colleagues who are confronted with someone whose actions veer between exhaustion, aggression and restless activity, becoming less and less productive; or staff who suffer under bosses whose stress-related fits of rage are putting a severe strain on them; or a life partner who seems to be at the mercy of their partner’s self-destruction.
Show tolerant silence the door
Stress as a cause of death has been a problem in society for years. There is a public discussion about whether burnout is simply another fashionable ‘disease’ or whether it really is a serious social flaw that no one can escape completely.
As a consultant, I know that burnout leads to the loss of the ability to recuperate, to take time out. It is difficult to imagine – but watch someone who is prevented from sleeping. What you see are the conditions that occur when a burnout takes place. And I know from experience that no professional group is immune to it.
Even when giving talks to doctors, I observe that some participants show serious signals indicating a possible burnout. Once upon a time, one thought of managers as people who suffered from burnout, but nowadays it could be anyone.
What can you do if someone is living in their own loop
If you also witness it, my tip is to be friendly, but be ready to make uncomfortable remarks. Don’t put up with destructiveness in your environment, because your quality of life is affected too when self-destruction is taking place. What’s more, you’re also subjected to stress, so you too are impacted.
The longer you watch the destruction, the more it also affects you. You should see your ‘helpless witnessing’ of the situation as a challenge to act. You can’t change the other person, but you can change your actions and reactions. Don’t get tired of considering the effect on you if an affected person is destroying themselves before your very eyes.
But whatever you do, be friendly, matter-of-fact and direct, because anger and aggression are a natural part of stress cycles of this kind. If this type of aggression is taken up, you involuntarily reinforce the negative in the burnout.
In this way, whole departments or companies can lose their strength to act or their performance level declines, if a manager is trapped in the self-destructive mode. Distance yourself from all the negative consequences caused by your manager, but meet him/her only in what is left of his/her positive side.