Curing Burnout – It’s time to rethink our relationship to work

The topic of Burnout has gained renewed momentum in 2019.  This no doubt has to do with the  International Classification of diseases (IDC)  identifying that burnout as a medical condition in May of 2019.  This new classification provides people who are experiencing the effects of burnout more choices for a recovery pathway and is starting to reduce the stigma and shame associated with having burned out.

Burnout at the core, is a disease mechanism within our relationship to work.   The way we work ceases being healthy.  Our work becomes all-consuming.  Our ability to separate ourselves from our work is lost.  Our identity apart from “what do you do” is all but eroded.

It is clear when you read the ICD definition that burnout specifically relates to “phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life”

How is it then, that our relationship to work has become so dysfunctional that it can now cause us harm?

It might surprise you to learn that the average person will spend 90,000 hours at work over a lifetime.   More than 1/3 of your life will be spent at work.  It would be fair to state then that work will have a significant impact on your life.  I would also suggest that anything that you spend 1/3 of your lifetime with is something you would have some type of “relationship” with.

It might also surprise you that medical science has identified that good work is good for our health.  The Australian Faculty of Occupational & Environmental Medicine and the Royal Australian College of Physicians have quite a LOT to say on this matter.  They have created the Australian and New Zealand Consensus statement on the Health Benefits of Work.  This statement was released in Wellington, NZ by Dame Carol Black on 30 March 2011. Dame Carol Black is the UK’s first National Director of Health and Work.

So, this is not an Australian problem this is an international problem and one that was brought to light by the World Health Organisation, in 2000 in their paper Mental Health and Work: Impact, issues, and good practices.

We have had research at an international level making recommendations that good work is good for our health for 19 years!

I will ask the question again, how is it that something we spend more than 1/3 of our lifetime in or doing, that is supposed to be inherently good for us, now has a disease classification when it goes wrong?

I assume that if you have read this far you will have some sense that this subject is an important one.  Every day on social media, in the mainstream media, in conversation with colleagues and peers we are hearing people talk about being burnt out, at risk of burning out; maybe they are just burned out.

  • We hear people speak about being exhausted
  • We watch people zone out
  • We miss people who no longer participate in communal activities
  • We learn to manage the moods and emotional outbursts
  • The joy is gone
  • The drive is gone
  • It feels like labouring in second gear trying to get into 4th

We spend a lot of time working right?  And even if we are not “at work” physically, most of us would recognise that we are “at work” emotionally, cognitively or intellectually.  We rarely stop thinking about our work, and as a consequence, our thoughts create feelings about work.  Often significant feelings – like anxiety.

Relationships are something we have from the moment we are born. Healthy or unhealthy they begin with our parents, families, caregivers, school friends, and teachers. Like any relationship, they all have the capacity to enrich us, add to us, build us up, make us become a better person.  However, most of us would know that unhealthy relationship rarely promotes positive feelings.

As an adult, you don’t need to spend too much time on a Google search to realise that there is a lot of information shared about managing toxic relationships with bosses, or spouses, or parents, or ex’s, or food or exercise, or gaming, or shopping or gambling…  None of these things are inherently bad. It’s the relationship that has developed that is no longer healthy.

Our relationship with our work is no different. When we have lost our sense of who we are as humans and can only identify with ourselves by our work, then we have created a power imbalance where the work has an unhealthy balance of power leaving you at risk of significant emotional and psychological distress.  Which if left unaddressed may lead to the inability to work at all.

When we are withdrawn, lackluster, have lost interest, are bored or just plain exhausted all the time, then our relationship to our work is unhealthy.   The work is not receiving the attention it needs to be sustained.  If we withdrew from our spouse; or only turned up with half of our attention to our relationship with a significant other, we would give the message that we aren’t interested, or we are bored and that would signal that the relationship is unhealthy.

If we were clingy, texting  our significant other all the time; checking in on them all the time; making sure they were doing what they said they were going to do when they said they were going to do it; micromanaging their every decision and allowing that 1 person to be the everything and all things to us, then we would suggest that relationship too is unhealthy.  In the same way when we are at work 24/7, checking in all the time  (don’t tell me you don’t check your work-related emails) micromanaging up the line, down the line and around the line; wanting to control everything everyone does so that you can feel in control – then I would suggest your relationship with your work is unhealthy and if left unaddressed you may end up with a significant mental health diagnosis or an industrial relations dispute.

This is why we see people bouncing from burnout to burnout.  It’s going nothing to do with the “job” they were employed to do and everything to do with that person’s relationship to their work.

This is why we see people have a week off or a month off only to repeat the same unhealthy patterns of work again.

This is why burnout is not only about the mechanism of our work (the way we do things) but also who we do things with and most importantly how we allow our work to relate to us.

If we don’t get this relationship sorted at an individual level, we will not be able to cope with the ongoing demands of living and working in a VUCA environment.  It is all well and good for the workplace to take responsibility for providing good systems and processes for work and creating healthy work environments.  However, we too have a personal responsibility to ensure that we are also good relationship material!

Look at all the great benefits that we derive from work:

  • Meaning
  • Purpose
  • Choice
  • Self-worth
  • Distraction
  • Social interaction
  • Physical activity
  • Stimulation

Work in and of itself is not the problem.  Like most things, when it develops an unhealthy power over us then it becomes unhealthy.  Addressing burnout starts with re-identifying with those core values that you have about work?

Let me leave you with a couple of questions

  • What is important about work for you?
  • If you didn’t work, then what would be missing from your life?
  • What of those things that would be missing are things you simply don’t want to live without?

If you have read this article today and it has triggered you, or you realise that you need help, please take action now.  Don’t leave this article thinking that this doesn’t apply to you.  Call a trusted friend; reach out to your GP or to a health professional. Please don’t ignore this.  The world needs what you have to offer.

Who is Jo Muirhead?

Jo is passionate about helping people make work, work well.  Jo is an engaging speaker, coach and the founder of PurpleCo a team of specialized allied health professionals who help people reclaim their lives and return to work following injury, illness, and trauma.   Jo is also the author of the book The Entrepreneurial Clinician.

How to contact Jo:

[email protected]

+61 414 276 265

Instagram jo_muirhead




Pin It on Pinterest

Share This