Are you heading for Burnout, or for Smoulder-out?
We know what Burnout is, you go down in flames, right? It’s dramatic, there’s some sort of collapse or crisis, there’s an event after which things have to change.
It fits in with a very popular narrative, one of disaster and recovery, one of ruination and redemption. The victim suffers but then goes through Post Traumatic Growth and emerges a better, more capable person. Proof of the old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
It’s a tale that plays to our emotions, it takes us down but then it brings us up. Disaster becomes a formative, positive experience. Very much in line with the relentlessly upbeat mood of business culture.
But that’s not what a lot of people experience. Exposed to the same things that we know cause Burnout, some people never actually burst into flames. They never actually collapse, there is no seminal event. They are equally as damaged but somehow they manage to keep going.
It’s as if they get to the threshold of burnout but then get stuck. Greatly impaired and barely getting by they somehow manage to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Limping badly and barely moving, they are still standing. Just.
People who experience burnout often reflect that they can see the decline started long before the collapse. Looking back, they can see that the signs were there but they ignored them. If they had only taken notice of them, they could have taken steps to avoid the worst.
But people who Smoulder-out never get to that point of reflection because they keep telling themselves they are just about holding it together, that it will pass, that they must endure it because it goes with the territory.
The collapse never comes. They just get slower and slower, their world becomes smaller and smaller until, eventually, they just come to a complete halt.
This puts them in an extremely dangerous and vulnerable position. When some other disaster befalls, like losing a loved won or redundancy, they lack the energy and resources to deal with it.
Smoulder-out doesn’t lead to a Pheonix-like resurrection. It leads to extinguishment and a pile of ash.
What is common to both experiences is that the people going through them believe two falsehoods. Firstly, they believe the situation is much better than it really is. And secondly, they believe they are coping much more successfully than they really are.
We know what the causes of Burnout are and the symptoms too, but we convince ourselves they don’t really affect us, we are somehow immune, we can just push through.
But we are fooling ourselves. No-one can stand in the kitchen and not get hot.
If you are struggling in your workplace, KNOW THIS: it’s worse than you think and more damaging than you acknowledge.
That situation is more dangerous and urgent than you are allowing.
So don’t sit there smouldering, waiting for the big dramatic moment that may never come. Act now.