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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

The Burnout Paradox: Burnout and the Circle of Control

Notes on Exhaustion. Blog #1

Anna Katharina Schaffner | PSYCHOLOGY TODAY

There is a huge paradox at the heart of burnout debates: Coaches who work with burned-out clients tend often to focus exclusively on what the clients can do to prevent or lessen their burnout. Common strategies include gaining clarity about specific stressors, building up resilience, agreeing on workable self-care regimes, identifying practical ways of shoring up the boundaries between work and leisure, enhancing time-management skills and establishing better rest regimes. In these scenarios, the responsibility for the condition is placed firmly on the shoulders of the person suffering from burnout.

However, a growing body of research suggests that in the majority of cases, the causes for burnout are not our faulty coping mechanisms but are anchored in our working environments. In other words, most of us do not burn out because of our bad stress management skills, but because our environments are making us sick. In an interview with Jennifer Moss for the Harvard Business Review, one of the key burnout researchers, Christina Maslach, invites us to think of the canary in the coal mine – it flutters in yellow, chirpy and full of vitality. It comes out disease-ridden and exhausted, covered in soot, its spirit broken. The canary wasn’t lacking in resilience, and nor did it choose to make itself ill – it was the coal mine that did so.

A survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup established the following top five reasons for burnout:

1. Unfair treatment at work

2. Unmanageable workload

3. Lack of role clarity

4. Lack of communication and support from their manager

5. Unreasonable time pressure

All of these causes are clearly not internal, but external. The WHO clearly classifies burnout as an occupational, not a mental health condition. And yet there is nonetheless the question how we respond to external pressures. Building up our response-ability, resilience and self-care skills are not wrong strategies as such. Because once we are in the coal mine, we obviously have to find ways to survive in it as best as we can. Importantly, we also need to feel that we have some ways of taking control, that we have agency and that we can strengthen it. And we do have agency. The question is how much, and in what domains.

What I find hugely problematic, though, is when the onus of responsibility in burnout coaching is placed too exclusively on the suffering individual. Because that approach can add guilt and shame to the problem. When a more systemic, big-picture view of the causes of burnout is missing, we are made to feel personally responsible for our condition, and often feel ashamed, as though we have failed at a personal level. In that way, we add “dirty” pain (a very useful notion from ACT) to our suffering – self-reproaches, negative self-talk, loss of confidence and loss of self-respect. In that way, a vicious circle ensues, aggravating our condition of exhaustion further, for when we are in such a place, we use up all our remaining energy reserves (limited as they are) in draining internal battles.

I believe that effective burnout coaching has to start with a Stoic move. The ancient Stoics came up with the idea of the “circle of control,” and sought rigorously to distinguish what is and what is not in their control. They actually held pretty extreme views on that question: The Stoics believed that all external events are by definition outside of our control, whilst our inner responses to external events are fully in our control. All we can reasonably seek to control, they believed, is our judgements, our thoughts, our emotions, and we should therefore focus all our energies on our cognitive processes.

While I think that the “circle of control” idea is a very powerful tool, I also think that in reality, most situations are more complex than the Stoics allowed. It is not true that we have no power to shape external events at all, and it is also not true that we can ever have absolute control over our inner lives, thoughts and emotions. And nor should we aspire to that ideal.

I strongly believe that when it comes to burnout and exhaustion treatment, it is imperative, first of all, to distinguish as well as we possibly can between what we can control and what we cannot control in our situation. By understanding clearly how we have been and continue to be affected by external factors, we will also understand that the state of burnout is not our fault. Burnout does not constitute a form of personal failure. Although it may be a very unfashionable thing to say in our hard-core neo-liberal age, I believe that employers do have a duty of care. Putting serious procedures in place to prevent their staff from burning out is top on that list of essential duties. Not everything is a question of personal responsibility and will-power – sometimes there really are structures out there that make us ill, no matter how strong and resilient and hard-working and effective we may be.

We may wonder whether or not we should have flown into a particular coal mine in the first place. But often there are hard financial factors at play that mean we cannot choose or leave our respective mines so easily. And nor might we have the energy or power to reform them from within and turn them into the kinds of light-flooded sanctuaries in which we can truly thrive.

We need, then, to be discerning about what we can and cannot change, and fully understand what external factors have caused and keep contributing to our condition. As a second step, we can then look at strategies to cope better with what we cannot change – but in a clear-eyed, guilt-free way, that fully recognizes the realities of our respective occupational coal-mines.

In my next blog, I will reflect on what happens when we are our own bad bosses. For burnout is rampant amongst entrepreneurs, free-lancers, writers and researchers, too.

Image: Jacqueline Day @Unsplash

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