The calls keep coming. Every day, it feels like the same calls come in to the service desk, and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent them. It never feels like we’re making a difference. It sets the stage for the play called “burnout” and what we see as our unwitting role as best supporting actor.
Burnout is defined as feelings of exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy. What else could you feel if you know that, as soon as you hang up the phone, it will just ring again with the next customer with a similar problem? How can you avoid burnout when every day is an onslaught of the same thing?
Martin Seligman and Steve Maier stumbled across what seemed to be learned helplessness. The dogs they were working with wouldn’t even make minimal effort to avoid receiving a mild shock. They just stood there and took it. Years later, Maier and his colleagues would find out that he and Seligman were slightly wrong all those years ago. Certainly, there was some learning—or lack of learning—going on. But they were wrong about what was being learned.
Instead of learning to be helpless, the dogs learned a degree of control when given a way out of the pain. It wasn’t helplessness that was learned; that’s the assumed default state. Control was learned, and it turns out that it’s essential to our wellbeing.
The Road to Hope
There are two primary roads to hope. The first is that the world is fundamentally good and helpful, and some external—and some might say magical—force will transform our current challenges and struggles into something different. An external force will make our world better. The second road to hope runs through our belief in our personal agency, that is, the degree to which we can control or influence our situation.
Hope and the belief in control can help us to avoid cynicism. After all, cynicism is the unconscious choice of last resort once we believe that we have no control or influence over a situation. However, cynicism is only one of the components of burnout. What about exhaustion and inefficacy? It turns out they’re both driven by a lack of hope as well.
Battling Exhaustion and Inefficacy
There’s a level of frustration that happens when you’re working as hard as you can and it’s not enough. You push a little harder for a time thinking that, if you can just do a little more, you’ll make a permanent change. However, the calls keep coming. Nothing you do seems to stop the relentless waves of support calls asking for what seems to be the same information. Like waves lapping up on the ocean shore, there seems to be no stopping them.
Nothing you do seems to stop the relentless waves of support calls.
How might you feel if you’d been in an all-out sprint for longer than you thought was possible? In a word, exhausted. When you feel like you’ve got to give more than you have to get ahead, the inevitable result is a feeling of exhaustion.
Objectively, you may not be able to change your circumstances. You have a job to do, and that is your priority. However, what you can do is view the situation differently. Here are three suggestions:
- Understand you are making a difference: There’s an old story of two boys walking down the beach. The first boy is throwing starfish back into the water, and the second tells him it’s not making a difference. There are just too many washed up. The first boy throws in another and says, “It did to that one.” You can’t change everything, but you can make a difference to those you help.
- Let the waves continue: The fact that there will be calls tomorrow can either be viewed as the lack of progress or as an opportunity to help new people solve new problems. Even if another starfish is washed up, throwing it back makes the difference to that starfish.
- Control your attitude: While the circumstances don’t change, you can change the way you respond to them. The first of two men laying bricks grunts a response to a passerby’s question that he’s “slaving away, laying bricks.” The second responds enthusiastically that he’s “building a magnificent cathedral.” It’s the same job, just a different attitude. You can either feel like you’re slaving away or that you’re doing something important.
Put It All Together
Despite the challenges and the continued bombardment by incoming calls, it is possible to avoid burnout. It’s as simple as recognizing the difference that you’re making to each person you help and recognizing that, without your help, they’d languish in their problems rather than being freed from them.
Rob and Terri Bogue are leaders, speakers, educators, and co-authors of Extinguish Burnout: A Practical Guide to Prevention and Recovery. Rob has been a business owner and consultant for the past 12 years, and Terri has over 30 years experience in the healthcare industry. They’ve gathered knowledge from numerous disciplines, read stories from the anecdotal to the evidence-based, and put it all together in a way that anyone can understand. You can learn more about their book, the online course, and burnout at ExtinguishBurnout.com. Follow them on Twitter @RobBogue and @BogueTerri.