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Avoiding Burnout, and Are You the Difficult One?

A weekly post in which I share thoughts provoked by (some of) the great content I came across this week(ish).

Toronto surpassed a rainfall record set in 1953 this week. The beaches are underwater, the island is off limits, and the forecast for the next week includes another 5 days of rain. Which is why I’m exceptionally smug to be leaving for Arizona tomorrow where it’s going to hover around the 40 degree Celsius mark all week. I haven’t been to Arizona for over two decades, and the fact that I’m returning with some dear friends to attend what seems sure to be an incredible conference fills me gratitude. Also, I won’t need to worry about my garden getting watered while I’m gone.

I’ve finally dug into a few books this week, and of course came across lots of great stuff out there on the interwebs.


How To Avoid Burnout – Barking Up the Wrong Tree, Eric Barker

Fans of Eric Barker’s blog Barking up the Wrong Tree will know that he writes short, practical, readable posts based on research. His modus operandi is to dig into some of the myths and folklore about life, work, habits, and offer a research-backed view with actionable applications. This post was an interesting read as it intersected with some discussions we’ve been having at Actionable about designing our ideal calendars/schedule and avoiding burn-out. In a virtual, results only work environment this is a really critical conversation to have regularly, and I’m thinking about ways we can do it more.

What I found most interesting about this post was the following assertion, which challenges the way I’ve viewed burn-out (and yes, I’ve been there, although it was a number of years ago now):

“Burnout isn’t being overworked or not getting enough rest. Burnout is job-induced depression.”

Barker points out that we tend to think of burn-out as the furthermost point on a spectrum of work stress, but he claims that it is more akin to work-related depression, and bases this opinion on recent research:

“We commonly refer to the problem as “burnout,” but what’s fascinating is that psychologists have realized that burnout isn’t just an acute overdose of stress; it’s pretty much plain ol’ clinical depression. The paper, “Comparative Symptomatology of Burnout and Depression,” said, “Our findings do not support the view hypothesizing that burnout and depression are separate entities.”

I’m also reading Barker’s recently published book right now (and I keep e-mailing paragraphs to different people, which means I like it a lot). In it, he expands on this idea in a chapter digging into what underlies resilience or ‘grit’ (is that word trademarked yet? lol). His argument is that resilience or grit is really just optimism in the face of setbacks, and the opposite, helplessness, is pessimism. He quotes Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology as saying that his study of learned helplessness led him to realize he was actually studying pessimism, and that “depression is pessimism writ large”.

“When you keep down the path of feeling helpless again and again, you end up clinically depressed. You feel helpless at life. You give up in a much more holistic way and stop doing anything.”

I find this pretty fascinating because it makes me think about burnout as the result of increased hopelessness and pessimism in the workplace, and adds an important dimension to understanding why burnout happens, and what makes it so difficult to recover from.

If Barker is sharing a more accurate view of burnout, then it’s not just about having an inherently stressful job or life, its also about being in a role, team, or organization that leads to feeling hopeless about being able to improve one’s situation, make progress, or influence the environment. Some of those things can be improved or changed by an organizations’ leaders and managers, which might offer a protective benefit to employees.

It also tells us that taking a vacation is not going to fix burn-out; taking a break doesn’t change the environmental factors contributing to hopelessness and pessimism. I know that aligns with my own personal experience, and I think this is really important: much of the mainstream narrative about burnout focuses on what employees should do to prevent, manage, or recover from burnout themselves. Like a lot of the ‘wellness industrial complex’ discourse, this seems only to serve up a dose of false empowerment to those who don’t have the actual power to fix the situation causing them be unwell. “Remember to practice self-care after another 10 hour work day. Make sure to forget your toxic workplace by lighting a scented candle while you’re in the bath. Drink 4 bottles of rose and just don’t think about it…” This is not the answer.

Jerks at Work

Are You The Difficult One? – Gretchen Rubin Podcast

This podcast from Gretchen Rubin (author of the Happiness Project and Better then Before), is often concerned with designing a happier life and habit change, the subjects of Rubin’s books. In this episode, Rubin speaks about Bob Sutton’s books (one published and another forthcoming) about dealing with assholes in the workplace. She wonders “How do you know if you’re the difficult one?” She suggests the following questions to suss out if you might the source of the problem:

–When you do something generous for others, do you think it only right that your generosity will allow you to make decisions for them or direct their actions?

–Do you often find that when you do something nice for people, they seem ungrateful or uncooperative?

–Do you think it’s important to express your true feelings and views authentically, even if that means upsetting other people?

–Do you find that people seem resentful and angry when you offer helpful criticism or advice?

-Do you enjoy a good fight?

–Do you often find yourself saying defensively, “It was just a joke!” Along the same lines, do you find yourself remarking on how other people don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t laugh at a little teasing?

–Do people tend to gang up against you – when you’re arguing one side, everyone takes the other side, or when one person criticizes you, everyone else chimes in?

–Do you find it funny to see other people squirm?

–Do you think it’s useful to point out people’s mistakes, areas of incompetence, or previous track records of failure?

–Do people volunteer to act as intermediaries for you, rather than let you do your own talking? Your son says, “Let me talk to my wife about it,” rather than have you two talk

I think these are excellent, and have filed a few of them away in case I ever need to suggest them to someone for consideration (not an unfamiliar conversation for those of us in HR). However, I find it hard to imagine the people who need these questions the most giving them much thought: people who are truly jerks are rarely the sort to introspect this way. It makes me think of this fabulous article ‘A Theory of Jerks‘ from Aeon, which I actually keep bookmarked to send to people when they have relayed an especially egregious tale of a textbook jerk they’re grappling with at work.

In this superb piece,  philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel lays out his theory of jerks, and is quick to point out that an essential quality of a jerk is their inability to know that they are a jerk:

“Picture the world through the eyes of the jerk. The line of people in the post office is a mass of unimportant fools; it’s a felt injustice that you must wait while they bumble with their requests. The flight attendant is not a potentially interesting person with her own cares and struggles but instead the most available face of a corporation that stupidly insists you shut your phone. Custodians and secretaries are lazy complainers who rightly get the scut work. The person who disagrees with you at the staff meeting is an idiot to be shot down. Entering a subway is an exercise in nudging past the dumb schmoes.”

Schwitzgebel goes on to draw a distinction between a jerk and an asshole, and that is also a rich parsing worth our attention, but what is consistent is that these humans tend to lack the emotional and intellectual depth to appreciate others as humans in their own right.

“…the jerk culpably fails to appreciate the perspectives of others around him, treating them as tools to be manipulated or idiots to be dealt with rather than as moral and epistemic peers.

The jerk himself is both intellectually and emotionally defective, and what he defectively fails to appreciate is both the intellectual and emotional perspectives of the people around him. He can’t appreciate how he might be wrong and others right about some matter of fact; and what other people want or value doesn’t register as of interest to him, except derivatively upon his own interests.”

Finally, he notes the difficulty inherent in evaluating if we are in fact jerks ourselves:

“I said that my theory might help us to tell whether we, ourselves, are jerks. But, in fact, this turns out to be a peculiarly difficult question. The Washington University psychologist Simine Vazire has argued that we tend to know our own characteristics quite well when the relevant traits are evaluatively neutral and straightforwardly observable, and badly when they are loaded with value judgments and not straightforwardly observable

With Vazire’s model of self-knowledge in mind, I conjecture a correlation of approximately zero between how one would rate oneself in relative jerkitude and one’s actual true jerkitude. The term is morally loaded, and rationalisation is so tempting and easy!”

This is all a rather long way of noting that Rubin’s questionnaire is thoughtfully developed in that it names observable behaviours in others, which taken alone might each be wayward, unintelligible phenomenon. Viewed together as a constellation of signals, they might provide a clear answer, if the question is clearly articulated: “Am I the Difficult One?”  That seems like a big “if”, and I’m inclined to agree with Schwitzgebel that those most likely to ask it are almost certainly not jerks.

Other great stuff worth checking out:

CIPD Evidence Based HR Forum – The moves towards evidence based practice that CIPD is making are fascinating and (in my view) visionary. The ongoing existential crisis that HR grapples with may be soothed somewhat by a focus on building stronger professional competencies in problem identification, information and evidence assessment, and decision making. This is good for HR.

The Fish Rots From The Tail, While The Head Is Clueless – Bud Caddell, NOBL: Fascinating post that summarizes NOBL’s recent analysis of data from 500 organizations, showing decreases in role clarity and inclusion with every layer of management. “The higher up you are, the better your workplace seems (not just for you, but for everyone else, too).”

How I Handle Long E-mail Delays – Wait But Why: WBW always makes me laugh…uncomfortably. This cartoon/post is hilarious and to me particularly resonant in a fully virtual team/organization. “I wanted to let you know that I’ve decided to move to Guatemala to start a new life”

The Problem With the What Else Mindset?  – Jocelyn K. Glei: This really kicked me in the shins, and will probably find its way into my “Re-read as needed” Evernote file along with my colleague Alyssa’s post I mentioned last week. Jocelyn says:

“I am an inveterate planner. Which means I spend a lot of time thinking about what’s NEXT. Probably too much time. And when I finally accomplish all those things I was planning to do, I spend little (if any) time acknowledging what I’ve achieved. Because I’m already thinking about what else I could be doing.

This is, quite frankly, a crappy way to live your life. Because adopting a “what else?” mindset is a recipe for making yourself feel like nothing is ever enough.”

Next week I anticipate some WorkHuman musings, but until then, I’d really like to know: do you think jerks can realize they’re jerks? Have you been through burn-out, and does the notion that it’s work-related depression feel right to you ?

Image credit: Igor Ovsyannykov via

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