Smell the smoke of burnout

In chatting with a golfer last week, we reflected on the ups and downs of having a passion for what you do. The analogy we came up for passion was that of a fire. On the one hand, a fire, like passion, can sustain us. For example, a passion for an activity or role can help act as a foundation for happiness and well-being ticking many the elements of Prof. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment). However, when a passion grows too great, like a fire, it can consume us and cause incredible damage personally and socially. Specifically, when such passion erodes our boundaries between work and life, undermines our health, or alienates us from the ones we love it can cause problems. This is perhaps unsurprising considering the English word ‘passion’ comes form the latin root ‘passio’ which means suffering. Recently, I also heard a lovely phrase suggesting that ‘you have to be on fire to burnout’ – basically that burnout is linked to our passion running riot and burning out of control. The term burnout itself was coined in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger who suggested it was a, ‘a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life’. Importantly, he followed this definition up by stating it could lead to, ‘the extinction of motivation…especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.’ Burnout in that sense is related to passion, particularly when that passion doesn’t deliver what we desire.

Recently swimmer Adam Peaty remarked on how he had fallen out of love with his sport. He stated, ‘as some people may know, I’ve struggled with my mental health over the last few years and I think it’s important to be honest about it. I’m tired, I’m not myself and I’m not enjoying the sport as I have done for the last decade. Some might recognise it as burnout; I just know that over the last few years I haven’t had the answers. With help, now I know how I can address the imbalance in my life.’ Although burnout as a concept is related to work in general, sport’s research has explored the term significantly because athletes, coaches and others are often highly invested in what they do at both a personal and professional level. They identify hugely with their sport, often with it consuming much of their waking time. The costs of burnout can be severe, leading people to withdraw from what they once loved, devaluating the work involved and thus also impacting on potential earnings and forms of security. Even if security is not so much of an issue, burnout in younger athletes in particular can cause them to dropout of sport prematurely, depriving them of a potential avenue of future expression and enjoyment.

I often think the most useful thing here is knowing the signs of burnout – I relate this to developing a personal ‘fire alarm’ that picks up on these signs, or symptoms, suggesting an increase in ‘smoke’ that wasn’t present before. For example, perfectionistic concerns is a general term used to describe when we worry excessively about making mistakes or how we might be particularly sensitive to the negative evaluation of others. Such concerns as a personality factor is shown to be a potential predictor, or ‘puff of smoke’, of burnout. Similarly, isolation and a lack of social support is also shown to increase the potential of burnout in athletes. Also, when we feel we have little control over our roles, accompanied by a high demand in workload, we may again be vulnerable to burnout. In developing our own awareness on how we may get burnt out, it can also be useful to try some generic tools like the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), which can assess objectively our occupational burnout. I think having a passion for our sport or work can provide some of the most meaningful experiences in our lives. In order to savour such meaning, we of course run the risk that such passion leads to burnout. In having a solid, bespoke, ‘fire alarm’ though we can provide ourselves with enough of a safety net that protects us from getting badly burnt along the way.