The causes of burnout might seem obvious.. too much work, right? Doh.
But, in fact, while workload is obviously a major contributing factor, it’s a little more complex than that. In addition to workload here are 4 more causes.
Lack of control
One of the biggest causes of burnout is about feeling a lack of control. You feel that you have no choice but to do what you’re doing. Sometimes you are being over-worked by someone with little care or regard for your well-being, but quite often, if you’re honest, you’re in this situation at least partly because of decisions that you have made yourself.
Maybe you find it hard to say no, because you want to be seen as super competent, or you’re worried you won’t be given more work. Or maybe you secretly believe that no-one else can do it as well as you can (and you may even be right). Or maybe you’ve just sleep-walked into this situation without really realising how much you’ve taken on.
If you’re employed by someone else, question those things you say to yourself about what you ‘have’ to do. To what extent are they self-imposed?
If you’re your own boss, question even harder. Here are a few quotes from a survey of ELT Freelancers I recently undertook:
‘I am always reluctant about a project running over, so I am reluctant to plan other things into my life.’
‘I took on a bit too much over the last year as I had a panic about work drying up.’
‘I’ve been my worst boss making myself work with no weekend for almost six months’
Of course there’s a reality about being self-employed that if you don’t bring in the money, your salary doesn’t get paid. However, you do have more control over this than you might think – though if you’re always scrabbling around working 7 day weeks, you won’t be able to strategise and work out how to maximise your time and earnings.
If you feel exploited, rarely get positive feedback from your boss, or you are working so hard that actually enjoying your work seems a pipe dream, this will quickly bring you much closer to burnout.
This is why sometimes people can work long hours without burning out. The joy and satisfaction that they get from their work keeps them going. Note that this is only to a certain point, however. If you don’t rest, you will eventually burn out, however much you love what you do.
If you used to love your job and have recently been feeling detached and even cynical about it, that’s a very clear sign that you could be heading for burnout, and need to do something about the situation.
What would it take for you to love what you do again?
Is what you’re doing in line with your values? I suspect this may be particularly important for educators. We mostly got into education to help other people, and if the way we’re working undermines this, it sets up a cognitive dissonance inside us which can be one of the key causes of burnout. For example, if you know that what you are being required to teach your students, for funding purposes, is not actually what they desperately need for their daily lives (not a random example).
While some of us are more introverted than others, all humans require some sense of community and support from others. This might be a physical staff-room (in non-Covid times) or an online community, but it’s hugely important in avoiding burnout.
If you’re surrounded by competitive, unhelpful, untrustworthy people, you are likely to burn out much faster, so get yourself a better community, and support each other in making good decisions about your work-life balance.
I can highly recommend my membership, The Confident ELT Freelancer Collective.
What can you do now?
If you’ve read this list and recognised some causes of burnout in your life what can you do about it?
Eckhart Tolle tells us that there are three ‘sane’ choices: change, leave or accept.
Take an honest inventory of the situation, without listening to your Inner Troll yelling, ‘Yes, but they’ll never give you any work again!’ ‘Everyone will hate you’ and so on, and decide what changes you can make.
In those areas where you can’t make changes, then consider if you can leave. No job is worth destroying your mental and physical health and relationships.
And if you (honestly) can’t change something, or leave, then try and accept that this is the way the situation is for now, and focus on what else you can do to make that situation manageable. If you have to work long hours for now, what could you do in your free time to look after and nurture yourself as well as you possibly can?
The ‘insane’ choice is to carry on exactly the way you are….