Combating Burnout in Purpose-Driven Work By Doing… Less
Love Your Job? Do It Less
If you love your job and feel like you’re truly working and living within your purpose, then please, do a little less of it and with a little less intensity. Let me say that again. Love your work? Please stop doing it quite so much.
What? Come again?
Can you imagine your manager or supervisor saying that to you? Most of us cannot. But the truth is this when it comes to your work and maintaining a loving relationship with it – a bit less is MORE, especially, and this is important, when your work is people-centered work in which much of your day is spent interacting with others. Tell your boss.
So what do I mean by this?
Purpose-Driven Professions and Burnout
For many people in human-services related fields in which our work is with people – as patients, clients, or students, it is a known fact that burnout occurs at statistically higher rates than in other NON-person-oriented careers. We’re helpers, and most of us didn’t go into a helping profession because we were itching to become the next Jeff Bezos. Medical and healthcare professionals, like therapists, are particularly prone to burnout, something that caregiving professionals have been aware of for quite some time. But when we look at how feeling “called” to a certain line of work or profession ostensibly would mean that we would be less likely to burn out in said profession, this is far from accurate. In reality, that same calling that drew us to the work is the same “mission driven” attitude that can hold us hostage from setting appropriate boundaries for ourselves, lowering our burnout threshold. Because our work is indeed part of our identity, that healthy detachment that we need to know when “enough is enough” can be missing.
Well-known workplace happiness researcher, Jennifer Moss, wrote a piece for the Harvard Business Review in the summer of 2019 in which she addresses this precise point. Sharing a study done of Dutch physicians, she referenced the abnormally high rates of suicide in FEMALE physicians, such as the American physician, Dr. Lorna Breen, who died by suicide after working extensive shifts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Though we cannot assume causality, those of us who work as mental health professionals (especially those of us who are women in the women’s mental health field) can easily see how correlated passion and poison can become if not treated with respect and moderation. In the workplace, women, rather than men, are often perceived as being more approachable and sensitive when it comes to their patients, clients, students, or employees needing a safe space in which to process something that is emotionally charged or difficult. This takes an additional toll on the psyches of female workers, especially for those in professions to which they felt “called” on an existential level. And that level of interaction, the “off record” processing of difficult emotions, the intimate sharing of human experiences in those poignant in between moments, are rarely written into one’s job description or built into their compensation. We give those moments because we believe unequivocally in their power. But it is not without a cost.
Suggestions for Preventing Purpose-Driven Work Burnout
So how, if you love your work and are compelled by “something greater” as coined by Emily and Amelia Nagoski in their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, do you do less of it to essentially preserve it? My recommendation is to treat it like the rare jewel that it is – protect it, care for it properly, and keep it safe and secure. After all, you did hit the gold mine of landing both purpose and income in ONE thing, so the best you can do is to take good care by creating what we in mental health call “protective factors” which are essentially the things that we want to put in place so that the problem never occurs.
Here are a few ways to build protective factors into your job burnout prevention strategy:
Maybe it’s counterintuitive to you, but protection comes in the form of creating your own internal structure (BOUNDARIES, PEOPLE) for how you manage all that your work entails. This may mean leaving your computer in a specific space when you’re finished for the day, not working past a certain hour, or refusing to answer phone calls in the evening and letting others know that these are the parameters to which you adhere for your mental health and well-being. Technology has made for the wild west when it comes to healthy work boundaries, but just because the tool is there does not mean you have to use it. This also means communicating to others these protective factors you’re building for yourself – more on that in another post.
Care for it:
Treat your work like a relationship and do a check-in with it each week to gauge your energy in relation to it. Questions to ask are: How much are you demanding of me right now in relation to how much energy I have to give? Am I getting enough space from you on a daily and weekly basis in order to still be my individual self, or have those lines become too blurred? How are you showing me you care, and how am I showing I care? Maintaining a healthy relationship with your passion-fueled work is essential to staying in it without burning out.
Keep it safe and secure:
Just like putting a jewel or gem away in a safe, complete separation and compartmentalization is at times essential to keeping it precious. Have a group of people that you spend time with that have NOTHING to do with work. Read a book that is completely outside of what you do. Take a weekend away in which you’ve designated a second-in-command; no refunds.
You, my friend, are fortunate. You’ve actually found the holy grail of work and life in that you’re doing work that fills your soul with purpose and meaning. Now, hold tight to it by keeping it safely at arm’s length. The woman you’ll be two years from now, shining bright and burnout free, will thank you for it.
Leah Rockwell, LPC, LCPC is a licensed professional counselor in PA and MD, providing online counseling services for women suffering from burnout. She’s a lovingly direct counselor and a co-parenting mom of two daughters, determined to make the world a better place for tomorrow’s girls. In former lives, she was a Spanish teacher, a sex education instructor, a wine vendor, and she is pretty sure she was a mermaid. Leah is also the founder of online community, Unapologetically Unmarried, a sisterhood of divorcing moms.