Like many people, I’ve been reading with great interest the running debate between Arianna Huffington and Elon Musk on the merits of refuelling and recharging since August 17th, when Huffington published her open letter to Musk urging him to ease up on his 120 hour weeks and quit sleeping at the Tesla factory. In it, Huffington eloquently and forcefully says that “Tesla, and the world, (not to mention you and your beautiful children) – would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate”.
Great. No arguments from me. As the founder and CEO of Thrive Global, Huffington has done the world a great service in calling people’s attention to her mission of “changing the way we work and live by ending the collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success”. She is, in my view, right, and there is plenty of scientific evidence to substantiate the benefits of managing stress and securing a restful sleep. And the last thing this world needs is another “poster boy” for a culture that celebrates obsessive overwork. Doing so can only be classified as leading by example for a seriously outdated and anti-scientific approach to life and work. But there is more to the story of burnout than just a lack of sleep, and I worry that this debate, like so many other discussions of burnout, only keeps us skimming along the symptomatic surface of an epidemic that has radically impacted my own life and the lives of so many others I’ve met and read about.
So if burnout is more than just a failure to refuel and recharge, what is it? And why do we brag about exhaustion, but hide burnout?
In her groundbreaking book, “The Joy of Burnout”, my friend and colleague, Dr. Dina Glouberman, reminds us that “burnout is not just something that happens to people when they work too hard or have too much stress or don’t like their jobs. It is not just the direct result of inhumane, unfair or overdemanding situations at work. All of these contribute to burnout but don’t cause it.” Her message is that “burnout is the state of mind, body and spirit reached by those of us who have come to the end of a particular road but haven’t acknowledged this. In fact, burnout is a sign that we have already begun to know something about our true self that we are not quite ready to tell ourselves.” Somewhat similarly, Professor Bruce Lloyd says that burnout happens “when your life has lost meaning within the structures that you committed yourself to”. Now we are talking about something far more serious than lack of sleep and a failure to recharge, and something that really resonates with me from my own experience.
Like so many of us who face burnout, I’ve learned that this realization, this voice of truth can be unsettling, confusing, and sometimes devastating to explore. It can shake us to our core, force us to confront harsh realities, and just be damn scary. In her exploration of her own burnout, successful American television producer Shonda Rhymes put it this way – “what do you do when the thing you do -the work you love- starts to taste like dust?” As if not clear enough already, she goes on… “If the song in my heart ceases to play, can I survive the silence?” Obviously, this is scary and serious stuff.
When I was experiencing my own burnout and asking similar questions to Shonda’s (although not as eloquently), I was lucky enough to be simultaneously enrolled in Otto Scharmer’s U.Lab on Business, Society and Self at MiT. In the course and at the Presencing Institute he leads, Scharmer talks about “letting go” and “letting come” as two necessary cycles for transformation, how resisting these is refusing to go with the natural cycle of life and how illness can be created through fighting against the cycles of low energy necessary for regeneration. This got me thinking about my own struggle with burnout and the importance of acceptance and surrender – yielding to, rather than opposing the flow of life. Was something in me ending or dying? Was there something else wanting to be born? Did I have the courage to listen? Would my penchant for control allow me to surrender?
“Burnout is what we do to avoid surrendering. Yet in the end, we need to surrender to the burnout itself”, Glouberman states in her book. “If we reach serious burnout, we have to stop and then we have another chance to listen to our soul and find a new way forward. This is how our old personality burns itself out and our soul fire begins to light our way. When our old ways have driven us to collapse, we can reconnect to our soul and our emerging truth can guide us forward.” In other words, “burnout speaks to the part of us that wants to burn on with life, love, passion, challenge and meaning and our devastation when that fire seems to have burnt itself out”.
So for me and so many others like me, burnout is a far greater challenge, and a far greater opportunity, than just getting adequate sleep and finding time to recharge. This doesn’t mean for a moment that Huffington’s voice on managing stress at work and the benefits of a good nights’ sleep is not a help to millions of people, but it does mean that for many others the symptom of sleeplessness can be an invitation to explore something that runs far deeper and can have life changing implications. Seen in the light of this invitation, burnout is not a call to rest, but a call for action. It just may not be the type of action leaders like us are used to!
If you’ve had experience with burnout you would like to share, or are looking for a coach to help you with related issues, I’d love to hear from you!