When I think back to the last couple of months before I burned out in 2018, one pervasive feeling really stands out: cynicism.
To be sure, I also remember feeling exhausted as well but mostly, work seemed completely pointless and hopeless. The manager of a deal I was working on would give me comments on a presentation I created and I remember feeling that his comments completely redundant, plain stupid and only showed how little he understood of the deal we were working on. I remember ending up in a shouting match - my first and only one - with a lawyer on the same deal about who-knows what. Looking back now I realize that they were just doing their job, it was I who had become pessimistic and, well, burnt out.
Cynicism, together with exhaustion and inefficacy, are the three key pillars of burnout according to the leading researcher in the field, Christina Maslach. Cynicism grows naturally when you’re exhausted. To cope you begin to withdraw from your colleagues, your work and even yourself. Instead of having patience and empathy towards those you work with, irritability and distrust may take over. One of the most challenging features about cynicism is that it can quickly spiral out of control as it becomes your default mindset. Instead of, as above, seeing my manager and the lawyer as doing their job by providing feedback or whatever it was the lawyer wanted, it only reinforced in my mind the idea that they were incompetent or not dedicated enough to the deal. This only left me feeling more exhausted and, in turn, more cynical. I also remember feeling more and more like a victim. This mentality only served to disconnect me further from work. I sought out my colleagues for sympathy and to vent about what this or that person had done, never to work out what I was actually feeling or do anything about my situation. Instead of feeling any relief, these situations would only leave me feeling worse and more cynical and, I imagine, resulted in my colleagues feeling worse too.
Awareness is the first step to do anything. I recall not recognizing myself and my behavior in those last months but I still burned out without ever understanding what was going on. I really believe that things could have been ended up very differently had I only stopped to realize what I was going through. Instead of reflecting on what I was feeling I just waited and hoped that I would feel better after the this project ended, after my next vacation and or after my next bonus. But these came and went and I just felt worse and worse. Once you become aware of what you’re going through you can decide what you want to do about it and begin taking action to feel better. Engaging in more self-care by, for example, talking, working out and/or meditating, is helpful but also not sufficient as it doesn’t deal with the root cause of the problem: how you feel about work. Change has to happen there too. Talk with your colleagues. Talk with your manager and see what changes you can work out so that you can find the joy and interest that you once had for your work and also work out a healthier balance so you’re not back where you are again in just a few months.
If you’re an employer or a manager of a team, be on a constant lookout for sentiments of cynicism and make sure to nip them in the bud. Not by denying them or silencing them but by listening. Some parts of work are what they are and might not be alterable and, for me, at least, that’s okay. What matters most is that employees feel that they are valued and considered in the eyes of their managers, not that all of their requests are immediately fulfilled.