The Causes of Burnout

Teachers, nurses, and social workers start out with wonderful idealism and enthusiasm for making a positive difference in people’s lives.

Why do too many of them lose enthusiasm for their work over time? Why, in worst case scenarios, do some even grow to dislike their work? Why aren’t work environments more encouraging, humane places where employee’s idealism and energy is encouraged, nourished, harnessed, and sustained?

People succumb to burnout as a result of some combination of these variables:

1) They are poorly prepared for challenging work settings. For example, teachers who are unable to manage large groups of students experience tremendous stress day in and day out. Stress that translates into fatigue, which contributes to negativity, which unattended to, leads to burnout.

2) Pragmatic work problems predominate so larger philosophical questions of purpose go unasked. Absent meaningful discussions of mission and purpose, people gradually lose touch with their work’s importance. This leads to a “going through the motions”, and eventually, burnout.

3) In negative work environments, a tipping point occurs when a critical mass of employees succumb to deficit models of thinking. For example, deficit-minded teachers often complain, “These students will never achieve, their families don’t value education, their community is dysfunctional.” Cynicism trumps hopefulness. Co-worker’s negativity rubs off and some teachers begin eating lunch alone. Inevitably, idealism and energy wane.

4) Adversarial relations with superiors and ill-conceived top-down directives cripple many people’s sense of efficacy. Once they conclude, “I have limited control over my school, hospital department, or casework,” their idealism and enthusiasm plummet.

Point two relates to this blog’s updated purpose which reads as follows:

This blog is about slowing down and being more reflective. Pressing Pause is devoted to substantive discussion about education and contemporary life. It’s for people who find meaning in essential questions, ambiguity, conceptual thinking, and nuanced discussions. A virtual college seminar or digital retreat based upon open-ended questions upon which reasonable people disagree.

I have a hunch that lots of people are desperate to rekindle their idealism and enthusiasm not just for their work, but life more generally. My hope for this blog in 2011 is that I can connect with more of those people and that together we can rekindle our idealism and find greater enthusiasm for making a positive difference in our own and other people’s lives.

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