The burnout monkey trap

Burnout is getting a lot of press in Belgium these days, given the new legislation stating that employers must do something about it. But what can they do? Isn’t burnout just another monkey trap that needs what Charlie Sheen would call a “blink to cure the brain”?

Having just subscribed for the Epsilon ForumPlus 2014 conference, my interest in burnout is rekindled (pun intended). I will be following 4 sessions on well-being at work, burnout and flow. I’m intrigued to see what speakers have to say about decreasing the risk of burnout in the workplace.

Recently, I was invited to complete a survey about burnout by a well-known actor in the Belgian HR sector. Questions like “Do you think there is more stress in the workplace today?” and “Do you think remote and mobile working increase stress in the workplace?” seemed odd to me. Maybe I missed the point, but isn’t stress something that is in people rather than the workplace? Or, as the American Institute of Stress says: “we create our own stress because of faulty perceptions you can learn to correct”.


Isn’t burnout just another monkey trap?

If you want to catch a monkey, but some food in a hole or a jar rooted to the floor. The monkey comes along to get the food and reaches in. When grabbing the food, the monkey forms a fist. And due to the size of its fist, the monkey cannot get its hand out of the jar again. The monkey will not let go of the food in the jar. He has trapped himself. The hunter waits for the monkey to die, or captures it.

Other blog posts have already talked about the analogy between the monkey trap and addiction. And if you think the monkey trap is just a myth, watch this video.

I’m just wondering: If burnout is like the monkey trap should we be blaming the forest, the jar or the food? Or should we be helping the monkey? Should we be trying to change the organisation or conditions of work, putting a stop to flexi-time and homeworking and banning email after 6pm on a Friday? Of course, if the work conditions and employers are unlawful or simply unacceptable, that does need to be changed. But isn’t it more necessary to help our employees better understand why they seek to hold onto their “monkey food” through their burnout disposed behaviour and how to let go of it?

I’m not saying that this will be easy and I’m certainly not belittling burnout. I just don’t think that the organisational solution to stress and burnout reduction should be to simply take away anything that might cause harm to the people susceptible to burnout. It is easy to rehab when you are in rehab. But people will fall off the wagon when they are back in the real new world of work. Should employers change everything in the environment to suit “dysfunctional” employees (yes, I did just say that! Whoops!) ? Or should they help people to better deal with their own private monkey traps?

And while we are not on the subject: Is burnout a bad thing anyway? It costs companies money and productivity, and it’s no fun for the burnout “victim”, but it may also be a fantastic opportunity to replace an unhealthy flame with something more sustainable, satisfying and healthy for the employee. (More on that later)

So, what can the employer do?

My own expertise being limited to one person in a non-corporate environment and without a complete vision on the law, this short list of actions is no more than a first brainstorm for employers to consider:

  • Be willing to help
  • Look out for people who show unsustainable behaviour and attitudes towards work
  • Create better dialogue between employer/employee; make the “person of confidence” worth confiding in
  • Educate those at risk on the impact of their behaviour and attitudes
  • Help employees to find structure and limits in their approach to work
  • If necessary, help employees to reorient towards more satisfying and fulfilling work

…hopefully, I will hear more ideas at the ForumPlus conference on the 6th November.

See you there?

Published by Dan Steer

For the last 17 years, I have been helping businesses and individuals to achieve their goals through delivery of tailor-made learning and development initiatives. Most of the time, I deliver training, coach individuals, facilitate brainstorming sessions, round-table meetings and workshops. As a consultant, I help my clients to promote and profit from the infinite learning opportunities within and without their own organisation, drawing on my L+D management experience, strategic approach and creativity, As a speaker, I inspire through story, humour and pertinent little bits of theory. I believe that the world would be a better place if people were happily working on their mission with competence and alignment to personal values. As a freelance worker since 2008, I have helped more than 11000 individuals to improve their presentation, communication, commercial, leadership and negotiation skills. I confront people with their own behaviour and convictions, facilitating and giving pertinent feedback and clear ideas on where to continue good work and improve. I seek to satisfy my clients with creative and to-the-point solutions… …and I make music, but no-one pays me much for it yet :-) First single here:

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  1. Your post sounds suspiciously like blaming the victim. Burnout, like any unhealthy relationship situation, takes two: the individual and the “other”, under certain environmental conditions. Burnout stems from unsustainable expectations of ourselves – which we often learn early on – and are deep-rooted in our (family, school, work) culture. When those unrealistic expectations in the high-burnout age group (those at “the peak of their careers”) are reinforced by increased environmental stress (this group is likely to have small children, financial and social pressures) AND an employer’s unrealistic and unsustainable expectations, the chance of burnout skyrockets. Will punishing the employer solve the problem? No, but it might help control one of the contributing factors. Is the problem then exclusively the employee’s? No, but raising awareness and taking responsibility for our individual choices would help. Those who get a burnout are the canaries in the coal mine – but they are not the problem, the coal mine is. Some people can live in an environment with little “oxygen” and some simply can’t. The question is, should we just keep breeding stronger canaries, or is something just going deeply wrong here? The issue of burnout asks us all to examine every aspect of our relationship to “doing” and “achieving” – not just at work but everywhere in our lives.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and critical reply.

      My aim was to stimulate conversation so I can better think about the topic and solutions. With my own non-corporate personal experience of burnout only + my definition of “stress” I may be too black and white in my distinctions. But it is certainly not my point to blame the person suffering burnout.

      I like your idea that “some people can live in an environment with little oxygen and some simply cant” because what I am seeing as organisational approaches to dealing with burnout seem to be only dealing with the oxygen side of the equation. I think we also need to help people understand themselves better, and maybe even pursue ither things (what was that canary doing in the coal-mine in the first place?!).

      But I admit that my post suggests to only deal with that, as if organisations were off the hook.

      As always, the middle-ground would be best. But, hey, that doesnt make good blog posts, right? 🙂

  2. Nice post Dan! Indeed, there is much to say or think about… Yesterday I watched a movie , “La mer a boire” that made me think that not only employees but also employers, self- employers, mothers at home, everyone who puts something at stake and invests in his activity can ultimately end in burn out… There should indeed be a clue outside the “conditions” and deeper in the self-stressing abily inside everyone of us….

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