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No, You Didn’t Cause Your Own Burnout

By | Jonathan Malesic |

When social worker Janet Morrison-Lane started working for a Dallas nonprofit focused on addressing urban poverty, she was aware of the high rates of burnout and turnover in her field. Two years was the statistic she heard about how long people lasted in a job like hers. But she planned to stay a long time. She embraced the organization’s culture, which was built on close relationships among staff members. As the nonprofit grew and changed over the next 16 years, she was a constant presence.

But then a youth education program she led ended, and she took a different role, targeting adult homelessness. “It wasn’t my forte,” she says. “I was frustrated. I was angry that we lost that program.” She pulled back emotionally from the work. But because she had been at the organization so long, her coworkers assumed she could handle any task, from working in the food pantry to taking pictures. “Everything was piling up,” she says, “‘Janet can do this, Janet can do that,’ but there was no promotion.” On top of this, a coworker was killed. The emotional strain and burnout were intense. “It just felt like a lot,” she says.

When I spoke with Morrison-Lane in 2020 and again in 2022, I heard about her exhaustion, cynicism, and feelings of ineffectiveness at her job—the three classic elements of burnout. She’d thought something was wrong with her. “When I went from youth to adults,” she says, “it was still programming. It should be translatable, but it wasn’t.” She recalls thinking, “What does that say about me? Why can’t I do this?” A year later, she quit.

As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches its third year, you may be like countless other workers who are feeling the strain and on guard against burnout—or maybe you’re burnt out already. If you read business and health websites, you’ll keep encountering the same advice about how workers can prevent this problem: practice self-careget better at schedulingmeditatelearn to say no. The Muse has certainly published advice for how individual workers can take steps to try to recover from burnout. Despite the authors’ genuine desire to help, their advice can send the subtle message that burnout is your problem, and it’s up to you to solve it. And, by extension, that if you burn out, it’s your fault.

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