#TBT: Burnout: It Doesn't "Happen" to You

This time of the school year, many teachers who have been on a slow simmer enjoy a spring respite from the stress of work, but return after break to the path towards burnout.  Nathan Eklund discusses the realities of burnout in this #TBT post from February 2013.

I had a great time on Monday speaking to 700 educators here in the great state of Minnesota during a full day, multi-district event. Seven schools districts came together to work, learn, commune, and, hopefully, have some fun as well.

The morning kicked off with my hour long keynote. When the conference organizing team and I were planning this, they decided they wanted me to discuss the topic of burnout. I was all over that. But as the day neared, I realized that speaking to an audience about burnout might also be like talking about getting a filling, taxes, or blood borne pathogens (teacher joke). “Burnout” just sounds depressing. But frankly, I couldn’t disagree more. Being mindful about burnout is actually one of the most empowering, behavior changing topics we could possibly discuss.

Here’s how I can defend that statement. The picture at the top of this post is the first slide from my presentation. And to a large degree, it represents what I was POUNDING into people’s ears during the day. Oftentimes, take a passive approach to burnout. We think things like, “I hope I don’t burnout.” Or, “If I ever burnout, that would stink.” This language misses the mark entirely.

Burnout isn’t lurking out there waiting to pounce on you. It’s not like catching a cold. Burnout doesn’t “happen” to people anymore than cavities do. Cavities happen when you eat a lot of sugar, skip brushing and flossing, and generally disregard your teeth. Cavities don’t happen. You have to be a willing bedfellow to that sort of affair.

The same holds true for burnout. Burnout is not caused by anything but inactivity and inattentiveness. Take care of yourself and you won’t burn out. It’s kind of that simple.

Here’s the definition of burnout:

A state of exhaustion that results from working too intensely and without concern from one's own needs.

Check that out. It’s not something scary hiding underneath your bed. It’s nothing that’s going to jump out and surprise you. That means you won’t wake up some morning and say, “Damn! I burned out!” Burning out is a long, slow process that you’re a partner in. Let me simplify it even further:

If you’re working too intensely without taking care of yourself, you ARE burning out.

It’s not a question of “will” you burn out. You will. I don’t care how awesome you think you are. I don’t care how passionate you are. I don’t care how much you love taking care of others. You are not a cyborg! You are a human being. And inattentive human beings burn out. And let me push this a bit further. I don’t find it heroic to flirt with burnout. I find it ridiculous and sad. Martyrdom is cool in the movies. But not so cool in real life.

If you love what you do and you want to keep doing it, then you’re doing yourself and your people no favors by treating what you do so dangerously. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t get to do what you do anymore. And that’s too bad. I feel bad that there are those among us who will deny the universe what makes us special simply because we didn’t treat what makes us special more specially. (Make sense?)

I ended my address to the audience by saying (actually yelling) at them, “YOU WON’T BURN OUT!” And it’s true. If you don’t let it happen, it won’t. But if you don’t pay really careful attention and ask for help from those around you, you inevitably will. So I’m here to tell you that you’re in control of this far more than we sometimes realize. If you’re burning out, you can reverse it. You can prioritize yourself in such a manner where you allow yourself to continue to be awesome at what you do and who you are. You can make that choice. Or not. But if you don’t prioritize yourself, do not wake up burned out someday and wonder what happened. Nothing “happened” to you. You just weren’t paying good enough attention.

Pay attention. The world needs you.