Purpose, Impact and Burnout

Saturday Spark #22

By Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder & CEO

Would you know if burnout was having a significant impact on your life? As an entrepreneur, I have wondered from time to time when, or if, I might hit a wall. I’ve never felt particularly burnt out, but I’ve wondered whether it would be obvious or would I be completely oblivious and just implode one day?

So this week, I was stunned by a statistic on burnout: 96% of Millennials say burnout affects their everyday life and 75% report feeling mentally exhausted at least once a week or more. The article shared the website of a therapist who specializes in burnout for people in high pressure careers which offers a “burnout calculator”. I love a good quiz and more importantly, I figured this might answer something I’ve been curious about. 

For the quiz, you reflect on the last 30 days: levels of happiness, whether I feel trapped at work, whether I’m caring, whether I’m losing sleep over a traumatic experience with a person at work, among other questions. My score was a 15 out of 50 and the current impact of burnout on my life is low. Hallelujah! 

However, one of the biggest risk factors for burnout is “You identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life”. Most leaders clearly wrestle with that challenge. However, in the survey with Millennials, 70% said they identified themselves only through their jobs. This mash-up between personal identity and work was given a name recently in a very provocative article in the Atlantic: “workism”.  The writer’s hypothesis was that work has morphed into a religious identity—promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver and leaving workers, particularly younger Millennials, set up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment and inevitable burnout. It even calls out a possible “dark side” of seeking purpose at work:

“There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck. Indeed, if you were designing a Black Mirror labor force that encouraged overwork without higher wages, what might you do? Perhaps you’d persuade educated young people that income comes second; that no job is just a job; and that the only real reward from work is the ineffable glow of purpose. It is a diabolical game that creates a prize so tantalizing yet rare that almost nobody wins, but everybody feels obligated to play forever.”  

What “workism” points to is that having your only meaningful source of identity through your job is tenuous. Perhaps what keeps my burnout score relatively low is that I carry a number of other meaningful identities in addition to Founder of WeSpire:  mother, daughter, wife, member of The Union Church in Waban, Rooster @ Soulcycle, member of the class of Tuck ‘98 and more. 

One of the recommended methods of coping with burnout is to get a hobby. My hobby for years has been dancing, which happens to double as exercise, another activity recommended to reduce burnout. As a result, I’m an incredibly mediocre, albeit enthusiastic, club/hip-hop dancer. As I aged and the knees started complaining, I switched to beginner Irish step dance, have slowly progressed to “Beginner II” with a hope to make Intermediate and dance at the Willie Clancy Festival someday.

Finally, I take very seriously the research that what really makes people happy is time spent with friends, family and partners. My house is only sort of organized, the lawn is primarily clover and crab grass, and I’ve never watched Game of Thrones (bucket list, promise!) because spending the free time I do have with the people I care about takes priority over many a household task and television.

But I don’t buy the dystopian view of purpose at work. We all have to work for much of our lives. Many of us are fortunate to have a variety of options about where we work and what we do. We are also likely to work hard, no matter where we work. Therefore finding a role that offers what you need financially, provides opportunities for growth and development in a career AND gives you a chance everyday to make the world a better place is worth seeking. A purpose-driven job shouldn’t become your only identify, your co-workers shouldn’t be your only community and it shouldn’t require require sacrificing your health, wellbeing or financial stability to do it. But when you look back at your life and the impact you had, I’m confident that choosing a role with purpose, over the alternatives, will be something you are really proud, and glad, you did.

Quote of the Week: “Burnout is what happens when you try to avoid being human for too long.” -Michael Gungor


What is Saturday Spark:
As the leader of a purpose-driven company, I’m challenged daily to ensure our company is “walking the walk” and that I’m personally leading with purpose and impact at the forefront. The result is that I read, think, and learn a lot about the intersection of purpose, impact and leadership and have a few successes and a lot more “lessons learned.” I realized that my own insights may be helpful to other purpose-driven professionals if I took the time to reflect each week. If you find this inspiring, practical or helpful, I’d be honored if you shared it with your colleagues, your families and your friends.

Read Previous Week’s Spark:  3 Quick, Inspiring Reads for a Holiday Weekend

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