Me in a Yoda dress (Black trim with green and blue squares depicting Yoda) standing in front of a screen with a confused looking Keanu Reeves

Ad infinitum – burnout & mindsets

I spoke at CreativeHQ’s Startup Garage recently and for those that couldn’t be there, here’s the next best thing.

Startup Garage is all about startups, tech and the founder/team lifestyle. What is more relevant to that than burnout. Especially during (and as we move ‘out’ of the ‘pandemic’ phase) COVID-19 with more and more people forced to examine the status quo, there has been more and more chatter about a great resignation, where knowledge workers worldwide have realised that their priorities need adjusting.

To that end, I introduced myself to start with.

Four photos, from left to right, me at karate, me on a pole dressed as a panda, my family on a beach, my husband and oldest son burying the youngest to his neck in sand, me at MOTAT teaching a group of young kids
Multiplicity. Bring your whole self to work?

I showed this slide, four images that show four facets of me. From Karate to pole dancing, my whānau on a beach in Fiji and me at work, teaching bottle rockets to a group of young kids at MOTAT.

My point is that whenever anyone talks about bringing your whole self to work, is this what they mean? I am a multiplicity (these four images barely start to encapsulate me) and yet, do I bring all of this?

Headshot of Mike Robbins, a whiite man with short cropped hair and a goatee. He is wearing a blue shirt and a dark blazer. The quote next to his picture says "Bringing our whole selves to work means showing up authentically, and remembering that we’re all vulnerable - Mike Robbins"
Mike Robbins is often quoted as being the “bring your whole self to work” guy

When you google “Bring your whole self to work”… the first link you get is to Mike Robbins. There is a Forbes interview, Mike’s Ted talk from TEDx Berkeley entitled the same, he even wrote a book on it.

He is often quoted about the strength that can come from vulnerability. In fact, in his TEDx talk, he jokes about how in a presentation in Japan, he had to bridge the cultural divide and explain how, while it’s seen as a bad thing, vulnerability can be the reason that your organization or company can build trust.

He’s not wrong. The emotional energy required to constantly mask is immense. If you didn’t have to do all that, then how much more energy would you have to dedicate to more useful pursuits.

Headshot of Jodi-Ann Burey wearing a dark sleeveless dress. The words next to her says "The caricature of what we call “Professional” is a distorted elaboration of white cultural norms - Jodi-Ann Burey"
Jodi-Ann Burey on the other hand talks about the intersectionality of what you can bring to work when you don’t fit into the hegemony.

What I found hilarious is that, as you finish watching Mike’s talk, another TedX talk comes up on the algorithm. This one from TedXSeattle – from Jodi-Ann Burey.

Hers is entitled “Why you should not bring your authentic self to work”. (Emphasis mine)

She starts with an anecdote. You’re invited to a party, it happens to be on October 31st, but your friend assures you that it isn’t a costume party. It happens to be on Halloween because that is the date everyone else can make. You show up, and you’re the only one not in costume.

It’s a great analogy to this whole bring your whole self to work shtick.

For a lot of us, we can’t bring our whole self to work. We have to put on our costumes. And try to fit in. Our perspectives are grounded in the lived experience of all our identities.

But why does this even all matter?

The entire “bring your whole self” to work thing came from this idea that if we are comfortable at work, comfortable enough to share that our new child kept us up all night, and that is why we’re a bit tired during the standup. Comfortable enough to talk about the fact that I have really bad PMS today because it’s the first day of my period. Then maybe all that energy that WOULD have gone into hiding those parts of me, can be used to be productive at my job.

The emotional labour of pretending to be someone we’re not can go away and we can relax.

Productivity. That is what it is all about, right? All our employers and the companies that we work for, they just want more bang for their buck. So let’s talk about productivity but on a nationwide scale.

Graph of Labour Income Share vs GDP from NZ Productivity Commission - Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa. It shows a orange line (Labour income Share) going downwards and a dotted grey line (GDP Growth) going up. They cross over in the early 1980s and decouple from there.
Labour Income Share vs GDP from NZ Productivity Commission – Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa

This graph from the NZ Productivity Commission – Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa graphs the Labour Income Share against GDP (You can look at the full report here)

The labour income share, for those that aren’t in the know, measures the split of national income between workers who supply labour and the owners of capital. Basically, this is from a report that happened because there is real international concern that there is no growth in wages, even though there is growth in labour productivity.

As you can see, sometime in the early 80s, the two decoupled. Meaning that real wages stagnated, and didn’t continue to go up, even though we were all working harder and producing more.

Graph of Labour productivity vs real wages from NZ Productivity Commission - Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa. The three lines (labour productivity, real wages paid by firms, worker purchasing power) were the same until the early 80s when they decoupled. Labour productivity continues to go up, whereas real wages doesn't go up as much and purchasing power stagnates.
Labour productivity vs real wages from NZ Productivity Commission – Te Kōmihana Whai Hua o Aotearoa

In fact, you can see that the worker purchasing power, the orange line, just stagnates even though, technically the reported wages went up (although not as much as productivity)

So what?

Well, these graphs show that since the 1980s, we’ve all been working harder and being paid less.

Looking at it societally, there is a shift in the type of work that most of us are doing. More and more people are now knowledge workers. A knowledge worker can ‘always be on the clock’. Furthermore, being an educated worker means that you feel that your job should be meaningful.

Ever heard of burnout?

The terrible thing is that it’s become almost trendy to have burnout.

In a society that values work over everything else – I mean, we’ve just talked about productivity being a driving factor, having burnout can be a status symbol, a badge of honour

But, what is burnout? Do we know scientifically?

Roughly the same time that Bob Dylan sang “I was burned out from exhaustion” in 1974’s Shelter from the Storm, Dr Christina Maslach came up with a scientific way to measure burnout.

Historically, this idea of being exhausted from your “elite” job has existed for hundreds of years. As early as 1829 we had Neurasthenia – basically whole-body exhaustion, something to do with the nerves. But it was always fancy peeps that were diagnosed – Virginia Woolf, Sigmund Freud, for example.

Today, the Maslach Burnout inventory has largely deprecated neurasthenia and there are three main markers of burnout.

Exhaustion

Not just being tired, and not just a little time off.

Dr Jonathan Malesic was working his dream job as a tenured professor, and he took a whole 5 months off, and when he came back, the exhaustion returned almost to the day. The context of his job was causing the exhaustion, so when nothing had changed, the time off didn’t help.

CYnicism and de-personalisation

This idea is that you can get irrationally angry at perceived slights. There is indifference or a distance between you and what you are trying to do.

Reduced sense of efficacy

You feel that the work you do is not effective, or that you are not doing a good job.

It was a running joke throughout all of Friends that no one knew what Chandler did for a job… but David Graeber write an entire book on this, called Bullshit Jobs.

The 1970s was also the start of bullshit jobs, jobs where people weren’t sure of the connection between the job that they do and making a difference in the world.

For the record, Chandler’s job was statistical analysis and data reconfiguration

Do you identify yourself by your job?

I did.

When things are going well, that is a satisfying way to identify.

In summary, burnout is the experience of being stretched between your ideal for work and the reality of your job. You have to have some investment in your job to have burnout.

But can I fix it?

No… but WE can! Structural changes are needed, we need to consider, as a society, that there is inherent dignity as a human. Once we recognise that we have inherent dignity, we then need to consider how to honour that dignity. What kinds of things would reinforce that? Dr Malesic suggests a living wage would be a good place to start.

We need to re-look at how we relate to work, both individually and as a society.

But, we can’t all make societal change happen overnight. What are some things we can do individually? The NY Times suggests the following. I would take them all with a grain of salt. If you’re burnt out, all the mindfulness in the world is not going to help 🙂

There is a quiz in the NY Times here. You can give it a go and assess yourself. One thing that struck me when I read through it all though was this idea where you wake up ready to start your day, or would you rather go back to sleep? Do you have a sense of purpose or do you find how you spend much of your day to be meaningless? – You are kind of the expert on your own sense of flourishing. You don’t need a quiz to tell you.

Savour and celebrate – small things as well as big things. It’s important to always recognise when you have won. Whether it is a small or a big win.

Create a gratitude practice – a weekly gratitude ritual where you meaningfully list the things you are grateful for. By being deliberate (or even writing them down), you can look back and celebrate later.

Practicing random acts of kindness – doing good deeds helps everyone. They don’t have to be massive good deeds, but all the science points to the mutual health benefits of doing good deeds.

Create communities and connections – they don’t even have to be long-lasting or permanent. One of the hardest things to hit all of us (globally) was the lack of human connection when we were all plunged into lockdown. Creating connections and communities wherever you are can help create a sense of belonging and purpose.

It could even be deepening relationships with co-workers and reminding yourself how your job contributes to the greater good. It can change how you think about work. 

Start a small project or a new hobby. Try something new – renew your interest in life. I realised recently that I had inadvertently been doing this for myself over the past few years, and it has indeed kept my life interesting and renewed. The challenge of learning something new, especially (if you are able) new ways to move your body

This all leads us very nicely to looking at growth versus a fixed mindset. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has outlined a few things to consider:

Growth Mindset infographic, fixed mindset is depicted with a blue brain and a growth mindset is depicted with a green brain. We explain the wording in it in the following paragraphs

The infographic above was taken from FS Blog, and very neatly compares the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

Fixed MindsetGrowth Mindset
Intelligence is static, we want to look smart, so we:Intelligence can be developed, we want to learn, so we:
CHALLENGESavoid challengesembrace challenges
OBSTACLESgive up easilypersist in the face of setbacks
EFFORTsee effort as fruitless or worsesee effort as a path to mastery
CRITICISMignore useful negative feedbacklearn from criticism
SUCCESS OF OTHERSfeel threatened by the success of othersfind lessons and inspiration in the success of others
As a result, we may plateau early and achieve less than our full potential. We have a deterministic view of the worldAs a result, we reach ever-higher levels of achievement with a greater sense of free will.

I hope this has all been helpful. I gave this as a 35min talk with a 20min discussion at the end, where the participants were given the space to consider burnout that may have occurred to them in the past and whether it was something that developing a growth mindset would help, or whether a larger systemic change was required (i.e. changing careers!)

Ngā mihi nui, for arranging speaking engagements with me, please check out my contact page.