How emotional education can help against burnout?

Burnout can happen to anyone

Lately I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine about people in their 20’s or 30’s having burnout symptoms. It might sound difficult to believe but it seems to become a growing trend. The niece of my friend, Carola, is 26 years old. She just made a risky decision to quit her job in a multinational organization and to open up a bio-food store in her neighborhood. Having an uncle who is a psychologist made her always aware about the necessity of having herself in check and when she started to experience the first symptoms leading to a burnout, she realized that something needs to change quickly. She decided to take a chance and to pursue her dream of popularizing the healthy style of living. However not everybody recognizes a burnout as early as Carola did, and so doesn’t have the chance to prevent having one.

How does it happen?

Carola isn’t an exception. It seems like women in general are more prone to a burnout by the time they reach the age of 30. “One reason that women are burning out early in their careers is that they have simply reached their breaking point after spending their childhoods developing well-rounded resumes. “These women worked like crazy in school, and in college, and then they get into the workforce and they are exhausted,” says Melanie Shreffler of the youth marketing blog Ypulse” ₁. A well rounded CV means having not less than higher education, preferably bachelor’s and master’s degree in two different fields. Some additional activities during the studies, e.g. a leading an innovation club or young entrepreneurs association are deemed to be essential as well. Besides that, it is important that one can prove internship experience (to have at least 2 of them to show that one wasn’t just pure luck, but not more than 3, because it might be a sign of indecisiveness or difficulties with finding a real job) gained at well-known companies. Even better is, if one of these internship took place abroad at a fancy corporation where it is extremely difficult to get in. And let’s not forget about experience as a volunteer, to prove a good, not material attitude. However that all is not going to help if a person doesn’t speak at least two foreign languages and doesn’t have 5-10 years experience (including managing people), that all at the age of 25… And this is just the beginning. The beginning of being either constantly on business travels, staying long unpaid extra hours (you don’t have your family yet, so why would you want to go home earlier anyway?) or doing the tasks nobody else wants to do. Similar expectations are made towards men, however for women there are some extra factors – on top of proving that they can compete with men in the work life they should also be great housewives and (future) mothers. At some point they might start realizing that it is “a train going to the wrong direction”. But the thought of all the investments made for this career path so far (most likely including massive student debt) very often is a reason to block any kind of ideas about getting out of this train. Watch out – straight way to a burnout ahead.

Why does it happen?

The first time I heard about the burnout I thought it is an invention of people who don’t have “real” problems, so they have created “the burnout thing” to have something to worry about.  And of course, you will always find people who are abusing this term by treating it as a protection shield for whatever issues they have, but it is proven by governmental and private institutions that the percentage of the burnouts is growing and it is reaching not only people who have worked half of the decade but it is more and more reaching also the junior professionals. “In the study ‘Generational Differences in Young Adults Life Goals, Concern of Others, and Civic Orientation’₂, researchers say that Gen Y-ers exhibit an increase in anxiety, depression and mental health issues compared to previous generations”₃. One of the reasons for that can be increased focus on the extrinsic values (money, status, image, fame) than on the intrinsic ones (community, care for others, helpfulness, friends and family).  Just by taking a look at Facebook we can see how this social media platform is often being used for the purposes of creating the illusionary portrait of oneself, relating very often to these extrinsic values. This in turn puts psychological pressure on other users to level up to these conceptions, so that it looks like they have as exciting life as the people they are connected to.

A very interesting study from Bronnie Ware, former palliative care worker, examined that people on their death beds have surprisingly similar regrets concerning their lives.  The number one, amongst the 5 biggest regrets is: “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”₄. The generation of “totally connected” through all kind of social medias might be struggling with this regret even more one day. “With young people less focused on intrinsic values such as community feeling and more focused on extrinsic values such as money, mental health issues may follow. Kasser and Ryan speculated that this may occur because extrinsic values are contingent on outside forces that may be uncontrollable, whereas intrinsic values are more under control of the self. (…) In addition, community feeling satisfies inherent human needs for connection and meaning, whereas money may not”₅.

Even if burnout is one of these things we rather think about that “it will never happen” to me, we should accept the fact that it could. And that is why it is so important to know, how we can recognize its symptoms or prevent it; for ourselves, our partner or our kids. The sooner one realizes about his or hers (way to) burnout the easier it is to prevent or recover from it.

How emotional education helps?

It always starts with self-awareness. We all have it in us just like some other species, but it takes a bit more to use it on the level which would be beneficial for our mental well-being.  We are not born with the habit of conscious self-reflection, listening to our bodies’ signals or taking a step back and keeping our emotions in check. It needs to be taught and trained.  We can start with all kind of mindfulness exercises already with little kids. One of this exercises is “breathing buddy”, where kids learn to focus, listen to their bodies, controlling their breath and calming themselves down. Researches show that these kids become happier and more fulfilled later on₆. There exist multiple practices like this one, which are a part of emotional education, helping to raise the children to become mentally healthy grownups₇. The sooner this learning process starts, the better chance for living a fulfilled life. You can read more about it in another article – “Emotional education: start early, profit lifelong”

Unfortunately most of the education systems don’t support enough this preparation of the children for becoming a part of the working society aspect of the education. Young people know very well how to work with the computer, how to process big amounts of data or what the newest gadgets of the high-tech industry are. However by producing more and more people with technical skills or with college degrees, but with no mental preparation for the life challenges they will have to face at some point, we are contributing to the socio-economic problems of the future. “College is nothing more than a baby-sitting service. These students are totally unprepared for the real world”₉. Very often they don’t know how to deal with socio-psychological aspects of their lives. What to do if after years of studies and internships I realize I don’t like my career path? How to find out what actually would make me happy? How to deal with disagreements? How to react when feeling discriminated? How to deal with the setbacks at work and in my private life? What to do if I am being bullied? Well if you don’t have emotional backpack which can make you a “mentally tough person”₈, the answers to these questions may not seem so obvious. Thus each person needs to develop its own internal compass in order to be able to solve these kind of dilemmas and to make the right decisions.

Finding your own compass

As you can imagine, often the very successful people are exposed to emotional development lessons already since early stage of their lives. It could be the way they are being raised, the environment they are growing up in, specific events in their life, or pure interest which made them paying more attention on socio-psychological aspects of the life. That helps them to build their internal compass – a set of values which help them to deal even with the most difficult situations.

Do you have your own compass? Does it need some adjustments, so that it indicates the true North for you? There are plenty of exercises which may help you with that. As it all starts with self-awareness, this is where you can start as well. Learn to understand yourself, to be able to answer truly the question: who am I? You can do it for example by taking some personality tests, gathering feedback from your environment, introducing meditation as your regular habit, getting a coach or reading literature concerning self-awareness. One part of this discovery journey is getting to know about your strong and weak sides, talents, passions and blind spots. You can also decide to follow workshops to help you out with this self-discovery process. A nice example is the “Follow your passion” workshop₁. Frank Boon, a friend of mine came up with this great initiative – helping people to find their passion, so that they can set their compass and live the life they always wanted to.

 This compass helps thus as well to reinvent the meaning of the word “success”, so that it is tailored made for each and single person instead of fit for a social average, in other words – the expectations of others. Imagine all kind of people wearing “M” size white T-shirt despite their size and color preferences. Wouldn’t that be silly?

That is why I dare you:  1) don’t work too hard; instead spend your time with people important to you, 2) have the courage to express your feelings; it can be a great relief not to hide them, 3) stay in touch with your friends; however the life may go, don’t forget about them, 4) let yourself be happier; you really deserve it and finally 5) have the courage to live a life true to yourself, not the life others expect from you; follow your passion, your dreams, so that you will never regret₁₁.

Author: Dorota (Pędziwiatr) Domagała
Social and Emotional Learning Consultant, Cross-Cultural & Management Trainer
ETTA Leadership & Culture






6) Daniel Goleman: “Focus”