6 min read

Burn Notice

Burn Notice
Thanks 50th Anniversary Edition of Fahrenheit 451! Perfect piece of imagery for this post

Burnout is a pretty hot topic at Atlassian right now.

It's not all that surprising really. We're a company full of high achievers, with a lot of cool things that we want to do and not quite enough time to do them in. Everyone working here wants to do a great job and, as a result, they push themselves hard to make that happen.

Add to that the stress caused by the pandemic and the move to remote first work as standard operating procedure and you've got a pretty flammable combination of factors.

But despite all of the conversations about burnout, all of the initiatives that are currently in flight to reduce or mitigate it, I still don't really understand it.

And I don't like not understanding things.

There Must Be Something In Books

Burnout, otherwise known as occupational burnout, is a general decline in caring about what you're doing professionally, primarily as a result of constant and persistent stress.

Never fails to make me laugh

Now, obviously that's me paraphrasing people much smarter than me, but it didn't really seem appropriate to copy-paste from Wikipedia. I find that it's always helpful to put things into my own words and echo them back as a means of generating understanding.

Speaking of people much smarter than me, in the early 1980's, Christina Maslach described burnout as consisting of three factors:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Depersonalization or disconnection
  • Reduced feelings of accomplishment

All of that makes sense to me as well. Exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of accomplishment, working together in tandem to create a particularly unpleasant feeling.

But I'm all about the metrics and measures these days, and all three of those things feel like they are hard to quantify.

For example, if I were to ask myself how emotionally exhausted I was on a scale of 1-10, I'd have a hard time figuring that out. I could probably spit out a number, but I'm not sure if it would mean anything.

The good news is that not only did Christina Maslach create an understandable definition of burnout, she also created a framework for assessing it.

In a partnership with Susan Jackson, she created the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is a series of questions aimed at measuring the intensity of the three areas above, as a way of measuring the amount of burnout that an individual may be experiencing.

That definitely sounds like something I should try on myself.

Something We Can't Imagine

There is a general version of the Maslach Burnout Inventory called the MBI-GS, intended for general use. Other variants are aimed at healthcare professionals or students, so are less relevant to most people.

A quick Google shows that Mindgarden allows you to take a MBI-GS for $US 20, which sounds like a worthwhile investment for this blog post. I have no idea whether or not Mindgarden is a reputable psychological resource, but it's good enough for my purposes.

After purchase they send you a link, which takes you to a website with a series of questions to fill out (16). They aren't hard questions, and it only took me about 10 minutes to finish. I think I might have actually spent more time waiting for the form to submit than I did actually filling it out, because that submission took forever.

Once submitted, you get a link to a report, which comes out as a PDF.

Here is my report.

The report contains three scales, lining up with the three areas describing burnout that I mentioned above. It comes in the form of this reasonably clear chart.

The first scale is exhaustion, where a higher number is bad. For me, my exhaustion score is relatively high, indicating that I am feeling a depletion of emotional energy. This lines up with my own feelings on the subject, where I'm pretty tired at the end of the day and I don't often look forward to going to work. Once I get started I usually get into the swing of things, but getting over that initial hump is hard for me.

The second scale is cynicism, where a higher number is bad. My cynicism score was surprisingly low, because I consider myself to be quite a cynical person. Maybe I'm not as cynical as I think? Reflecting on that, I am generally quite hopeful about things and always try to get a good outcome for people because I care about how they are feeling.

The third scale is professional efficacy, where a lower number is bad. I score well here mostly because I have confidence that what I'm doing actually does lead to good outcomes. I don't tend to fail at things, due to a combination of picking things I think I'm going to succeed at and being an incredibly stubborn person in general. I always think I could have done better, but that doesn't mean I don't at least recognise that what I've done has had a beneficial effect.

The last thing the report provides is a profile, which is just a label describing the general shape of your results. Apparently, I fit into the overextended profile, indicating that I am dedicated to my job and derive a strong sense of accomplishment from my work, but that I'm also tired.

It suggests that I find a way to manage my workload, which is pretty much exactly what I'm already working on with my manager, so that's reassuring.

I Talk The Meaning Of Things

Obviously, I want to understand burnout to be a better leader. But there is a personal factor as well.

A while back, I wrote a blog post about making time to learn as a long term investment in continuous improvement.

Within that post, I indicated that I had not been making time to learn, at least not in the way that I wanted to. I hadn't meaningfully progressed any of my professional development goals, which are mostly about reading books to gain new knowledge.

Unfortunately, nothing has changed since I wrote that post and the continued failure to progress concerns me.

It's one of the reasons why I wanted to understand more about burnout, because I was worried that I was experiencing it.

Granted, I am actually learning things, because there is still plenty of new stuff going into my head on a regular basis as part of my day-to-day job. It just doesn't feel as valuable or focused.

To me it feels like the difference between keeping your head above water vs actively swimming in a particular direction. Like, I'm not necessarily drowning, but I'm not moving in a direction that gets me out of the ocean either.

And that mental picture of treading water sounds tiring.

Perhaps this is just another point of proof for the fact that I have a limited amount of capacity and I can't do everything that I want to do. I still exercise heavily in the mornings and I'm still writing this blog post, but I can't shake the feeling that I could (and should) be doing more.

It Was A Pleasure To Burn

The good news is that I feel like I'm a bit better informed about what burnout is and how you can measure it.

Well, at least a little bit more informed. I read a Wikipedia article, focused on one particular model, lightly skimmed a few papers and then took a self-assessment.

Not exactly thesis worthy, but better than nothing.

It's worthwhile recognizing that there are almost certainly other models out there, so it's important to not latch on to this one as the only one worth considering. Maybe one of the others is better? Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go down that path right now.

So, I'm not entirely sure where my new knowledge leaves me.

I don't like that I've stopped making time for learning on a regular basis, but I also can't bring myself to muster up the energy required to make it happen.

Maybe I should stop intensely exercising every morning in a vain attempt to forge this sack of meat that I inhabit into a more pleasing shape.

Or maybe I should stop playing video games?

But you know what they say, all work and no play...

"Creepy Jack Nicholson" is a fun Google image search