If you believe there is nothing you can do about your burnout, you are making the problem worse for yourself.
Many people throw their hands up when I ask them about their work stress and potential burnout. They say there is nothing to be done. It’s a staffing issue. It’s a systemic problem. It’s not their job, it’s the “other stuff” like
- interpersonal dynamics
- workplace culture
- “the way things are right now”
These mindsets are a major contribution to burnout.
Last year, the World Health Organization declared that burnout is a health problem. It’s defined by the symptoms of:
- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy
I believe that one core feeling underpins all three of these symptoms clusters: powerlessness.
So yes, there are systemic problems, workplace culture problems, and staffing problems, but the burnout you feel is most likely driven by the feeling of powerlessness.
Find the power
In my Beat Burnout program, I help people explore a key antidote to burnout: finding their power and using it effectively.
What do you think about when you hear the word power?
Many compassionate, ethical people believe that power corrupts. Therefore, they tend to avoid having or using power. They give it away or try to dodge it completely.
But how can you have ownership of your own life, show up with integrity at work, and be a voice for positive change if you continually give away your power? How can that be compassionate and ethical?
You can’t. And it’s not.
The truth is that power anchored in values, expressed with authenticity, is an important tool for change. And it’s something you can harness, not only to address your own burnout, but to be part of the change for that system that feels so unchangeable.
Use your power, don’t give it away
Do you give away your power? Sometimes it is hard to tell.
Here are some behaviors that are sneaky ways you might be giving away your power:
- Not saying how you feel
- Not setting limits
- Not saying no
- Putting others needs always before your own
- Avoiding discomfort
- Letting everything go
- Undervaluing your time, skills, expertise
- Believing everyone else knows better
- Assuming you are wrong
- Inappropriate guilt
- Being defensive
- Believing nothing will change
- Thinking your words don’t matter
If you want to address work stress and burnout, and to be part of the solution making your workplace dysfunctional, you have to use your power.
The kind of power we are talking about is personal power.
Social psychologist Amy Cuddy defines it this way: “Personal power is characterized by freedom from the dominance of others. It is infinite, as opposed to zero-sum—it’s about access to and control of limitless inner resources, such as our skills and abilities, our deeply held values, our true personalities, our boldest selves.”
It’s being empowered, not using power over someone else.
To me, personal power is knowing your strengths, enhancing these strengths through self-development, and using these for the win-win: making your work fulfilling and bringing the value of being your true self to your work.
Feeling powerful is beneficial not only to yourself but to others here’s why, according to Cuddy:
“When we feel powerful, we feel free—in control, unthreatened, and safe. As a result, we are attuned to opportunities more than threats. We feel positive and optimistic, and our behavior is largely unrestricted by social pressures.”
It’s this type of optimism, seeing opportunity, and being able to act free from social pressures that allows us to address problems head-on, to speak up for what we believe, and to be more intentional about how we use our time and energy.
When we use our personal power, we don’t internalize and stew about conflicts or things that bother us. We figure out how to approach it. We use our roles at work to make positive change. We don’t just “suck it up” or ignore.
How to use your power at work
What might it sound like to use your personal power at work? How do you do that?
It’s not actually harsh or aggressive. It’s simply saying something versus avoidance. Powerful communication can sound like being open, curious, flexible, responsive:
- “I wonder if…”
- “I am curious about…”
- “What if…”
- “I wonder how it would be to…”
- “Have we considered…”
Often when we are not using our power, our communication is actually much more negative. It contributes to that “bad” work culture we complain about.
Powerless communication can sound defensive, closed, rigid, reactive:
- “I need you to…”
- “I was just…”
- “You are either this or that…”
- “You made me…”
- “You should…”
Embracing our power, using it to be more open, to take opportunities, and feel more in charge of our work helps us take action. It gives us:
- a path so we can stop stuffing our feelings, stifling our words, and feeling powerless
- strength to be a role model for change
- the spine to have boundaries.
- courage to say the truth and shine light on the problems that need to be addressed
Ready to find your power and Beat Burnout? My next live, in-person program is coming up soon, and is now approved for 6 CEUs for Maine social workers.
Hannah Curtis, LCSW is therapist who works with professionals and organizations to beat burnout. She owns New Approaches, an emotional wellness center in Falmouth, Maine, where she and her colleagues provide therapy, workshops, and groups for people who want to improve their lives and create a ripple effect of health and happiness through their relationships, families, workplaces, and communities.