You’re Wrong About Burnout.
Happiness isn’t the opposite.
Workplace burnout is a popular topic these days, whispering from the cloistered pages of academic journals and blaring in boldface news headlines.
Some articles properly identify burnout’s academic definition: a triad of symptoms (emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and inefficacy) and its opposing construct, engagement (symptomized by high energy, strong involvement, and efficacy).
However, with the modern convention of content repackaging and our affinity for easily digested soundbites, authors have stretched burnout’s meaning to encompass symptoms such as frustration, exasperation, anxiety, depression, illness, and unhappiness.
And in that same simplified way, many authors have suggested that the opposite of burnout is workplace happiness.
What’s your posture toward unhappiness?
This conceptual metamorphosis is understandable, given our near-universal desire for greater happiness. But the drift in definition has a pitfall: Happiness, it turns out, can be fickle and flighty.
In the 1990s, acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) codified millennia-old Buddhist psychology and integrated it with cognitive science advances to map out the paradoxes of the human mind. One such paradox is the way in which our efforts to cling to positive experiences — emotions, thoughts, events, etc. — and avoid negative ones actually generate and perpetuate significant suffering.
Emotions and moods are ephemeral and fragile, susceptible to slight breezes of external or internal circumstance. The simple gravitational misadventure of a spilled cup of coffee, for example, can flip a “good” day on its head. This fragility leads us to adhere too tightly to happy moods and fear their passing. In this way, we smother their vibrancy and guarantee their premature demise.
In parallel, our aversion to negative emotions and thoughts leads us to fear sadness and resist it when it darkens our door. This anxious posture actually helps grief linger, shadowing our positive experiences and unwittingly increasing the likelihood of more sadness.
In your work life, just as with your life outside of work, positive and negative experiences emerge every day. With the context above, we can begin to understand that when we mistake the opposite of burnout for happiness, we unintentionally open a window to significant suffering.
Reconsider why you do what you do
ACT proposes a different approach to life: Dive in! Life derives meaning from the relationships we form, the personal growth we effect, and the passions we pursue. What’s notable about these endeavors is that they can be engaged actively, no matter the winds of emotion and tremors of thought.
When we fully engage in meaningful aspects of our lives, we cultivate purpose. And purpose is a compass that always points true north. Instead of looking for aspects of your job that make you happy, look for the tasks that give you purpose.
Over the span of a few days, build a list of meaningful tasks of your job (e.g., interacting with customers, collaborating with co-workers). Rate these tasks on a scale of 0-10, with 10 being most meaningful. Then go back and rank the items again, same scale, based on how often you engage in them.
Then identify the biggest deltas — those rating 9 or 10 in importance but occupying only 1 or 2 in terms of your time. These are the levers to pull to enhance your workplace well-being. Try to maximize tasks that give you the most meaning. With less meaningful tasks, aim for efficiency.
In my own list, talking with patients rated 10 for meaning and administrative tasks like navigating patients’ electronic health records rated much lower. Neither finding surprised me, but I was surprised by the clarity I gained from simply articulating these levers. And the administrative tasks somehow seemed more tolerable after I consciously connected them to my desire to provide the best care for my patients — even though the amount of time I spent on those tasks didn’t change.
You might be surprised by the sources of meaning at your job when you give yourself time to slow down and examine them. If the exercise has an unintended side effect of happiness visiting you more frequently, don’t worry. Just bask in its glow and do not fear its temporary nature, for you will have discovered something more enduring than happiness: purpose.