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How to avoid burnout at work

Burnout isn’t typically a result of hard work. Instead, it can occur when your perspective on life becomes solely defined by it. The best way to avoid burnout, writes Matias Dalsgaard, is not through stress treatment or therapy, but through obtaining richness in your intellectual and spiritual life

by Ali Roff

how to avoid burnout at work

I have experienced burning myself out at work. Like many people, I tried some of the various stress treatments that are typically offered to burnout victims. I did benefit from them – so my assertion that treatment isn’t really the cure is not based on any lack of respect, or lack of acknowledgement of the value of treatment.

However, when you consider what happens when people burn out, it’s typically for reasons of an intellectual kind. This requires some intellectual work that goes beyond stress treatment or therapy.

Two common reasons for people burning out are:

  1. They don’t see the bigger picture any more
  2. They lack imagination

By not seeing the bigger picture, I am referring to how our intellectual life is reduced to serving nothing more than the problem-solving and execution of tasks at work. We do not find interest or rejoice in considering questions regarding self, culture, or politics, unless these questions directly serve work purposes. There is no curiosity left for life in general.

By lacking imagination, I mean that we lose the capability of seeing how things, and how we describe them, could be different. We are stuck in a single perspective on life.

The good news is that the solution to these challenges is right at hand. The bad news is that it will take time and some intellectual effort to benefit from this solution. Start by trying to appropriate and re-appropriate the vast traditions of art and religion that are at the heart of our culture. Simply start reading and listening. Not because there is a single new truth to be found here – but because, through the process of appropriation, you encounter new perspectives and descriptions of life.

What is often overlooked is how the tradition of literature, art, religion, and music is rich in challenges of the simple perspectives of today’s work life. This tradition gives you knowledge about your own world. Without that, your imagination will always be restricted. For instance, while I was still a student, I spent time studying and translating Wordsworth’s poem Tintern Abbey from English to Danish. Therefore, today I know that the physical ruin of Tintern Abbey exists and plays a part in British history. I know how this old abbey ruin represents a way of experiencing a life that is so very different from today’s everyday experiences and emotions. I know that things at some point (in this specific case, 200 years ago in the romantic era) had other meanings. I believe that such knowledge gives strength to my imagination. It makes me less likely to just accept that today’s prevailing perspectives on things are the only perspectives out there.

I know that many people will find it hard to find time to read long and demanding novels. But you can also start with something less demanding. Listen to music. Read poetry. Enjoy art. Experience a church. It can all start with simple things. What is important is that you put yourself in situations where you find freedom – a freedom from the simple problem-solving perspectives on life. Immerse yourself in situations where something, or someone, is speaking differently and personally to you. This is where the imagination can slowly start rolling again.

Burnout isn’t simply about being overworked – it’s about only being able to see everything in relation to your work. If you obtain intellectual and spiritual richness in life, then you will be able to keep burnout at bay. It is through the broadening of your own intellectual horizon that you will, once again, see the big picture.

Matias Dalsgaard’s book, Don’t Despair is published by Pine Tribe and available now

More inspiration:

Read Why you get triggered at work and how to stay calm by Obi James on LifeLabs

Photograph: plainpicture/Design Pics