From the start of the industrial age, we've had to deal with the problem of industrial accidents. When one works with machines driven by steam or electricity, humans can't get in the way or else they'll be chopped up, crushed, maimed or burnt. The early industrial age saw more than it's fair share of such accidents where puny humans came too close to the grinding gears of a relentles golem.
But as industry matured, we got better and better at making sure humans are safe against these machines. There evolved all sorts of procedures and protocols until we can reliably run the awesome industrial infrastructure of the world with minimal injury and loss of life. Of course, there are still parts of the world where industrial safety is a distant afterthought but that's because of misplaced priorities, not because we don't know what the right answer is.
For the subsequent knowledge age though, no such safety regime exists. Knowledge workers can be worked to the point of exhaustion with no real concern for their safety. When it was us against the machines, we could bring the machinery to heel and make it behave. But when it's us against us, then who will bring up the topic of the greatest industrial accident of our time -- Burnout!
Perhaps you are familiar with this feeling -- the feeling of complete apathy. The absolute lack of any desire to do anything. Sitting for hours at one's desk with no will to lift a finger or even to think a thought. This is burnout and it happens because your brain is quite literally burnt out. The neural circuitry that uses the promise of pleasure and the reward of a dopamine hit now finds no usable receptors with which to motivate you.
And this burnout happens because of overuse.
You see, the current environment is so very different from anything we've known before. Our stress responses evolved to deal with situations that would spike the stress levels for a short period of time -- imagine coming across a wild animal or an enemy tribe. Whatever the situation was, it would resolve itself in a short amount of time. For that short amount of time, the endocrine system would juice us with cortisol and adrenaline, giving us a strength and speed boost along with added focus to deal with the problem at hand.
But ever since the advent of knowledge work and the global knowledge infrastructure called the Internet, we have been increasingly plugged into a never-ceasing flow of stress. Every waking hour we can expect a WhatsApp from the boss or a Slack ping from a team mate or alerts from the conscientious robot guardians of our systems. And what this means is that the stress is ever present.
And our body, loyal friend that it is, dutifully provides us with the tools to deal with this stress. It pumps cortisol and adrenaline into our brains to help us deal with this situation. But alas, the system was never designed for this constant exposure to stress and at some point, it will collapse from over use.
This is burnout and this is the great industrial accident of our times. Being able to rest well has now become a core skillset for knowledge workers. But alas, for many of us, it is too late.
In this series of posts on Burnout, I'm going to talk about what it is, why it happens and why it's not your fault.