12 Lessons From A Personal Journey Through Burnout and Engagement

From confession to commitment – engagement to burnout and back again.

Engagement is the diamond in the heart of work and wellbeing.

This post is personal. Work is personal. This is not a vague theoretical outline of disengagement. It is also not a quick fix. This post outlines a challenging journey from disengagement to re-engagement. Although it is personal, I believe embedded in the experience are insights and approaches that have universal application.

Overall, my work had been steadily progressing in employee engagement for over a decade but on November 3rd of 2016 I hit a work-related speed bump. It threw the meaning of my work up in the air, jolted me emotionally, and almost brought me to a complete stop.

On November 3rd I was teaching my employee engagement course in Dubai when between 10AM and 3PM, three of the fully engaged participants suffered major economic and career setbacks that were out of their control. Engagement is no guarantee against the consequences of major economic upheaval. That same evening my wife phoned to let me know that she had been let go from the leadership position she loved.  Susan had the highest level of work engagement I know but this was no guarantee of work, organizational appreciation, or career security. These two events on opposite sides of the globe hit me much harder than I first realized. I don’t believe burnout occurs in one day but November 3rd crystallized many other experiences, perceptions, and emotions over the previous year or two into my personal D-Day or Disengagement-Day.

Since that time I have been showing classic signs of burnout: exhaustion, cynicism, and the belief that my work was not making a difference. I felt that my work on engagement was equivalent to putting lipstick on camels. It isn’t very pretty and the camel is still a camel!

For the past decade, I had focused all my work on employee engagement from founding and hosting the 7400 member Employee Engagement Network to education and speeches around the world, and writing four books on work. Imagine my befuddlement as I found myself disengaged from my own work. I felt even worse because I had comprehensive knowledge and methods to engage yet I was stuck. I believe work can make us well but I was not well at this time. In addition, I have a 30-year background as an employee assistance counselor and university counselor educator. I was naively arrogant believing this knowledge and expertise would make me immune from disengagement.

My sense of being engaged in meaningful work was blurred and my vigor, dedication, and absorption to both initiate and complete tasks were depleted.  I did most of my work but not at the level I expected of myself, and a number of tasks languished on the proverbial back burner.

At 62, I contemplated retiring from work yet I know in my heart that there was much I still feel called to do and I am stubborn enough not to give up.

A month ago, I encountered and fully resonated with a new word: “inanition.” Inanition means being empty, lacking in enthusiasm, vitality, and vigor. It is a spiritual emptiness, loss of purpose, and exhaustion caused by a lack of nourishment. My work failed to nourish me — my energy was dwindling, and I was a living example of inanition.

My experience is personal but it also seems to have a sense of universality to it. Your causes of disengagement, burnout or inanition may be quite different than mine, ranging from job loss and unfair practices at work to a lack of psychological safety or major career setback, but the pathway out of inanition to full engagement may have commonalities.

Here are 12 points of navigational guidance if you should encounter burnout or inanition during your career journey:

  1. Know that your career is a hero’s journey. In every hero’s journey there will be dragons (challenges and setbacks) and that’s what makes the journey so engaging, challenging, and rewarding. Of course you might also get scorched.
  2. Be patient, kind and accepting. The road back to engagement may be longer than you think. It may ask you not to be so tough on yourself. It may demand acceptance without giving up or sinking into despondent acquiescence or depression.
  3. Being resilient doesn’t mean you are a rubber ball that can instantly bounce back after being thrown to the ground. Infuse gentle tenacity and personal stubbornness based on your career purpose or calling into your human and fallible resilience. Embrace human resilience and authentic unfolding during your career quest.
  4. Acknowledge that setbacks are inevitable and they do not signal the end of the journey.
  5. When you are on fire because of burnout it is time to stop, drop, and roll. Determine what you may need to stop doing and what you may need to drop from your work and expectations. Once you have determined what you need to stop don’t freeze — determine how you will roll into re-engagement and healthy wellbeing.
  6. Take personal responsibility for your own engagement without sinking into self-blame or guilt when things are not moving as fast as you hope or think they should.
  7. Embrace impermanence. Nothing lasts. Know that change can, and will, occur. As one Zen statement declares: spring comes and the grass grows by itself. Authentic optimists know that setbacks are seldom permanent, pervasive, and personal.
  8. Let others know what you are going through and ask for help. Depending upon the severity, duration and intensity of the experience consult with a career coach or employee assistance counselor. Every hero needs a mentor or Yoda.
  9. Know that meaning at work and in life is not something we find, it is something we create and at times need to re-create. I will no longer put lipstick on camels but I can offer many contributions to make work better for individuals and organizations.
  10. Overall in overcoming inanition, look more for trending than transformation. I wanted to wake up the next morning and have it all be gone and for me to be my old self but I now focus more on positive trending in a more engaged direction than magic cures or effortless engagement elixirs.
  11. There are always lessons embedded in every experience. Inanition may not be the most welcome of work teachers but the lessons learned may be invaluable for the rest of your career. I am still very much in the process of determining what I have learned and how that learning will shape the remainder of my career.
  12. Embrace life and work. Work is not a problem to be solved; it is an experience to be lived. Don’t miss it because you imagine or believe it should be something other than it is in the present moment.

Pregnancy and Rebirth. I trace back my challenges with burnout and engagement to November 3, 2016. Today is August 3, 2017. If November 3rd was D-Day than I consider August 3rd E-Day, the day of full re-engagement. This time frame of nine months seems very symbolic to me. I have gone through a very challenging pregnant pause in my work on engagement but it has given birth to a rebirth in engagement and burnout made stronger by the challenges and setbacks. I would be delighted to work with you and your organization to help you give rebirth to engagement while also preventing or alleviating burnout by focusing on everyday employee engagement.

I often offer a line in the conclusion of my writing and after writing this post, I know that this is as much a message to myself as to my readers: Engage along with me, the best is yet to be.

David Zinger is a human and fallible expert on employee engagement and believes that work can make us well, even if sometimes it doesn’t. He designed and delivers a powerful daily behavioural approach to preventing and overcoming burnout and installing authentic and powerful engagement. This education is offered in keynotes, workshops, courses, and masterclasses. David believes in the power of everyday employee engagement to make work better and to make us better.


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