Burning Out vs. Freezing Up: Part I
If burnout is understood as a result of persistent stress in the workplace that has not been managed, then freezing-up can be understood as a result of persistent underutilization in the workplace that has not been rectified.
These days, the majority of us have either experienced or been warned about the dreaded burnout. We talk openly about the detrimental impacts of being overworked and have nothing left to give. But what happens when we are under-worked and do, in-fact, have plenty to give?
In the early 1900’s psychologists realized that there was an important relationship between stress and our ability to perform (Yerkes & Dodson, 1908). We need a little bit of fire beneath us to get us going. Yet, too much gasoline quickly leads to decreased performance and increased likelihood to burn out. There’s been tons of research on and conversation around this going-out-in-a-fiery-ball end of the spectrum.
Yet, there is another end of the spectrum less discussed. What happens when the fire burns dangerously low? When mere embers are what we are attempting to perform our duties from. Or maybe our fire has petered out all together, and we’re working off smoke and ash. The result: our motivation, drive, energy and desire runs cold. Go too cold, for too long, and we freeze up to the work in front of us.
The opposite of burning out, isn’t thriving. The opposite of burning out, is freezing up.
In my experience working closely with individuals and teams that are inching towards the height of their careers, freezing up can sound like any of the following:
- Icing Over (aka stagnation) — I don’t like where I am, but I can’t see anywhere else for me to go.
- Cold Shoulder (aka indifference) — I have plenty to offer, but no space to offer it, so who cares.
- Cold Sweats (aka doubt) — I want to work hard, but can’t find the place for it, it must be me.
Icing Over (stagnation)
Have you ever felt stuck at work? Stuck in a project, stuck in a role, stuck in an industry, even stuck in a career? There are many reasons we can feel stuck in where they are or what they’re doing, and even more reasons we might be investing in our own stickiness (but that’s for another time). When we find ourselves underutilized at work, we may notice a lack of that sweet, sweet feeling of accomplishment. Underutilization means less opportunities to grow. And less opportunity to grow, means a lesser sense of accomplishment.
I once heard someone poignantly describe our species as Human Becomings. This description is a fantastic reminder of our need for continued learning, growth, and adaptation. After all, that’s how any species continues to survive. We know that objects in motion stay in motion, while objects at rest, tend to, well, stay at rest. Oh hello, inertia, you bastard. As we start to freeze up at work, it can become more and more challenging to feel rambunctious enough to make a pivot or change. A current of possibility that once flowed through us, starts to ice over. As a result, we turn on the good ‘ol autopilot, and cruise through our work week. Bored and potentially irritated by the gnawing feeling of immobility.
Cold Shoulder (indifference)
Of course, there are always going to be moments at work, where we are tasked with the boring project, the busy-work, the basic tasks needed to help keep a well-oiled machine, you know… oiled (ask any therapist how they feel about chart notes as paperwork). Yet, if you’ve started to feel regularly underutilized, it’s not only the typical drudgery that’s got you dragging your feet, now you might notice a growing indifference toward something you once, not only enjoyed, but were chomping at the bit to do.
I’ve found this to be particularly common among those who are ready to “level-up” in their careers, but find themselves in settings that offer few opportunities to do so. As time went on for these folks, they found themselves growing cold and distant towards work that once energized and excited them. What’s more, their desire to offer themselves up to lead initiatives, take on new projects, or even apply for promotions waned. The greatest impact a cold shoulder towards work can have is on company culture and employee engagement. Cold shoulders tend to permeate through tasks and into activities. One-on-ones, team meetings, and even fun off-sites can take on a “yeah, sure, whatever” undertone.
Cold Sweats (doubt)
One of the major internal impacts of freezing up is the way in which we start to sweat the small stuff. Despite the books, Instagram quotes, and TikTok videos coaxing us not to. When we have plenty to offer, and nowhere for those offerings to go, it’s easy to start wondering: Is it me? The cold sweat of self-doubt subtly creeps its way into our sense of self and we can start to notice an anxiety towards work that hadn’t always been there before. After multiple attempts to offer yourself and your skills without receiving a green light, it makes sense to question the factor you have the most control over: yourself.
I’ve seen the ways in which freezing up has even the most confident folks doubting their abilities; regardless of what’s written on their resume. It’s easy for us to lump these feelings into other emotional health buzzwords like “imposter syndrome,” in order to continue a narrative that aligns with self-doubt. Yet, if we pause long enough to take in the surrounding context, we might notice the cold sweats of doubt aren’t originating from an internal struggle to believe in ourselves. Instead, they are a result of the environment that’s struggling to show up for us.
Feeling the Chill
The next time you notice yourself feeling listless, disinterested, or doubtful at work, it’s worth it to take a look at the thermostat and ask yourself “does work feel cold to me?” Just as it’s important to recognize the ways in which you’re starting to crisp up in order to prevent burnout, it’s key to identify the moments you start feeling chilly at work, in order to prevent freezing up. After all, there’s not much we can do to help things thaw, if we have no idea they are starting to freeze.