Purpose, Impact, and Burnout

Susan Hunt Stevens, Founder and CEO of WeSpire, offers her advice for avoiding burnout in a high impact career.

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Would you know if burnout was having a significant impact on your life? As an entrepreneur, I have wondered from time to time when, or if, I might hit a wall. I’ve never felt particularly burnt out, but I’ve wondered whether it would be obvious or would I be completely oblivious and just implode one day?

So this week, I was stunned by a statistic on burnout: 96% of Millennials say burnout affects their everyday life and 75% report feeling mentally exhausted at least once a week or more. The article shared the website of a therapist who specializes in burnout for people in high-pressure careers which offers a “burnout calculator”. I love a good quiz and more importantly, I figured this might answer something I’ve been curious about.

For the quiz, you reflect on the last 30 days: levels of happiness, whether I feel trapped at work, whether I’m caring, whether I’m losing sleep over a traumatic experience with a person at work, among other questions. My score was 15 out of 50 and the current impact of burnout on my life is low. I credit a lot of that to having a career with a very strong sense of purpose, but I’ve also had to learn that purpose isn’t the only thing that matters. Here are other tips I’ve picked up along the way:

1. Carry multiple meaningful identities

One of the biggest risk factors for burnout is “You identify so strongly with work that you lack balance between your work life and your personal life”. Most leaders clearly wrestle with that challenge. However, in the survey with Millennials, 70% said they identified themselves only through their jobs. This mash-up between personal identity and work was given a name recently in a very provocative article in the Atlantic: “workism”. The writer’s hypothesis was that work has morphed into a religious identity — promising transcendence and community, but failing to deliver and leaving workers, particularly younger Millennials, set up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment and inevitable burnout. It even calls out a possible “dark side” of seeking purpose at work:

“There is something slyly dystopian about an economic system that has convinced the most indebted generation in American history to put purpose over paycheck. Indeed, if you were designing a Black Mirror labor force that encouraged overwork without higher wages, what might you do? Perhaps you’d persuade educated young people that income comes second; that no job is just a job; and that the only real reward from work is the ineffable glow of purpose. It is a diabolical game that creates a prize so tantalizing yet rare that almost nobody wins, but everybody feels obligated to play forever.”

What “workism” points to is that having your only meaningful source of identity through your job is tenuous, whether you are in a purpose-driven role or not. Perhaps what keeps my burnout score relatively low is that I carry a number of other meaningful identities in addition to Founder of WeSpire: mother, daughter, wife, member of The Union Church in Waban, Rooster @ Soulcycle, member of the class of Tuck ’98 and more.

2. Take part in some hobbies

One of the recommended methods of coping with burnout is to get a hobby. My hobby for years has been dancing, which happens to double as exercise, another activity recommended to reduce burnout. As a result, I’m an incredibly mediocre, albeit enthusiastic, club/hip-hop dancer. As I aged and the knees started complaining, I switched to beginner Irish step dance, have slowly progressed to “Beginner II” with a hope to make Intermediate and dance at the Willie Clancy Festival someday.

3. Spend time with friends, family, and partners

Finally, I take very seriously the research that what really makes people happy is time spent with friends, family, and partners. My house is only sort of organized, the lawn is primarily clover and crabgrass, and I’ve never watched Game of Thrones (bucket list, promise!) because spending the free time I do have with the people I care about takes priority over many a household task and television.

We all work for much of our lives. We are also likely to work hard, no matter what we do. I’ve managed to thrive in a high pressure environment for years by recognizing that purpose matters immensely to my own sense of well-being and gives me energy and motivation. But I’ve also learned that a purpose-driven role can’t be the only thing that matters. The key is to do well and do good for the world, but also for yourself.

Susan Hunt Stevens is the Founder and CEO of WeSpire, an award-winning employee engagement technology and services firm that helps global companies design, communicate and measure the impact of purpose-driven initiatives. Her inspiration for combining technology-driven behavior change and health/sustainability came from 15 years in consumer digital media and the personal challenges she faced when her infant son was diagnosed with serious food and environmental allergies. Having gone through two Springboard accelerator programs, she loves supporting other women entrepreneurs. She is a recognized expert in the field of designing for behavior change and was named a 2019 Environment + Energy Leader 100 and 2015’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year for New England. To sign up for her weekly Saturday Spark newsletter, visit https://www.wespire.com/blog/

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