It’s Not Your Fault

The Role of Environment in Burnout

It never occurred to me to blame myself when I was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy. It must not have occurred to anyone else, either, because no one ever confronted me and asked what I did to deserve it. It was just this thing that happened to me — something caused some trauma to my facial nerve — and all I could do was wait it out.

And yet, when I was struggling with burnout, it seemed that all of my thoughts were rooted in self-blame. This black cloud that dimmed all the joy I once felt in work? My fault. My inability to focus or concentrate for more than a minute at a time? My fault, again. My short temper, thin skin, irritability, and constant sense of frustration? Somehow, in some vague way, it was all my fault.

I couldn’t have been more wrong if I’d tried.

Burnout is not your fault.

This is the premise of a book I’m reading, titled “The Truth About Burnout” (by Christina Maslach and Michael P Leitner). Maslach and Leitner make no bones about it — they lay the blame for burnout solely on the organization, and they’ve got some significant research to back up that conclusion.

I’m not convinced yet that organizations are always the culprits, but there’s no question anymore that the sufferer is not to blame.

That’s huge. Maslach and Leitner have this to say about it:

Burnout in individual workers says more about the conditions of their job than it does about them.

My burnout wasn’t caused by anything I did. It didn’t come by invitation, and it certainly didn’t go away on demand. But was it truly caused by my job? That’s what I’ve been struggling to understand.

It’s easy to blame one’s job. For many people, it may even be literally true. In the two weeks since first writing about burnout, I’ve heard from many people who have shared their experiences with dysfunctional workplaces and uber-controlling bosses. I know such places exist, and those organizations would do very well to take a good long look at “The Truth About Burnout”.

But my own experience lies at odds with this conclusion. It seems to me that you don’t need a work (or school, or family, or whatever) environment to be horrific for it to cause burnout. In my case, the work environment was amazingly supportive. I seriously cannot say enough good things about Basecamp as a place to work.

So if burnout comes from the outside, like Maslach and Leitner suggest, where did it come from in my case?

One of the biggest “ah-ha” quotes in “The Truth About Burnout” was right at the beginning of the book:

Burnout is always more likely when there is a major mismatch between the nature of the job and the nature of the person who does the job.

Read that quote a few times and let it sink in. There are two points I took away from it:

  1. Not everyone is a match for the job they’ve been asked to do (or for the environment in which they’ve been asked to work).
  2. “More likely” suggests there are conditions where burnout is still possible, but less likely.

I’ll say it again: Basecamp was (and surely still is) an amazing place to work. But could it be that there were elements of it that I wasn’t well-suited for? Pieces where it was not well-suited to me? Specifically, were there minor mismatches that might have contributed — cumulatively — to a situation where burnout was unlikely, but still possible?

I was reminded recently of an experience I had at a Basecamp company retreat, years ago. There were a couple dozen of us at the time, and we were all gathered in the living room of the place where we were staying. Someone mentioned a comedy routine — it might have been a bit by Louis C.K. — and soon a laptop was set up and connected to the TV so that we could all watch the clip on YouTube.

There was a lot of laughter, a lot of shared camaraderie and “group bonding”. But the humor of the routine didn’t appeal to me. I found it off-putting, and — honestly — kind of offensive. It wasn’t the kind of thing I like to laugh about.

I wasn’t about to ask them to turn it off. Why should I? They were enjoying it. I was the sourpuss, the party-pooper. I think I quietly moved to the corner of the room and occupied myself with a bit of string and some string figures, while I tried to work through a sudden sensation of separation.

My fault? Or Basecamp’s? I don’t think it was either one. It was an innocent mismatch, where I was a bit of oil to the water of the company culture.

Or other times, where coworkers would head to a bar for drinks together. Only, I don’t drink, and I feel distinctly uncomfortable and out-of-place in a bar. There was no reason for them change their plans for my sake — and I never asked them to. There were usually a few people who wanted to do something else, and I’d go hang out with them, or (worst case) head back to my hotel room and hack on something for a few hours.

It never seemed like a big deal at the time. Certainly not anything worth mentioning when asked if I had any concerns or problems with the company. But in retrospect, it seems that each of those (and similar) experiences added up, little mental dissonances that gradually blurred the joy I had in working.

In their book, Maslach and Leitner enumerate six mismatches between job and worker that can lead to burnout, and they call this one “Conflict of Values”. For the most part, my values and those of the company were in agreement, but all it took was a few small mismatches, compounded over time, for burnout to manifest.

This is the most powerful insight in the book so far, to me: while burnout can come from many different directions, it doesn’t come from inside. As Maslach and Leitner say, “burnout…is an important barometer of a major social dysfunction in the workplace.” If you’re struggling with burnout, look to your environment. Maybe there are obvious causes there, like a micromanaging boss or an unreasonable client. Maybe there’s a gorilla in the room, suffocating passion and productivity in its great, hairy arms.

But maybe there are only smaller causes. Maybe it’s a matter of each little thing adding a tiny bit to the mental burden you’re unconsciously carrying around.

There’s a Korean proverb that relates. 개미 구멍에 공든 탑이 무너진다 — an anthill brings down the mighty tower. It’s not always the big things that topple us. We may be at even greater risk from the unseen anthills, than from those pesky wrecking balls.

I wish I’d known to look out for them ten years ago.

Did you like this article? I’ve written other things about burnout, too, recounting my own experience in “To Smile Again”, and refuting the “overwork” misconception in “Avoiding the Trap”. If you’ve struggled with burnout, or are currently fighting through it, please take heart! There’s no shame in it, and it’s not your fault. Share your own experiences in the comments, below.