The art of working is undoubtedly fuelled by passion and sense of responsibility.
But, sometimes, people who are very passionate about their work, or those with a strong sense of responsibility, can burn out, which is a sort of emotional exhaustion associated with their work that reduces the professional skills and risks of becoming a real illness.
It is a steadily increasing phenomenon that can affect anyone: established professionals and people at their first employment, entrepreneurs and employees, students and people with solid skills.
It is a problem that has intensified over the last few years also due to the constant social pressure related to work and due to the state of growing precariousness common to many jobs and professions. For many, work now permeates every moment of life (both when you have a job and when you do not) and is the main topic of social conversation.
Work is the anchor we cling to be someone in society and to evaluate who others are and whether they are of interest to us. It is the meter we use to measure our progress in life. It is the context within which we ask ourselves the great existential question of what is the meaning of our life (What do we want? Who do we want to be?)
Probably none of us firmly believes that work fully expresses who we are as people and what is our value, and that there is a difference between what we are and what we do, but in the end we often act as if we have profoundly made this belief our own.
How can we prevent ourselves from burning out?
How can we keep together two forces that seem to contradict each other?
On the one hand, the urge to try to understand which job is best in line with our interests, our dreams, our aspirations. A job we can identify with and that allows us to be ‘ourselves’ without having to sacrifice or censor parts of our personality and our being.
On the other hand, the urge to keep some distance between ourselves and the work we do, without identifying ourselves completely with it, so as not to fall into the deception of experiencing everything that happens to us at work (conflicting relationships, mistakes, etc.) as something extremely personal that harms our identity and that questions us as a whole.
To try to give an answer, I tried to make some reflections starting from what I have recently read in an American blog written by Allyson, a young professional who burned out after a period of time invested in trying to launch her own start-up that would ‘help people do work they love’.
I found Allyson’s reflections interesting because she herself, as a professional expert in helping others work well, should have had enough skills to not fall into the trap, and instead she fell right into it.
After months of full-time dedication to her start-up, she compromised her health and well-being at work, and started working less and worse, until she had to decide to abandon her project to look for a new job.
After a while she realized that she had made the mistake of completely confusing her identity with that of her start-up and that the fear of failing with her start-up had completely annihilated her because it meant failing as a person.
‘What I have failed to understand was that my start-up was not an answer to my purpose or identity in life. It was simply one manifestation of what I believe in, how I aspire to live, but it wasn’t me, it was something I did’.
Alyson understood that the meaning of her life is something that goes beyond her job and that she can express it in many different ways, and she also understood that she has to accept herself for what she is, regardless of her work. Only this acceptance can act as a springboard for a development that is first of all personal and then professional.
A life in which we base our identity, our recognition, and our satisfaction only on work is a life in which we risk to make our well-being depend on external factors and circumstances that will change over time and that we cannot foresee.
What we can do to prevent burning out and reconcile the passion for work with a ‘right distance’ is to:
  • persevere in trying to always understand what is the kind of work that allows us to best express ourselves, our personality. This allows us to have a greater motivation and energy for work and makes us able to be resilient and face the inevitable difficulties that await us with every job;
  • not entrust to work the task of telling us who we are and to be the proof of our value. It is also necessary to start accepting ourselves more for what we are and recognizing that it is already enough, that we must not constantly prove our value to ourselves and to others (‘Accepting myself is enough. I’m not my job’).
A full and unjudgmental acceptance of ourselves also allows us to be more capable of accepting others for what they are and accepting the present for what it is.
In fact, what often happens to people who identify themselves too much with their job is to constantly seek out the path of perfectionism, and to be also considered by others too hard on themselves and others.
Seeing ourselves and others as human beings, and not like the jobs we do and the titles we have, is the only way to fully respect our lives.
We are first of all people. We are not our job.

Allyson’s story also teaches that it is useful to share our anxieties and concerns about work with others instead of keeping them in, maybe because we are ashamed to tell others that we have problems, we are confused, or because we think it’s a sign of weakness.
Even the most competent people in the field of work, like Allyson, when they have to deal with themselves, are at risk of not being lucid and failing to properly use their skills (like a doctor who cannot cure himself ).
So, the thing we can all do is to immediately ask for help and advice to other people we trust when we feel overwhelmed by work, and we can also ‘monitor’ others and alert them if we see the imminent dangers of burning out.
Taking care of ourselves and others on this issue is another important way to make our job a satisfying adventure. This too is the art of working.