Burn-in, Burnout, and Workplace Griefbusting: Part I

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Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker as well as "Motivational Humorist ...Read More

Discovering Connections among, Loss, Grief, and Ghosts


Over the years, speaking presentations and writings on burnout have connected me with live audiences and many folks on the Internet. Seeing their life and themselves more clearly, albeit, painfully, has helped readers and program participants begin to find the pass in the erosive impasse. (For example, years back, when I was living in New Orleans, a stress workshop attendee asked if I’d been travelin in North Louisiana. In response to my puzzled look and negative shake of the head, he continued: “The way you described those burnout stages…well, you must have been lookin in my window!”) And recently, a reader who found my website and writings – www.stressdoc.com – wrote of her newfound hope in finally being able to get off the burnout treadmill.

Waking Up to Grief and Ghosts

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In my early thirties, shortly after my own personal academic burnout experience, I began to emotionally and intellectually explore and write about the topic in depth. Now, three decades later, a new epiphany is dawning. In response to my father’s death this past Father’s Day, I wrote about his tortured and triumphant life and the evolving awareness of the myriad emotions stirred by our distant and embattled yet, for periods of time, uncommonly honest and intimate relationship. The result was a greater understanding of how “grief ghosts” walk and stalk the chambers of so many minds, hearts, and souls. (Read my essay of remembrance, “A Requiem for a “Last Angry Man,” here.)

Actually, the realization of lingering grief’s scope was sparked by the emails received in response to my requiem. After offering much appreciated condolences, almost universally, each reader mentioned a personal loss – whether recent or distant – that was still being harbored in an uneasy, if not somewhat stormy, port of recall. And several readers envied (quite warmly, actually) my ability to track and capture that father-son rollercoaster relationship. When ready, they too wanted to embark on such an exploratory quest, to dig deep with their own evolving, hard-earned voice to unearth and embrace the ethereal mix of ghostly shadow and substance.

Defining Burn-in, Burnout, and Loss

To help an interested soul searcher and potential ghost-grief buster, let’s define and illustrate some basic terminology that will both connect and differentiate burn-in (with its typically more internal, yin energy and essence) from burnout (with its more external, yang nature).

A. Burn-in. This covert condition involves recent and past losses that have not been emotionally grappled with or have only been superficially or briefly acknowledged, that is, they have not been honestly, openly, and meaningfully grieved. Such lingering losses include the emotional if not post-traumatic aftermath of such life events or experiences as death and divorce, growing up in (substance) abusing families, jolted by on-the-job trauma, or stunned by an unexpected RIF, foreclosure, major illness, or natural disaster. The grief of a significant loss that contributes to understanding and growth is rarely a one-trial learning curve; actually, there are initial grief stages as well as an ongoing, lifetime process of memory and reflection, identification and integration. (And worth noting, I believe grief denied or loitering grief ghost stress and pain, over time, may also foster memory loss or even dementia. Of course, another popular way of anesthetizing grief ghosts is by substance abuse, which certainly can damage organic brain functioning.) The specific nature of a head, heart, and soul expanding or contracting grief journey reflects the bio-psycho-social history, personality, emotional support, as well as the eco-cultural landscape and mindscape of the individual. Alas, burn-in sits heavy on many people’s minds and bodies, hearts and souls. Be advised, these ghosts are also loitering in your office halls and on your work floors.

B. Burnout. As previously penned in popular burnout writing, Burnout is a gradual process by which a person detaches from work and other significant roles and relationships in response to excessive and prolonged stress and mental, physical and emotional strain. The result is lowered productivity, cynicism and confusion, a feeling of being drained and having nothing more to give. (If interested, email [email protected] for my article, Combat Strategies at the Burnout Battlefront, including “the four stages of burnout.”) While burn-in is an accumulation of insufficiently acknowledged or grieved experiential losses culminating in ghostly agitation, burnout is generated by being worn down and feeling depleted due to a chronically over-demanding, threatening and uncertain, or under-stimulating environment. The “erosive spiral” evokes an array of psychological and existential loss: from loss of control, to loss of hope (e.g., according to psychiatrist Jerome Frank, “hopelessness is an inability to imagine a tolerable future”), to loss of pride, passion, position, or possibility. However, if denied or dismissed, these psychological losses too can germinate emo-existential ghosts.

C. Loss. Clearly, both burnout and burn-in are intimately connected to the concept of loss. Actually, many life events and an array of mind-body-spirit experiences and expressions are touched by loss. This ever-present concept and connection becomes clearer by surveying the Collins English Dictionary (along with some of my own associations), for relevant definitions, synonyms, and usages of “loss”:

1. something that is lost; “the car was a total loss”; loss of innocence, loss of a promotion, loss of control, loss of a dream, to lose one’s self;
b. forfeit, forfeiture – something that is lost or surrendered as a penalty;
c. sacrifice – a loss entailed by giving up or selling something at less than its value; “he had to sell his (house) at a considerable sacrifice”
d. wastage – anything lost by wear or waste; both burn-in and burnout involve an “erosive spiral”

2. gradual decline in amount or activity; loss of energy, desire, or motivation; “a serious loss of business”
a. decline, diminution – change toward something smaller or lower

3. the act of losing someone or something; “everyone expected him to win so his loss was a shock”
a. failure – an act that fails; “his failure to pass the test”
b. default – loss due to not showing up; “he lost the game by default”
c. capitulation, surrender, fall – the act of surrendering (usually under agreed conditions);

4. the disadvantage that results from losing something; “his loss of credibility led to his resignation”;
a. deprivation – deficit, deficiency, scarcity, poverty
b. disadvantage – the quality of having an inferior or less favorable position; being a “loser”

5. the experience of losing a loved one; “he sympathized on the loss of their grandfather”
a. experience – an event as apprehended; “a surprising experience”; “that painful experience certainly got our attention”

6. the amount by which the cost of a business exceeds its revenue; “the company operated at a loss last year”;

7. military personnel lost by death, injury, capture, or sacrifice
a. casualty – a decrease of military personnel or equipment
b. combat injury, wound, injury – a casualty to military personnel resulting from combat
c. sacrifice – personnel that are sacrificed (e.g., surrendered or lost in order to gain an objective)

8. euphemistic expression for death; “thousands mourned his passing”
a. exit, expiration, going, passing, departure, release
euphemism – an inoffensive or indirect expression that is substituted for one that is considered offensive or too harsh

9. “to be at a loss”
a. uncertain what to do; bewildered
b. rendered helpless (for lack of something) at a loss for words; incomprehensible, mystified

Identifying and Illustrating Loss

As noted, “loss” may range from the loss of a loved one (including a pet) or a desired position along with the loss of face as well as loss of a dream, to a general loss of energy and sense of control, etc. More specifically, we experience the pain of significant loss and potential for grief from a variety of disruptive life family and work-life interruptions and separations, rejections, and traumatic jolts. Of course, at least as poignant, are the fantasies of “childhood innocence” (or “good enough” parenting, shelter, friendships, or stability) lost through premature death, separation, and abandonment, or through frequent or painful uprooting from a family home, or a childhood contaminated by: a) chronic illness, b) disability due to genetics or a horrific accident, c) intense school or peer group bullying, and d) family trauma and chronic (e.g., substance) abuse.

Loss can also be triggered by chronic uncertainty or the unexpected withdrawal of a promise, pathway, or opportunity. In response to a RIF (Reduction in Force), I recall a manager-in-training exclaiming: “I once had a career path…then this boulder fell from the sky and crushed it.”

There’s also a paradoxical quality to loss. Some positive experiences, for example, a promotion that requires new and relatively untested skills and responsibilities may also evoke a bewildering or overwhelming sense of “loss of control,” as well as a threat to one’s identity and image. Or a new mother, jolted by biochemical disruption as well as family tension, not to mention the transition to new roles as mother and parental partner (or, perhaps single parent), may experience “transitional loss and stress” not to mention post-partum depression.

Finally, loss and a grief process may also be conjured by memories of a time and place or of a socio-cultural ambiance that touched one deeply and can never quite be replicated or replaced. For example, having savored the multi-layered tastes and colors, the sights, sounds, and smells, the “oddball and outcast” spirits of the Big Easy in the ’70s and ’80s, having come out of the creative closet during my “American in Cajun Paris” years…My transition from New Orleans to Washington, DC definitely evoked some cultural disorientation. I still can’t listen to the Beatles poignant number, In My Life, without wistfully thinking of people and places down in the bayou. I genuflect at the mantra: Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans!

During my N’Awlins daze, I captured the paradoxical – double-edged danger and opportunity – quality of loss and grief: Whether the loss is a key person, a desired position, or a powerful illusion, each deserves the respect of a mourning. The pit in the stomach, the clenched fists and quivering jaw, the anguished sobs prove catalytic in time. In mystical fashion, like spring upon winter, the seeds of dissolution bear fruitful renewal.

Stay tuned for more writings on loss, grief, and “erosive” ghosts. Until then…Practice Safe Stress!

Also, to hear more about this topic, you can check out a recent internet radio appearance that I made.

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