The Lonely Diplomat: on burnout
Updated: Mar 23, 2021
Stories of burnout are ubiquitous.
Let's explore how burnout can affect us.
Please contact The Lonely Diplomat by email here if you wish to post this article to an internal site or share to a group.
Stories of burnout feel like they’re dominating my screens at the moment. They’re there when I scroll social media. They’re there when I read the newspaper. This may be confirmation bias, but burnout seems to be more and more prevalent. Well, stories of burnout and how to recognise it and avoid it or treat it, seem to be prevalent. I feel that burnout has been with us for a very long time.
But all this has got me thinking about burnout, diplomats and those living the diplomatic life. It appears to me that, on the surface at least, diplomats are highly prone to burnout. We have demanding jobs. We are always on. With our mobile phones, email and social media, we are always accessible. The environment in which we work demands that we are across everything that’s happening in the world all the time and can relate it to how our country interacts with the world. While it’s exhausting, and many of us can resent it, I feel that many of us actually WANT to be on all the time. We WANT to be across everything. We WANT to show how awesome we are, all the time, to prove that we have what it takes to be promoted, be posted and get the great work opportunities in such a competitive environment.
What does this do to us?
I’ve already written and talked about resilience, stress and the dangers of exhaustion for diplomats in some of my previous blogs and podcasts (see ‘Want to know more?’ section below).
But it’s time to look specifically at burnout. So, let’s take a moment to define it. As this isn't an academic paper, I'm going with something accessible from Psychology Today:
‘…Burnout is not simply a result of long hours. The cynicism, depression, and lethargy of burnout can occur when a person is not in control of how the job is being carried out. Equally pressing is working toward a goal that doesn't resonate, or when a person lacks support—in the office or at home. If a person doesn’t tailor responsibilities to match a true calling, or at least take a break once in a while, the person could face a mountain of mental and physical health problems…’
This lack of support and control and linking to a higher purpose – or lack thereof – seems to be a critical factor when determining the difference between stress and burnout.
What’s the problem?
People who are burned out are at risk for 'a mountain' of physical, mental and emotional conditions, if not in the short-term, than in the medium- to long-term. Subjecting the body to unhealthy amounts of stress places people at risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other chronic diseases. Further, burned out people make mistakes and their job performance suffers, initiating a spiral from which it can be difficult to recover.
In short, workplace burnout can be bad for productivity. This, from a humanistic leadership perspective, is a terrible state to have employees endure.
In researching this blog, one particular symptom kept getting my attention and I want to see which of these gets your attention too. According to the World Health Organization, which classified occupational burnout as an ‘occupational phenomenon’ in May 2019, burnout is characterised by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
reduced professional efficacy.
Which dimension got your attention there? Was it ‘feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job’? Yes, it got mine too. Let’s all just keep that in mind for now.
I realised that I needed the advice of an expert to help me, so I called Alison Earl. Alison is the author of 'Tripowerment: The Why, The Will and The Way of Breakthrough Change', and is a Positive Psychology Practitioner who has recently directed her attention to legal professionals, which has been dubbed the 'burnout profession'.
Alison and I spoke about diplomacy and the legal profession and discussed the similarities in the typical qualities of people entering into these fields: typically high-achieving individuals who are academically talented and want to make a difference.
Arguably, one could classify them as occupations that may be many people’s ‘dream job’ – one that acts as a powerful goal during academic studies at school and university.
Alison provided me with some sobering statistics from her work: the Center(sic) for Disease Control ranks legal practitioners as having the third-highest suicide rate of all occupations (after doctors and dentists, which are arguably two other dream jobs). The American Bar Association states that 15 to 18 per cent of people working in the legal profession suffer from some measure of substance abuse (compared to 10 per cent in the general population). Right here are two tragic signs of burnout: one of which is more evident than the other.
We spoke about the reasons for such rates of burnout, and it seems that the combination of people placed under enormous amounts of stress, inadequate support structures, a lack of control and meaning in their job and other personal traits can affect how someone can feel burned out.
Thankfully, Alison is doing some great work to support legal practitioners.
But what of diplomats and those living the diplomatic life?
For diplomats and those living the diplomatic life
I feel that many of the conditions or circumstances that characterise burnout in the definition above apply to many diplomats. Generally, we have a lot of work to do and high expectations of doing it and doing it well (both placed on us externally and on ourselves), and we do this work within sometimes hulking bureaucracies - both our own and other countries'. Importantly, while our work and advice can influence policy directions, we do not control them. That is the realm of our governments. Finally, and as we’ll explore, we could be doing work that doesn’t align with our personal values.
As a starting point, I asked you to send me your experiences with burnout.
I am so grateful for the responses received, but one experience really resonated with me and encapsulated elements of other responses. The respondent wrote:
‘Sixty-hour work weeks are the norm, plus work commitments in the evenings… This wasn’t about presenteeism or sucking up to the Ambassador, [rather] the jobs are just huge and there are limited people to do them. If not me, then who?’
‘Plus, of course, when you are a diplomat, you are always on, you are never not a representative of your country, so even if you are not answering that urgent call, (you probably are) you are still always someone, not just you. That takes its toll too.’
I am sure that this will resonate with many of you, too.
For me, the writing and research for this blog has made me reflect on my own experience. Indeed, in my work as The Lonely Diplomat, I find that I get consumed with the idea of producing content and growing my business and doing everything ‘right’ that I find it difficult to turn off. Physician, heal thyself, indeed.
In my career, I certainly recall when I felt that there were too many expectations on me (including those that I put on myself) and simply not enough hours in the day, week or month. I found that I ceased caring. I’d checked out. I also recall times when I was left to my own devices to make it work, not out of malice or wanting me to fail, rather the volume of work that we all had meant that the demands were often competing and unrelenting and left little to no time for follow up support.
Thankfully, I realised that this was not a situation that served me, so I got curious and got some help but not after several years trying to work harder and working through it myself and pretending that it was all fine. Once I reconnected with my sense of higher purpose – that of building modern Australia – I found that I could more adeptly endure the unrelenting demands and the sometimes petty office politics.
Extrapolating from that personal insight, I wonder if this connection to a higher purpose is true for many diplomats? Despite the overburdening, the high expectations and sheer relentlessness of working in diplomatic mission, we are working for a noble purpose: continued peace and prosperity between our country and others. This is not to say that burnout isn’t prevalent in diplomacy, rather that compared with other occupations – like the medical and legal professions – it may actually be less.
I thought on this more deeply: If our work is aligned with the broader strategic directions of the government we serve, then it fits that we see our work contributing to a higher purpose in which we believe. However, if the opposite is the case – in that we serve a government whose foreign or other policies do not align with our values – is burnout more prevalent? Do we find it harder to work the long hours and advance an agenda in which we personally do not believe?
To be sure, we work hard to remain professional and serve the government of the day. Despite our very best efforts, does this misalignment between our work and personal values mean that we personally check out at some point? Do we eventually become apathetic? Cynical? By remaining in our jobs, do we inadvertently set ourselves onto the start of the burnout spiral?
It’s a lot easier to do the hard work when we believe in what we’re doing.
Burnout doesn't just affect us while at work. The World Health Organization definition of occupational burnout says that it only refers to the workplace. I contend that it isn’t easy to isolate the symptoms to our working lives as a diplomat. As we are always on, attached to our mobile devices and are poised to respond to every email whenever it arrives, work tends to infiltrate the rest of our lives. Work is life and life is work when you live overseas for your employer and country.
The requirement for us to be resilient and the pressure we feel – and put on ourselves – to have it all under control at all times means that we can hide these feelings, doubts and uncertainty behind our masks when we are barely keeping it together. Calm and measured responses must win out in stressful situations – and is the hallmark of diplomacy and being diplomatic – but can come at the cost of denying us of our own humanity, if not addressed. Those diplomats who can respond well in a crisis are those who get the promotions, the postings and the opportunities. We desperately want to be – or become – the calm, steady leader with a safe pair of hands in a crisis, even if the effort to stop those hands from shaking comes at a significant physical, mental or emotional cost.
Is the need to be resilient – and to be seen to be so – stopping diplomats from seeking help when they feel burned out? I asked Alison Earl this question during our conversation. She answered that, in her experience and in her research, ‘nobody thinks that it [burnout] will happen to them.’
‘We don’t recognise the symptoms’ she said. ‘Stressors keep escalating, and then one day, there’s a straw that breaks the camel’s back. The person breaks down.’
She said that high performing people are prone to experiencing burnout. They are not immune. Generally, they are driven and ambitious and want to make a difference but can be so caught up in their career that they don’t recognise the signs and double down on the work to try to get ahead. So begins the burnout spiral.
Poignantly, Alison said that ‘it is harder to recover from a breakdown than it is to prevent it.’
Let that sink in a moment.
What are we to do?
With those words ringing in our ears, let’s look at what we can do to prevent a burnout breakdown, shall we?
As always, we need to start paying attention to ourselves.
- How are you responding to stressors? Are you reacting any differently to stressors at home or in the workplace? Are you over-reacting? Do you even care? Do you respond with cynicism? Cynicism is my go-to response. If I make a snide comment about the futility of something, then I’m hoping to show how unaffected I am. Of course, what I’m really doing is trying to hide how much I care. The awareness of the use of cynicism to deflect and protect really resonated with me while writing this blog post.
Also, do you suppress your thoughts and feelings and just put your head down and work harder? Do you just take on all the stressors and carry on? I suspect a great number of us do this - myself included.
The answer to having too much work to do is rarely to do more work.
- Connect with your purpose. How connected do you feel to your purpose? Is your purpose stated with certainty and clarity? Is your work aligned with your personal purpose? A sure way to burnout appears to be in working hard for something in which you do not believe.
Consider the following. It’s the second half of the definition used from Psychology Today:
…To counter burnout, having a sense of purpose is highly important. A top motivator is enjoying meaning in the work one does; sometimes meaningfulness can outstrip the wage earned, hours worked, and even the promotions received. Having an impact on others and making the world a better place amplifies the meaning. Other motivators include autonomy as well as a good, hard challenge…’
- Connect with those around you. While you’re checking in on yourself, pay attention to how those around you are responding to stress. This can be difficult to do with colleagues, but asking how someone is feeling and leaving space for them to respond can be a powerful way to vent some steam and constructively move forward. By ‘constructively’, I mean discussing ways to support each other and resisting the urge to turn the discussion into simply an unproductive gossip or complaining session.
- Hustle and float. As a swimmer, this expression speaks to me. In swimming, the most effective, efficient and sustainable stroke is built from knowing when to work and when to relax. Whole workouts can be devoted to getting the balance right. We need to know when we need to work and need to relax and recharge. The balance is critical and we often learn this the hard way through exhaustion and injury.
Ms Rahaf Harfoush writes on getting the balance right for us in her excellent book ‘Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive In A World Obsessed With Work.’ This book was referred to me by a reader (for which I’m extremely grateful). Harfoush brings some excellent perspectives to how work is viewed (mainly in the United States) but also tells of her struggles through burnout and her commitment to attaining a sustainable balance. I found it informative, inspiring and serendipitous that I read it when I did. I know that many of you could find it useful, too.
If you do feel burned out, please, be brave and courageous and seek help. Reach out to a trusted friend. Reach out to a coach or a counselling service. Make decisions that prioritise yourself and your physical, mental and emotional health and well-being. You're not alone.
While you’re paying attention to how you respond to stressors at work and in the rest of your life, I challenge you to build in some time to reset during your days. This does not have to be a 45-minute meditation session (although that’s great if you do!), rather it simply needs to be taking some mindful breaths a few times a day to calm and centre yourself and bring your racing mind back to you and to check in with your emotions.
That, and going for a walk or otherwise getting away from the office for at least 15 minutes a day (without email or social media) will do you good.
Want to know more?
Alison Earl – check out her work at www.alisonearl.com, including links to her excellent book 'Tripowerment: The Why, The Will and The Way of Breakthrough Change.'
Rahaf Harfoush – her work can be found at www.rahafharfoush.com, with links to her book ‘Hustle and Float: Reclaim Your Creativity and Thrive In A World Obsessed With Work.’
World Health Organization – definition of occupational burnout.
And honestly, enter ‘burnout’ into your preferred search engine and there are many resources on how to recognise occupational burnout and people sharing their stories.
This post covered the central themes of diplomacy, competition, resilience, loneliness and connection.
Important notice: All views expressed above are my own and do not reflect any official position. The words published above are intended to support, challenge and inspire diplomats and those living the diplomatic life as they reconnect with themselves and the world around them. They are not intended to, nor should they, replace the advice of a licensed helping professional.