Is burnout like a solar eclipse?

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching the solar eclipse (well, 99% of it, anyway – the sky never went entirely dark for us) with my husband, my daughter, and my dog. It was a long slow event: one hour for the moon’s disk to slide over the sun; about two minutes of chilly peak eclipse time, and another hour as the moon receded.

I was thinking about burnout while we watched – I think about burnout a lot! – and it struck me: another word for burnout could be “eclipse.”   I thought of fifteen ways that “eclipse” fits my experience and understanding of burnout.

An Eclipse of Your Energy and Productivity

  1. Everything seems normal until you’re well into it. The sun appears to be shining as much as it always does.
  2. More and more over time, your burnout hides your brilliance from the world. It’s a deceptively slow process. From moment to moment, it can seem as if it’s hardly happening at all.
  3. If you’re not paying attention, it can sneak up on you, and so it may seem sudden that everything around you is darker and colder.
  4. When you’re completely burned out, even the birds stop singing.
  5. Your community can often see it coming on, though initially they may not recognize what the symptoms portend.
  6. When a community does recognize the eclipse (or burnout) is happening, they may deeply misinterpret both its meaning and what to do about it. Another way of saying this — they interpret the phenomenon and prescribe remedies based on their previous understandings and beliefs.
  7. The return of light and warmth will also be slow and steady, not instantaneous.
  8. Eclipses darken the landscape at different times and places, often occurring many years apart. Burnout, too, can repeat in cycles.
  9. Burnout, like an eclipse, is sometimes only partial. Your brilliance may dim, the winds of distress may blow, but your sky does not go completely dark. It feels far less dramatic. Nevertheless, a large part of your energy is unavailable to the world, for a time.
  10. Sometimes you notice a “diamond ring” effect: a last flash of brilliance, or supreme effort, just before your energy and enthusiasm goes completely dark. "Shadow snakes," eclipse 2017
  11. Science clues you in to the significance of effects which you might otherwise have missed.  We loved the way the leaves created a “pinhole camera effect” on the ground — beautiful! Not so beautiful — the severe stress effects of burnout. We liken burnout to a repetitive use injury of the parts of the body that deal with stress.
  12. If you know enough about it, you can find some ingenious ways to deal with it. This last photo shows my engineer husband experimenting with Making an "eclipse camera" using a shoe and a notepadcreating an “eclipse camera” using our daughter’s shoe and a pad of notepaper. (It worked!) An example of creative use of resources to help with burnout recovery is based in knowledge of how the science on hazing applies to burnout.  A brain effect that is very similar to the results of hazing can keep you trapped doing unnecessary, burnout-causing activities. My co-author, Marnie Loomis, used a superhero from a popular movie to help someone break out of that trap.
  13. There’s a lot of bad information out there about why burnout happens and what it means. It can be hard to sift the accurate info out from the nonsense. (One example for the eclipse: I saw a lot of panicked warning posts on social media: “You must keep your pets indoors!  Especially dogs! Old Faithful Fido will look up when you point, and he will go blind!!!” While I had my doubts about this, I didn’t see a debunking article until the day of the event.)  An example for burnout: the commonly believed myth that you can’t burn out if you love your job – people often firmly instruct me this is true, as soon as I mention that I co-wrote a book about burnout. In fact, being obsessively passionate about your job may put you more at risk of burnout.
  14. A lot more people are headed toward burnout than you may realize – for good or ill, if you're getting burned out, you have company on your journey. Since reconnecting with your community is a powerful antidote to burnout, being able to discuss burnout frankly and accurately may provide considerable relief.
  15. At the moment of totality, you can see the colors of sunrise on the horizon all around you, if you remember to look. For burnout, these are the glimmers of new possibility, new directions, relief and recovery.

How much of this list applies to your experience of burnout? Did you think of any similarites that I missed?

A few hours after the eclipse was over, we received a frantic text from one of our neighbors. She had chosen to drive some distance with her family, to be able to view it from the zone of totality. “Can you walk our dog?  We are stuck in post-eclipse traffic. We’ve moved less than a mile in the last hour!”  We love our neighbors — and their dog, Kobe — so we were more than happy to stroll out with our dogs, into the bright day.