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Authenticity: An Antidote to Burnout?

Updated: Jun 17, 2019

I recently gave an interview on women and burnout in which the question came up of whether women are more likely than men to burn out at work and whether women experience burnout at work differently from men. (Disclosure: After more than 10 years of teaching, I was experiencing symptoms of burnout, which prompted me to move my family to California for a writing sabbatical.) As an emotions geek, I couldn’t help but interpret the question in light of what we know about emotions at work and how these emotions relate to burnout.

On the topic of gender, men and women generally feel very similar emotions (including those chronic negative emotions that can result in burnout such as frustration and despair), although the emotions are sometimes expressed differently and can elicit different reactions when expressed. Overall, the data show that men suppress emotions more than women, which can have major implications for men’s health and well-being. Suppression is when you feel an emotion but you don’t want to express it so you attempt to “put a lid on it” and not reveal it. While blowing up at your boss is often not advisable, suppression doesn’t work very well and has some unintended negative consequences. (Extensive research suggests the emotions “leak out” and impact everything from working memory to performance to interpersonal relationships.)

In thinking about burnout at work, it’s important to move beyond “men vs. women” to consider the issue of intersectionality. The basic idea is this: Thinking about gender in isolation neglects a large swath of the myriad identities we bring to work. Some stories of burnout among women are so specific to a certain segment of professional women that they are practically incomprehensible to many women at work. Being a woman of color in a majority Caucasian workplace, for example, brings unique experiences and challenges that may make burnout more likely and feel different when it is experienced. Social class, too, has a great influence on our mindset and relationships, which could influence how we experience and manage burnout.

One explanation for why burnout can differ so radically across people pertains to the issue of authenticity – our ability to bring our “whole self” to work. A recent Oprah Magazine article offers a vivid portrait of the costs of feeling inauthentic at work, including the “invisible” components of identity such as religion, sexual orientation, or political leaning.

How do we know if we or our coworkers perceive that they can be authentic at work? One well-being expert cited in the Oprah magazine article offers these three helpful metrics:

· You’re able to engage in activities and behaviors that you personally find important and meaningful.

· You feel that your work fits well with your personal values, interests, and convictions—you don’t have to hide how you really feel.

· You don’t need to put much effort into behaving the way others expect you to behave.

In sum, burnout can affect all of us but we may not experience it in the same way or for the same reasons. Creating workplaces in which employees feel comfortable bringing their whole self to work can help us shed light on the causes of burnout on how to ameliorate burnout when it starts to scorch.

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