It may not be a coincidence that the International Day of Burn-out at Work on February 14 falls on Valentine’s Day. According to the WHO, burnout is often linked to environmental factors such as work overload, relational problems, conflicts of values or micromanagement. Yet neuroscience tells us there are brain similarities between someone burned out and someone madly in love. Should burnout be considered a “love sickness”? Is there a risk in being too “committed” to work? Are there types of workaholics whose “love of work” makes them particularly prone to burnout?
The term burn-out was first used in 1974 by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. The factors that he designated as burnout were exogenous: stress due to overwork, a toxic atmosphere and poor working conditions. In 1981, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI), a diagnostic tool still used today, focused on symptoms such as emotional exhaustion, personal achievement and depersonalisation. But none of these points to over-commitment to work as the root of this faculty of “forgetting oneself” in order to “give everything to the other” that love implies.
Ideally, we would measure a person’s capacity to develop the maturity to maintain a “healthy” relationship with work without “falling in love” or letting oneself “dissolve” in the task at hand. We often speak of “giving meaning” to work. But what about those who see work as a matter of identity? Who projects themselves so far into the professional “beloved being” that they are consumed by it? How many are there who turn pale with excitement at being “chosen” to do weekend overtime? How many are glued to their phone waiting for a ringtone or a text, at any time of day or night, overriding all other priorities, even the most intimate? As a coach, I have had many leaders confess that it was only at work at 7:30am that they snatched a moment to tell their seven-year-old where to find the breakfast cereal. Others confide that when teleworking they only turn off their phone camera to go to the toilet, and then solely when the urge becomes unbearable.
Grey matter and life in pink
Under the microscope, the brains of a burn-out victim and a person in love turn out to suffer from similar neurological disorders. Brain areas such as the medial prefrontal cortex, which plays a role in critical judgment, are partially deactivated. Like love, burnout makes you blind. Probing the neuroscience, the closest neuroimagery to burnout is not that of “companion love”, an attachment of trust or friendship, but rather of “passionate love”, a form of addiction-like dependency linked to oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”. In some burn-out sufferers, too much oxytocin triggers a sort of hyper-empathy that causes anything work-related to become a matter of life and death.
Psychiatrists have spoken of “love as a distributed network in the brain”. Much the same goes for burn-out, which while affecting different areas is equally powerful in the discomfort it causes to those affected. In the testimonies of leaders, there is a striking gap in the attachment created between the all-encompassing fantasy object of work and a strong perfectionist desire to be really up to the task at hand. As in the case of a passionate affair, in burn-out, this disconnect can suddenly become a void that paralyzes the unrequited lover with physical exhaustion
Demanding more and more, as do both the love-sick and the burned-out, is linked to dopamine, a chemical component of many powerful drugs. Burn-out is a kind of withdrawal from the break-up, the addiction being so strong that it paralyses the nervous system which reacts only to activity dedicated to the professional. “The break-up of a love affair is very close to withdrawal from drugs – it is a collapse of those circuits that are no longer stimulated and stimulating”, explains Prof. Michel Reynaud, psychiatrist and addictologist at Paul-Brousse University Hospital. Burn-out is the breakdown of a professional love affair, and sufferers experience similar withdrawal symptoms – the impression of life slowing down, sad and grey, without pleasure or flavour. “The passionate lift the world, and the sceptical let it fall,” wrote Albert Guinon, a famous playwright. After having raised mountains, achieved so much professionally and made so many sacrifices, the burn-out victim lapses into scepticism, carrying the bitter taste of rejection by a loved one who continues tranquilly on their way, untroubled by the other’s suffering.
From “well-being” to “being well”
What does the comparison of love and burnout suggest to us in terms of prevention? Of course, greater vigilance in terms of screening. If we often talk about “well-being” at work in abstract terms, we are less concerned with “being well”, in the sense of people’s precise and personalised needs. It may be a step too far to suggest incorporating Hatfield and Sprecher’s famous Passionate Love Scale in human resources questionnaires, even on Valentine’s Day. But at least we should try to understand the factors that can aggravate a tendency to overattachment. A sweet note can be overinterpreted by a “lover’s” eye as an opportunity for further commitment. A poorly expressed managerial signal can lead to the misguided belief that by adding another task to an already full schedule the chosen one may perhaps “save the department” against all the odds. Céline Mas, the specialist on burnout and emotions, proposes that annual appraisals should go beyond individual performance to query the “fit” of the individual with the work environment: do you feel you belong? Do you feel you are recognized for your true worth? And why not a grid of KBIs (Key Behavioral Indicators) alongside KPIs? Too, we should keep our eyes open for manipulation of these beautiful souls who are just waiting to fall in love with their work. Because Casanovas exist – even in management.
Guila Clara Kessous holds an MBA, a PhD and a postdoc from Harvard University. She is an executive coach awarded International Thought Leader by The MEECO Leadership.