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We probably all know about (or have experienced) burn-out. It’s that state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion. But what is brown-out?
When you experience burn-out, you feel overwhelmed, battle sleeping, have not energy and just generally are unable to cope with things you used to cope with well.
However, a lesser-known but often more prevalent condition is brown-out (not to be confused with bore-out which is about being bored at work, under-stimulated and feeling like your skills are not being used effectively – or at all).
Brown-out is a loss of meaning in work, and some say that up to 40% of people experience this at some point in their careers. What is the point of this job? Why am I even doing this task? What difference does this make? These are all questions indicative of brown-out and lead to demotivation and disengagement.
Why is meaning so important? Surely just having a job and earning an income is enough? While obviously money is important and providing for children and family is inherently meaningful, often people require more from their work.
Viktor Frankl, the great Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, wrote Man’s search for meaning after his experience in Nazi concentration camps. Witnessing and being a part of the most horrifying of experiences, he began to realise that finding meaning to life (and indeed survival) was at the heart of making it through those dark days. Frankl said: ‘Those who have a “why” to live can bear with almost any “how”.’
People are generally quite resilient and can cope with a lot. But − and it is an important but − only when it is meaningful to them. An example from the world of sport: We used to think the commitment, goal orientation, drive and work ethic of athletes would naturally transfer to the working world when they transitioned out of sport. But more and more evidence suggested this is simply not true. Why? What we now know is that when a goal is meaningful to the athlete (like the childhood dream of becoming an Olympian, Protea cricketer or Springbok rugby player) they are able to deploy the full force of their high-performance mindset and mental skills. But when they retire from sport and have no meaningful goal to pursue, they are no better motivated than any one of us. In fact, loss of motivation is the number one symptom of brown-out.
So, what to do about this?
As always, the first step is recognising that something is not quite right. Acknowledge that you are battling and talk to a trusted friend or colleague about how you are feeling. This can be a wonderful opportunity to reflect on your career and life and make adjustments for the future. Maybe it is gaining a new perspective in the role you have and finding ways to challenge yourself in it. Maybe it is trying to find a new role to move into. Maybe it is (finally) making a move to a job you have always wanted to do but have been too afraid to try. Whatever path you choose, this time of self-reflection can help define what is important to you and can guide you in decisions towards leading a flourishing life.
Dr Kirsten van Heerden, Performance Psychologist, Newton Sports Agency