Burnout in the City

The term ‘burnout’ is often linked closely with the term ‘stress’, but they are not in fact synonymous.  Burnout may well be the outcome of prolonged stress, but not necessarily.

So what do we mean by ‘burnout’?   There are many approaches to this subject but the one that interests me, because of my Lacanian background, is based on the work of Stijn Vanheule and colleagues.   Although a lot of Vanheule’s work has focused on people in care-giving and special educational roles, I think the basic theory would apply to many other situations: in fact any that involve one person attempting (and failing) to make another person adhere to their expectations.

One of the examples that Vanheule gives is that of professional caregivers who identify too closely with the role of someone who is in control, and who expects the person they are caring for to behave in a particular manner.  With challenging and often highly disturbed clients this very rarely happens: instead the care-giver is being perpetually undermined, the other person keeps behaving in an unpredictable manner and continually evokes uncertainty and anxiety in the professional.

The problem for the professional here is that he or she is hanging on to a fantasy of how the client should behave, which in turn is linked to the fantasy of how he or she sees him or herself in relation to the client.  In other words, the care-giver is trying to gauge what he or she is for the client, trying to gauge what the client wants from him or her.  And in trying to be whatever it is that the caregiver thinks (fantasizes) that the client wants him or her to be, he or she is, in a subtle way, exerting control over the desire of the client.

Eventually, after being thwarted once too often, the caregiver becomes angry and resentful towards the client.  However, because there is no way they can overtly express such anger towards the client (and keep their job!) the caregiver withdraws, disengages from the client.  Sometimes this can manifest itself in the professional retreating into admin work, hiding behind their computer screen, anything but having to engage with client.   Although they may technically still be in post, they are, for all intents and purposes, no longer in their role.  In more extreme situations, of course, the individual has to disengage completely and will either leave their job or go off on long term sickness.

This in essence is Vanheule’s argument regarding burnout.  What might it have to do with work in the financial sector – or indeed in many other corporate environments, where the nature of the interpersonal relationships may not, at first sight, appear to so challenging?

The reality is, of course, that many, if not all, corporate relationships, are challenging.  They very often involve one person trying to gauge the demands, the desires of another.  And such relationships are often fraught with uncertainty and unpredictability.  And before someone jumps up and says, ‘yes’, but the financial markets are now all controlled by computers, are all based on abstract numbers, and devoid of any real human contact or interpersonal relationships’, I would say that this simply isn’t true.  Global markets, and global market behaviours, are, ultimately dependent on the actions and decisions of individuals, even if these decisions are being heavily mediated by numbers and computers.

There is also a growing body of research which highlights the irrationality of market behaviour, which only adds to the already inherent unpredictability and uncertainty of market relationships.  Add to this the often fractious relationships between markets and governments, as we see being played out before our eyes in the present Eurozone crisis, and what we have is an extremely chaotic and unmanageable situation – but no-one can actually afford to admit this.

And I haven’t mentioned, of course, the continual and almost unbearable pressure to perform in such environments, to keep delivering, to maintain profits, to keep the shareholders happy.  Within individual organisations this translates into keeping one’s manager happy, trying to gauge what he or she wants, whilst in turn the manager is trying to gauge what his or her manager wants, and so on up the hierarchy.