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If you’ve never been on fire, then how can you burn out? Let me count the ways. Yesterday, or the day before, I wrote about bullying in the workplace. As an aside, I am beginning to lose track of the days in this month-long writing challenge, which reminds me I could always play a new card – Post Cancer Cognitive Impairment (PCCI); or just admit that I have a terrible memory – ask my brother. In my defense, let it be said that estrogen, which fueled my cancer, is inextricably linked to memory. Without the former, the latter is blocked as well. This is the very last thing you need if you are also a target of workplace mobbing, a phenomenon that can leave a person feeling demoralized, devalued, worn down, worn out, tormented, betrayed by people who once were friends, and, undoubtedly, burned out. Once upon a time, it happened to me. 

Midway in the journey of our life I came to myself in a dark wood For the straight way was lost

~ Dante Alighieri The Divine Comedy

Perhaps it happened to you. Would you do things differently?  I would. After all, when you know better, you do better, as Maya Angelou told Oprah Winfrey. Admittedly, as a mother and as a woman living with cancer, I worry sometimes that I won’t live  long enough to fulfill my moral and maternal obligations. I want to do what I must to ensure my daughter will know how to be safe at work, the way I made sure she looked both ways before crossing the street when she was a little girl.

Imagine for a moment, the new employee, my daughter or yours, all grown-up and off to work, eager to do well, to leave her mark, on fire. Initially she feels confident and competent, buoyed perhaps by her credentials, her natural charm, and a good heart. But then, inexplicably, she does something that triggers an overtly hostile response from a supervisor, perhaps another woman whom she thought would be her mentor. What did she do wrong? It will take time and serious introspection for her – and you –  to figure out just what it is about her own actions or abilities, her intelligence even, that provoked the response, as unfair as it is. In no way, is this to justify, condone, or minimize the attacks on her, but if she can just be convinced to step back, lay low, avoid a confrontation that will only bring more negative attention her way,  she may just buy enough time to develop an exit strategy, an escape route. It will take an Academy award worthy effort on her part, but she has no choice other than to “act” differently if she is to be treated differently so she can extricate herself from the situation, reputation intact. The sooner the better.

If you are in such a situation, you probably don’t need a test to tell you you are burned out. Still, if you are interested, Christina Maslach, a prominent researcher in the phenomenon of burnout, has developed a self-assessment that allows you to gauge, albeit informally, where you might fall on the spectrum from high-octane to a barely smoldering ember. I am not a psychologist, and I am not suggesting you use this as a reliable diagnostic test. A more rigorously validated tool can be found in the Maslach Burnout Inventory. But for starters, here is the self-test:  

Checking Yourself for Burnout

Listed below are the chief indicators of burnout. Do you experience these: Not at all, Rarely, Sometimes, Often, or Very often:

  1. Do you feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy?
  2. Do you find that you are prone to negative thinking about your job?
  3. Do you find that you are harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve?
  4. Do you find yourself getting easily irritated by small problems, or by your co-workers and team?
  5. Do you feel misunderstood or unappreciated by your co-workers?
  6. Do you feel that you have no one to talk to?
  7. Do you feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed?
  8. Do you feel that you are not getting what you want out of your job?
  9. Do you feel that you are in the wrong organization or the wrong profession?
  10. Are you becoming frustrated with parts of your job?
  11. Do you feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate your ability to do a good job?

In a previous job, where I was a target of workplace mobbing, I would have said “Hell, yes!” to enough of those questions to score in the 60 – 75 point range which would suggest the high likelihood of my being “at very severe risk of burnout – do something about this urgently.”

But I am not in that situation anymore. I am, in fact, on fire again. What does that mean? I think it means I have rediscovered all the hours I need each day to write, to read, to learn something new, to talk to my best friend, to Skype with my mother in Northern Ireland, to throw my head back and laugh, really laugh, to stay in the car until the end of a favorite song on the radio, to reconnect with friends near and far, and to go to my job without a letter of resignation at the ready every day and my attorney’s number on speed dial.

How did I escape? I have to believe the entire universe conspired to assist me, as it always does, because in that horrible place, I made some errors that could have been detrimental to my health and my professional identity, my career. They didn’t seem like mistakes at the time. Tired of dodging bullets, I began to fire back. I thought I was defending myself; instead I was throwing gasoline on the flames. Foolishly, I tried to reason with people in power. I failed. My words were twisted, my body language was even questioned by a man who I’m quite sure would never comment on the body language of a man in my role. I vigorously objected to my rights as an employee being systematically taken away, and I openly questioned what seemed to be an orchestrated effort to disempower me. I confided in colleagues, mistaking them for friends. I stayed late working on projects for which others took all the credit, when I should have been home with my family. All mistakes.

In retrospect, I completely underestimated the destructive power of “the group mentality” and was wholly unprepared for the lies they would tell, even to themselves. I fought back. I was afraid; they told me I was paranoid. I questioned an inefficient system; they said I was difficult. I told the truth; they said I was sabotaging the organization. People I had nurtured betrayed me. Immaterial betrayals at first, but betrayals nonetheless and

 Betrayal is the only truth that sticks.

Arthur Miller 

I suppose I understand. Sort of.  We’re all only human after all. Still, when I imagine an ostensibly supportive conversation that may have occurred between “the bully” and a colleague, with me as the main topic, the sense of disappointment is sickening. Hindsight being what it is, I can almost hear a conversation that may have unfolded like this:

“I know you are friends outside of work, and I absolutely respect that relationship. Of course, I understand how difficult her situation must be for you. We know how focused you are on your job, so listening to all her concerns must be terribly distracting for you. Yes, yes, it is such a pity she is so unhappy here, because we know she has such potential. But she is a strong woman, and I’m sure you’ve noticed that even her body language has changed. A shame, really, because she is bright. Very bright.  I hate to say it, I really do, but it’s probably just best for all of us if she can find something more aligned to her career goals. Fit is really everything isn’t it? Oh, before I forget, I  just wanted to let you know how impressed we were with that presentation you gave last week. Really amazing. We’d like to spotlight you in our next newsletter.”  

images-1Sounds like bullshit? It is, but it works, especially if a different variation of the same theme is shared in individual conversations with every one of your co-workers. Behind closed doors. Quietly, carefully, and immediately documented, it will be shared with the mob. Your colleagues, your subordinates will be convinced that where there’s smoke, there must be fire. A different kind of fire. They will forget all about the light and warmth it once provided, and instead be duped by lies and flattery, empty promises of job security or promotion, smoke and mirrors.

And it will be your undoing.

You won’t hear a thing about these conversations so cleverly and quietly conducted when you are at lunch or on sick leave. The silence will confound you and frustrate you. You will second-guess every glance exchanged between colleagues in your presence. You will doubt your ability to do your job. You will wonder who else is blind-copied on emails to you, and you’ll even start wondering if your office might be bugged. Not because you are paranoid or emotional (even though you will be told that you are both), but because you are being tormented at work. At this point, I may as well bring in the other mob, because it is so reminiscent of that scene in Goodfellas when Henry Hill says:

For a second, I thought I was dead, but when I heard all the noise I knew they were cops. Only cops talk that way. If they had been wiseguys, I wouldn’t have heard a thing. I would’ve been dead.

If you are reading this and in a similar situation, I urge you to consider the lessons learned by Dr. Janice Harper who graciously commented here yesterday. In Just us Justice: The Gentle Genocide of Workplace Mobbing, Dr. Harper provides a clear-eyed assessment of “the bully” in the workplace and how to survive when the mob is upon you. Her best advice?

Get out.

And who could argue with these words? 

If you are fighting for a principle, make the principle
your own significance to the world. You can give far more to the world by surviving mobbing than by fighting it…. if you are being mobbed, don’t fight back, fight forward. Fight for your future, and relegate mobbing to your past


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