Averting Workplace Burnout

Is this heading towards workplace burnout – what are the contributing factors?

workplace stressRelationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy, resources and those of others?

The past couple of months at work have been as demanding as any period of work I can remember. With computers crashing and key administrator’s leaving I’ve had to wear multiple hats and extend my working hours to ensure no major balls were dropped. I’ll admit it’s been exhausting however I have known throughout that it was a time limited stress. It was always clear that there was going to be a resolution as our business IT issues were addressed and a new employee had time to settle into their role.
This has prompted reflection on work place stress and what goes into burnout. While a period of overwork can be tremendously challenging it does not take the same toll that relationship disruption and sustained seemingly unresolvable stress does. A leader’s potential for burnout is certainly heightened, if the loss of a team member erupted from relationship discord and the ripple effects of this were infiltrating the organisation. In my recent scenario, the loss of the key staff member was predicted. They had completed part time study and had been open with me about looking for work in their field. The other stressors, while beyond my control, were solvable problems. This is very different from a sense of chronic repeating patterns of people complaining and leaving or of work systems malfunctioning.
I wonder what you think of when you hear of workplace burnout. Usually people associate it with too high a workload. In literature into burnout in ministry positions the most commonly noted contributing factors are: over work, role demand Vs capacity, demands of interpersonal complexity, reliance on solo/self-care and a belief system of selfless service.* Looking into such factors reveals much more than a problem of too much work and not enough leave. The demands of relationship strain and relationship patterns of over – functioning (or over- controlling, – helping) are core elements to the burnout picture. I hear that many overseas mission/aid placements are prematurely ended, not due to cross cultural strain, but to team conflict. Relationship disruption may well be the central unaddressed theme behind people’s burnout experiences. How many of us attend sufficiently to addressing relationship patterns that may be draining our energy resources and those of others.
I well remember some years ago the impact of a tense collegial relationship on my workplace coping. Unlike the recent high work load this earlier period of relational upheaval was infiltrating my sleep patterns and thinking space. The more I focussed on the other the more drained and negative I became. I realised how important it was to see my part in the troubled dynamics and to responsibly attend to the ways I had played a part in mutual misunderstandings and reactions.
For some who are edging on workplace burnout it may be that unaddressed relationship discord at home is driving the intense investment in work. When exhausted collapse occurs it is easier to point to the work load than to the relationship strain that is being bypassed by spending increasing hours away from home.
For myself I have learned to ask the following questions to avert potential burnout at work:
• Is this a factual problem that can be solved in the foreseeable future? If so how can I patiently manage my priority tasks and tolerate the disruption until things are resolved?
• Is this a chronic pattern that repeats and seems to have no foreseeable resolution? If so how can I ascertain my contribution to this?
• Am I contributing to the chronicity by continually worrying about what might happen as opposed to addressing the facts of what is happening?
• What relationship patterns are behind this stress? Is distancing, blaming or over functioning happening? What is my part in this? How can I take the lead in maturely addressing issues with the person/people I am tense with?
• Am I using work as a detour from addressing insecurities in my family relationships as a spouse or parent? How can I ensure that this does not get hidden by my very high workload? Am I being responsible in all my important relationship domains?
I am relieved that the worst of my work stress is now behind me. It was valuable to see that there was no call for panic or reactivity that would spread the stress throughout the team. It continues to be valuable to remember to always address my part in relationship patterns that can drain energy from self and others. This period has also been a welcome prompt to reflect on how I am going to gradually move towards some semblance of semi-retirement and free up space for projects beyond my current work. I am committed to a better balance in how I spread my God given energy around the various domains of my life.

Dr Bowen and different versions of stress & anxiety:

A key variable of family systems theory is the degree of anxiety – this includes the intensity and duration of different types of anxiety. “All organisms are reasonably adaptable to acute anxiety. The organism has built in mechanisms to deal with short bursts of anxiety….When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship system, and the tension results in symptoms’ or dysfunction or sickness.” P 361-2

* e.g. of burnout literature and clergy
Grosch, W. N., & Olsen, D. C. (2000). Clergy Burnout: An integrative account. Psychotherapy in Practice, 56(5), 619-632.
My literature review in this area comes from the master’s thesis of psychologist Amanda Mason (which I hope will be published at some time)

‘Averting Workplace Burnout’ – Jenny Brown

Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up

laboratoryAt this busy conference time, I thought my most useful reflections could be ones I’ve repeatedly needed reminding of. A focus on other’s maturity gaps is a diversion from addressing my own. Watching how I manage myself in all my relationships provides the very best lab for seeing, understanding and attending to my own maturity gaps.

‘Grow up!’ How many times have you heard this, said it or thought it in times of frustration? Maybe it was said to you, or a brother or sister, by your parents. Perhaps you’ve said it in a moment of annoyance to one of your kids. Have you thought of your colleagues at work or of your spouse? It may be that one of your siblings still struggles with the same growing-up problems as an adult that they had as teenagers; or you could be frustrated by your adult children’s reluctance to fly the nest.


We’re often prone to thinking that if only that other person could grow up a bit we’d be able to get on with being our own mature selves. While many of us get caught up in finding fault in others when things seem to go off course, there are some who are always finding fault in themselves: ‘I’m the problem in this family’; ‘They wouldn’t be so upset if I was a better daughter/parent/spouse.’ Whether it’s judging another or harshly judging ourselves, this pathway doesn’t bring lasting growth in us. So what’s going to remove these barriers to personal growth? What is the road to adult maturity?


A key to adult maturity is to see beyond ourselves to the relationship connections we’re part of.  To see our maturity gaps we learn to see that we’re all part of a system of relationships that deeply influences each person’s capacity for emotional resilience. Given that our original family has such a profound sway on the development of our maturity, it follows that going back to these formative relationships is the best laboratory in which to make positive changes. Genuine maturity for life starts with learning to observe ourselves in our relationships, and appreciating that problems are not just in the individual but also in the interconnections — the relationship systems — with others. Each stage of life and its relationships provide rich opportunities to facilitate awareness of our part in patterns that either enhance of stifle growth in maturity. – From leaving home, to marriage, parenting, mid-life challenges, establishing careers, adjusting to aging.


It’s an interesting and rewarding experience to learn to see how to shift our less mature responses in relationships.  Learning to recognise when we detour to third parties, or become overly helpful or controlling, or we hand over our responsibilities to others, or we depend too much on relationship approval, or we’re too quick to distance when tension arises. Recognising such patterns enables us to make new choices that enable us to bring our best to our relationships.


The project of growing ourselves, our task of seeking to understand how we may be contributing to our own dissatisfactions in our interactions, is all about personal responsibility in our relationships and not about self-promotion. It’s a project that can gradually transform even the most challenging of our relationships as our awareness of the effect we have on others, and the way we react to them increases. Growing maturity, based on seeing the patterns of relationship we’re part of, promotes more honesty, humility and improved health for us and for those we care about.

‘Relationships – A Laboratory for Growing Up’Jenny Brown

Seeing our Parents as Human

IMG_2086 [878459]Over my years of clinical practice I have met many people who either blame or idealise each parent. A parent can be described as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and for others to live up to.

At a special birthday celebration late last year for my father in law, my husband remarked:

“My father is not an exceptional man but he is my Dad and so for me he is exceptional.”

It was a moving comment to hear.  A comment he had heard made by a father who had lost a son in the Paris bombings that had resonated with him.  I reflected back on when I met my husband well over 30 years ago and heard of the challenges in their father- son relationship. There had been a growing distance in the relationship as my husband experienced a sense of his Dad’s disapproval for some of the decisions he had made. At that time my husband’s narrative about his Dad was dismissively negative about how he had fallen short as his ideal role model. As with most young adults he was not considering his own contribution to this.

Over the years I have watched my husband make an effort to get to know his Dad better – to understand his growing up experiences and to learn about the generations of his family. It has been a privilege to watch a relationship change over the decades, from negative distance to warmth and affection. Interestingly my father in law had a tense relationship with his own father when he was launching into the adult world. There were very similar tensions around life decisions that played out  in the next generation.

I reflect on an analogous journey with my own Dad. At the time that my mother was dying of cancer I was angry and judgemental towards my father. When he went on a weekend away with friends while my mother was very sick, I viewed him as irresponsibly avoiding his duty to help with her care.  At one level my Dad’s decision to take a holiday when his wife was in latter stages of metastatic cancer is not particularly admirable. What I’ve come to see however, is how this choice reflects the pattern of my parent’s marriage. My mother would have encouraged him to take this break while she ‘soldiered on’.  Considering my father’s relationship to his own strong mother and then to his highly responsible wife has softened my judgement of him. In its place I’ve developed a broader understanding of how his relationship interactions have shaped him. This greater understanding brings a sense of grace and warm acceptance of the less mature aspects of his character. In turn I am better able to have such an accepting, honest posture towards myself and others.

What are the effects of continuing to carry narrow labels of our parents through life? Over my years of clinical practice I’ve met many people who are holding onto either blaming or idealised labels for each parent. Many describe a parent as ‘toxic’ with a resultant avoidance of relationship. With such distance a person carries their reactive judgments into other life relationships.  They may become quick to blame and label and slow to see the impact they have on those around them. Conversely when one parent is labelled as the ideal it can lead to setting impossible standards for self and others to live up to. It also prevents a deeper, honest connection from developing in the relationship with that parent. When a parent is idealised the adult child tends to play out a pretend positive self with that parent – and to others.

Seeing our parents as human beings rather than as narrow ‘good’ or ‘bad” labels, doesn’t mean excusing any damaging actions (I acknowledge that for some people they have had a parents who has been abusive – which should not be minimised). For me it also doesn’t wipe away seeing the flawed and selfish aspects of being human. However most of the judgements we develop about our parents are not actually in this category of ‘wrong doing’ but about their relationship sensitivities and maturity gaps. Getting to know more of what shaped our parents can enable us to see how most of the characteristics that we found challenging can make sense. We can also begin to see how our reactions to that parent provided them with significant challenges.

As I reflect on the changes in my Husband’s relationship with his Dad and the shifts in my perceptions of my parents I can affirm the value of getting to know members of our original family in a more objective way. Both our Dads- alongside other extended family- have been an important resource to us on multiple levels. I understand that this is what Dr Murray Bowen meant when he wrote:

‘Gaining more knowledge of one’s distant families of origin can help one become aware that there are no angels and devils in a family: they were human beings, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, each reacting predictably to the emotional issue of the moment, and each doing the best they could with their own life course.’

What would be your next step in getting to know each of your parents as human beings and as part of a multigenerational family system that has shaped them – and us?

‘Seeing our Parents as Human’ – Jenny Brown