Exhaustion and wholeheartedness

The Pride of Brexit’ – a sculpture by Jason deCaires Taylor is a response to  Brexit.  In his words, ‘The three wretched lions frame Brexit as an act of gross national flagellation. Situated on the shores of the English Channel, surrounded by the iconic white cliffs, they are washed up, exhausted, emaciated and dying. In London they stand as monuments to our delusions, disfigured by the toxic language of Brexit and its main protagonists.’   Regardless of your views on Brexit the exhaustion they portray is soul-piercingly tragic.

Organisations are not immune to similar societal delusions and toxicity.  The film The Corporation depicts some as psychopathic.  The film’s Economist reviewer notes that, ‘Like all psychopaths, the firm is singularly self-interested: its purpose is to create wealth for its shareholders. And, like all psychopaths, the firm is irresponsible, because it puts others at risk to satisfy its profit-maximising goal, harming employees and customers, and damaging the environment. The corporation manipulates everything. It is grandiose, always insisting that it is the best, or number one. It has no empathy.’

One of the common harms done to employees in a toxic, psychopathic organisation is burn-out.  We hear a lot about this and are warned to look for symptoms of it.  Burnout,  included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11),  as an occupational phenomenon is defined as:

“A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

  • feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
  • increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
  • reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

(In many UK organisations feelings of exhaustion and burnout are probably exacerbated by the Brexit context, as one article suggests ‘Beyond the workplace, we live in an age when society itself seems to be burning out, with austerity, rising poverty and the uncertainty caused by Brexit pushing people to and beyond their limits).

The Economist reviewer of The Corporation claims that, ‘Human values and morality survive the onslaught of corporate pathology only via a carefully cultivated schizophrenia: the tobacco boss goes home, hugs his kids and feels a little less bad about spreading cancer.’

People who are in that position are clearly unable to ‘bring their whole selves to work’, a mantra that we are increasingly hearing – and one that I think has troubling aspects.  It may work in some organisational circumstances, but not in others.  A Financial Times writer expressed in a blog, on the topic, the view that, ‘It is fatuous to encourage people to behave in the office just as they do at home.’

If we are suffering from exhaustion and burn-out, and feel unable or unwilling to bring our whole self to work i.e. we do not feel in a position to express what we feel, then what?

As serendipity has it, almost the next email I opened had a quote from David Steindl-Rast,  ‘The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’  This intrigued me and I looked it up.

It comes from poet David Whyte. He says:

‘There was a time, many years ago, working at a non-profit organization, trying to fix the world and finding the world didn’t want to be fixed as quickly as I’d like, that I found myself exhausted, stressed and finally, after one particularly hard day, at the end of my tether, I went home and saw a bottle of fine red wine I had left out on the table that morning before I left. No, I did not drink it immediately, though I was tempted, but it reminded me that I was to have a very special guest that evening. That guest was an Austrian friend, a Benedictine monk, Brother David Steindl-Rast, the nearest thing I had to a really wise person in my life at that time or at any time since. We would read German poetry together—he would translate the original text, I read the translations, all the while drinking the red wine. But I had my day on my mind, and the mind-numbing tiredness I was experiencing at work. I said suddenly, out of nowhere, almost beseechingly, “Brother David, speak to me of exhaustion. Tell me about exhaustion.” And then he said a life-changing thing. “You know,” he said, “the antidote to exhaustion is not necessarily rest.” “What is it then?” “The antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness.’

This story led me to look at ‘wholeheartedness’.  (defined as the state of being whole hearted, i.e. fully or completely sincere, enthusiastic, energetic).   Maria Popova, talking about Brené Brown’s TEDxHouston talk says Brown  ‘deconstructs vulnerability to reveal what she calls “wholeheartedness”: The capacity to engage in our lives with authenticity, cultivate courage and compassion, and embrace — not in that self-helpy, motivational-seminar way, but really, deeply, profoundly embrace — the imperfections of who we really are.’

Apparently Brene Brown’s ‘current research focuses on authentic leadership and wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations’.  (I hope this research does not go the way of ‘resilience’, ‘happiness’, and ‘mindfulness’ to be monetized by consultants).

As I was thinking about wholeheartedness, someone sent me a link to a National Geographic piece ‘If Birds Left Tracks in the Sky, They’d Look Like This’, telling the story, and showing the photos,  of ‘Barcelona-based photographer Xavi Bou’ who hasspent the past five years trying to capture the elusive contours drawn by birds in motion, or, as he says, “to make visible the invisible.” …  He calls the project “Ornitografías,” This current work, he says, combines his passion and his profession. “It’s technical, challenging, artistic, and natural. It’s the connection between photography and nature that I was looking for.’

Years ago I read a book Shop Class as Soulcraft . The author, Matthew B Crawford, has a PhD in political philosophy and, at the time of writing the book, owned and operated an independent motorcycle repair shop.  His descriptions of this work with all its frustrations, problems and joys are a delight to read’ .  (Read the piece that the book grew out of here)

The stories of Bou and Crawford both illustrate for me wholeheartedness in action.

Now I’m mulling over if and how you can move from exhaustion to wholeheartedness either individually or collectively.

For individuals feeling exhausted and burned out, are the feelings situational and there are other places in their lives where they can be wholehearted?  If yes, does the wholeheartedness they feel in one dimension help manage the exhaustion in another, or is exhaustion all consuming?

If their exhaustion is a symptom of burnout brought about by organisational conditions then is there something designers can do to change the organisational conditions?  Can organisations change from creating burnout to developing wholeheartedness and,  if so, what would it take?  I don’t know, but some possibilities might be:

What’s your view/experience of exhaustion and wholeheartedness?  Do/would design strategies help exhaustion move to wholeheartedness?  Let me know.

One thought on “Exhaustion and wholeheartedness”

  1. Speaking personally, I left one organization as a result of extreme Burnout and deliberately sought out an organization that prioritizes wholeheartedness. Not by coincidence, this new organization is also self-organizing, decentralized and deliberate in diffusing organizational politics.

    I’d argue that only by leaving the first organization could I counteract the burnout. Eventually, everything not related to that source of stress (which wasn’t much by that point) was just an effort to deal with it.

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