We keep calling it “burn out”, but-

seashore under white and blue sky during sunset

Are you burnt out, or are you being abused? Is there a difference?

            You may find yourself in a position where you know you don’t feel right about your job. Are you anxious, and constantly worried about tasks that need to be completed? Maybe you find yourself working longer and longer hours and doing more for your job, but you still feel like it isn’t good enough and you feel guilty and shamed for taking time off, or just working normal hours.

            Is this burnout? Or is it something else?

People always think of romantic relationships when they think of being abused. But any type of relationship can be abusive if it involves coercive power and control. You might think it’s strange to call your job abusive, and it might feel safer to just chalk it up to burnout and move on.

But the thing is, burn out is characterized by an underlying feeling of exhaustion and helplessness in coping with the demands of your job. You become negative and cynical, detached, and you may have problems with mood, sleep, or physical health. You do the bare minimum, and you are not motivated or driven to accomplish work goals.

Abuse is characterized by an underlying fear of harsh consequences to unrealistic demands. Instead of becoming detached, you become hyperaware and anxious. Your motivation is to please your boss, and it may feel like you can’t ever really do that. So, you find yourself working more, doing more, and feeling less effective and successful as time goes on. You may look around and think, “Man, I used to be good at this job- what happened?”

So, what is “coercive power and control”? It’s when someone in a position of authority over you (power) uses manipulation, intimidation, flattery, compliments, and even threats (coercion) to get you to do things that you might not want to do, or that actively cause you harm (control) but that ultimately benefit the person in authority. In its most brutal and obvious form, we see this as intimate partner violence. But coercive power and control, like many things, exists on a spectrum and doesn’t have to include the threat of physical violence in order to be harmful.

“Why do you stay in that shit job?”

Well, it didn’t start out as a shit job, did it? Because if it did, you wouldn’t have stayed so long. Maybe it seemed like a great place to be at first, maybe they offered benefits and promises to entice you. Or maybe the job was really good, and new management came in and the culture changed. Whatever it is, by the time things have started to get bad, you are already bought in and invested in the job and company.

Places do this by calling the job your “family” and talking about loyalty. Maybe they hype you up or talk up the important work you are doing. This is called “love bombing” when a manipulative boyfriend does it.

And then, slowly tension builds. Little comments are made about your work- could you maybe do this differently next time? Oh, you can’t work overtime this week? I thought you were dedicated and liked it here. Or maybe there’s some play on your guilt- we really need you to take on these extra projects, clients, tasks because if you don’t, then no one will and these people will suffer. I thought you got into this job to help people and build your long-term career; I didn’t realize you were only in this for money and recognition for yourself.

I’ve even personally worked for agency’s who suggested that if I left their organization that would reflect very poorly on my professional reputation. And who tried to tell me that they were paying salary and benefits packages that were worth more than current industry standards despite clear evidence to the contrary.

And just when you are getting so fed up, and you feel like the only thing you could do right would be to just quit, here they come with some love bombing again. Personal note from the CEO themself? Staff meeting, anyone? We know you’ve been working so hard and doing way too much with not enough money or support. We need you doing this important work that only you can do, so here is some minor token of appreciation to boost your morale for the next 6 months.

Abuse is never transparent, and it never happens right away. It’s a process of slowly eroding your self-worth while reinforcing your dependence. Before you know it, you feel personally responsible for the outcomes of your clients’ lives. You become fearful, anxious, and even resentful. You constantly worry about work, about pleasing your boss, about helping your clients and you constantly worry about being fired, being blacklisted, being demoted.  Being burnt out.

But this is not burn out, my friend. If this sounds familiar to you, then its abuse. Your job is taking advantage of you. You don’t deserve it, you didn’t ask for it, but here we are, stuck. I know you can get out of it, and you can learn to have a healthy work life balance and good solid boundaries with your job. For now, just take a deep breath, give yourself some grace. Try to see your situation without judgement- just try to fully accept where you are at right now.

I want you to know that it is okay to leave a job that isn’t working well for you. It’s okay to call a spade a spade and move on. In fact, I believe that it is necessary for your well-being that you carefully choose what you do with your time, and I want to empower you to make changes to any area of your life where you aren’t satisfied. More on that soon.

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