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  • Marcelo Vieira Matias

An Existential look to Burnout phenomenon!

After World War II, as a result of a claim for social change, social justice and by organizations expectations to increase their performance and to produce more effectively, in the 1960s especially in the United States and Europe, the concept of work stress as a life-structuring idea gained ground in psychosocial and occupational health sciences (Väänänen, 2012).

Inspired by that atmosphere, Freudenberger (1987) and Maslach (1996) inaugurated the study on burnout independently but concomitantly, in the mid-1970s, in the United States, derived from the studies on work stress concepts.

At that time the both noticed how workers facing intensive organizational stress would describe themselves as both physically and emotionally exhausted, with aversion and contempt for the people to whom they rendered their services and as experiencing a sense of professional failure that made them question their competence in their work environment (Maslach, 1996). And the researchers could also notice that those feelings and emotions impacted especially the lives of those workers who were once deeply involved and connected in their activities and used to have a sense of belonging within their work environment.

Freudenberger (1987) observed that his patients would often describe their experience as if their inner energy and their psychological resources had been drained and consumed to such an extent that all were left was an internal void. What used to generate joy, happiness, and fulfillment, in other words, an experience of freedom, subjective expansion, and pleasure, now was the source of stress and unhappiness, and sometimes, pathological suffering. In that way, as a metaphor to describe the exhaustion of an individual's ability to sustain an intense commitment that has a relevant impact on work, the term burnout was created and refers to the stifling of a fire or the extinguishing of a candle (Schaufeli, 2006 cited in Benedetti, 2020).

Since the studies on burnout, the human relation to work and profession has changed drastically, especially in how the organizational life affects its workers, such as how the companies face changes and transitions, how they organize their leadership and power structure, and how they compensate (financially or not) its employees. Despite all those changes in organizational aspects, people who suffer from burnout syndrome still describes prolonged fatigue, emotional exhaustion, insomnia, lack of appetite, loss of libido, inability to concentrate as its classic symptoms just like people used to describe in early studies (Cowley, 1995 cited in Stanton‐Rich 1998). The effects of burnout can negatively affect the individual in different dimensions, such as physically, mentally, socially, and professionally, as well as it can interfere with organizational life generating team conflicts, turnover, and absenteeism (Trigo, 2007).

After Maslach and Freundernberg’s work, distinct psychological approaches have been used to understand burnout. Currently, The International Classification of Diseases [ICD-11] (World Health Organisation, 2019) has identified burnout as a syndrome due to its severe impacts on one’s life. Resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed, burnout is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy.

In the first dimension, the person suffering from burnout can show exhaustion and lack of energy that is so severe that sometimes it can be mistaken by depression. In the second dimension, it is highly common to find the person depersonalized and with a disbelief attitude towards his or her duties and activities. In the third dimension, the reduced sense of personal accomplishment is a major aspect in a person suffering from burnout. The person often feels like won’t be able to achieve anything in work and therefore, in his or her life. The sense of fulfillment that once was a sparkle and kept the candle burning, now is not a possibility anymore, no matter what the person does.

A plethora of studies on work stress and burnout field has already tried to determine the causes of this syndrome or its predictors. Aiming to discuss the relevant burnout risk factors among European health care professionals, Bria, Baban, & Dumitrascu (2012) suggest that occupational factors (such as high workload, perceived job demands, or job stress) have a primary role in burnout development. Organizational factors (such as perceived job control, organization values, effort-reward imbalance or social support) also have a major influence on burnout phenomenon as well as some psycho-social factors (for instance, the use of defensive coping strategies) and therefore they can work as robust predictors of the burnout. Social-demographic factors such as country can also act as an influence on burnout, however, studies trying to establish a correlation between gender, age, or marital status were inconclusive and seems to have a limited impact on burnout.

Contributions from Existentialism to the understating of the Burnout phenomenon

As already exposed, organizational, occupational, psychosocial, and demographic factors can play a major role in burnout development. But at the individual level what can be the determining psychological factor in the burnout process? What is the prime event (or is there a prime event?) that provokes the changes in the individual relation to one’s job and promotes the transition from personal satisfaction to emotional suffering?

Castro & Zanelli (2010) will sustain that the key element in this phenomenon is the enormous experience of failure and disillusionment which will result from the extensive void between objectives that once were pursued with great energy and determination and the results effectively achieved.

To understand this proposition, it is necessary to return to Sartre's work on the human being and his relations with the world, with himself and with institutions. One of Sartre’s famous sentences is that we are condemned to be free(1969). Throughout his work, Sartre will discuss the major role of choices in one’s life and how this concept relates to freedom. Sartre will say that the fundamental act of freedom (…) gives meaning to the particular action which I can be brought to consider. This constantly renewed act is not distinct from my being; it is a choice of myself in the world and by the same token it is a discovery of the world. (Sartre, 1969).

In a complementary way, the concept of Fundamental Project is a key postulation in Sartre’s work. He will define this conception as the For-itself’s choice of its way of being and is expressed by action in the light of a future end (Sartre, 1969) as one of many definitions he uses to conceptualize this postulation.

Sartre will propose that the fundamental project is an experience that makes us total, and shapes the way we see and understand ourselves, our world, and others. Sartre illustrates this idea with the example of going on a hike with friends. After several hours of walking, he starts to feel tired, and his fatigue increases to such an extent that becomes unbearable. He resists the pain as much as he can and finally gives up. Considering that his friends have the same health, body shape, and training, what could have influenced his decision to give up while his friends did not? He will sustain that our fundamental project is one of the main reasons. The same pain Sartre and his friends were experiencing was lived in different ways: whilst one may experience joy to rest, the other experience the same pain as a challenge and as an overcoming opportunity. Therefore, those choices are in resonance with their fundamental projects. For Sartre, he realizes he had other options, as he could have kept walking and followed his friend’s rhythm. But he writes that the choice he made cannot be explained by a motive or a cause conceived as the content of a prior state of consciousness, but it had to be interpreted in terms of an original project of which it formed an integral part (Sartre, 1969).

The concept of fundamental project can be looked at by two different dimensions: as in relation to our infant past or childhood and in relation to our future, as the impulse by which it projects itself toward its end. According to existential psychoanalysis (Sartre, 1969), our childhood is the moment when we make our initial and original choice to ourselves. This phase is lived in this contradictory unit of overcoming-conservation (Sartre, 2004), thus expressing a complex temporalization in which the future cannot exist without the past that one wishes to overcome, at the same time that the past only becomes active in the present, as a future is chosen as the realization of another situation in the world different from the one experienced previously. Differently from the Freudian version, existential psychoanalysis builds a new look at childhood, in which it is not based on an unconscious universal complex that would internalize and constitute the psychic, but that is understood as an original project chosen in a situation and constituted by moments of understanding of a possibility of being singular, as the beginning of a totalizing process (Sartre, 1969).

With that in mind, the career path and the vocational choices that are made in one’s life plays a major role as an integral part of our fundamental project, thus experienced by us as the existential sense of our work. In other words, our job and career are an important way of how we create meaning for our existence.

Analyzing the burnout phenomenon through an existential approach, at least three different and yet complementary aspects can be discussed to understand how the psychic process behind the burnout phenomenon occurs (Castro & Zanelli, 2010).

The first aspect sustained by Castro & Zanelli (2010) is that the meaning of work is an existential sense, which needs to be understood from the individual’s fundamental project. How the individual chooses to experience his or hers engagement, dedication and commitment to his or hers work is related to the original project chosen since childhood and resumed at the moment of professional choice, in which the subject swears fidelity to the ideals of the organization (Sartre, 1969), as he finds in these ideals, an indispensable possibility for the realization his fundamental project’s realization.

A second aspect to be considered is what Castro and Zanelli (2010) will propose as the possibility of a distance between one’s fundamental project and the organizational values, culture, or management model. A paradoxical situation is set: at the same time the organization requires the individual to achieve high-performance results, in name of efficiency it also decreases the internal organizational resources that could help the individual in carrying out their tasks. What was previously experienced as reciprocity between the organization and the individual, which Sartre will sustain as an act of swearing (Sartre, 1969) it is now felt as an inability to carry out his or her fundamental project. In other words, as a form of alienation. The individual starts to live according to what the organization expects, moving further and further away from the values ​​he or she believes in and which support their fundamental project. The more the subject struggles to achieve high performance, the more he distances himself, the more he is captured by the organization and the more he submitted to the alienation process and, consequently, closer to emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and frustration of not being able to accomplish his tasks.

A third aspect to be considered is that people who develop burnout would experience a crisis situation, constituted by a failure in their fundamental project, capable of producing a psychic rupture. A split moment in the totalizing project (of being), with the subject experiencing an impasse between the being he became and does not support and the being he was, but that he no longer recognizes (Castro & Zanelli, 2010).

In conclusion, we can learn from Sartre's work that the concept of fundamental project can be a very interesting way of understanding the phenomenon of burnout. Since the human being is what he projects to be and that does not exist before this plan and the fundamental project works as a structuring basis for the other projects in life, which determines the actions, feelings and the experience of our existence, the difference between what the individual has projected for himself or herself versus what he or her finds in his or her occupational world is so intense that his or her experience in the world becomes de-energized, full of cynicism and with exhaustion so severe that it culminates in the loss of the existential sense of his work. This situation, on the other hand, would then impact the individual's existential feeling as a whole: the failure in his work project is experienced as a failure in his personal existence.

It is worth mentioning that the present work did not intend to promote an ultimate understanding of the phenomenon of burnout, but rather to articulate some concepts of existentialism to better understand this phenomenon and thus also stimulate other studies and future research on this theme.


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