Burnout, A Professional Pitfall For Classic Overachievers

Working hard doesn't always work. Mental health experts say "burnout" is a real - and potentially dangerous - possibility for today's highly driven professionals.

Martine Laronche

Christine, 41, has just recovered from burnout, a syndrome caused by physical and psychological exhaustion from work. After four and a half months of sick leave, the director of a business school in Asia (she wishes to remain anonymous) resigned from her post.

Now back in France, close to her friends and family, Christine is recovered, but continues to take antidepressants and see a psychiatrist once a week. "I am doing artificially better," she says. "It took me a week to write my resignation letter. I had the impression that I was indispensable."

Energetic and enthusiastic, this single woman is a classic overachiever. "They told me this would happen one day, but I didn't take them seriously. Today, I have to rethink my life. I understand that some people commit suicide because of work."

In the recently published book Burnout, authors and psychology professors Christina Maslach, from the University of California, Berkeley, and Michael P. Leiter from Canada's Acadia University confirm that burning out is becoming "a very real epidemic in many countries."

"We're not the problem," they argue. "It's the world and the nature of work that has fundamentally changed."

Jean-Paul Delevoye, the French government's ombudsman, in a March 21 report, writes about the problem of burnout in French society: "The French are in the process of imploding under too much pressure, a damaging lifestyle found in everyday life and work."

For Christine, everything started in 2006, when she became the director for an Asian branch of a prestigious western business school. At the time, the school was launching an MBA program for professionals. "Everything had to be done, and I was all by myself." She supervised the construction of buildings and set-up the administrative side of the operation. After work, between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., she welcomed prospective students. After that she would give herself an hour break before responding to e-mails from colleagues.

When the school opened she cranked it up even higher, working weekends too. "I was passionate about the students, and I was coaching them," she says. The hard work earned her top marks during annual evaluations. "People got used to it," she recalls of her non-stop commitment. "In the beginning, people praise you. Later on, they find it normal."

She kept the pace up for two years - until she thought she had a heart attack. With tachycardia and heart palpitations that awoke her at night, a doctor advised her to slow down.

Slowly, Christine began to lose interest in her job, the first symptom of burnout. It was then that the Asian university asked her to set up another branch, this time of a French school.

That's when Christine fell apart -- both physically and psychologically. "I didn't sleep anymore. I was always crying for no reason. I couldn't think. I had only one desire: to go hide in a corner. It was as if I were dead. I didn't understand what had happened to me. I hadn't seen it coming."

Can burnout happen to anyone? The American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger (1927-1999), the first to explain the condition of burning out, concluded in 1974 that certain people are more susceptible than others. Burnout cases "are usually people in leadership positions who don't admit to having limits, and they burn themselves out by demanding too much of themselves," he wrote. "All of them had high hopes and never wanted to make compromises along the way."

Laurent Chneiwess, a French psychiatrist, treats patients suffering from depression who are burnout cases. "They are patients who are heavily invested in their work, which comes before everything else: family, friends, and hobbies," she says. "They're not afraid of overcoming obstacles, winning over the esteem of those above them, and working well beyond what is asked of them. Work is the key element in their identity, and they are very idealistic."

When they don't achieve their goals, they feel frustrated and disappointed and become cynical. Physically and psychologically devastated, burned out from the inside, they finally collapse. Then, they feel they have been fooled and are angry with those above them in the hierarchy, their clients, and themselves.

Anne-Françoise Chaperon, a clinical psychologist and consultant for the firm Stimulus, says those at risk of burnout are perfectionists who don't know how to say no. "These patients normally have problems with assertiveness and are in constant need of approval," she explained. "And the fear of not being on top pushes them to always do more."

Read the original article in French.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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