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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."

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

That Man In Mariupol: Is Putin Using A Body Double To Avoid Public Appearances?

Putin really is meeting with Xi in Moscow — we know that. But there are credible experts saying that the person who showed up in Mariupol the day before was someone else — the latest report that the Russian president uses a doppelganger for meetings and appearances.

screen grab of Putin in a dark down jacket

During the visit to Mariupol, the Presidential office only released screen grabs of a video

Russian President Press Office/TASS via ZUMA
Anna Akage

Have no doubt, the Vladimir Putin we’re seeing alongside Xi Jinping this week is the real Vladimir Putin. But it’s a question that is being asked after a range of credible experts have accused the Russian president of sending a body double for a high-profile visit this past weekend in the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol.

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Reports and conspiracy theories have circulated in the past about the Russian leader using a stand-in because of health or security issues. But the reaction to the Kremlin leader's trip to Mariupol is the first time that multiple credible sources — including those who’ve spent time with him in the past — have cast doubt on the identity of the man who showed up in the southeastern Ukrainian city that Russia took over last spring after a months-long siege.

Russian opposition politician Gennady Gudkov is among those who confidently claim that a Putin look-alike, or rather one of his look-alikes, was in the Ukrainian city.

"Now that there is a war going on, I don't rule out the possibility that someone strongly resembling or disguised as Putin is playing his role," Gudkov said.

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