I have been a fan of economist Thomas Sowell’s writings for years. He has an amazing ability to condense the complex into the concise. Years ago, he observed, “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” This is not a shot at individual bureaucrats, but the systems they create or were created before them.
I’ll be the first person to agree that bureaucracies are essential to the function of any organization or society. Without process, we would be reinventing the wheel over and over. That said, bureaucracies also foster complexity, caution, and a tremendous amount of “cover-your-butt behavior.” The classic division of motor vehicles scene from the movie Zootopia proves the point. Otherwise, why would it have received 2.6 million views on YouTube?
One of consequences of today’s bureaucracies is burnout. Humans work to earn a living. But they also work to acquire meaning. If you don’t believe me, ask the next random person you meet, “What do you do?” Chances are they will respond with a job title. Since most of us spend eight or more hours a day on the job five days a week, we tend to tie a good portion of our identity to our work.
Unfortunately, our zeal to be creative and productive can be thwarted by endless rules and regulations that drain our energy and defeat our aspirations to contribute. Chances are, you, at one point, have begun a new job eager to make a difference, only to run head-long into processes and procedures, some of which may have seemed unnecessary or even nonsensical. While you may have tried to change the system, chances are you were defeated by the response, “What you’re suggesting makes sense. But this is the way we do it.”
Is it possible to feel burned out by being forced to do less than you’re capable of? Yes! In fact, it can be downright depressing. As much as most people complain about having too much to do these days, you can also feel burned out by having too little to do. Why, because it lacks meaning. And meaning is what drives our psyche. Remember, burnout is a collection of emotions. One of these emotions is the sense of meaning that we derive from what we do.
Is there a solution to feeling burnout out if you’re working in a bureaucracy that seems to drain you of meaning? There’s no magic bullet. It is a rare occasion that someone beats the system. That leaves you with a choice. You can accept the confines placed on your efforts and find your meaning elsewhere. Or you can leave that bureaucracy and find meaning within another organization. Just make sure you do your homework so you don’t end up in a similar situation.