How to prevent Saviour burnout at work
Saviour burnout and how to stop it
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My path into examining human behaviour, relationship hierarchy and narcissism began by grappling with burnout during my postdoctoral studies and the aftermath of leaving academia. I first encountered Karpman’s Dreaded Drama Triad a few months into this journey and have been playing with and deconstructing this framework ever since. I have used this process to help myself and others get a handle on interpersonal narcissism and disentangle from tricky relationship patterns. I now want to use my take on Karpman’s Drama Triad to frame this piece about burnout. Actually, this piece is about Saviour (or Savior for my USA readers) burnout, which in my view is the same thing.
In this piece, I will share with you several theories, frameworks, practice wisdom and concepts to present a perspective of how our conditioning plus workplace/institutions are designed to inadvertently enlist us to 1) be Saviours 2) experience Saviour burnout. You would be exempt from this if you didn’t have regard for others, you’re heavily engaged in dark tetrad behaviours and have endless energy for causing others pain without any impact on your conscience. For the non-workplace psychopath readers, this article is for you.
My perspective on Saviour burnout might resonate, make you think more deeply, hit a nerve so that you instantly disagree or piss you off. I hope you feel that you can share your perspective on the content in the comments below or in the Notes section to dialogue about these ideas.
What is burnout?
Burnout has undergone an evolution since its conception. Burnout is not a recent phenomenon only associated with post-industrialism and modernity. There are descriptions of occupational burnout throughout history, including in the bible.
"Burnout is the index of the dislocation between what people are and what they have to do. It represents an erosion in values, dignity, spirit, and will--an erosion of the human soul. It is a malady that spreads gradually and continuously over time, putting people into a downward spiral from which it's hard to recover ... What might happen if you begin to burn out? Actually three things happen: you become chronically exhausted; you become cynical and detached from your work; and you feel increasingly ineffective on the job."
—Maslach & Leiter, p. 17, The Truth About Burnout (1997, Jossey-Bass Publishers).
As you can see from this definition, burnout is defined as an individual problem that manifests as a constellation of symptoms. From an ecological systems perspective, burnout is influenced by workplace culture, society and cultural manifestations of underlying systems of belief about work, competence and productivity.
In a hierarchical organisational structure, power is unevenly distributed and influential people are not necessarily only those at the highest rungs of the organisation. The way individuals are able to fulfil their role with the freedom, agency and autonomy needed to perform optimally is largely influenced by the workplace culture and structure, not the individual’s actions alone.
As I described previously, most of our relationships in hierarchical settings are hierarchical — uneven distribution of power between the two parties. One person will have more influence than the other on acceptable behaviours within the relationship, even if both parties believe they have equality. Overriding dominance-based hierarchy, which is also known as interpersonal narcissism, requires a great degree of effort from both parties to want to be in an explicitly mutual, reciprocally beneficial relationship.
Interpersonal narcissism can be present between two people or within a group that organises into a hierarchy and social order, where one person/group eventually holds more power and influence than the others to dictate the norms, expectations, values and moral behaviours of this relationship. Because our default state in relationships is hierarchical, equality in relationships needs to be intentionally cultivated and monitored, not assumed.
Over the past 5 years, there has been increasing discussion about the prevalence of toxic workplace culture as a major cause of burnout in every industry. When you dissect what toxic workplace culture is, it becomes apparent that the symptoms of burnout are manifestations of moral distress and injury, as well as interpersonal trauma from witnessing and participating in morally eroding situations rather than from the conventional definition of burnout related more to poor boundaries with work. This is quite different to the predominant burnout discourse - blaming the burned out individuals for their personal deficits and failing to cope with the constant assault of toxic stress and stressors that wear down empathy and morality, while denying the role the institution, its structure and culture plays in establishing the conditions that promote, rather than prevent burnout.
It doesn’t help that the multibillion dollar wellness industry's wellbeing experts and Saviours colluded with organisations to provide resilience, mindfulness, self-compassion training, coaching and other performative corrective activities while continuing to gaslight the workforce and ignore the root causes of all workplace woes spanning the hierarchy.
When you put all of this together, burnout is the moral erosion and suffering that was originally described by Maslach but for different reasons. This current viewpoint considers context and specifically associates it as a feature, not a bug of all hierarchical contexts. It cannot be prevented or remedied by any current workplace wellbeing effort or self-care practice. And, after several attempts to fix problems and burning out from trying, people have been leaving toxic workplaces and professions in droves.
Some who remain in these workplaces feel fired up by the injustices they experience and seek to remedy it through change. Others who leave and feel they have the solution seek to remedy issues from the outside. This is how the wellness industry, social entrepreneurship, and so many service industries began. To provide solutions to save us from our suffering while inadvertently continuing the vicious cycle of burnout.
The Problem of Saviourism
Hierarchical relationships in its basic form manifest as a parent-child dynamic, as this is what each of us have in common, shaped from our earliest attachments, and are always looking to be comforted and soothed when feeling the discomfort of uncertainty, shame and lack of control. Comfort can be achieved by taking any action that enables you to feel in control and empowered again, including helping others in need, starting an initiative or project to compensate for organisational deficits, or intervening in a situation that you see as dangerous for someone involved. For the other person or people involved in your intervention, they get to experience being saved, soothed and comforted by your actions without expectation of reciprocating. In fact, they can start to depend on you replaying that role when you sense distress or are asked for help, locking you into an exhausting precedent that never requires them to do anything to improve their situation.
Congratulations, you’ve become a Saviour!
A workplace scenario
Taylor, who has been in the organisation for 3 years, starts to notice unfair treatment of junior staff in the organisation. Taylor feels frustrated with the lack of action from management because in Taylor’s mind, the issue is an easy fix. Taylor decides to support the struggling juniors by taking on additional tasks to help the juniors out, as a team player, and doesn’t get acknowledged for it but does it anyway. Taylor also hears about sexual harassment and targeting of some juniors by male senior managers. This isn’t news to HR or other senior managers but nothing changes, except higher turnover of junior staff. The longer Taylor witnesses these issues while trying to fix other ones, the more distressed they feel. Given that nothing is changing, Taylor decides someone needs to stand up for worker’s rights and the workplace Saviour is born. Taylor feels charged up and powerful, fuelling initiatives to urgently improve wellbeing, bully blocking and holding certain senior managers to account. While Taylor is engaged in their activities, colleagues start to see Taylor as a nuisance but humour them by encouraging the Saviour’s efforts. Saviour Taylor takes this as validation and a signal to keeping going, not realising their colleagues are just trying to get the Taylor off their back, ending conversations as quickly as possible. They’re just busy, Taylor thinks and keeps going. Eventually Saviour Taylor feels frustrated that none of the senior managers are acknowledging Taylor’s efforts and they begin to lose heart. Taylor is also so exhausted from all their efforts when a short time ago they were so uplifted by it.
Pushing against and disrupting status quo requires a great deal of energy and resources. The sense of betrayal by the workplace and a lack of leadership can result in moral distress and a desire to make it stop. Instead of dealing with it on their own in a therapeutic setting, the Saviour externalises their response to moral distress by diagnosing the workplace as ill and tries to treat it like a doctor would to restore a sense of control and order in the workplace. Except they’re not the appointed doctor and the workplace doesn’t believe it’s sick. This incongruence makes the Saviour push harder resulting in activism fatigue and emotional drain rather than a sense of accomplishment. At some point the Saviour will get really sick and need to take time out or their activities will piss off enough authorities who punish the Saviour by gradually removing responsibilities, moving them to another department or terminating their contract citing a number of failed key performance indicators from a review that never happened.
The moral of this story is this — as long as you see the institution as the perpetrator, yourself and your colleagues as the victim and desire change, you’re at risk of entering Saviour mode. I’m not suggesting this is a fault or a weakness. This is an instinctive way of responding to moral dilemmas in an attempt to provide corrective actions that remove a threat and eliminate the perpetrator. By reacting to situations to subdue feelings of discomfort as described above, there is no possibility of holding other perspectives or a more accurate bigger picture that can inform other options, responses and roles. The urgency to save the perceived victims, who are not in a life/death situation from a perceived persecutor, is exhaustive and prevents self-regulation necessary for curiosity, objectivity, critical reflection and informed decision-making.
Institutions don’t become demoralising and toxic overnight. The conditions are always present to enable power struggles, conflict and toxic behaviour that slowly erode morale and prevent resolution of ethical dilemmas. Institutions requires conscious, accountable leadership and collective responsibility to resolve your personal and interpersonal issues with power in a hierarchy. Experiencing enough betrayals by trusted colleagues, managers and institutional processes opens your eyes to finally see what was there all along. When you are able to accept that the institutional culture is the product of its hierarchical design and unintended yet predictable manifestations of hierarchy, you begin to accept that the institution and its constituents are functioning according to this design, and you cease to need to do anything to fix or save it.
Does this mean you’re cold-hearted and lack empathy? Not at all! It means you’re:
recalibrating your expectations and moral behaviours to do your job responsibly
investing just enough energy to raise awareness with decision makers about what’s not working and leaving it to them to fix…or not
showing care and regard for your coworkers while avoiding contributing to existing issues.
This is difficult when the inefficiencies are so obvious and seemingly easy to fix, or when you can see possibilities of psychological or physical injury. You can do everything to raise awareness of the issues up the chain of command and it’s up to those with decision making power and influence to take it seriously enough to remedy the issue — and work through your own moral dilemmas when they don’t.
Industries as The Saviour
Every sector of society can be seen as acting to serve and save the public (Victim) from threat and suffering (Perpetrator) while attempting to restore peace and order. Service-oriented industries comprise the macrocosm founded on the same Saviour model. Simply, the world is filled with problems that require solutions from funded, recognised authorities anointed by a more powerful authority. Some of those problems are manufactured, some are perceptions and some are real. Marketing across industries plays its part to convince target groups of its bias using selective data and strategic framing. As long as there is a problem that causes non-life threatening distress or exaggerated as life-threatening distress, we will need something or someone to fix it.
As history continues to show, hierarchy — ie. capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, racism, nepotism, all forms of narcissism (please read my definition so this makes sense) — is a social order based on level of importance that wants to be preserved and its beneficiaries are conditioned to preserve it. We, the beneficiaries, are programmed to re-enact hierarchical behaviours — Drama Triad dynamics, to preserve the overall social order even within a workplace. The failings, gaps and flaws of an institution tend to upset workers more than the overlords. Workers are the first to try to plug holes to save the ship from sinking while the protectors of the social order remain at the helm looking for other ways to cover up problems or remove those who dared speak of problems.
For workers who notice flaws and dangers in the institution, leaping into action to disrupt or push for change will only serve to preserve the same social order. Saving the Victims (employees) from unsafe institutional culture stimulates the institution to fight back as the Saviour to protect its Victims (the same employees) against the activist who is now perceived the Persecutor. Since the institutional powers have more influence than the activist, the activist will lose the battle unless they have enough resources and external power that can hold the institution to account.
Karpman’s Drama Triad illustrates the vicious power struggle cycle between problem, victim and Saviour. As long as there’s a problem that is solved, not resolved, through saviourism, the problem will return. The problem won’t go away because the symptoms were addressed with a quick fix. The problem gets resolved when those involved can work together to uncover the root cause and remedy it together using a different approach than the default reactive actions used before. This applies to how industries across sectors can work together as well as individuals within a workplace that won’t burn its people out.
Hierarchical relationships of any kind will burn you out, even if you’re the one in charge, unless you can free yourself from the injustice triad.
A definition of workplace Saviour burnout
Saviour burnout can be defined as the exhaustion and retaliation distress derived from pushing against status quo to remedy issues or to do your job effectively, and realising that your trusted coworkers and the institution are resisting or exploiting your efforts.
The risks to becoming the Saviour that can lead to Saviour burnout
Let’s remind ourselves that the hierarchical structure, workplace culture and practices are fertile ground that provide the conditions for Saviours to be born. In addition to these contextual or environmental conditions, there are your own personal and interpersonal risk factors that can lead you toward saviourism and increase the likelihood of Saviour burnout.
These risk factors include:
moral distress, demoralisation and empathy fatigue
urgency to fix problems to prevent further injury, distress or harm
shame about being duped by another shitty workplace pretending to be great
wanting or needing to prove your worth to workplace authorities and gain validation for your good work
unprocessed grief from leaving a previous role/profession of higher status
excessive emotional investment in the workplace and everyone in it (who seem less invested than you)
incongruence between your mission/vision and that of the institution
incongruence between your priorities and institution’s priorities
betrayal of trust and absent accountability practices
unfulfilled and unrealistic expectations based on expected trustworthiness
making yourself central to improving the workplace because you seem to be the only one who sees the dangers and willing to take action
vicarious emotions & trauma by over identifying with a coworker’s story of prior or current workplace abuse
emotional entanglement with your work and blind loyalty to your institution
looking to the institution to fill a void and needing your workplace to give you meaning
This list isn’t exhaustive and I’m certain you can come up with additional points.
How to be an effective workplace Saviour that won’t burn you out
So far, I’ve been a bit serious about saviourism and why I don’t believe it’s the way to work within a hierarchy to facilitate change, even if it comes naturally. I described The Saviour role that many play because it taps into instinctive, protective, survival behaviours that either preserves the social order by trying to fill gaps caused by institutional flaws or challenges the social order by demanding change to align better with workers values and alleviate moral distress. Either way, the Saviour role is strongly associated with burnout and co-dependence, making it unsustainable and the reason for my serious tone.
I also don’t want to be a total downer by suggesting that workplace Saviourism is a total waste of energy. Let me lighten up by saying that there might be redeeming qualities to saviourism that some people can harness and remain protected from burnout. If you’re able to meet the superhero-like conditions in the long list below and are able to see other players in the organisation as neither victims nor perpetrators, you could actually be an unburnoutable workplace Saviour:
are aware that you have different values and moral principles to the institutions’ and it doesn’t bother you.
are not intimidated by bullies, professional positions or status.
know how to negotiate with anyone high on the narcissism spectrum and psychopaths without letting them mess with your mind.
can stand up to anyone who is abusing their power, regardless of their position in the workplace.
can intervene for anyone being mistreated while ensuring they don’t get mistreated for being protected by you.
don’t care if you get mistreated, retaliated against or fired.
are independently wealthy and can afford legal representation.
have powerful connections outside your organisation who can hold the institution to account.
are an excellent record keeper and have been gathering detailed eye-witnessed evidence about workplace practices, abusive behaviour, inefficiencies, cost wastage, fraud and other policy breaches.
have a track record of bringing situations to justice or facilitating culture change without unintended negative consequences, and
are able to solve problems without creating dependency while also ensuring victims you rescue have the capacity to meet their needs without you.
Congratulations! You qualify as an effective Saviour and deserve all the support possible to ensure you can continue to work without any interference. I hope you’re being appropriately compensated and recognised for your restorative work for the institution who couldn’t get its shit together without your effort and powerful connections.
For the rest of us mere mortals, we’re going to need some alternatives to the doomed workplace Saviour and the effective workplace Saviour roles.
In the final section of this piece, I’m going to discuss cognitive tools to avoid being the Saviour and a framework of alternative roles that liberate from the Injustice Triad.
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