One of the most challenging issues facing organisations today is the preservation of talent – ensuring that senior people keep up their energy and avoid burnout.

Talented people don’t just perform roles; they identify with them: “I am a manager, a leader, an accountant, a designer”.

Jobs as identity

Their skill, once mastered, stops being simply a competency but transcends to a higher level, that of identity.

At this level, the person’s very sense of worth becomes ‘fused’ with a job role. This is common in modern society – and is, up to a point, admirable.

It shows commitment to a social role and promises excellence: we’d all like to be treated by a doctor who is proud of their calling rather than by one who just sees it as a way of making money and gives it no further thought the moment they leave the surgery.

The problems with job identification

However, this identification has its problems.

When people become identified with a role, they can take changes in it very personally. Identification can lead to an unhealthy belief of omnipotence, as if you can control the world.

When market forces change in a business or cuts are imposed in government departments, senior people can take this ‘downturn’ as if it is their fault.

The feelings of guilt, weakness and shame that result from this can reduce their energy further, just at a time when they need to summon it to deal with these problems.

How to avoid professional burnout

There is a very simple intervention that can be hugely powerful in cases like this.

Simply explaining the difference between identity and capabilities can really help someone ‘not take it to heart’ when things go wrong.

How deep you go into this difference will depend on the client and the situation. In some cases, just to point it out is enough.

In others, it can help to explain the NLP ‘Logical Levels’ model on which this distinction is based.

If you know your client well, you will know how far you need to go to make the distinction count. It can be the difference between moving up a gear to deal with a new challenge and falling into a spiral of blame and inaction: the horrible, but avoidable, world of burnout.

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