A new year free of cynism?

I’m not even close to a burn-out, I think.  And I’m not the kind of person who needs cynism or sarcasm to hide my anxiety either. But then again, isn’t that what everybody thinks? What are the odds?

Two days before New Year a media hype shook Belgium awake. Studies by WIV, research unit iVox and Servstudy made it clear that half of the working population may be facing a burn-out. Results that are in line with a study published by the EU last year announcing that by 2020 mental health issues will be the biggest cost on our health systems.

Workrelated stress and burn-out

The causes are: being crazy-busy and no clear distinction between work and privat life aswell as mounting financial pressure. Does it sound familiar?

To me it does. Having to answer calls at any time, a busy schedule and not much routine. It leads to multitasking which causes stress and weighs in on my productivity and overall satisfaction.

In my work as a mediator I’ve noticed how professionals struggle with a string of combined symptoms such as physical complaints, loss of joy, insecurity, panic attacks, trouble concentrating, anxiety and sleepless nights.

When I started researching these symptoms online it directed me to burn-out. Reading into it I discovered there are three major signs:

  1. Physical and mental exhaustion.
  2. Cynism: an emotional distance to work and colleagues.
  3. Low selfesteem.

The link between cynism, workrelated conflicts and burn-out 

It was mostly the cynism that struck me. I see it all the time. Professionals who seem to have checked out mentally and claim to no longer care. In my workshop on conflictmanagement I recently shared the experience i have with people who deny that they have a conflict (or stress for that matter) and use cynism to keep everyone at bay, aswell as fool themselves that they are in control and ok. I tell the participants in my workshop that it is in fact a signal for me that a situation has escalated or is about to escalate. After giving my very first workshop a female participant emailed me saying:

Looking back I am really happy to hear your vison on irony and sarcasm. In fact, I have used it extensively the last couple of years (a sense of humour can be the last ressort when life proves difficult) and I realise now that I’ve taken my reliance on it too far.

I had no idea that my cases and vision on the link between humour and mental state had struck a cord with her. I’m grateful that it helped her gain insight and change her life for the better because cynism doesn’t get you anywhere. It estranges you from your co-workers where in fact it is often a cry for help.

The American professor, author and TED-sensation Brené Brown calls ‘cynism, criticism, cool and cruelty’ a shield used to protect ourselves from vulnerability and shame that is widely spread in our corporate culture. She effectively explains that shutting out painful situations by using this shield leads us to lose the connection with ourself and with others. Apparently you can’t shut out the dark without shutting out the light aswell.

As President Obama pointed out in his speech at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service cynism really isn’t the way out:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you. […]

There are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.

Maybe it will help us if we realise that being crazy busy in rapid, changing times and not allowing feelings can lead to cynism and that cynism estranges you from yourself and from the people around you.


It is always better to prevent conflicts than to cure. And this goes for a burn-out too. So it may be a good start to answer these questions for yourself:

Do you use humour as a way to avoid speaking about feelings or difficult topics at work?
What have you done today to really relax and detach yourself from work that gave you a feeling of joy and energy?


How to turn a tiger into a vegetarian?

Threats, passive agression and emotional blackmailing aren’t always as clear cut as you’d expect it to be. And when you do realise that someone is playing dirty tricks on you, you may be puzzled what the most appropriate response is.

Here are some thoughts on how to turn a hungry tiger into a manageable cat.

A writer I know well contacted me concerning her latest book. The collaboration is not going well. After a first popular book the writer was paid to write a sequel around a new theme. For the new theme she contacted a specialist in the field to deliver content. And it’s this specialist who is causing trouble.

The specialist has missed a couple of deadlines allready which has cost my client time and energy. And now this specialist has demanded the writer to change the outlooks of one of the characters in the book. Given the fact that this book is a sequel, changing characters is not that simple. Persuaded by some strong arguments the writer is nevertheless convinced that giving in to this demand makes sense. The publisher, though, is not convinced and argues that the alteration will confuse readers.

My client is in the midst of all of this. As a writer she cares about the experience of her readers and reconsiders the alteration of the character. After notifying the specialist she receives an e-mail from him insisting that the alteration is ‘essential’ adding that the original character is ‘in conflict with his values and moral compass’. The specialist requests the writer to pressure the publisher into another point of view.

The writer knows that that won’t work and urges the specialist to let go. Instead she receives a following e-mail saying:

Collaborating on this book is my Life Work, for which reason I can not concede. If the alteration is not granted then I will be forced to withdraw from this project.

My advice to the writer as an expert on conflict resolution:

If you give in to it, this will not be the end.

The characters were known to the specialist long before collaborating on this project. Insisting on an alteration now is out of proportion and is intolerable in a professional context.

Had the writer and the specialist been in a meeting face to face and had he raised his voice or slammed his hand down on the table, or had he sent a written sommation from his lawyer after the meeting was over, the agression would have been clear cut. But don’t let the talk about values, integrity and life work be misleading. This too is a threat.

If the writer gives in, she is feeding the tiger more meat. Don’t fool yourself thinking that a hungry tiger will stop growling afterwards. The only way to stop the agression is to draw the line.

Confronting the specialist with his behaviour (missing out on deadlines, not being flexible and receding to threats) is the only thing that will help. It is even more powerful is the writer has this conversation face to face without the use of agression, strong words or personal insults. This way she draws the line and is changing the game.

It will be clear to the passive agressor that the writer is not sensible to threats and having de-escalated the situation, both will be able to get back to work.