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?


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