What is workplace burnout? One definition, by Mark Gorkin, LICSW, a Washington, DC-based expert on stress, from a recent article in The Healthy Haven, is, “Burnout is the gradual process by which a person, in response to stress and physical, mental, and emotional strain, detaches from work and other meaningful relationships. The result is lower productivity, cynicism, confusion … a feeling of being drained, having nothing more to give.” From that same article, per psychologist Sandra Paulsen, PhD, “Burnout itself is a process. It develops through stages of: (1) physical exhaustion (having reduced energy to maintain activity level); (2) emotional exhaustion (feeling depressed, hopeless, and helpless); (3) changed perspective on the world (feeling cynical, negative, and irritable); (4) pervasive, global feelings of negativity (feeling that you are doing poorly in all areas of life or feeling that you are not a good person).” Again, from that same article, according to the Center for Advancement of Health, “various studies indicate a significant correlation between on-the-job stress and mental, emotional, and physical problems, such as heart disease and mental, immune system, and musculoskeletal disorders. These affect your quality of life and workplace productivity.” Hopefully you do not need to progress through all of these stages or suffer the potential consequences before recognizing the problem of job burnout and taking actions to address it.
Workplace burnout can originate from too many demands made by your boss(es), your peers, or your subordinates, or from external sources such as outside organizations, personal obligations, etc. However, in reality, it comes mostly from placing too many unrealistic demands on yourself. It comes from a sense of personal responsibility; of stepping up to the plate to do what you said you’d do (see Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, and Do What You Say You’ll Do!), but it can turn into something much darker and starker. Personal responsibility is a good thing, but taking on too much personal responsibility, when it could and should be shared among others can sap your strength and even your health, and adversely affect your work, personal, and family life. It is often easier to spot signs of workplace burnout in others than it is in you.
For most of my career of 40+ years (so far), at over seven different companies, workplace burnout wasn't really a problem. There were, of course, the normal ups and downs and workplace stresses, but those times were manageable and even expected. However, at two of those companies workplace burnout did become a real problem for me.
One was a company with great people but a poor executive management team (see Mis-Managers – How Bad Managers Can Poison The Well) that invoked a pressure cooker environment (see The Sky Is Falling!) where the executive team consciously pushed groups against each other, demanded unrealistic expectations based on sunny day scenarios, punished perceived failures and seldom acknowledged substantial successes, and managed people very badly (see Floggings Will Continue Until Morale Improves!). While I tried to shield my folks from the worst of it (see Shield Your Troops!), this management team actually fostered workplace burnout among most of the employees, and I could feel the symptoms growing in me every day I was there. It was a self-destructive environment. In the end, I “fired” them (i.e. I announced I was leaving) so I could get my life back, even though I didn’t have a full-time job to go to (see Know When To Fold ‘Em and A Fresh Start!). My stress levels disappeared overnight, and it remains one of the best decisions I ever made.
The other was a company with great people and products, but at a terrible time. The economy was in a strong recession, the company sold products that were optional (nice to have) rather than mandatory (must have), the federal government had just enacted a luxury tax which devastated many of the companies our products were sold with (and thus devastated us), and the VC firms funding the company were tired, wanted out, and were pushing the executive team (including me) to sell the company quickly. It was a very stressful time. When we finally did sell the company, the buying company brought in their own chief executive, and there was a style and personality conflict between him and me. After months of further stress and conflict, leading to many workplace burnout symptoms, he and I jointly agreed that our differences were irresolvable and that it was time for me to go (see When It’s Time ‘To Walk Away’, Don’t Turn Back!). When I did, it was a relief, and the company I joined shortly thereafter was a far better match.
For me, workplace burnout looked like the following:
- Routinely putting in very long days and often weekends, out of a sense of “have to do”, without thought (or at least without conscious or sufficient thought) of what this was doing to my wife, children, friends, and to me.
- Finding coming to work to be a daily burden, with little joy or fulfillment.
- Having a hard time getting sound sleep or having a loss of appetite.
- Consistently missing or forgetting birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, school concerts, special occasions, etc. because of “important” work I simply “had to do".
- Getting overly stressed, fatigued, grouchy, grumpy, tired, haggard, curt, cynical, impatient, angry, frustrated, disconnected, dissatisfied, unmotivated or demotivated, emotionally overwhelmed, etc.
So what can you do when you start to see such symptoms in yourself?
- Don’t let things go too far before attempting to do something about it.
- Step back and look at your life. Take a time out, and evaluate what’s going on and what you can do to reduce the causes of workplace burnout.
- Be clear with your goals. Talk to your boss, talk to your boss’ boss, talk to Human Resources (HR). Develop a plan.
- Think about the burdens currently on your plate. How can you share some of them effectively with other people, groups, departments, or organizations? How can you most effectively offload some of your workload to others, and continue the work you can most effectively and productively do?
- Learn when to say no and when to say yes. Recognize that you can’t please all the people all the time. You must have a say in the assignments you will take on, the number of hours you will work, or your productivity and/or performance will suffer. Avoid no-win situations.
- Communicate, communicate, communicate! (see What We’ve Got Here is a Failure to Communicate! and Can You Hear Me Now?)
- Align your values. If your values are different from your companies’ values or their way of doing business, it will wear on you and you will likely grow increasingly unhappy, unmotivated, and burned out.
- Find effective ways to unwind and put your workplace time behind you. Find free time, at work (e.g. take walks at lunchtime) and away from work (reduce or minimize work done at home). Spend time with friends and loved ones. What can replace the smile of your wife or child when you’re there for an important event?
What do you do when you recognize the signs of burnout in others?
- If you know them well, pull them aside and let them know what you see. Recommend that they follow the steps described above.
- If you don’t know them well, but respect them and their contributions, then find someone who does know them well and ask them to provide the same advice.
Remember, you’re not the only one with problems, deadlines, deliverables, etc. Most others also have those demands, but continue to have lives outside of the workplace. Your stepping back a bit will not mean the end of the world. Your failure to deliver a “critical” something may hurt, but will not stop the company in its tracks. If you keel over from a heart attack or stroke will that stop things from continuing? If you leave, work will continue. Everyone is replaceable! Everyone! Do you think anyone arrives at the pearly gates of heaven thinking, “if only I was able to work one more day!”?
Your bosses or others at work will not always (or even often) notice all the hard work you feel you just must do. Don’t be the tireless worker to die at work without anyone noticing (as described in Woman Dies In Her Cubicle - But Nobody Notices Until The Next Day)! Her coworkers said, “She was always working, always working.” This is not something to aspire to. Work may be stressful at times, but it need not be the death of you. Recognizing and avoiding workplace burnout can help make your workplace life acceptable and even enjoyable!