Being completely burnt out can happen to the best of us, and it is not uncommon, especially for vacation-deprived Americans. But we can’t all quit and go live on the beach. So we have to recover somehow. You can bounce back. A break and a few deep breaths and get back on track.
We did an episode on burnout that generated many emails and still does. Many of you have suffered or are suffering burnout yourselves. What can we do about it, and what can we do to prevent it in the future?
What Is Burnout?
“Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in work.”
That’s the technical definition. In real speak, “Fed up with this shit!”
Do you know the difference between being physically tired versus mentally tired? I’m a big fan of being physically tired.
Being tired from a long hike, a good run, or helping your best friend move out of their fifth-floor walk-up. That tired quiets the mind and lets you sleep like a baby.
Mentally tired sucks, and it’s the kind of tired that being burnt out produces. When you’re mentally tired, your brain won’t shut up.
It’s the tired that won’t allow your thoughts to stop long enough to let you rest.
Being burnt out can also result in cynicism and detachment.
“This job sucks. Things will never get better.”
“Nothing I do makes any difference.”
“This job creates nothing of value in the world. I sit at a desk eight-plus hours daily and don’t engage my brain at all.”
Hard to find motivation with those kinds of thoughts ringing in your head. Being burnt out sucks the meaning and engagement out of work life.
Many employers began laying off workers when the economy tanked in 2007-8. Those lucky enough not to lose their jobs now were expected to do the work of two, sometimes more, people.
And they did it and did it without complaint lest they be next.
By mid-2014, all 8.7 million jobs lost were replaced. But in the interim, a lot of people got burnt out. During that time, people felt a lack of control.
They felt they had no control over scheduling, assignments, and the amount of work they were now expected to make up in the face of layoffs.
Because people were now expected to take on work once handled by someone else, expectations were unclear. And if you had a question about how to do something, there was no one to ask.
The person that used to do it was long gone.
Workplace dynamics weren’t exactly pleasant either.
If it were you or the guy next to you, you would be looking for any reason to throw him under the bus, and he was doing the same to you.
Not exactly a healthy, supportive environment in which to spend eight or more hours a day.
Where Does It Happen?
Well, work is the most likely spot but not the only place it can happen. Even stuff you usually enjoy can burn you out if you do too much of it.
I had a friend who liked playing soccer in the organized leagues in the city. He was a keeper and a pretty good one.
Eventually, people he played with who also played on other teams started calling him when they needed a ringer for a playoff game or when the regular keeper couldn’t make it.
Eventually, he got sick of playing soccer, which had once been an enjoyable pass time.
Or those parents, usually mothers, who get sick of doing everything around the house and go on strike.
They refuse to cook, clean, or do laundry until they get help. Usually, they fold because a house full of kids can stand dirt, smelly clothes, and peanut butter and jelly dinners a lot longer than most parents.
People caring long-term for chronically, physically, or mentally ill relatives can also burnout. It’s even worse if they are part of the so-called sandwich generation, caring for aging parents while at the same time raising their children.
You can probably guess that it’s not great. Sometimes it’s a slow spiral down, and sometimes a full-blown Michael Douglas in Falling Down situation.
Burnout is bad for your heart, very bad. Recent studies show that chronic burnout increases the risk for cardiovascular disease as much as the usual suspects of a high BMI, smoking, and high lipid levels.
Burnout is strikingly similar to depression; changes in appetite, disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, and agitation.
Fortunately, burnout can usually be resolved once the person suffering is removed from the situation causing it, unlike depression which is much more complicated to treat and resolve.
Well, it’s clear what can happen here. If you aren’t performing, you can be fired. If the burnout becomes too much, you may quit before having another job lined up.
Either way, burnout can wreck your finances.
Effects On Personal Relationships
Chronic burnout can take a toll on family and personal relationships. Some people react to burnout by withdrawing, wanting to be left alone, or sleeping a lot.
Some will develop a short fuse, blowing up at the most minor matter. Neither is going to foster happy, healthy personal relationships.
I let the laptop creep into areas of life it should never have crept.Tweet This
How To Fix It
If you recognize yourself in any of the above, take steps to resolve it before it slides any further.
The Way of the Essentialist isn’t about getting more done in less time. It’s not about getting less done. It’s about getting only the right things done. It’s about the pursuit of the right thing, in the right way, at the right time.
You’re exhausted in body and mind. The big fixes can come later, and what you need to do right now is self-preservation.
Do only what is essential until you can establish enough equilibrium to create a plan to deal with burnout.
Get up, go to work, and do what has to get done. Interact with your family as much as possible but explain to them that you need some quiet now.
Now is not the time to ask for a promotion, renovate the kitchen, or go back to school part-time.
Call out sick for a day. Pro-tip for you; when making the sick call, lay on your bed, face up, with your head hanging off the edge.
It makes you sound sick when you call out. A day isn’t much, but we’re not looking for much right now.
Talk About It
If you have a family, starting with them is probably easier than with your boss.
Getting a little space at home can give you the time and energy to devise a plan to talk to your boss.
At some point, unless you are ready to walk, you’ll need to have a conversation with your boss about what is happening. This is individual to each of us.
It depends on how good your relationship with them is, what the environment at your place of work is like, and the culture of that environment.
It would be nice if every employer realized that it’s cheaper to keep a good employee by working with them when they have a problem rather than just writing them off and hiring someone else to become fodder until they break too.
But not all of them do. If you’re lucky, you can explain to your boss that you’ve been under a massive workload for too long and need to make some adjustments.
It doesn’t mean you’re a terrible employee or trying to shirk your (fair) share of job responsibilities.
Often there are easy fixes to most workplace problems. It could be as simple as allowing someone with a very long commute to work from home a day or two a week, something much more common since the pandemic.
Think how much more an employee could get done if they weren’t exhausted from commuting a few hours a day.
Telecommuting isn’t possible for every job, but it’s an example of a win-win fix that doesn’t cost the employer a dime.
How To Prevent Being Burnt Out
Prevention is always better than a cure, so taking steps to fix burnout before it gets out of hand matters.
We all experience low-level burnout sometimes, the final dash to finish a big project, the mad scramble to clear your desk before vacation.
That’s just a normal part of most jobs, and it’s the long-term burnout that you have to prevent.
The physical and emotional effects we discussed above are your warning signs.
Be Unavailable Sometimes
This epidemic is probably from being lojacked to your office 24/7 by a smartphone. In the good old days, you were done for the day once you left the office.
Now, the workday can literally never end for some people, and it’s probably best to set a precedent here early.
Yes, we all want to excel and make a good impression at a new job, but once people know you will always respond no matter where you are, what you are doing, or the time of day, you’re in a trap.
You know what is urgent and what isn’t. Unfortunately, some people don’t so you will have to decide for them.
I hesitate to tell anyone not ever to read work-related messages when they’re out of the office, but you don’t have to respond to everyone.
Nor do you have to check each message the second your phone pings. You aren’t Pavlov’s dog, after all.
TAKE YOUR VACATION, ALL OF IT!
Note the all caps; I mean it!
Because we operate like a well-oiled machine at LMM, none of you noticed, but between the staff, we went on six vacations in about three months. Two for each of us. And it was great.
None of us did a lick of work while we were gone, and only Andrew kept answering emails until I, and probably his wife Laura too, told him to knock it off.
We just batched what had to get done before we left and dealt with the rest of it when we got back. The show and site didn’t crumble; the audience didn’t revolt. It was all here waiting when we came back.
The lack of any legally mandated paid vacation in America is a big problem and something that really winds me up.
There is tons of research that vacation is good for employees and employers. But somehow, in our puritanical work ethic, that gets overlooked. See for yourself:
Sometimes, you have to say, Screw it, and walk. Not an easy decision to make, but if your position becomes untenable and your employer refuses to work with you to resolve it, you don’t owe them squat.
This is one good reason to keep your resume up to date and check job postings every now and then to see what else is out there.
Even when you’re happy in your current job because circumstances can change quickly, and it’s better to be prepared.
No one should feel like their mental and physical health is being compromised by a job. A job is essential, but your well-being is paramount, always, and you’re the only one who can protect it.