A few months ago we did a podcast on burnout and it resonated with many of you. Because it seems to be an epidemic, we wanted to delve a little further.
That episode may be the one that generated the most e-mails. 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 physically tired. Being tired from a long hike, a good run, helping your best friend move out of their fifth floor walk up. That kind of tired quiets the mind and lets you sleep like a baby.
Mentally tired sucks and it’s the kind of tired that burnout produces. When you’re mentally tired, your brain won’t shut up. It’s the kind of tired that won’t allow your thoughts to stop long enough to let you rest.
Burnout 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 a day and don’t engage my brain at all.
Hard to find motivation with those kind of thoughts ringing in your head. Burnout sucks the meaning and engagement out of work life.
When the economy tanked in 2007-8, many employers began laying off workers. 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 things like scheduling, what assignments they got, 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.
Work place dynamics weren’t exactly pleasant either. If it was 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 normally 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 play off game or when the regular keeper couldn’t make it. Eventually he got sick of playing soccer, something that 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 some 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.
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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 are showing 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, 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, just wanting to be left alone or sleeping a lot. Some will develop a short fuse, blowing up at the smallest matter. Neither are going to foster happy, healthy personal relationships.
How To Fix It
If you recognize yourself in any of the above, take steps now to resolve it before it slides any further.
You’re exhausted in body and mind. The big fixes can come later. What you need to do right now is self preservation. Until you can establish enough equilibrium to create a plan to deal with burnout, just do only what is absolutely essential.
Get up, go to work, do what has to get done. Interact with your family as much as you can but explain to them that you need some quiet at the moment. 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. 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, it’s probably easier to start with them rather than with your boss. If you can get a little space at home, it can give you the time and energy to come up with 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 him or her 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 huge work load for too long and need to make some adjustments. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad employee or that you’re trying to shirk your (fair) share of job responsibilities.
Often there are easy fixes to most work place problems. It could be something as simple as allowing someone with a very long commute to work from home a day or two a week. Think how much more an employee could get done if they weren’t exhausted from commuting a few hours a day.
Telecommuting obviously 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 It
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. It’s the long term burnout that you have to prevent.
Feeling the physical and emotional effects we talked about above are your warning signs.
Be Unavailable Sometimes
Being lojacked to your office 24/7 by a smart phone is probably where this epidemic is coming from. In the good old days, once you left the office, you were done for the day. Now, the work day can literally never end for some people.
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 your 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 to not ever read work related messages when they’re out of the office but you don’t have to respond to every one. 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 e-mails 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 kind of 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 just have to say, “Screw it,” and walk. Not an easy decision to make but if your position just 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 always keep your resume up to date and to every now and then, check job postings 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 important but your well being in paramount, always and you’re the only one who can protect it.
Featured Image Photo Credit: “FRAGILE.” by Neal Fowler on Flickr