Three Things You Must Stop Doing to Thrive in a Culture of Burnout

by Brent Roy

 

Just before Christmas 2017, I experienced job-related burnout. Like a mild out-of-body experience, I just wasn’t myself. Since I didn’t know what burnout was at that time, I believed taking a few extra days over Christmas for some extra rest would return me to normal. I was soon to learn that burnout is much more serious than I’d thought. Now, more than two years later, I feel I’ve almost fully recovered.

Burnout is a state of chronic stress that leads to: 

- physical and emotional exhaustion 
- cynicism and detachment 
- feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment 

The term was introduced into our language in 1974 but the World Health Organization (WHO) only officially recognized burnout in May 2019, classifying it not as a medical condition but rather an “occupational phenomenon” resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. But not successfully managed by whom? Hint: It's not the canary.

Canary

Being an “occupational phenomenon” rather than a disease places the weight of responsibility on the organization. There are things within the system that are simply not working for the employee. Unfair treatment at work, unmanageable workload, lack of role clarity, lack of communication and support from their manager and unreasonable time pressure are the major contributing factors to burnout according to renowned burnout expert Christina Maslach.

According to these factors, the root causes of burnout can be averted if leadership understands the issues and implements prevention strategies before impacting the health of individuals in the workplace. It’s a costly mistake not to, in many ways. An American Psychological Association study warns, burned-out employees are 2.6 times as likely to be actively looking for a different job, 63% more likely to take a sick day, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.

Yet many organizations focus more on getting the burned-out employee back to work without seriously investigating how their organization causes burnout. As Maslach states, it's easier to focus on the canary than admit the coal mine needs to change. 

So, what can you, the employee do about avoiding burnout or recovering from it? Here are three things you must stop doing:

 

  1. Being a Work Warrior. You’re a salaried employee showing your work devotion by being available after hours, checking your emails evenings and weekends and taking the laptop home to work on things to get a jump on the start of the next workday. I understand the mentality. I’ve done it for parts of my career but the benefits were few and the cost was high.

    If you’re given to flashing your “work devotion” to your colleagues by bragging about working late into the evening, you’re what Rahaf Harfoush in “Hustle and Float” describes as a Work Warrior. It sounds honourable, willing to sacrifice to make an impact “because it doesn’t feel like work.” The Bergen Work Addiction Scale will tell you whether you’re addicted to your job. Maybe it’s time to take a sober second look and count the costs.

  2. Having Elastic Boundaries. If you’re going to be a Work Warrior, be one within your paid working hours. Once you justify working late once, you’ll be more apt to do it again, more frequently and for longer. What’s more, your bosses and colleagues will expect it.
    One of my coaching clients was a manager with many direct reports in an industry with shift work around the clock. Because she cared about her staff, she made herself available after her hours were complete so she could hear the concerns of some of the workers coming in for the next shift.

    In time, she grew to resent it, as it was causing stress and making it difficult for her to unwind in the evening. Despite the pain it caused, she was unable to create a boundary for herself. I asked her, “What if the last bus of the day left at 4:00 pm?” She instituted a system within her working hours to hear the concerns of her staff and now leaves every day as if the bus leaves at 4. She’s feeling even more productive and her staff still feels they’re being heard. This manager has created a boundary both she and her staff respect.

  3. Grumbling. Cynicism and detachment are hallmarks of the beginnings of burnout. If this is not characteristically how you operate and you (or a co-worker) begin to notice it creeping in, stop it. You’re likely exhausted and feeling ineffective, so your defences against grumbling aren’t as strong. Don’t feed it. No one wants to listen to a negative grumbler.

    Counter complaining with gratitude. Being grateful is scientifically proven to stimulate the parts of your brain that regulate stress and tap into the reward centre to give you feelings of joy. No matter how rough you may perceive your life to be at the moment, you still have many more things to be thankful for than to whine about.

    Martin Seligman, the founding father of positive psychology promises by taking a few minutes a day to ponder just three things you’re grateful for, you’ll be “less depressed, happier, and addicted to this exercise six months from now.”

 

Even though it’s the responsibility of the leadership of your organization to control the factors leading to burnout, most don’t. It’s easier to convince the canary to blow the coal dust off his feathers and return to the coalmine. If you sense you might be headed toward burnout or are returning from one, control the factors you can control.

Be a work warrior during working hours but establish and respect your boundaries so your work devotion doesn’t negatively impact other areas and relationships in your life. And don’t let the negativity overtake you. Even if you have already, start fresh today. Bobby McFerrin would sing, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”  Martin Seligman would say, “Don’t Grumble, Be Grateful.”

 

Burnout occurs when your balance between life and work is tipped too far toward work. Here’s a free tool you can use to find out where you stand.

 

What are some other things you might suggest you stop doing to help you prevent or recover from burnout?

 

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Brent is a life and leadership coach helping exhausted leaders reclaim their balance, so their family life and careers bring equal amounts of joy most of the time. 


Brent Roy
Brent Roy Coaching and Consulting