It feels like just one more minor inconvenience could tip you over into the abyss.
Not so much bad emotions but an erosion of emotions. Reduced energy, enthusiasm and confidence. An incessant buzzing of stress only restrained by exhaustion. Perpetually a half inch from overwhelmed. Life is less meaningful. A negative spiral of not feeling like you can do it, so you do less, which causes more problems that you can’t handle, so you do less. Repeat.
YEESH, that’s dark. Your high school guidance counselor didn’t cover burnout. And maybe they should have. According to Gallup, 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always” at work.”
And in 2016, Stanford found workplace stress caused $190 billion in health care costs, a staggering 8% of the total. Oh, and it also resulted in 120,000 deaths.
Burnout has been with us for a long time, just under different names. Neurasthenia. Melancholia. Nervous breakdowns. Midlife crises. Why haven’t we found a solution? What do you, personally, need to do to beat this? Well, that’s the bad news…
Burnout isn’t a personal problem. There’s no one little change you can make in your life to fix it. It’s largely an organizational issue. As two of the leading researchers on the topic wrote, “Burnout is not a problem of the people themselves but of the social environment in which people work.”
So instead of “it’s not you, it’s me”, well, it’s not you – it’s them. The company you work for. I’m usually intensely skeptical of self-serving answers but the literature is pretty clear on this. It’s not your fault. True burnout is a mismatch between you and the place you work.
I’ll spare you the quick, easy “lifehack” glibness — in many cases, quitting may be the only way to address it. But let’s not pull the fire alarm just yet. This is the part where things look insurmountable but we have a few surmountings we can try…
We’re going to try to diagnose the situation and see if it’s within your power to change it. Maybe you can alter how you do things or ask your supervisor for help. And then we can decide if it’s truly a fundamental mismatch and you really do need to move on from your corporate dystopia.
But first we gotta raise the Veil of Maya on burnout and discover what it is and what it isn’t. To try and better understand this exhausting phenomenon I’ve drawn on a wide range of sources: “The Truth About Burnout“, “The Harvard Business Review Guide to Beating Burnout“, “The End of Burnout“, and “Banishing Burnout.”
Wow, that’s a lot of burnout. I feel like I’m playing “literary canary in the coal mine.” (Note to self: the canary usually dies, Eric.)
Anyway, let’s get to it…
We usually just focus on one aspect of burnout: exhaustion. “If I just work less, I’ll feel better.” Nope. True burnout is not merely overwork. It can’t be solved by a mere vacation.
Burnout has three dimensions intersecting to form a Venn diagram of ugggggghhhh: exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy.
Exhaustion is “profound physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue.” You’re beastly tired at all levels and produce much of your work out of exasperation, not inspiration.
Cynicism is taking a cold, distant attitude toward your work. You’ve gone from winsome and elfin to sporting a pair of very jaundiced eyes. It’s an understandable response to not wanting to feel any more disappointment – but the last time you felt anything was a long time ago. In a cruel irony, studies show people who care about what they do are far more likely to burn out. (The career guides never mention that having a calling can be dangerous.)
Inefficacy is when every new task comes with a side of overwhelm. And this breeds a loss of confidence in your ability to do anything. A motley rainbow of shame and inadequacy. Stress might cause a fight-or-flight response, but you don’t have the energy for either.
Sound a lot like depression? Good eye. Back in 1974, psychologist Herbert Freudenberger noted that someone dealing with burnout “looks, acts and seems depressed.” You’re not a work saint; you’re a work martyr.
Thinking two weeks in Hawaii is gonna fix this is like thinking two Tylenol will fix a brain tumor. Yeah, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, but if the burnout ICBM hits you – you ain’t getting stronger.
We’re going to look at the six areas that lead to burnout and see if there’s a way you can address them or if it’s time for greener pastures.
This is what we always think about when it comes to burnout and while it’s not the only factor, it’s a big one. If work mounts in concentric circles and you’re really looking forward to Saturday so you can do things like sleep more than five hours, pee, and cry without anyone noticing — yeah, that’s a problem.
So find the mismatch between you and the job. Can you resolve this with better planning, prioritizing and delegating? Do you need to stop being a perfectionist? Need to learn the word “no”? Do you just need help with productivity, organization and motivation?
If not, you may want to have a conversation with your boss. Is there something they can do? Is it just a tough time… or is this simply what the job entails and it’s not a good fit for you?
Now sometimes it feels like a workload issue but it’s really an issue of not having enough flexibility…
Even when the workload is reasonable, if you don’t feel you have any say in what’s going on or feel you’re accountable for things you have zero control over, you’re in mental biohazard territory. Our brains like control and when we don’t have any, the stress and anxiety can be too much to deal with.
Again, we need to find the mismatch. Are you feeling unnecessarily micromanaged? If you’re truly doing the best job you can, you may want to talk to your supervisor about finding ways to give you more latitude and flexibility.
Or, is the job just too intrinsically chaotic for your sanity? In that case: exit, stage left.
And now we need to flip things on their head. Maybe you can handle the work just fine but it’s an issue of what you’re getting in return…
Yeah, money. You could handle this if they banked the Brinks truck up a bit more often. But reward isn’t just an issue of money. When we feel we’re not getting the recognition or fulfillment we deserve, you’re in mismatch territory again. When you bust your hump and no one seems to care, it’s easy to get cynical and start sounding like Eeyore on a bad day.
First step is to see if you’re really taking advantage of the rewards that are available. 54% of Americans only take half of their eligible vacation time and only 23% take all of the time they’re entitled to. In 2019, 236 million vacation days expired unused – that’s over 65 billion dollars in lost benefits.
And your company may have other perks you’re just not aware of or not using. It’s worth checking.
More importantly, ask yourself what you need in order to feel better rewarded. (If you have no idea what you want, I’m pretty sure you won’t get it.) Do you need more interesting assignments? Something new? Do you feel taken for granted and need more recognition?
And now we need to discuss the far darker side of the workplace that nobody likes to talk about…
Favoritism. Dishonesty. Disrespect. Discrimination. If someone treated you this unfairly in your personal life, you’d file a restraining order. A level of mismatch that goes beyond the HR department and seems more suitable for the Hague.
I’ll be honest here because nobody else will – this is very tough to change. We’d all like to think fairness would be the norm on principle but that’s just not as true as we’d like it to be.
If there’s anything you can do, it’s not pounding your fist. It’s probably the exact opposite. What’s the number one thing Harvard Business School professor Deepak Malhotra tells his students about negotiation?
That’s just about the opposite of fair – but it can help get you the results you want. Otherwise, find the door. A lack of fair treatment can grate under your skin like nothing else.
You know what else workplaces have? Other people. And they can either save you or sink you…
Take a moment to consider five people you like and respect at work. And you might respond, “I have zero people I like and respect at work.” If the longest friendship you’ve had at work is with your favorite chair, this is a problem.
When researching my latest book something blew me away: if you have three friends at work you’re 96 percent more likely to feel happy about your life. To be clear, that result was not “happy with your job”; it was happy with life.
Former Harvard researcher Shawn Achor echoed this. He found that people who deal the best with stress increase their social investments when times are tough. Most of us do the opposite.
So find the mismatch. Do you just need to put in a little more effort with the people around you? Amazingly, this doesn’t just make you feel better, it can even improve your output. Know what the best predictor of team success is? How team members feel about one another.
Which relationship matters the most? Yup, the one with your boss. If you can’t resolve that, you need to be reassigned or move on. And if you’re surrounded by toxic co-workers, same deal. You may pray for a gang of jackals to tear them to shreds at the next staff meeting but don’t count on it happening. To paraphrase Stanford professor Bob Sutton, “They’re not going to become like you, you’re going to become like them.” Run.
And, finally, let’s look at the most fundamental issue of them all…
This may sound high falutin’ but it’s very real and doesn’t get enough attention. If your company’s core values statement makes you burst into spontaneous laughter, that’s pretty much a blood test for cynicism.
So where’s the mismatch? Is it simply the project you’re working on or the people you’re working with? Or is it more like you’re a teetotaler working for a liquor company?
Like the fairness issue, this one runs deep. Please don’t tell me you’re holding your breath waiting for the corporation to grow a soul. If you find the formal (or informal) values of your company offensive, put your resume together. It’ll be one of the healthiest things you ever do.
Alright, time to round it all up – and we’ll cover something that can help if the above didn’t, and if quitting just isn’t an option…
Here’s how to overcome burnout:
So what do you do if some changes don’t help but you can’t quit?
The research shows that work-from-home can really help if it’s an option. A study by Nicholas Bloom at Stanford compared employees in the office vs those working in their PJ’s on the sofa. The latter showed 50% less attrition and took fewer sick days. Job satisfaction increased – and so did performance. That said, promotions decreased.
It makes sense. WFH definitely addresses control and community. If it’s an option for you, give it a shot.
But if it’s time to find a new job, don’t stress. If you’re dealing with burnout, things are already bad. It’ll likely be the best move you ever make. The researchers said it themselves: it’s not you, it’s the match. And there’s a better fit out there if you look. You might even snag one of those jobs worth writing to the alumni magazine about.
When work life seems as crazy as Saturday morning cartoons, and all your efforts seem as ineffective as Wile E. Coyote’s ACME products, take a lesson from Bugs Bunny…
Paint a new door on the office wall and escape to a better place.