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Been There, Done That – Learn From It!
Dennis – President, Effective Engineering [email@example.com]
you suffer from workplace burnout? It can become all
too easy to feel trapped in a workplace burnout situation. Take it
from someone who knows and, hopefully, learn from it! I’ve been there, done
that in a number of different companies and situations, and it is not a
healthy situation for you, your loved ones, your friends, or coworkers.
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 burnout and taking actions to address it.
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
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
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
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
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.
I was running on empty and simply going through the motions.
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
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
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
this article)! 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
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