In the classic movie Office Space, Peter Gibbons hates his soul-sucking job. His girlfriend convinces him to go to a hypnotherapy session, where he describes every day as “the worst day of my life.” The hypnotherapy works, but doesn’t end because of unfortunate circumstances, and much hilarity ensues as Peter lives the dream many of us have of throwing our cares away. And though this movie is over 20 years old now, it still holds up to the test of time better than most.
Like many of us, Pete was probably burned out. We hear that term a lot, with good cause. What does that mean though?
What is Burnout?
The World Health Organization included burnout as part of the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases as an occupational phenomenon (though not a medical condition). We generally classify it as “chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
In an NPR podcast, they describe three key symptoms to watch for with burnout:
Exhaustion—physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue
Cynicism or depersonalization—mental or psychological distance from work and negative or detached feelings
Shame and inefficacy—feeling incompetent and unproductive, and blaming yourself for it
Of course, we can all feel those things periodically. You probably feel exhausted after a day of Zoom meetings or cynical after certain meetings. But the key is that burnout is chronic. We get burned out if we don’t successfully manage the stress or our workplace continues to add to the pressure without giving us any control over our situation.
So what can we do, both as employees and leaders?
6 Ways to Avoid Burnout
Not everything is in our control. And that fuels feelings of burnout. When we feel like we don’t control our work or our days, we can easily feel stressed. That stress can become chronic over time, leading to burnout.
I’ve long been a proponent of guarding your time and managing meetings and your day. I’m also a big fan of the books Essentialism and Indistractable. The messages are similar: take control of your time. Schedule time for important things. Cut out the unimportant.
I’ve taken that to heart with my work calendar, blocking time to get work done (not just for meetings). I also schedule time for family activities and other personal things. Just like meetings with colleagues, these are actual events, and I want to treat them like that. I’m fortunate I can. If you can take control of your time, do it.
In a HBR article, they also offer additional advice on taking control to avoid burnout:
Control Your Perspective. You may not have complete control of your day or job, but you do have control over your perspective and how you react to events. Can you shift your mindset? What about your job is causing you the most trouble? Can you refocus on the better parts?
Control Your Stressors. With jobs, we all have stressors. It may be certain meetings or certain people. Can you take control of those things? Do you need to attend that meeting? Or interact with that person so frequently? If so, what can you do after to mitigate the stress of it so it doesn’t cause you to burn out?
Finally, as a leader, how can you give more control to your employees to allow them to accomplish the goals of the team and company, but still have flexibility on how to achieve those goals? Not only will you get better outcomes, you will have happier employees.
Find the Wins
Most of us probably got into our roles for a reason. We enjoy what we do, or some aspect of what we do. When we get burned out, we forget the “why” behind what we’re doing. We need to rediscover that “why” and find the wins.
In another good podcast, a teacher recounts how she got burned out. She was working nearly 100 hours per week getting her students ready for college. Yet most were failing still. And the more she worked, the less effective she felt. She was getting burned out.
Until she did something strange. She started a volunteer program on the weekends to help students. That may seem counterintuitive—to add more work to an already overloaded schedule. But it reinvigorated her. It reminded her why she was doing what she was doing. She was there to help her students, and that volunteer program helped with that.
What can you do to find some wins? Even if they are small wins. What can you do to feel effective in your role? Can you ship some minor features? Can you deliver some slight change? Can you make a difference for someone? These wins will help you feel effective and fight off the burnout that comes with feeling like you’re not achieving anything.
Take a Break
In the US, we have a culture that glorifies working hard. That is similar in product development and technology. We want to work hard. We’re hustlers. We’re Type A people. So taking breaks runs counter to what many of us believe.
But we need breaks. We do better work by taking breaks. We think better when we take frequent breaks. We’re better people when we work hard and take breaks.
Breaks during the day. Wherever possible, we should take breaks during the workday. I understand this is more possible for technology workers, and I hope it becomes the norm for everyone.
We do better work when we work hard for a period, then take a break.
In an episode of Star Trek: Lower Decks, the captain becomes wise to the fact that everyone is padding their work estimates (applying a Scotty factor). So she eliminates the padding and works everyone non-stop. The crew makes lots of mistakes, eventually leading to a near war. It’s an avoidable mistake.
Breaks during the week. We need breaks during the week as well. One team I work with takes a mid-week break on Wednesday. This works well for them. It gives them a chance to recharge.
I find I don’t do well if I don’t take time on the weekend to recharge. That’s what the weekend is for. If you spend it working, you will miss an important time to refuel and you will start to feel burned out.
Also, get outside. Many of us have spent so much time indoors over the past year that getting outside and away from our machines and computers will go a long way in helping reduce stress.
Vacations. If you haven’t taken (or scheduled) a vacation yet, now is the time. We need time away from work to reset our minds and focus on other things. It has been difficult this past year not being able to travel. But even if it is just to stay home, we should all take vacations.
If you haven’t forgotten your work passwords when you get back, you haven’t been gone long enough.
Change it Up
Routines can be great. They help decrease our cognitive load so we can focus on higher-level tasks. But routines can also lead to ruts. When we fall into too many routines, life can become dull. If we’re constantly filling out TPS reports, the monotony of that can lead to cynicism, which can lead to burnout.
So we may need to break out of the routine and change it up.
New Challenge. You may need to add a new challenge to your role. Can you find something that needs improving? A new task within your group or area, or even outside that can help break the routine?
New Role. If you’ve been in the same role for a long time, it may be time for a change. Are there other roles that you can pursue? Something that can leverage your skills but will challenge you in other ways? Or decrease the burden on you if it is currently too high? Allow you more control over your work?
New Job. If your current company isn’t supportive of its employees or the culture is one that leads to burnout, it may be time to find a new company. Can you be successful if you stay? Or will you continue to be burned out? If so, it may be time to move on.
Pursue Your Passion
I’ve always been a huge proponent of pursuing passion projects and other hobbies. In fact, I arguably have too many side projects and hobbies. But I enjoy learning new skills and trying new things. So I will probably continue to do it.
In his book Range, David Epstein discusses why outside interests are so important. “Rather than obsessively focusing on a narrow topic, creative achievers tend to have broad interests. This breadth often supports insights that cannot be attributed to domain-specific expertise alone.”
Having projects and hobbies outside of your job will allow you to disconnect from your job, will give you a better perspective, will give you better insight, and help you avoid burnout. That’s a win.
Ask for Help
You shouldn’t deal with burnout alone. Our workplaces cause our burnout, so they should be part of the solution. Talk to your leaders and managers about ways to deal with your burnout. Do you have too much on your plate? Are there ways to lighten the load? Is it not just your role but a cultural problem? What are some of the short-term and long-term fixes that you and your company can work toward?
Burnout can lead to more serious mental health issues. And you shouldn’t feel like you need to face any of those things alone. Outside counseling is another option, whether or not you are getting support at work. You don’t need to go it alone.
Burnout is a serious issue. It can also lead to even more serious mental health issues if not addressed.
As employees and leaders, we need to identify the signs of burnout and head off the issues before they become bigger problems. We can encourage ourselves, our colleagues, our teams, and our employees to avoid burnout by taking the steps above.
Remember, it’s about looking out for each other. And that’s more important than ever.
Other Good Reads, Listens, Videos
How A Chip Shortage Snarled Everything From Phones to Cars (article) - You probably keep hearing about the chip shortage. GM is shutting down plants. Samsung may not launch a few models of phones this year (I hope that’s not true). Chip makers in the US are betting big on new plants. Crazy how chips make the world go round now.
The Ponzi Career (article) - From ISAs to Bitclout, will you be able to sell a share of yourself in the future? That seems like where we’re headed. And it’s had me thinking a lot lately.
Thanks for reading. If you liked this post, feel free to share. See you next week.