Burnout is a growing challenge for us as individuals in business today and is also increasingly on the agenda for organisations to consider how to deal with. Many organisations are already spending millions focusing on employee engagement which research has shown as being an antidote to organizational job burnout.
Investing in their ‘employee happiness’ in order to stave off burnout by way of perks and benefits is also high on their agenda.
After originating in the 1970’s as a concept that was initially trivialised as pop psychology, professional or job burnout is now a well-established research area. The literature on job burnout is prolific, with a huge amount of studies focusing on the causes and effects of burnout from an individual, organizational and societal viewpoint.
As a metaphor for the draining of energy, burnout has been compared to ‘the smothering of a fire’ (Schaufeli et al., 2009). Burnout is not stress – it’s more than that and it is work related.
‘[Burnout is] a work-related state of mind in previously unimpaired individuals that is primarily characterized by exhaustion and is accompanied by distress, a sense of reduced effectiveness, decreased motivation and the development of dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors at work’ (Schauefli & Enzmann, 1998).
The Mayo Clinic defines job burnout as ‘a special type of job stress—a state of physical, emotional or mental exhaustion combined with doubts about your competence and the value of your work’ (Forbes, 2017).
What causes people to burnout? It is a slippery slope. I regularly see it with some of my clients. In a short amount of time, you can go from working just a few minutes late to a few hours late as your ‘to do’ list never ends. While there is certainly nothing wrong with dedication, long hours, pressing deadlines, and looming contracts can quickly turn from stress to burnout before you know it.
Business leaders and entrepreneurs are particularly susceptible to burnout, especially in today’s being ‘always on’ culture. The burden of creating or running a company and dealing with consistent bottom line related pressures builds up over time and can manifest itself in unfortunate ways.
I’ve dealt with near burnout at several different points in the past and know how hard it can be to overcome once it starts to set in. Knowing more now about the theory behind its causes and therefore some of the practices that have helped me to stave it off over recent years.
Here are some ways I have found to be useful to avoid job burnout.
Take back control
Research shows that feeling out of control is one of the main causes of job burnout. Conflicting priorities and deadline pressures start to permeate every aspect of the job and it can feel impossible to overcome.
Gaining some perspective and being able to step back from these pressures are key to surviving unscathed. And how can we do this? By doing less, not more. We need to regain some balance in some way shape or form. This will involve taking some time for you – no matter how short. And doing something in this time that helps you disconnect from the constant noise around you. Feeling exhausted and demotivated is not the best way to achieve consistent results. You could do some exercise, meditate, or maybe find a creative outlet. These are just a few of the ways to get rid of some of that angst and re-energise emotionally as well as physically.
Change the scenery
I’m a big believer that place has a tremendous impact on both the quality of work you produce and your overall morale. Working from the same place, with the same view, during the same hours reinforces a sense of monotony and can lead to burnout.
As a small business owner I try and break up my working week by working in shared office space, my home office, clients’ offices and private consulting rooms. I’m lucky to be able to do this but there are many places to go and work in if you’re so minded. Otherwise, I can find myself falling into similar routines and thought patterns when I spend too much time working on my own. This mental rut of sorts is always a key indicator that feelings of burnout are right around the corner.
So when I feel that beginning to take hold, I make an effort to get a change of scenery. This almost always encourages new thoughts and ideas, preventing us from falling into the mental rut that leads to burnout.
Running a business can be stressful, sometimes terrifying, often lonely. Even for individuals with great support networks and co-founders, it can still be difficult to find an outlet to vent. After all, spouses can get concerned about the how your challenges will affect their lives, and fellow entrepreneurs are often too wrapped up in their difficulties to listen to yours. And when you bottle these emotions up, they can easily result in feelings of burnout.
Talking and sharing your feelings about how things are starting to impact on you is necessary for your overall wellbeing. Using a support system such as peer networking and CPD networks can help. As can talking regularly with someone who is qualified to listen and help. For example, an executive coach can help you to offload your challenges and find some ways around them. A coach can help you deal with feelings such as overwhelm, anxiety, demotivation and helplessness.
The important thing is to find a way to identify and address the feelings that lead to burnout. When you manage the causes of burnout in a healthy and supported way, you rob them of their power over you.
When things start to pile up and feelings of burnout set in, don’t panic. Try to be aware of what’s happening and be self-compassionate.
Kristin Neff, who has been researching human development and compassion for over 10 years, talks about the proven power of being kind to yourself. He says that self-compassion entails being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or beating ourselves up with self-criticism.
Self-compassion involves acting humanely towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself. Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?
Instead of just ignoring your pain with a stiff upper lip mentality, you stop to tell yourself, ‘this is really difficult right now,’ how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?
So admitting to yourself that something is feeling difficult for you right now, the next step is to actually ask yourself ‘how can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?’
So, in summary
The key to managing burnout and avoiding its worst effects is to spot its early symptoms and take decisive action before they take hold. Simple things like exploring how to take back some control, changing the scenery of where you choose to work, seeking some support and practicing self-compassion can really make a difference to job burnout taking hold.