Globe & Mail, September 29, 2006
Barbara Moses, Ph.D, is an international speaker, work/life expert, and best-selling author of Dish: Midlife Women Tell the Truth About Work, Relationships, and the Rest of Life.
One of my clients describes herself as feeling like the end of a toothpaste tube, "where there is nothing more left to squeeze out."
Another recently told me she never really feels in the moment -- when she's at work, her mind is worrying about whether there is food in the fridge; when she's at home, she's wondering about a meeting the next day. "I feel like I'm holding on by my fingernails," she said.
If either of these situations feels familiar to you, you may be experiencing burnout -- the most significant emotional malady affecting workers today.
Burnout, of course, is a sense of depletion, or, to put it another way, the opposite of engagement -- one of the hottest words in HR circles today.
It is ironic that, just at a time when organizations are crying the talent shortage blues and introducing all kinds of interventions to foster engagement, we are seeing so much disaffection.
I once read an interview with a psychologist specializing in stress disorders who said the human body is designed to routinely work at 50-per-cent efficiency so that people have resources available to deal with times of major life stress, such as a loved one's illness.
But the psychologist worried that new work demands were forcing people to give 110 per cent of themselves all the time. How, then, would they have anything left over to cope with life events?
That observation was made back in the early nineties, when organizations were starting to ratchet up their productivity demands. I wonder what he would say in today's world of heightened work pressures and competing demands.
Burnout has been the subject of extensive research for nearly three decades. Most of us are familiar with its most common causes -- overwork, feeling undervalued, failing to understand the purpose of your work, a sense that the effort-reward equation is out of whack -- in sum, an inability to derive any satisfaction from work, indeed from life.
And it's getting worse. Over the past 15 years, I've noticed fewer and fewer people say they feel good about what they are accomplishing.
If I had to summarize people's experiences, it would be, "Welcome to the world of the half-assed job."
More disturbing, people used to complain about this. But we have all become so inured to the demands that many simply accept burnout as part of life. As one woman wrote to me: "What do I feel about my work and my life? Who has the luxury of time to think about it? I don't feel like I'm living my life. I feel like it's living me."
Not surprisingly, this can also lead to depression. People experience an erosion of self-esteem as they feel they are not accomplishing anything. And it is, after all, the sense of accomplishment that contributes to our sense of competence.
We may be overstretched but also understimulated, Indeed, it's a paradox of our times that we can be simultaneously overworked and underchallenged -- feeling like we are not learning anything new and have nothing to look forward to. Although we often think of busyness as an antidote to boredom, the truth is that boredom and restlessness are also often closely linked to burnout.
As one public affairs professional said: "I had worked for six years for a company that was absolutely great. The culture was fun, the work was easy, my colleagues were smart and amusing. What could be better? But I was bored to death. I couldn't bear the thought of going to work, meeting one more client, even thinking about having a meeting. The day crawled by. It was harder and harder to get up in the morning."
A conflict between work and personal values can also wear us down. As one 40-something woman commented: "I was just so sick of the corporate BS and tired of fighting for the right thing. It got to the point where there were things I should have cared about, important issues, and I just thought: 'Yeah, that's wrong, but who can be bothered?' That's the death knell, when basically you don't give a crap."
Contemporary approaches to staffing also contribute to burnout. Organizations used to hire for potential -- what someone would be capable of doing in the longer term, given the right training and experiences.
Now they hire for a person's ability to hit the ground running. They still talk about potential but that is typically not the driver for staffing decisions.
This emphasis on immediate performance means that, if you are good at what you are doing, managers are reluctant to move you. At the same time, customers, such as those in financial services, are asking for continuity in their service providers.
And so you continue to do work that may have lost its allure. Eventually, you may no longer be performing at your best. Indeed, lacklustre performance and sloppy mistakes characterize a lot of what I see today.
Burnout can be insidious. It creeps up on you so that you may be the last to recognize you are suffering from it.
Often, it takes a friend or partner to identify the problem. One man, for example, almost lost his marriage. "I was grumpy, distracted and distant as a result of a project I was involved in," he says. "It was only when my wife said she couldn't stand it any more and threatened to leave me that I realized I had a problem."
Similarly, a woman said: "It took a dear friend to say to me, 'You are dying. Your spark is going out, your light is dimming.' "
Women are more vulnerable to burnout. "Working long hours, trying to meet everyone's needs, I was killing myself," said a woman who coaches midlife women. "Our generation has been taught we can have it all, but our value is still in giving. In spite of all the liberation rhetoric, we still carry the superwoman myth."
Research shows that women, even those whose stay-at-home partners are playing Mr. Mom, still have more domestic responsibilities than do men and, therefore, more demands placed upon them.
And, when things go wrong, women are more likely than men to blame themselves, rather than the circumstances, which only makes them feel worse.
Certainly, men are subject to burnout, but I hear men use this word to describe themselves much less often. They are less likely to take their emotional temperature and ask themselves how they are feeling. Even when they do feel burned out, they are less likely to talk about it, seeing it as an admission of weakness.
They are also less likely to talk about these emotional issues with their friends, and, therefore, lack the critical support people need during difficult times. This may be why, when men do burn out, they are more likely to do so spectacularly -- major screw-ups on the job, road and work rage, marital breakdowns, withdrawal from the lives of their family.
Burnout takes a significant toll on us. It erodes our ability to function in all of our life roles, not only as a worker, but as a parent, partner and friend. It's not worth the price of your health and your life -- you must identify the causes and act on them.
Organizations also need to act on the underlying sources of burnout. Disaffection is not a recipe for high performance. Engaged staff need to feel that they are accomplishing important things, and have the time not only to derive satisfaction from their work but energy to deploy to other parts of life.
The burnout test
Are you experiencing burnout? If you answer "yes" to two or more questions, it is likely you are:
Have your sleep patterns changed -- you can barely open your eyes in the morning or have trouble falling or staying asleep?
Are you easily distracted, or do you find it difficult to concentrate?
Do things that used to matter to you no longer interest you?
Do you find yourself saying "whatever" instead of rallying the energy to deal with a problem?
Do you lack the energy to do the kinds of things that would help you cope with burnout, such as exercising?
Do you dread going to work?
Do you find it difficult to summon enthusiasm for any task you are given?
Are you depressed?
Do you feel you don't have much to look forward to?
Do you find little in your life to energize yourself or give your life meaning?
Are you tired or apathetic?
Would people close to you describe you as moody or grouchy?
Here are some strategies to overcome burnout:
Drill down. Identify the cause. Is it overwork? Lack of interest in what you are doing? A value conflict? A fear of failing to deliver at a high-enough level?
Know what is most important to you. You can have it all -- but you can't have it all at once. Invest in the activities that give your life meaning.
Get support. Talk to friends or a professional. Research shows that one of the most important differentiators between those who burn out and those who don't is the availability of a support network.
Do something novel. It may seem counterintuitive, but you can often reinvigorate yourself by introducing something new into your life, especially if you are overworked but understimulated.
Be realistic. You are not superhuman. You can't respond to everyone's needs. Focus on what is most important and let other things slide.
Don't be a hero. Don't overestimate your own importance, or the negative consequences of not doing something.
Be assertive. Learn how to say no. If you are dealing with work overload and a demanding boss, say: "I am happy to do that, but will have to give up something in order to do so. What are your priorities?"
Reflect on your accomplishments. This not only will boost your sense of competence but will prove to you that you are accomplishing more than you thought.
Be kind to yourself. It may mean a weekly manicure or regular card game. But take note: A vacation will provide only a temporary reprieve. According to a recent study, you will start to lose the "vacation" benefits within three days, and be back to the way you were before the vacation within a few weeks.