I felt it was time to speak about burnout.
Considering the year that we have all muddled through, it can come as no surprise that many of us are feeling exhausted. For unknown reasons, I never thought to share my developing burnout saga. First let me say, the dynamic was hastened by the pressures of the pandemic — yet it is possible that the roots may have been established. I’ve also realized, that if we fail to see the writing on the wall, burnout can take hold in a manner that can be difficult to shake. It is real. We need to act promptly. To protect ourselves. (See an overview of the research here.)
As a consultant, I’ve discussed burnout with many individuals over the years. I’ve seen burnout manifest during unpredictable organizational change initiatives, as well as industry peaks. It can occur because of one perpetually trying client or the full brunt of a dire economic downturn. But, no one is immune. We seem to experience burnout as individuals — so its particular course is also individual. This can throw us off the trail and possibly leave us unprepared. Burnout will not look the same across contributors.
Above all, we should be discussing the issue and sharing experiences. Personally, burnout manifested in my world as a thunderstorm gathering courage in the distance. There were signs it was approaching. Pangs of apathy and avoidance. Yet, because that is alarming on many levels — particularly because in most cases (as was with mine) the work is our livelihood — we try to ignore its presence. We may have trained for years or others may depend upon us; there are so many reasons that we cannot simply pick up, check out or change course. As a rule, I believe that we opt to compensate however we know how and press on.
We assume there is nothing to be done, as we cannot change the things we must (and in many cases previously loved) and should do.
However, there are costs to this strategy.
Engagement with our work wanes. Motivation plummets. As is the case now, we have also lived through a tumultuous time in history which has affected every breathing corner of our lives. We cannot expect all of this this to steer clear from our work lives.
While we may not be able to walk away from our responsibilities, we can take the time to understand the winds within our own storm. This may offer clues that can lead to solutions. So, here are a few things to consider when approaching burnout.
Hopefully, the topics may alert you to something that can be addressed.
- We have broken psychological agreements about work life with ourselves. In many cases, there is a psychological contract with ourselves, that we have breached. We may have briefly thought: “I’m extremely weary of this” or “I’m not as happy with this part of my career, as I used to be”, but we pressed on. The scales were tipping and we kept on going, without considering where that path might lead. The rewards were simply not keeping pace with the investment of time, trouble and emotion.
- When to stop is never discussed. We are offered an abundance of advice about how to start something. Yet there is not nearly enough discussion about when and how (and why) we should slow down or step away. We conveniently forget that remaining productive over the long-haul requires balance & rest, even with the tasks that we love. We may not have had the strategies in place to achieve this.
- We wait for a savior. It is unlikely that someone will approach you to say, “Stop what you are still doing well.” You must take on the responsibility of your own psychological resources. Monitor feelings of hope, self-efficacy, resilience and optimism. Pay attention if one has fallen precipitously.
- Declare or wither. One pillar of core stability, is to embrace radical self-awareness regarding what you need to stay productive. We cannot always choose the roles, tasks, or people that are a part of our journey. However, if it is humanly possible to affect core elements before burnout sets in, do this. Declare the elements that are vital to you as a contributor.
- Acknowledge that living through history is an accelerator. As a child I used to try to imagine how others had lived through World Wars. What were they thinking? Could they go back to living normal lives, that would include joy or a sense of calm? I can only hypothesize that they would not want to return to the elements of their lives that were already worn or troublesome. They would want to grab life and live it to the fullest. That a clear purpose to live well, would dominate.
I do not have the answers — only more questions. However, acknowledging what we have lived through and how this affects our work is vital. Above all, know that our collective journeys are personal, and this requires a very personal solution.
Do you have a strategy to mitigate burnout? How has this helped you? Share it with this forum.
Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist and a charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program. She is the co-founder of Goba — a consulting practice that helps people & organizations a build stronger work life foundation. Her thoughts on work & organizations have appeared in the Harvard Business Review, Forbes, BBC Work Life, Quartz and The Huffington Post