Are You Feeling the Burn(out)?

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger!

Even seven years later,I remember it well.  It was unlike anything else I had ever felt.  I was sitting at my desk preparing a presentation while simultaneously taking phone calls, monitoring email and trying to come to grips with a recent shift in the tone of the office environment.  Add to that issues and new responsibilities undertaken outside of work, and the groundwork was set.  I remember feeling my heart pounding as I sat there.  I decided to get up and go for a walk outside.  As I left the building my breathing became heavy.  I wasn’t struggling, but it felt like I had just completed a workout.  My hands were clenched and I felt like a spring ready to release.  Had a punching bag been available, I would have beat it to a pulp.  For the next 10 minutes I just walked and regained control of my breathing.  I did a little self-counseling and then returned to my office.  I knew what had transpired, some would call it a panic attack, but I identified it as a stress attack.  Stress is a fact of professional life, but extreme and unrelenting pressures can lead to the debilitating state we call burnout.  I was on my way.  I had succumbed to the stress of everything I was trying to deal with in my life, and for the first time in my working career, I wasn’t having fun.  I needed help, and it took a stress attack to force me to take action.  

There is a belief that burnout is something that happens to those who are somehow deficient, people who can’t take the heat, who have less stamina than others. In fact, it’s the opposite.  Burnout strikes the most dogged and conscientious workers, people who may even pride themselves on how much more they can handle than others.  Recent studies demonstrate nearly three quarters of senior leaders are burned out and likely to quit their jobs.  The reality is the most driven, the most inclined to ignore limits, can wind up going beyond their physiological limits.  That’s something that should set off alarm bells.  Burnout is a path of mutually assured destruction—for both the individual and the organization.

Stress is a feeling of emotional or physical tension. It’s your body’s reaction to a challenge or demand.  Burnout however, is the result of stress.  It’s a form of exhaustion caused by constantly feeling swamped, and a result of excessive and prolonged emotional, physical, and mental stress. Three symptoms characterize burnout: 

  1. Exhaustion – is the central symptom of burnout. It’s composed of  physical, cognitive, and emotional fatigue that often come from the demands of an always-on, 24/7 organizational culture, intense time pressure, or simply having too much to do.
  2. Depersonalization represents an erosion of engagement. It’s essentially a way of psychologically distancing yourself from your work.  Instead of feeling invested, you feel detached, negative, even callous. Depersonalization can be the result of work overload, but it is also likely to occur in the presence of unfairness and absence of recognition.
  3. Inefficiency – refers to feelings of incompetence and/or a lack of achievement and productivity.  People sometimes feel their skills slipping.  It often develops in tandem with exhaustion and depersonalization because people can’t perform at their peak when they’re out of fuel and have lost their connection to work. 

The bigger challenge becomes protecting and rebuilding our resources.  What  strategies can be used to address work-related stress and keep it from morphing into burnout?

  1. Organizational Recognition – The cartoon character Pogo said, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”  Too often organizations fail to look at themselves and ask, “Are we creating the stress and burnout that leads to high turnover?  A simple solution is to be found in the phrase, “People over profits.”  Simply put, employees are the greatest resource any organization has.  They must be treated as such through communication, recognition, and an insistence on work/life balance.  
  2. Practice Self-care – Prioritize good sleep habits, nutrition, exercise, social connection, and practices that promote well-being.  When you replenish your physical and emotional energy, you enhance your capacity to focus.
  3. Shift Your Mindset – Take a close look at your mindset, assumptions and perceptions. What elements of your job are truly fixed, and which can you change?  How can you reshape your job in order to gain more control or to focus on the most fulfilling tasks?  If recognition is lacking, how could you engage in some personal branding to showcase your work?
  4. Reduce Stressors – What are the high-value activities and relationships that trigger unhealthy stress?  How can you reset the expectations of colleagues, clients, and even family members for what and how much you’re willing to take on, as well as ground rules for working together?  You will get pushback. But others must know that you’re making these changes to improve your long-term productivity and protect your health.
  5. Connect – Seek out rich interpersonal interactions.  Find friends, coaches and mentors who can help you identify and activate positive relationships and learning opportunities. Volunteering to help others is another particularly effective way of breaking out of a negative cycle.

Stress and burnout can often feel insurmountable, but this is a signal, not a long-term sentence. While you cannot control what occurs at the organizational level, it can be influenced through your open communication and discussion.  Likewise by understanding the symptoms and causes of stress and burnout,  you can take action to recover and build a road map for the future.  This brutal experience can serve as a turning point that launches you into a more sustainable career and a happier, healthier life.

The issue of burnout existed before the pandemic struck, and it will exist long after the pandemic passes.  Our new mobility and work environments demand that addressing the issues of stress and burnout be built into organizational and our personal standard operating procedures.  By being proactive, burnout can be mitigated or eliminated for many individuals.


Embrace the Challenge !