We’ve all seen it. A seemingly innocuous event triggers a co-worker to explode, or a reliable employee becomes overly cynical and critical of the company, or a solid performer has a significant drop in productivity and becomes detached and disengaged.
These are all signs of burnout, a condition that plagues our over stressed workforce. It’s common where an intense, stressful work environment exists. Burnout could be costing you and your company untold amounts of productivity and workplace satisfaction, much less bottom line profits.
Burnout is rather mysterious. It affects people in hidden ways and effective leaders must uncover and bring root causes to the surface if they desire to build leaders who last. Many times, work related stress exacerbates the condition, but plenty of times there are things at play outside of work that add to its cumulative effect.
When our family moved to Arkansas from north Idaho, one of my daughters had severe allergic reactions to a variety of events, like biting into a piece of fruit. Medical tests found she was slightly allergic to the fruit. The allergist explained that her immune system was like a cup and being in Little Rock (with one of the top 100 highest pollen counts in America) filled her cup with some fairly big rocks. Then he explained that having pets in our house would add smaller but substantial sized rocks to her cup, and things like dust mites and dirty air conditioner filters were like adding sand into the cup’s remaining space. Finally, biting into a piece of fruit was like pouring water into the already full cup, causing it to overflow.
Burnout is much the same. There are usually large items (personal loss, family or work related issues) that are major contributors with many smaller issues adding to the cumulative stress. Once the tipping point is reached and the “straw that breaks the camel’s back” is thrown into the system, volatility results.
What can you do about it? How can you recognize it? Here are six suggestions that will not only help you, but assist others through those times where burnout could potentially happen:
1. Look for areas of greatest stress intensity
Intensity and stress of any kind (physical, emotional, mental or even spiritual) are precursors to burnout. Intensity in any area affects the whole. In each case, the solution is simply a break from the area of stress. As a former researcher engineer, the only way I could recover from the intense mental stress of engineering design was to rest my brain. A mental break did wonders for me (one of the most effective methods I found was to put on headphones and play classical music really loud). For others who may have many physical demands from their job, rest and relaxation are the only solutions. Remember, there are reasons why football seasons are only several months long. The body simply cannot endure that kind of punishment without extended periods of physical rest.
Where do you see intensity of stress? Be especially alert to grief, where emotional intensity stemming from loss exists. Grief makes its way to the surface in surprising ways and should never be discounted as a significant source contributing to an employee’s drop in performance.
This is especially important if the stress is corporate in its origins.
2. Go below the surface
We have a saying around our workplace: “the reason is never the reason.” Getting people to admit what’s really at the core of the issue is like mining for gold. It takes effort and a willingness to invest in those you care about the most.
Ask the person what’s really going on and help them understand the overreaction you are witnessing. Many times, people are starving for someone simply to listen to them. If you are the type of leader who can bring hidden issues to the surface, you will win friends and influence many as a leader. Uncover and listen for signs of burnout. Show your people you are a safe person to talk to. Many are afraid to admit they may be burned out because it could be interpreted as showing weakness, but knowing they can communicate with their leader in a safe space can help them recognize where they are and then you can help them combat it.
3. What is your North Star?
The first thing I tell people who show signs of burnout is go home and invest some time in writing a purpose statement, a written reason for being. Think of the millions of dollars companies have spent developing their mission and vision statements. How much greater should be the reason we have a mission and purpose for the personal side of our lives?
Encourage people to be as intentional with the mission and vision of their personal lives as with their professional side. Ultimately, purpose should be happening whether they are getting paid to do it or not. This understanding of purpose leads to clarity, and once the purpose is known, everything becomes a means to an end and not the end itself. If your people begin to live out their purpose on the job as well as off, then when tough times happen they will know there is something beyond themselves, or the company for that matter, that is driving their reason for being there. Purpose and passion are linked, so if someone can discover purpose, passion will follow.
Very few have developed a personal mission statement or have a vision for the personal side of their lives. I once heard a wise man say that if one does not strategically plan the personal side of his life with as much intentionality as his professional side, the personal side will suffer. Sometimes, doing this will expose a disconnect between the company’s values and the personal values of an employee.
4. Clarify the unwritten and unspoken
One of the largest sources of stress in a work place is when there are unspoken or unwritten expectations. This leads to a song and dance as some figure it out on their own. It would be better, simpler and more effective if, as a leader, you clarify as much of those expectations as possible. Examples include emails and texts after business hours. Are you expecting an immediate response or is it simply on your mind and you don’t want to forget to tell someone? Simple things like that will go a long way in helping reduce the amount of stress an employee feels outside work. Talk to your people honestly about deadlines, workloads, milestones and hours with as much clarity as possible. Others will want to work for you when this is done with optimism and a positive outlook.
5. Live by your own priorities or else live by someone else’s
Speaker, author and consultant David F. Jakielo said “The most important thing in life is knowing the most important things in life.” Isn’t that the truth? We must identify those important things and evaluate if our priorities need to be realigned. Purposeful living mixed with priorities result in margin (the difference between where you are and full capacity). Marginless living is characterized by hurry, inaccessibility and no breathing room for other things. Margined living is about being calm, available and able to anticipate life. This is a prerequisite for those who expect to persevere through those tough times.
This is a difficult concept for the performance oriented person to live out, but is necessary to avoid burnout. One must learn to set his own priorities or live life according to someone else’s. And trust me, there are a whole lot of people out there who would love for you to adopt their priorities as your own.
6. Discipline: the difference between dreaming and being
Lastly, discipline is required to avoid burnout. It is the difference between dreaming and being. The interesting thing about discipline is that it can’t be taught. It can be modeled, talked about and strategically planned, but ultimately it must be lived out one sacrifice at a time. There are no shortcuts, but the good thing is that it is a journey that can never be started too late. Encourage those you lead to begin the journey of discipline one decision at a time, today! We often say that discipline is simply sacrificing what you want in the short term (as in now) for what you want most (as in purpose driven, long term goals for your life). Encourage the “every journey begins with a single step” mentality to all those you lead.
Being a leader who lasts is difficult. However, developing leaders who last is a rare art form that will make your value as an employer/employee incalculable. Not only will others want to work with and for you, but you will become a leader who is both highly valued in your organization and would be desired by any organization. Embrace the challenges to lead others through those difficult times and you will bear great fruit in many untold ways … or you can simply learn to manage disgruntled, burned out employees.
Dr. Harry Li leads the “Avoiding Burnout” module of VIP2 Leadership training. Dr. Li is a consultant for a variety of businesses, nonprofits, educational institutions and churches on issues related to culture and diversity. Prior to this, Li was an associate professor of electrical engineering at the University of Idaho where he researched high voltage, analog integrated circuits and consulted for NASA, Boeing and a handful of other companies and government agencies. He has written numerous technical papers and co-authored two books.