In a wonderful HBR article, “Are You Pushing Yourself Too Hard at Work?”, executive coach Rebecca Zucker discusses burnout at work. Burnout is something we’ve probably all experienced, so it’s a good idea to tune in on its hallmarks. We need to recognize when we’re burning and what to do about it.
Here are the signs.
You don’t take time off
This is a biggie. Less than 25% of Americans take their full vacation time allotted. Yet studies of elite athletes show that they need time off to function at their peak. And so do we. Years ago, John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco, noted that his people were paid very well but, in exchange, were expected to be available 24/7/365. Jeez. (A former long-term employee I spoke to acknowledged “lean and mean” operations, saying she’d finally quit because she couldn’t sustain the pace.) What to do? Take small breaks, personal time in the evening, an occasional mental-health day, a non-work weekend.
Personal relationships take the back burner
About 75% of American workers say that work-related stress affects their relationships. Workaholics are 2x likely to get divorced. For our health’s sake, though, we need to take time to connect with others. Ms. Zucker notes that “a lack of social relationships has the same effect as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” If you’re not making the effort to stay connected, if others are no longer requesting your company for a social event because they think you probably will decline, “chances are you are too focused on work.”
Outside of work, you’re just not “there”
That is to say, you’re not fully present. You can’t turn work off and just be with friends and loved ones. A 2017 Glassdoor post noted that 66% of American work while on vacation. Some break. Ms. Zucker puts it beautifully: “While it’s normal to think about work periodically, it becomes a problem when we’re not able to manage our urge to give into work-related distraction, slowly eroding our most important relationships.” (Italics mine.)
Personal care takes a hit
What does that mean? Well, not skipping a shower every now and then, or working in your bathrobe? No. Neglecting personal care means not getting enough sleep, missing meals, eating junk food, not exercising, etc. for an extended period. Lack of sleep and exercise works against us—impairing higher-level cognitive function and negatively affecting mood and energy. Ms. Zucker suggests taking breaks to eat and exercise and even a short nap. I think it’s also helpful to stop periodically, sit or stand still with your hands on something physically grounding like your desk, and take 5 to 10 deep breaths.
You define your value by work
This, in my view, is hardest to overcome, because so many of us have been exhorted to study hard and gear all our other efforts toward a successful—and possibly prestigious—work life. As Ms. Zucker says, “Failure to see a broader perspective, both in terms of how you see your value … as well as how you see the importance of work relative to the rest of your life, can be a sign that you are pushing yourself too hard.” If you believe your value resides in what you produce, you’re limiting yourself. Perhaps the way through this forest of delusion is to ask others what they value about you. The answers may be surprising and, I hope, gratifying. Ms. Zucker notes that a major life event like a birth or death may broaden your perspective. She also suggests having interests outside of work.
You may have noticed a couple of italicized passages in this post. Normally, I don’t do that, the curmudgeon in me saying that good, strong writing doesn’t require special emphasis. But with a subject as important as burnout and its negative consequences, an italic or two is OK.