“Push through this week and you can take it easy when things ease off.”
I’ve made the mistake of working up to and beyond the point of burnout. In my first few months with Process Street I worked so much that I almost quit through exhaustion.
It shouldn’t have to get that bad before we recognize that burnout is a very real danger for any and every employee.
“Skyrocketing blood pressure and a lowered immune system are common signs of burnout. A cold might knock you down for two weeks instead of two days“, Tony Robbins on the effect of stress and burnout on physical health, How to Recognize Burnout Symptoms Before It’s Too Late
Anyone can suffer from burnout, leaving them physically and mentally exhausted, compounding other small issues into impassable roadblocks, killing productivity and even making them more vulnerable to illness.
Then, if the stress is high or the burnout consistent enough, they’ll quit.
Hiring is expensive, let alone the bad press you’ll get for a team member quitting due to preventable work stress and burnout. Heck, that’s not even counting the productivity loss while the employee is still with you.
Don’t let that happen.
From my own personal experience and the stories of others, I’ve put together this post to show you exactly what burnout is, how to fight it and how to prevent it whether you’re an individual or a team.
Let’s get stuck in.
What is burnout?
“Burnout” is the term for feeling as if you’ve got no spark left in regards to your work. Your mind has run out of fuel and all that’s left are embers.
Anyone who has suffered from burnout will know the feeling, no matter the cause. Generally, this involves:
- Feeling disconnected from work
- A lack of motivation
- Withdrawing from people, colleagues, and responsibilities
- Difficulty focusing (without outside influences)
- Persistent physical exhaustion
- Negative thoughts towards your work
- Feelings of helplessness
Generally speaking, burnout is often attributable to working too hard or too much. This leads to your brain essentially overloading with information and buckling under the consistent strain applied to it.
However, a lack of engaging tasks and an excess of busywork can be just as damaging to your team’s mental health and level of burnout.
If you don’t give your team tasks that they have to think about and (on some level) enjoy, they’ll begin to distance themselves from those tasks.
They won’t care if you don’t give them a reason to.
Similarly, if you pile work on to the point where the team member will never be able to clear their schedule they’ll crumble due to being overloaded.
If the goals you set aren’t attainable, they won’t have anything to motivate them.
“I’ll never hit these goals so how much does my progress on them matter?”
No matter the cause though, burnout is almost never something which hits all at once. It’s a slow, insidious affliction which can start at any time and gets slowly worse until it’s addressed.
Why is burnout so bad?
Okay, so “burnout” is another term for having nothing left in your mental tank. So what? Writers force their way through writer’s block, marathon runners push through “the wall”, so why can’t your team push through burnout?
Because they’ll crash and churn or just plain quit first.
Employee turnover can be one of the biggest sinks of time and money in a company. Anything you can do to limit the number of employees who leave will pay dividends in the long run.
“Many studies show that the total cost of losing an employee can range from tens of thousands of dollars to 1.5-2X annual salary” – Josh Bersin, Employee Retention Now a Big Issue: Why the Tide has Turned
In other words, the worse your burnout situation, the more likely your team is to quit. The more likely they are to quit, the more you’re going to pay in time and effort hiring and training their replacement.
Not to mention that performance plummets the more burnt out someone is feeling.
For example, back when I first started this job I had no experience with marketing. I was learning the ins-and-outs of Process Street at the same time as teaching myself marketing-and-SEO-101, all while writing my first pack of premade checklist templates.
Suffice to say, I was working a lot. Like, 70-hour work weeks a lot.
This hasn’t continued and it was largely self-imposed (I wanted to learn as much as possible as fast as I could) but I saw all too well how much my work pace slowed down the more hours I put in.
Let’s say I was writing a short 200-word piece of work. At most this should take no more than a half hour of work (and that’s if I needed to spend time looking up references and relevant statistics).
However, if I were to tackle the same piece of work at the end of my day (11 or 12 hours in) I’d find myself taking around three times as long to complete the same thing.
As a one-off, yes, you might be able to push through and work late to get your tasks done. Let that practice continue, and burnout will cause every task to take exponentially more time and effort.
Who can burn out?
Anyone and everyone.
Burnout isn’t related to particular roles, tasks or a certain kind of work. It strikes where stress is consistently high, deadlines are too tight, and resources aren’t readily available.
This is why it’s so important to identify burnout as quickly as possible.
The effects are devastating (sometimes career-ending) and no-one is safe. Hence you need to stay on top of the issue.
Having said that, it’s certainly true that various roles will have a tendency to cause different kinds of burnout. This, in turn, can help you identify when they’re getting overwhelmed and need a little help.
VAs are often treated without the same level of respect that an in-house team member would receive, leading to a disconnect and lack of motivation.
New managers, meanwhile, may have too much assigned to them in an attempt to get them trained up all at once. This overload leads to higher stress levels and, you guessed it, burnout if left unchecked.
How to identify burnout
It’s bad and anyone can suffer from it. Great. If it’s so widespread then how are you supposed to do something about it?
Like with any disease or affliction, it all starts with being able to identify the problem.
Burnout symptoms are fairly widespread, as it affects everyone in different ways. However, some common symptoms are:
- Feeling constantly tired and/or drained
- Appetite and/or sleep troubles (too much or too little)
- Falling ill more frequently (lowered immunity)
- Lack of motivation
- Feelings of failure or doubt (impostor syndrome)
- Feeling detached
- Frequent headaches and/or muscle pains
- Withdrawing from your responsibilities
- Isolating yourself
- Skipping, being late for work or leaving early (habitually)
- Using crutches to cope (food, alcohol, cigarettes, etc)
I’m not about to pretend to have medical training. I couldn’t diagnose you officially, and so be sure to take this with a pinch of salt (it’s a bad idea to self-diagnose after all).
However, if you’re suffering from many of these symptoms (or know that someone in your team is) then chances are that it’s being caused by burnout at work.
Let’s dive into two examples of identifying burnout in different roles.
Identifying personal burnout
Burnout creeps up on you over time, so it can be hard to spot until it truly settles in. However, a good place to start is to take notice of how long you’re working – more than a full-time schedule (40 hours per week) is likely to lead to crashing out.
Another great way to identify it is to take a step back and ask yourself how you feel about your work. It’s simple but effective.
If you’re generally happy with what you do, feel like your work is rewarding, and have reasonably consistent motivation to tackle your tasks as they come, you’re probably doing okay.
If you’re constantly getting distracted, putting off tasks when you know you should be knuckling down or feeling more strained than usual over minor duties, chances are that you need to take a break.
Identifying colleague/employee burnout
Identifying burnout in a colleague or employee is always a tightrope walk between assessing the general ebb-and-flow of performance and identifying a chronic issue.
Identifying how many hours everyone is working is still a solid tactic. Anything more than 40 hours per week (on a regular basis) will almost inevitably turn into burnout.
You can also ask team members how they’re feeling during your regular meetings to get a sense of their life as a whole. After all, burnout isn’t always caused by an over-abundance of work – it can be compounded by anything from feeling like they aren’t being recognized for their work to personal issues draining their focus.
The important thing is to keep communicating with them and to let them know you’re here to help if they’re having troubles. If they’re having consistent issues with getting their work done on time and to a respectable standard, make a point to schedule time to talk with them about it.
Colleagues and employees aren’t the enemies here – burnout is. You need to work with them in order to beat it.
How to deal with burnout
Speaking of beating burnout, let’s dive into the specifics of how to deal with the affliction once it’s been recognized.
Burnout is largely due to some form of persistent stress, a lack of recognition or a lack of engaging tasks. As such, communication and socializing are the best weapons for combat.
If you’re suffering from burnout it’s vital to let your team, friends, and family know how you’re feeling. Speaking from experience, I know that this can feel scary or like you’re failing them by acknowledging it but things couldn’t be further from the truth.
They can’t help you if they don’t know how you’re feeling and what’s going wrong.
Try not to dwell on what’s causing your problems while you’re not at work (or while you’re taking breaks at work). Instead, make the most of the time off you have – enjoy your time with friends and family and chat to coworkers in your breaks.
Work isn’t supposed to always be fun and engaging but that doesn’t mean you have to focus on the negative. One of the best ways I found to beat back burnout was to teach myself new hobbies – everything from piano and woodwork to crochet and ring-making.
In other words, you need to have something you can do to let your mind recover from the stresses of work. Whether that’s spending time with your partner, joining a sports club or even making new friends, you need to give your mind the fuel to keep on chugging away.
Above all else, talk to your manager about your workload and discuss the potential for taking time off. Your mind and body are rebelling and need a temporary break from the situation.
To sum up:
- Talk to your team, friends, and family about how you’re feeling
- Leave work at work – make the most of the time off you have
- Try picking up a new hobby
- Give your mind time to recover from work (take a walk, chat with others, read a book, etc)
- Talk to your manager about your workload to see if you can negotiate it to something more manageable
How to prevent burnout
Preventing burnout is a continual struggle – there’s no one-and-done permanent fix. Heck, within the last two months I’ve moved house twice which, alone, has put a major strain on my mental energy, lowering my performance in turn.
However, there are a few things you can do to limit the likelihood that you’ll be hit with a full-blown burnout meltdown.
First off, you need to get enough sleep. I cannot stress this enough.
I’ve said many times throughout this post that your mind needs rest to recover from burnout, and there’s no better rest than a solid 8 hours of sleep every night.
To help with this (and to maintain a good work/life balance in general) it’s useful to have a daily routine to follow.
Another great way to give your mind a rest from whatever’s getting you down is to try yoga and/or meditation. I know it can be embarrassing to think of showing up to a class as a complete beginner but you don’t have to leave your home to do it – I can wholeheartedly recommend Yoga with Adriene as a great source for yoga routines where the instructor accommodates all and doesn’t take herself too seriously.
That about covers us for the resting side of preventing burnout, so now let’s tackle the task of refueling your mind.
Read a book. Listen to a podcast. Check out the latest blog posts. Do anything that helps to fuel your creativity.
While I’d recommend making a habit of reading or listening to things relevant to your area of work (especially if you’re in a field which needs you to be creative), I’d never advocate turning all of your free time into work-related content.
That’s a great way to burn out even harder.
Do something because you want to do it. Check out a new hobby. Play a new game. Go out with friends. Try skydiving. Take a wander through the park.
Whatever you do, take time to know that you’re doing it for yourself – not for anyone else.
To sum up:
- Get 7-8 hours of sleep every night
- Use a daily routine to enforce a work/life balance
- Try relaxing with yoga or meditation
- Fuel your creativity to generate ideas (read, listen to podcasts, etc)
- Do whatever you want to do outside of work – anything that helps you enjoy your time and relax
Burnout is an ongoing struggle but you can beat it
Nobody is ever truly safe from burning out – where there is persistent stress, a lack of recognition or a lack of engagement, there will be burnout.
It’s a terrible thing but it can be useful as a bit of a wakeup call. After all, we’re only human.
We can’t be expected to work like machines with no desire for rest or recognition. We can’t manually take care of the busy work that business process automation platforms like Zapier can in a heartbeat.
Everyone needs some kind of work/life balance, and if you’re burning out, maybe it’s time to pay closer attention to it.
How do you deal with burnout? Do you have any tips from personal experience? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.