Banishing Burnout

If we want to be high achievers, we have to work really hard; if we work too hard, we’ll get burned out and fail to achieve much of anything. Contradictory?

Not exactly. It’s about perception. Sometimes, people warn us that pressing too hard toward a goal will burn us out. And we all know weary-eyed team members who think they are being asked to take on too much. Managers may go to their superiors on behalf of those team members, often after a mistake has been made or when a deadline won’t be met, believing that they are standing up for them. They’ll say something like “They’ve been working really hard on this project and they’re exhausted. If we keep pushing them, they’re going to snap. Some of them are starting to already, as you can see by the mess- up yesterday.” Essentially, the manager is saying that the company has to accept that the team members are doing a less-than-perfect job because they are working exceptionally hard.

This perception illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding about what causes burnout. Most people think that working hard burns a person out. Yet, it’s almost guaranteed that there is something you can point to in your own life that you enjoy so much that you will spend a great deal of time doing it without burning yourself out. You’ll do it when you’re tired, even exhausted, and even when you don’t have the time to do it. Somehow, you get it in there anyway, no matter what’s going on. In fact, you could call it a compulsion, because the hit it delivers overrides the reality of what’s best for you: sleep, spending time with family, work, eating, maybe even showering. Yet, you don’t suffer from mental burnout. If your team members got that high at work, they wouldn’t suffer burnout, either.

Burnout doesn’t come from working hard. Burnout comes from persistent anxiety, a minimal sense of accomplishment or a lack of engagement—any one of those three—coupled with a high level of stressful activity.

Maybe there’s an intense video game that you can play for three hours straight, despite the apparent waste of time and lack of actual payout. But if you’re not really engaged in a work project, and you’re toiling away and being asked to step it up, you’re not getting a payout, either. Even if you get the job done, you can’t feel like you’ve accomplished anything if the completion is meaningless to you. Sadly, getting to the next level of a video game may give you more of a high than a job well done, because creating one more of something that you don’t even like feels like a drag. There’s no excitement about its completion. As a manager, you never want your team members to feel like this.

Perhaps you’re feeling persistent anxiety about your performance, a deadline, an outcome or an unknown variable. Whatever is causing the anxiety, if you also lack engagement, meaning you’re not really committed to the project, you’re only working hard because you have to in order to keep your job. Laboring away at something you don’t care about for a hundred hours a week provides no sense of accomplishment; even when it gets done, it doesn’t matter one iota to you. And you’ll just have to do it again for the next client. It doesn’t feel good. In fact, it’s downright depressing, and that’s what causes burnout.

What should a manager do when his team members say they are feeling overworked? He should look not at the workload, but at his failure to manage their anxiety, to get them excited about completing the project and to get them fully engaged.

Ultimately, burnout is a managerial problem. It’s not the workload that causes burnout; it’s the manager failing to deal with his team’s collective mental needs.

The Cure for Burnout
The most obvious cure for burnout is simple: reduce the level of stressful effort. A manager could certainly decide that the pressure is just too great on his team and ease up on a challenging project. The team members might, in fact, feel a lot better if they worked fewer hours or simply didn’t work as hard. Perhaps the manager could call the client and ask to extend the deadline that was initially promised. However, if we choose to cure burnout by reducing productivity, we must be honest with ourselves about the possible consequences. We could disappoint people who are counting on us, and it might even cause the end of a relationship. In many cases, the consequences of lowering productivity are more severe than pushing a team to its limits.

If you choose to deal with burnout by reducing the level of effort, you must be willing to absorb the consequences.

I prefer a different approach: preventing burnout by maximizing engagement and the sense of accomplishment, while at the same time minimizing anxiety. People will work really hard without getting burned out if they feel good, and when doesn’t it feel great to put your intelligence, education, training and personal talent into a worthwhile project? A manager is the facilitator of this feeling at work. If he celebrates all of the little wins along the way toward completing a big goal, he will provide his team with the necessary sense of accomplishment that will bring them the distance.

If a manager’s job is to ensure that his team functions smoothly, like a well-tuned machine, it is a mistake to think that the machine is operating well just because the work is getting done. If the minds that control the machine are in a negative state, it will create bad situations, and all that high productivity the manager was insisting upon will never happen. One sure way to drive ambition into the ground is to let the inspiration upon which it soars erode. Too often a manager under stress will do exactly the opposite of what needs to be done and be the cause of burnout. A manager will often transfer his own anxiety onto his team. He thinks that if he feels stressed, his team members should, too, if they are committed. However, that’s putting the cart before the horse, because the manager has failed to get his team committed in the first place.

What must be understood is that the team is not focused on the outcome of the project; they’re focused on themselves as individuals. People don’t work hard for you; mostly, they work hard for personal gain. Nobody is killing themselves to make you look better or to make sure you get a raise or promotion.

The good news is, there’s another way: People will also work hard for a grand idea. The greatest engagement of all is being committed to something larger than yourself. People will throw their all into a project if they believe in it and feel like their unique abilities are an integral part of it. A work project isn’t the Iditarod. Instead of driving a team by pushing them to work ever harder and causing them undue stress, give them something to celebrate and plenty of reasons to want to do their best.


© 2013 Ralph Dandrea. All rights reserved.

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