In my professional path, I had the chance to work in many environments which helped me see and feel the advantages and disadvantages of every one of them: a sport events company, a small printing advertising agency, an advertising agency, a medium to big event company and one of the biggest corporations in the world – Amazon. And now, for the last years of my life, I’ve experienced freelancing and entrepreneurship.
After going through all these experiences and workplaces, which are all so different, I can tell you one thing for sure:
Stress, Pressure, and Burnout all feel the same no matter where you work. Even in Freelancing or Entrepreneurship.
Why is that? Because while there is a combination of factors that favorites a stressful environment, most of the time, that’s not where the stress comes from. It’s from how we react to stress itself – how we manage our inner world and how we interpret the things that happen to us every day.
We might feel the need to justify that our colleague has it easier and that the manager is giving us a harder time than the rest, or .. input any other reason – but the truth is that, at the end of the day, we are responsible for how we live our lives, how we choose to manage those situations. And I will talk more about this in the next paragraphs.
After going through so different companies and feeling the pressure (with small differences in intensity and duration) while working in all of them, I can honestly say that the work environments and conditions are not the main factors, but only a part of a bigger problem.
I will try to showcase that by detailing below THE BURNOUT FORMULA or How do get burnout in 7 ‘easy steps’. The formula is based on a combination of factors that I’ve read about that contribute to getting burnout and to which I’ve added my own experience as well. Ready?
Here it is:
Tight deadlines + External pressure + Personal High standards + Passion/Self-sacrifice + Lack of boundaries + Lack of appreciation + Long period of time = Burnout.
And yes, this is especially true in the case where we love what we do because that’s the space where WE GIVE the most and WE IDENTIFY THE MOST WITH OUR WORK. Yes, written in capslock because I cannot stress this enough 🙂
Let’s take them step by step:
When we have tight deadlines and everything is urgent and important, ALL THE TIME, it becomes a serious problem. It’s the situation where the manager says ‘do this now, it’s important, X asked for it (usually his manager) so we need it asap.’ The problem is that this happens quite often, so what he’s doing indirectly is that he is putting a lot of pressure on the team to treat everything as if all tasks are important AND urgent when they are not. See The Eisenhower Diagram for a better overview of this process. This rhythm does not allow us to recharge and regain focus, energy, and stamina to tackle other difficult tasks, but only drains us of energy.
We need realistic deadlines meaning, either the manager needs to push back on those deadlines, either .. surprise! you need to pushback a little and negotiate in an assertive way (Recommended article: How to communicate assertively) a new deadline that would allow you to complete the task.
It usually comes from the manager or the higher management and in most of cases it’s about the quality of your work, how important it is to them or the company, and that you need to perform. Some examples are something along the lines of:
– ‘We NEED to do this. by tomorrow. and make it perfect.‘
– ‘I have high expectations from you. I know you’ll do a great job’
-‘ What is this? This was not what I had in mind when I gave you this task?’
-‘The entire board will be in the room, so please be at your best.’
Personal High standards
The manager asks a lot from you or your team and because you personally also have high standards, you cannot deliver in any other way, but perfect. Or overperform if possible. You are an overachiever after all, right? So it’s a must that anything that comes from you it’s perfect.
This creates a lot of pressure. And it’s where we probably mistake the most. It’s not about perfection, but about progress. Not everything has to be perfect, but GOOD ENOUGH. How do we know when things are good enough? We ask our managers or we ask ourselves: ‘What are the expectations? How this should look like exactly? If I do this, this and this, is it what you wanted?’ in other words ‘is it good enough?.
You don’t just like what you do, you love it. So when it comes to staying long hours just to finish what you promised or to ‘make it perfect’ it’s an easy decision. You stay and do it because ..you love what you do. And this is a vicious circle.
“I don’t feel the time passing because I love what I do, so it’s doesn’t come as a cost”
“I’ll stay how long it takes because I want to finish it / make it great.”
“I’ll stay at work, I don’t have anything else waiting for me at home anyway.”
Does any of them sound familiar?
Yes, we love what we do, and because we are ‘in the flow’ when we do it, we do not feel it as a cost. For now. But we will, in time, once we realized we sacrificed almost everything else in our lives for out job.
Lack of boundaries
When the manager says or implies something, you do what they say. They ask something of you, they make a remarque, they propose you for a project without checking with you first, and the list goes on. And you do it. Be it because you cannot stand up to them, be it because everyone else in the team does it, you cannot bring yourself to tell them how you feel. So you bubble everything up inside.
The lack of boundaries will permit your manager to set your working pace, say, and do whatever he considers ok. And if your pace and working style or values are quite different (they usually are), you will have to work with them. Instead of not saying anything out of fear of being fired, or ruining the relationship you have with them I would suggest a deeper look into the matter to asses what actually wrong in this situation. You can do this with a therapist or a coach. It might be just a communication issue, or it might be how you handle your relationship with authority in general (not just your manager), or it might be your need to be liked and accepted. It can be many things from where lack of boundaries might spring from and doing some digging here will help you build a very solid life skill that use can use in all areas of your life afterward.
Lack of appreciation
You’ve worked very hard on the project, you’ve stayed so many hours overtime, but … appreciation and recognition do not come. Or not as you feel you deserve. And you notice that this starts to happen more and more often and your work passes unnoticed.
This may happen because you’ve set a high bar and the manager now expects you to deliver at this level, all the time.
Managers, I encourage you to show appreciation and (public) recognition for any achievements your team has and encourage them to become the best version of themselves for themselves and their professional development.
Showing appreciation, celebrating successes, and supporting their efforts together with the rest of the team has been shown to be, according to some studies, a stronger motivation to become better at your job than a raise or a bonus can be.
Long periods of time
Your passion may keep your engine running for a long time and you might not even feel the long hours you put in, or the pressure you’ve been working one or all the cases you had to fill in for other colleagues. But all these have an expiration date. No matter how passionate you are about your job, when you’ll run out of battery, all these extra miles you once did in a heartbeat, will start to feel like a high cost.
Our energy is finite and if it doesn’t have enough resources to refuel or time to recharge, the energy level will slowly fade. When it’ll reach a critical level, under 10%, like the phone battery, it will send some signals for us to pick up and act upon them. The signs are usually fatigue, we feel mentally and physically drained, we do not want to go back to work, the weekend in not enough to recharge, every new task feels like an impossible task, we are easily irritated and we have minimal to no patience.
To work from this state, and to be able to perform like you and your manager were used to up to this point, it will need an insurmountable amount of effort to pull it off. Every day will feel like a new challenge and you’ll start to look (consciously or not) for the way out.
Physical and mental exhaustion or burnout is not to be desired, but to be prevented. Depending on the level of severity, recovering from burnout can take up to weeks or months, and in more severe cases it can take even up to one year or more.
If we learn to do regular check-ins with us and ask ourselves important questions, like the ones below or do regular feedback sessions with our managers and let them know how we feel, we increase our chances to turn things around before they happen.
‘How was this week for me? How about this past month? This quarter?’
‘I started to feel demotivated at work. I wonder why is that?’
‘I am doing overtime for a month already. I wonder what needs to change to stop doing it?’
We, together with our manager (or better yet, with a coach) can come up with strategies and ideas on how to better cope with a high workload or to increase our productivity level, learn to better prioritize, or to delegate the work that can be delegated.
Now that I’ve detailed all the steps of the formula, how do you feel about it? What is your position with regard to chronic stress and burnout? Can you identify your own stress factors at work and come up with some ideas to address them?
I cannot say I have experienced burnout, but I am sure that I was on that path and going towards it. What is more interesting is the fact that while I was still working in the environment I wasn’t able to realize that even though I felt the pressure daily. I had to step away from it, to take some distance, to let some time pass. Only now looking back at those moments I can see very clearly that I was constantly pushing myself to overachieve in an already over-competitive work environment. And I was feeling the costs of this pressure every day when I got home completely exhausted and I needed up to 1 to 2 hours of being idle in complete silence to be able to disconnect from work problems and recharge a little bit, so I can take care of other aspects of my life, too.
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts and your own experiences related to work-induced stress and even burnout (but I really hope this is not the case).