Parsing through your feelings can be confusing when you’re exhausted by your work, but it’s probably the first thing you should do if you are starting to feel burned out.
Because being tired doesn’t necessarily mean that you are burned out. Working hard or working long hours isn’t the main or only factor that leads to burnout, though exhaustion is certainly one of the warning signs.
A better question to ponder is why and how are you so exhausted. Are you emotionally drained? Are you growing increasingly cynical? Are you feeling a bit depressed?
These are signs of burnout.
Is your physical tiredness, mental depletion, and emotional fatigue impacting your work? Do you have a bad case of the Monday morning blues? Is it hard to concentrate or difficult to perform routine tasks?
These are signs of burnout.
Maybe you just need a break. Or maybe you need a break-up–a new job, a new team assignment, or some other organizational change.
It can be hard to tell. But one thing is clear. If you are worried about burnout, you should stop and take stock of where you are at right now.
You should take corrective action before things spiral out of control.
How do you know if your facing burnout?
Burnout is a complicated issue for which only a medical professional can provide a specific diagnosis based on a specific set of physical and psychological symptoms.
I like to view the issue from a simplified model of stages or phases.
Let’s take a quick look at each and how they interrelate.
When you have trouble mustering up the energy for your work, it’s usually a bad sign.
It’s different from being tired. You can be tired when things are going really well, even if working hard is a bit of a strain.
Maybe you pulled an all-nighter to get a project done, respond to an emergency, or cram for a big presentation. That can leave you tired, but also usually pretty energized. Because it’s exciting and satisfying to work on something you feel is important.
It’s that last part that is the warning sign to me. Your energy starts to diminish as you begin to feel that what you’re working on isn’t so important.
If this goes on too much, it can lead to exhaustion, which is a central symptom of burnout. A continual diminishing of energy can spread across your physical, mental, and emotional resources. You feel drained.
What causes low energy at work?
Your energy drain can be caused by a number of factors in your environment, such as an “always on” organizational culture that expects you to be available 24/7, severe time constraints on your work, or simply being overloaded with work.
Other factors include simply lacking control over your work, having to do work you truly dislike, or not having sufficient skills and training to accomplish your work.
We all make quips about work now and again. An occasional recognition of the silliness of a cultural norm or disappointment in a leadership decision or longstanding issue that still isn’t addressed is normal.
In fact, that sort of banter can be a nice little way to let out a little steam with others around the office.
But when that kind of thinking becomes more prominent for you or seeps into your inner dialog, it can be a problem.
If you become super cynical all the time, it’s going to have an effect on you and those around you. You will attract negative energy and other complainers like moths to a light.
More importantly, however, you will start to reinforce these ideas with yourself and skew the lens through which you view your work.
Your engagement will erode and you will start to feel less invested in your assignments, colleagues, and customers. Your negative attitude will become pervasive in all that you do.
Why does your attitude shift to bad places?
Simple work overload can impact your attitude. But bigger factors may be environmental. An environment ripe with conflict that doesn’t get resolved can really hurt you. You might feel a sense of unfairness for yourself or others that is discouraging. Or you might not feel a lot of participation in decision making.
All of these things can take away from your sense of autonomy at work, which we know is crucial for knowledge workers today. These factors may even tarnish the bigger picture reasons why you are at your organization, in your industry, or in your area of specialty. That’s a real death blow.
As your work-life balance gets further out of whack, you might start to see some health problems. The feelings of exhaustion and stress can lead to many issues. They could range from having trouble sleeping to getting sick more often to something more debilitating.
Your mind affects your health. When you feel stress and overwhelm, it takes a toll on your body. When your attitude goes sour, it affects a lot of your actions, including your eating and exercise habits.
Your lifestyle affects your health. When you work long hours, skip lunch, guzzle coffee all day, and stay out of the sunlight, it diminishes your bodily functions. It takes a toll.
In the best of times, many of us struggle to eat, sleep, and exercise appropriately. During phases of burnout, it can worsen. And so can the impact.
Bad health leads to lower energy and a worse attitude. It’s a dangerous spiral in the wrong direction.
Why do we let our health go just when we need it most?
The basic structure of working indoors in a sedentary environment from 9 to 5 every day is unnatural and unhealthy. So, your starting point already puts you at a disadvantage.
Add to that commute time, meal time, and the hustle and bustle of your home in the morning and evening, and it’s a recipe for health issues.
Unfortunately, in times of stress at work, we all tend to double down on this poor formula. There is not so much a mystery why we let our health go in these situations. It’s more a matter of the walls that inhibit us in this area become much higher.
It’s too tempting to scoff down fast food for lunch from the cafeteria and to turn on the TV at night to try and unwind from a tough day. We seek comfort, even when we are aware that it might not be the best longer term choice. We’re in short term survival mode, doing exactly the things that will lessen our odds of long term survival. A very natural, very human paradox.
As if risk to your health weren’t enough, continuing down the burnout hole is going to eventually threaten your ability to function properly.
As you become more exhausted, cynical, and struggle with physical and emotional stress, your performance is going to worsen. All of your actions (or inaction) that is aimed at work performance starts to lead to the opposite of your intended result.
Now you’re in real trouble.
All the extra hours just make you too drained to perform well. Your poor attitude leaves you with little enthusiasm to care. The toll on your health becomes heavier and makes everything worse.
Soon, you become unable to function at your normal level. You lose confidence in your abilities. One feeds on the other and you are going to a really bad place.
There is no doubt you should be seeking professional help.
This is probably going to have an impact on your current job and maybe throw your career off track.
Which may be ok if a change at this level is really what’s needed.
Why do we risk our careers because of a job?
We probably don’t see this one coming. It’s a matter of letting ourselves slip further and further down the burnout slope without really noticing.
There is also another school of thought, led by Harvard Professor Robert Keegan, that recognizes our subconscious may have a strong desire to change in a way that we don’t consciously recognize. This “immunity to change” can cause us to pull at ourselves in ways we don’t even know we are doing. All the more reason to seek professional help.
What can you do if you’re facing burnout?
We all face these challenges in some way most of the time. The challenge is to figure out how to respond appropriately, ideally before things get too bad.
If you feel like things are already really bad, or you’re struggling hard, you should seek immediate help from a medical professional. I’m just a blogger sharing his own hard won lessons.
I think some of the following insights can be helpful to many.
If the above represents a sort of steepening slide into deeper levels of burnout, a good approach is to work backwards through this list. By ensuring the most basic areas are continually addressed, we can build strength and resilience for higher levels of performance overall.
Your job is not your career. Your career is not your life. Putting things in proper perspective is a good first step.
This is where many of us go awry, because we humans tend to inflate the importance of whatever issues we’re facing right now. We also love drama.
Stepping back and realizing how much is within our power to change can be game-changing, particularly when coupled with small actions to play that out. That’s the whole idea behind my book Career Leap Year.
Taking charge of your professional destiny is empowering. After all, you are the CEO of you. When you start actually no that way, you start to feel more control. Which can help to stem the tide of what I call career erosion.
Strengthening and expand your skills–especially in transferable areas like communication, leadership, networking, etc–is always a great boost. Because you are building legitimate skills to help you level up, and because you feel better about yourself by doing so. I call it clearing the career growth logjam.
We feel this implicitly as an inescapable truth. Which is what makes slipping in this area so insidious. It eats away at us from the inside, in a physical sense, sure, but perhaps even more deeply in an emotional sense.
To start to right that ship, one thing is true. You must adopt a little nag term view. Just as career and improvements don’t happen overnight, improving your health takes time.
The good news, on both fronts, is that small steps are easy and they will have a massive impact if you stick with them.
Here’s an easy one that has stuck with me. Starting your day on the right foot.
It’s a way to assert control over your day before the world creeps in. You set the tone. And though it may change due to factors well beyond your control, you will know that you accomplished at least one thing in your best interest for the long term.
My one thing is starting every day with a healthy “success shake.”
Is way, even if I stress out and skip lunch or cram down somethings unhealthy on the run, the can feel good about at least having gotten one good dose of kale, protein, fruit, and flax seed for the day.
And tomorrow I have another chance to try and do better. But I also have a sort of guaranteed foundation that I’ve built so I never really slip all the way back to zero. Which helps to muster the will to try again.
Establish that foundation and you will be amazed at the direct and residual benefits.
Marketable skills, personal growth, and good health are fundamental. But all can be derailed by a poor attitude.
That’s a big reason why taking a healthy action as the beginning of your day works wonders. Because it helps to set the stage for your day–including your attitude.
When you feel like you are doing something important for yourself, it helps your attitude. Because it’s the antidote to that feeling of neglecting yourself in service of work pressures.
Health is a great place to start.
But you can do a whole lot more.
Certainly, you can be careful about the company that you keep. If you’re hanging with the naysayers, then you’re going to be a naysayer too. Find some positive people.
A really fun and impactful way to do expand your circle and meet more people who are active in a positive way in your field is to start networking beyond your company. Become more active in your industry.
A recent Harvard Business Review article cites that as one of the key strategies in advancing your career (How to Advance in Your Career When Your Boss Won’t Help). And when you feel like you’re doing things to advance your career, your attitude improves immensely.
Simple and silly sounding ideas can work wonders too. Like, taking time out to watch a funny YouTube clip. Going to lunch with a friend and not talking about work (also recently proven to be immensely stress relieving–even for introverts!).
It’s important to recognize that your thoughts and actions affect your attitude. And just like a downward spiral is possible, so is an upward spiral. The key is to start working toward developing little habits in these areas until one or more sticks with you.
If you’ve worked on all of the above, you will have made tremendous improvement in your energy levels.
As you work to develop your career skills, improve your health, and shift your attitude, your energy will rise.
Still, there is more you can do directly in this area. Like getting enough sleep. Making sure that you unwind in an effective way (hint: watching TV is probably one of the worst things you can do for this). And spending more quality time with family and friends.
But one of the most important things to improve your energy is to see the bigger picture. As you reconnect and revise your “why” you will regain your energy.
You will get your mojo back. Because the big reasons why you do things matter a lot.
If you’re working hard to feed your family, that can keep your energy high.
If you’re focused on improving some aspect of your work so that you can make your next career move, that can keep your energy high.
If you’re reaching out to build your network so that you can help others in their journey, that can keep your energy high.
A good way to reconnect with your “why” is to give yourself some time to reflect. This could be as simple as turning off the radio during your commute or as deliberate as taking up meditation of some form.
You might also like to do a little journaling. It’s a great way to get a lot of stuff out of your head so you can see it more clearly. You can think through bigger and more complex issues very effectively this way.
We all get stressed out, overworked, and off track. That’s part of work and life in the modern world.
But it can become an issue if you start sliding into burnout.
One way to consider that slide is that your energy drops and your attitude begins to sour. Then you let your health slip. And eventually, you become so burnt out that you put your career at risk.
It’s a dangerous trajectory, and one that will require professional in serious cases.
By taking that slope and flipping the script, however, we can identify a number of actions you can take to reverse the trend.
Building skills to support your career development, taking steps to boost your health, deliberately improving your attitude, and reconnecting with the big picture to fuel your energy are great ways to help turnaround a slump.
And they are all good things to do even if you’re not in a slump, since they will all help you to become a better worker and to enjoy life more.
All of these things require you to embrace the role of CEO of you. Fortunately, the steps can be small and simple and still have a big impact. You just need to start, and then continue chipping away. Remember, you’re in this for the long-term.