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"Burn out is nature's way of telling you you've been going through the motions. Your soul has departed; you're a zombie, a member of the walking dead, a sleepwalker." Sam Keen

Organizations populated, and led, by the walking dead. It's a horror story. But instead of thrills and suspense, it's an unending grind as your people - and you - plod through each day with diminishing strength and diminishing returns. You're there, but not completely.

The good news: you have it within your power to improve work/life integration, to revitalize and recharge yourself on both fronts. To change the trajectory of the story.

The High Cost of Burnout

Burnout isn't stress; everyone - even those who love their work and are fully engaged - experience stress at work. Burnout is a different beast: it doesn't dissipate when the current crisis has passed or after some time off. Instead, it lingers. In the mind and in the body. 

Common signs include:
  • Insomnia
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Decreased concentration and increased forgetfulness
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Anger
  • Detachment and loss of enjoyment
  • Cynicism
  • Physical symptoms, such as increased illness, loss of appetite, headache, chest pain, heart palpitations, gastrointestinal pain, etc.
  • Impaired performance and decreased productivity

The impact on businesses can be equally damaging: higher rates of absenteeism, disengagement, lost productivity, lost innovation, and higher health care costs. General Motors, for example, spends more on health care than steel, and collectively, high levels of workplace stress cost the US an estimated $190 billion in health care costs alone.
The bottom line: burnout is bad for you and bad for your company. The question is how do you light the fire again?

To Quit or Not to Quit

You could quit. And many people do. Overworked, tired, and burned out employees are "31% more likely to think about looking for a new job than their colleagues who feel comfortable with their workload." Burnout, though, has a way of following you.

Ben Fanning and Chris Brogan suggest a different route in The Quit Alternative: The Blueprint for Creating the Job You Love WITHOUT Quitting. They write, "Not only will one word ignite your career, it can completely transform your life. This occurs when you shift your professional quest from 'finding' the job you love - to 'creating' the job you love."

This shift in perspective empowers you to take charge and forge a career that is "created on the foundation of the authentic you."

Leading burnout prevention experts Michael P. Leiter and Christina Maslach concur. They argue that your best bet for avoiding or conquering burnout is "change the relationship between you and your job."

Strategies for Banishing Burnout

In Banishing Burnout: Six Strategies for Improving Your Relationship with Work, Leiter and Maslach provide six strategies that can help you turn the job you have into the job you want. Let's take a look at three of these powerful strategies you can begin putting into place now.

1. Solve Workload Problems. Overworked and overloaded: it's the new normal - and it's a leading cause of burnout. You have too much to do and too little time in which to do it. Maybe you struggle because you can never say "no" to anyone or simply feel exhausted. Start by determining the nature of the problem so you can take steps to overcome it.
A look at the most common workload issues - and how to solve them:

  • Too Available. "My door is always open." It's a nice sentiment, but you should take it metaphorically instead of literally. The reality is that you need time to focus on your work, to do the important value-added tasks that only you can handle. And you need to do that without 15 people expecting attention and immediate replies.
    You may have to come in early (and, hopefully, leave early) to get this time. You may have to close your door, turn off your phone, or head out to the nearest coffee shop to escape distractions and interruptions. Whatever works for you, commit to managing your availability.
  • Too Much Work, Too Little Time. Taking on too many tasks doesn't make you a "team player." It puts you one step closer to burnout. One quick fix: learn the art of saying "no." If a request isn't worth your time, decline (respectfully). If it can be delegated to a direct-report, do it. Next, look at the tasks you must complete. Prioritize them, and then eliminate as many distractions and time-wasters as possible.

2. Solve Control Problems. As Maslach says, "Control problems occur when workers have insufficient authority over their work or are unable to shape the work environment to be consistent with their values." You feel like you're pulled and pushed by circumstances and people within your organization. Things are happening to you - putting you in the passenger seat of your own career and life.
Research demonstrates that when people contend with high job demands and low control, they are more likely to experience significantly higher rates of coronary disease and depression. Fortunately, there are various strategies by which you can gain more control over your work, including:
  • Pushing against the boundaries and finding out how much leeway you have to take initiative.
  • Asking for increased responsibility or different opportunities; using your track record and experience, demonstrate that you are ready to tackle the challenge.
  • Taking control where you can. It may be showing initiative on new projects, advocating for high standards and seeking feedback on your own work, or supporting others in their endeavors.

The key is to stop waiting for permission. It may never come. Take initiative - within reason - to loosen restrictive limits and achieve greater control at work.

3. Solve Reward Problems. According to TINYPulse research, 79 percent of employees feel only "marginally valued" or "extremely undervalued" at work. Glassdoor found that 80 percent of people will work harder when they feel they are appreciated by their leaders.
Fair and appropriate financial compensation is, of course, a must. But when it comes to "rewards," most employees value a sincere "thank you" for specific behaviors. If that's not forthcoming, Maslach suggests adjusting expectations. Find intrinsic motivation to do your job well or seek, and provide, peer recognition.

Implementing these first three strategies can help you transform from a zombie into a satisfied, productive, engaged member of your organization. Consider it the first chapter in your new story.


Larry Hart

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