If you are fortunate in this economy and job market to stay put for any length of time, you will at some point experience the mixed blessing of burnout. That’s right, I said it … burnout can be a blessing if you know how to deal with it. If you have never experienced burnout then you are missing an opportunity for personal and career growth. If you don’t know your flame is beginning to flicker, then you run the risk of being ashes before you know it.
The first step in addressing any problem is identifying that you have a problem. The symptoms of burnout vary from person to person. For me, it starts with physical exhaustion and progresses to mental and emotional exhaustion. I don’t look forward to getting up in the morning. I daydream and dread doing the things I have to do. It seem as though each day is a chore and weekends aren’t as much fun because they seem way too short. I even find myself becoming grouchy and irritable. (Ask your family, friends, or co-workers if you aren’t sure about this one.) Overall, I am unproductive both at home and work.
In the beginning, you might think you are coming down with something and maybe you are—you could experience a stress-induced health problem. This time for me, it was an unexplained increase in my blood pressure. By all means, if this happens, visit your doctor. Be sure to address any physical symptoms, then do a root cause analysis.
Look back and ask yourself these questions. When did this start? When is it worse? When is it better? Where are the bright spots? For me, I am a recovering workaholic and it has taken me years to find some sense of balance. Balance is what keeps me going. I know I am dealing with burnout when I notice way too much of my time is being funneled into one bucket. I am passionate about what I do, but when it became a “job” that was consuming me I didn’t recognize what was happening until I had lost my sense of balance.
Anyone who has ever had safety training about fires knows that three things have to be present for a fire to take place. You have to have air, fuel, and a source of heat. The same holds true for maintaining career and personal balance. If you don’t have all three then burnout is inevitable.
Fire has to have air to breathe. Examine what has happened in your job that has taken away your air and makes you feel smothered. Are you feeling stifled by politics? Micromanaged? Limited? Understand what it is you need to breathe. Determine what has happened to make you feel as if you have lost your air.
Now might be a good time to talk to your manager or mentor. Seek input on things you might do differently to improve the situation or perhaps ask for shift in assignments to give you some new air. If you don’t have a professional confidante, develop one who understands what you do but is not a current co-worker. I have a former co-worker who has become one of my best friends. She knows me and how I am at work. She listens but then tells me what I need to hear … not always what I want to hear. She supports me, but will also call me on my behavior when I am being unreasonable or just an outright brat. She is also a good person to role-play conversations so I can hear what I sound like.
Also, never drag your significant other down with your work drama. When I was married, my spouse and I both worked in manufacturing and totally understood each other’s work. We had a rule: You can complain about work for one hour, then you have to stop. I think that is a good rule, except these days I would probably shorten it to about 15 minutes.
Sometimes just having someone listen is all you need, but other times you need a little bit more. There are many statistics about depression, but remember this one thing … it can happen to any of us. Don’t be afraid to check into your company’s employee assistance program if you need someone to help you examine your feelings and find answers. I am lucky that I have a therapist I have known for years from a very difficult time in my life who helped me a great deal. In times like these, I will often give her a call for what I call a “tune-up.” Visits these days are good benchmarks in showing me how far I have come.
Of course, sometimes the best way to help yourself is by helping others. Explore opportunities to mentor someone else or find a way to plug into your company’s intern program. To me, air means someone values what I have to say.
Heat is passion. Think about what brought you passion to your job before it became just a job. Are you surrounded by people you perceive to have a different agenda? Note that I said, “Perceive.” Has anything changed with the people around you, or is it really you? Remember you once fell in love with this place and the people around you or you wouldn’t be here. Think about what has changed your perspective and why. In all honesty, if you are suffering burnout, you are probably dissatisfied with others both in and out of work. Recognize the common denominator is you. But remember … not everyone may share your passion so don’t expect them to. Sad but true, many people go to work simply for the paycheck. Don’t let their lack of enthusiasm rob you of yours.
Accept what you can’t change and recognize that no one can rob your heat. You own your passion and that has nothing to do with anyone else. If you perceive others around you to be disorganized, blaming, or just plain lazy, accept that we are all different and develop a strategy for managing the situation so that it meets everyone’s needs. The number one cause of stress is trying to change things over which you have no control. In every situation you have two choices: You can accept it or remove yourself from it.
Nothing will take away your passion more than feeling like you are in a dead end with nowhere to go. Take a few minutes and investigate other job opportunities within your organization. Check out the ASTD Job Bank and see what jobs are out there that you might like better. Personally, I maintain the daily job feed from Monster.com to my personal Blackberry so I have a daily reminder of my options.
Can you regain some passion by helping with a not-for-profit or community project? One great way to contribute your training talents is to find a Habitat Women Build because training is a part of the preparation for the build. Another is to volunteer to work with a local youth group either in your church or community teaching others how to lead meetings, facilitate, and deliver presentations or train-the-trainer. Nothing inspires my passion more than helping others succeed.
Fuel is energy. Without energy nothing works. Where have you been losing energy? Are you investing the right amount of energy in the right projects? If you are not seeing progress then perhaps you are focusing on the wrong projects. Are you taking care of yourself and maintaining healthy habits? Are your projects lacking fulfillment?
Remember the parts of your job that you get the biggest charge from and switch focus for a while. If you are an extrovert and have been buried underneath project planning then see if you can switch to delivery mode for a while.
Remember that the most common cause of stress is not feeling in control. Now is where you take control. I consider myself a planner “geek,” and the best way for me to pull myself together after a slump is to take all of the data from my root cause analysis and use it to revisit and revise my personal mission statement, goals, and plans. This time around at the end of my analysis, I realized it wasn’t work or relationships that burned me out. I had just celebrated another birthday and realized I was a year past due on a personal goal of having completed my first book. Funny how a case of writer’s block can throw you off balance. Now, however, I am happy to have called it what it is and I can move forward.
You never know when burnout is going to strike, but if you pay attention to your balance of air, heat, and fuel you should know when you need to stoke the fires. Evaluate what you need in your life to keep your flame going. What do you need to breathe? Where do you find your passion (heat?) What fuels you? Consider your needs, compare it with your options, and at the end of the day you should have a strategy. Even if you can only determine a short-term plan it will give you a chance to keep the embers glowing until you can restore the full-on flame.