Burnout: Running on Empty

This article was originally written for and published by A List Apart on May 25, 2009. The original edit took the better part of a year to complete. The reasons are tied directly to the topic and are lessons anyone can draw from as preventative measures. This updated version was included in the book Being Hear.

Burnout is a psychological response to “long-term exhaustion and diminished interest,” and may take months or years to bubble to the surface. First defined by American psychoanalyst Herbert J. Freudenberger in 1972, burnout is “a demon born of the society and times we live in and our ongoing struggle to invest our lives with meaning.”1 He goes on to say that burnout “is not a condition that gets better by being ignored. Nor is it any kind of disgrace. On the contrary, it’s a problem born of good intentions.” Another description in New York Magazine calls burnout “a problem that’s both physical and existential, an untidy conglomeration of external symptoms and personal frustrations.”

Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

During his research, Freudenberger and his associate, Gail North, developed a simple outline to describe how otherwise healthy individuals can burn out, the key being that people may experience several or all phases, though not necessarily in a specific order.

The phases they identified, several of which may sound familiar to many, are:

  • A compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder, not smarter
  • Neglecting one’s own needs
  • Withdrawal from social contexts
  • Dismissal of values (friends, family, hobbies)
  • Displacement of conflict (the root cause of the distress)
  • Denial of emerging cynicism, aggression, frustration » Behavioral changes become more visible to others
  • Feelings of inner emptiness
  • Burnout syndrome or depression2

It’s important to note that burnout is not the same as depression, though there are shared characteristics that blur the distinction; burnout can be brought on by fits of depression or may lead to depression itself.

My head-on collision with burnout came at the end of 2007. In the year that followed, my focus changed and I became extremely conscious — and protective — of the balance I needed in my life. Here’s what I learned.

How it Happens

Burnout doesn’t happen without stress. Characterized as being “too much” of something, stress may come from too many meetings, projects, responsibilities, unrealistic deadlines, improperly set expectations, distractions, or any number of other things prevalent in our hyper-connected world. Stress is not crippling in and of itself, but we each have limits, and once those limits are reached, we can find ourselves teetering on the brink of burnout.

Although burnout is primarily a work-related illness caused by an imbalance in an individual’s personal goals, ideals, and needs as related to their job, stresses and factors outside the workplace can also contribute to the problem by wearing down emotional defenses.

You may be flirting with burnout if:

  • Every day feels like a bad day
  • You are no longer emotionally invested in your job or the specific work you’re responsible for
  • You feel unappreciated or are not making a measured difference in your position or role
  • There is a clear disconnect between personal values and professional expectations
  • Self-defined or imposed goals are unrealistic
  • A significant amount of time is focused on tasks that are not impactful or emotionally fulfilling

Ultimately, burnout results from a lack of equilibrium. When you lose your balance, physically, you fall over. Burnout is very similar, except that once you’re down, it can be a real challenge to get back up.

How to Recover From (or Prevent) Burnout

The first and most important step in preventing or recovering from burnout is to listen to yourself, acknowledge the problem and objectively survey your situation.

  • What are the stressors in your life?
  • What aspects do not align with your goals and values?
  • Are you not doing the type of work you enjoy? Are your own measures of success realistic?
  • Are you really engaged in the work you’re doing, or are you just overloaded?

These same questions can help you restore your internal balance without going as far as changing roles or careers, which is rarely a realistic option. Burnout doesn’t have to be a career killer, but it can be if left untreated.

Stop (or at Least Slow Down)

If you’re working 50 or more hours a week, cut that number to the bare minimum. If possible, use up sick days, work from home whenever possible, or take a vacation or leave of absence to give yourself time to decompress, reflect, and reconnect. Sabbaticals are increasingly gaining acceptance, and even one day outside of your normal routine can help prevent burnout or get on the right track to push through it.

The point being: take yourself out of the problem for as long as you can realistically afford to.

Communicate

When in doubt, talk it out.

Seek counsel and support from family, friends, and peers, or consider more formal coaching through a local business network or wellness center. In my case, my wife recognized my burnout before I did, and helped me find a local coach who understood the pressures and demands of operating a small business. The time spent reflecting on how I got to where I was at that time was invaluable, and the catalyst for many changes I’ve made since.

Set Boundaries and Expectations

Our current always connected lifestyle has largely ended the 9-to-5 workday and eroded our work and home-life boundaries to the point of non-existence.

It’s not a badge of honor to work 80 hours a week or be reachable and responsive at all hours. Ask yourself: Have you set sufficient boundaries? Are you guarding them?

Although others may send messages and e-mails at all hours, it’s up to you to set expectations about your own responsiveness. As soon as you leave yourself open to responding at 10 o’clock at night, you set a precedent that can be hard to take back.

Sleep. More.

The world is a much smaller place now than it’s ever been. Information is at our fingertips whenever we want it and wherever we happen to be. Time zones blur, allowing us to work with people in the same city as easily as those on the other side of the world. But we still need sleep, and we rarely get enough.

Sleep gives our brains a chance to work on problems and process the information we’ve absorbed throughout the day. Even if you can function on four or five hours of sleep, how much better would you function and make good decisions on seven or eight hours instead?

Create a Daily Routine

It’s not unusual for creative types to do their best work at the same time every day. By this I mean that it’s important to follow our circadian rhythms. Hemingway began writing every morning at dawn and explained his choice this way:

“There is no one to disturb you and it is cool or cold and you come to work and warm as you write. You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.”

The same system often works equally well for just about anyone. Do your most important work (or the work requiring the greatest focus) during the time when you’re most energized and have the fewest distractions. Use the rest of your working hours to solve secondary problems or gather information to fuel the next productive sprint.

Make Time for Numero Uno

Whether you’re treading water or already below the surface, making time for yourself is critical. It’s easy to get caught up in the demands of others and leave precious little time for your own needs.

Spending time with family, friends, and outside interests may provide the fulfillment you don’t get at work. So get out. Go to a museum or an art gallery. Go to the library or a concert. Get some exercise. Play. Make time for what makes you happy, and guard that time fervently.

Examine Values, Goals, and Measures of Success

Know thyself, but be gentle. What are you passionate about? How do you evaluate yourself against expectations placed on you by others and the work you’re doing? Are those measures grounded in reality? Are your personal development goals being met by the type of work you are doing? Are you feeling too much pressure from unrealistic demands or those that go against your values? What frustrates you?

Simply connecting with things that matter to you can provide perspective. Although burnout is a miserable experience, it can also be a great opportunity for personal growth and discovery.

Focus

Good, meaningful work requires focus.

Focus might mean restricting access to e-mail, social apps, or turning your phone off entirely. Our modern communication tools provide valuable social connections, but they can also destroy concentration and clarity.

Change Your Situation

Although changing careers is usually not an option, there’s plenty you can do to make an existing role more engaging and fulfilling.

Change departments, learn a new skill, or focus more on things you’re good at and that make you happy.

Offload unfulfilling or non-essential responsibilities. If you’re a designer, spend more focused time designing rather than buried in your inbox. Focus on the thing where you can provide the most impact and meaning and bring in additional help for work you don’t enjoy or someone else could do better.

We’re all largely mobile today and changing your situation could be as easy as changing desks. Try working somewhere new—outside, a local coffee shop or bookstore that has free WiFi, or another part of your workspace.

Rely on a Good Process

The reason we have processes is so that we can focus on getting things done, not on wondering what to do next.

If you don’t have a good work process, get one. Talk to your peers, read up on the topic, and see what others do that works for them. Experiment and find out what works for you. If you already have a process you think works, scrutinize it, and simplify and clarify it as much as possible.

Educate the people you work with on what you need to do your best work. Follow those same processes yourself, and ensure everyone you work with understands the consequences of failing to complete deliverables or meet deadlines.

Regaining Your Balance

When you’re burned out, you know it. You can feel it. You see it when you look in the mirror. That little voice inside your head is telling you as much, but in order to get past it, you have to acknowledge that voice and fight to restore your internal equilibrium. Stop, decompress, communicate, and focus. That process often begins with a look inward to learn what gives your life balance, such as family, friends, personal interests, and hobbies — the things that counterbalance your professional life.

Your life should be just that—a life; if your waking hours are entirely consumed by work, or if you’re unfocused and inattentive to your own needs, burnout will be waiting at every turn.

Footnotes

  1. “Burn-Out: The High Cost of High Achievement.” Dr. Herbert J. Freudenberger with Geraldine Richelson, 0-385-15664-2, 1980 
  2. “The Burnout Cycle.” Scientific American Mind, 15552284, 2006, Vol. 17, Issue 3