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Burned Out At Work? It’s (Probably) Not Your Fault

Topics: Career Advice
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A hiring manager once asked me in an interview why she should give me the job. Credentials aside, I answered without a second thought, “Because I’ll work harder than anyone else.” It’s a great sentiment, but there’s a major problem with this answer: it’s a no-brainer recipe for burnout.

Burnout Is On the Rise

Burnout has become a business buzzword, and for good reason. A study by PGI showed that an overwhelming 71 percent of employees report feeling unhappy about putting in extra hours at work, and that figure has very real implications for both employees and the leaders managing them.

Harvard Business School assistant professor Joel Goh studied the health implications associated with overwork and found that burnout contributes to nearly $190 billion in American healthcare costs collectively — and that number starts to look pretty modest when you factor in other likely, unreported costs (think therapy and medication to treat stress, sleep, anxiety and panic disorders, and unhealthy eating and drinking habits). Even more frightening was the estimation that workplace stress contributes to nearly 120,000 deaths per year.

Corporate Culture May Be to Blame

There’s a tendency to dub those with chronic burnout as “workaholics,” but the title might not be totally deserved. Often, burnout is a symptom of a larger problem: company culture.

When working in an environment where overexertion is normal (perhaps expected, even) it’s never long before burnout pops up and rears its demanding head. With the addition of always-on technology, video conferencing, and remote-work situations, there’s an expectation of around-the-clock availability. In many industries and work environments, the typical 9-to-5 workday has become nothing more than a fond memory. We now come in earlier, stay later, eat lunch at our desks, and plan the goings-on of our lives around our work schedules.

Flexible vacation policies are meant to help counteract this phenomenon, but studies show that employees with open PTO policies generally take the least of all professionals — often for fear of looking uncommitted. We overbook, under-prepare, waste hours of weeks in meetings called to plan other meetings, and work on the weekends. In offices across the country, “Did you get my email?” has replaced the standard salutation of, “Good morning!”

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Pressure From the Market

Thanks to market competition, many professionals feel an overwhelming sense of insecurity. We’re taught to appear calm, cool, and committed at all costs. We keep our wits about us, and never appear to have our heads below water. Do so, and we run the risk of looking incapable. So, we push harder and work longer so that our colleagues and managers never see our candles burning at both ends. Indeed, burnout has become our band-aid for workplace anxiety.

While many companies encourage balance, certain systems and expectations also suggest an underlying, always-on mentality, and a corporate trend toward overexertion. Work-from-home situations consistently blur the lines between personal and professional environments, and after-hours emails suggest a subtle, conflicting expectation to be available 24/7. And although there’s an undeniable bit of choice and personal agency associating with making yourself so available, it’s impossible to deny the expectation driving it: in a team-based work culture, nobody wants to be the weak link. Thus, the need to achieve feeds the tendency to overwork, and overdoing it often weakens the quality of the finished product. Regardless of which point on the vicious cycle you look at first, it seems that burnout and the need to perform are inextricably linked.

Further, in today’s business world, being a professional also means being a firefighter: when a project starts to go up in flames, there’s an expectation to drop everything, jump online, and put out that fire. And while “work-life balance” is as buzzy as “burnout,” we hear one discussed far more than the other. Unfortunately, in interviews, that over-sung importance of “balance” sometimes starts to feel more like a cover-up for the deeper issue at hand. And sadly, it’s an issue no one discusses enough.

What Managers Can Do To Help

But burnout doesn’t have to be our reality. In any organization, culture trickles down from the top. Executives, managers, and human resources professionals should stop layering on perks to compensate for the problems smoldering beneath them. If your employees are suffering from burnout (it’s pretty hard to miss), start by investigating the root of the issue.

Question everything — the systems in place, the workflow, the office hierarchy, the physical set-up of the space, the way meetings are handled, and the way projects are assigned and measured. And most importantly, ask for feedback, then use it. Nothing feeds the tire fire of burnout like having feedback fall on deaf ears.

Finally, remember that fighting for worker-friendly, productivity-enhancing policies isn’t enough. You also have to communicate the company’s position and model it with your own behavior. So, for example, make sure your team knows that they should take vacation time. Then, don’t forget to take time off yourself.

Tell Us What You Think

What do you do to recover when you’re feeling burned out at work? We want to hear from you. Tell us your story in the comments or join the conversation on Twitter.


Megan Shepherd
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Burned out

Interesting article. However, like so many of others of this sort loses credibility when asserting the solution isn’t “increased pay.” Many people are forced to work to burnout out of desperation because their incomes don’t support building ample reserves. A constant state of anxiety ensues just trying to hang onto a modest home and feed our children. In order to keep workers in this constant state of anxiety corporations push for importation of cheap labor under the guise they can’t… Read more »

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