Thursday, December 07, 2020

How to Avoid Burnout

Suffering from burnout is a voluntary choice that no one has to make

If you look at the six major causes of burnout carefully, it’s clear that all of them are choices, either by management or staff or both. That means you can choose not to suffer burnout. The key is putting your personal values before purely material rewards.

Penelope Trunk has an interesting post about burnout that is well worth a look. It has lots of meat and good references, but one relating to six areas of burnout caught my eye.

When you look at each of these carefully, there is a common factor: choice. Nobody is compelled to fall into any of theses traps. Every one is the result of a conscious choice, probably made on the basis that it either seemed to promise some short-term benefit, or it meant “fitting in” with the prevailing norms and corporate culture. It’s worth going through them in some detail.

Working too much
Why do people take on too much work, or accept cultures where overwork is the norm? The most usual reason is the hope of reward: promotion, status, recognition, money. Now you need to ask whether the reward given is worth the effort, since burnout is caused mostly by a mismatch between what people expect as a result of their efforts and what they get.

Working too much sets you up for disappointment. Senior positions and large rewards are not awarded only (or even primarily) on merit. Organizations are extremely political environments. Who you know and how much effort you put into building a constituency of support often counts for much more than effort or even results.

Overwork on a consistent basis is a clear choice. It’s based on the belief that the rewards will be worth it—and that they will be delivered reliably. That belief is very often mistaken.

Working in an unjust environment
People usually feel a sense of injustice when they don’t get what they believe they deserve as a result of their hard work. It’s like adding salt to a wound. Sadly the world is not a just place, and nor are most organizations.

Justice creates expectations. But how many people ever check with the boss whether their expectations, which are always based on their own sense of what is fair, align with what the boss expects to give them? If the results don’t match up to “just” deserts, it’s likely that both parties will feel aggrieved: the subordinate, because he or she feels cheated and let down; the boss, because he or she never promised anything and now feels unjustly accused of reneging on a non-existent promise.

Most organizations are unjust, to a greater or lesser extent. But people increase their own sense of injustice by setting up hidden expectations in their minds and expecting others to deliver on them. That’s a choice.

Working with little social support
Organizations are social environments. There’s much talk of “team players” and supporting one another. The reality is different—again through choice.

What we have today are organizations based on unfettered competition: for jobs, for salary increases, for promotions, for bonuses. People are encouraged to be cooperative on the outside, but competitive in reality. You cannot expect others to support you in tough times, if they know that you are trying to screw them as well.

Most corporate cultures mimic sporting competitions. Everyone is competing for the big prizes. The myth is that, despite all the competition, people will remain “good friends” and sportsmanship will prevail. Tell that to the marines! Organizations have chosen to use competition as a spur to output, and ramp it up by making almost everything competitive in one way or another. Lack of real support and kindness is the result.

Working with little agency or control
The “command-and-control” ethos in most organizations destroys trust and rewards bosses who micro-manage or rule their teams with an iron hand. Besides, many bosses are lousy leaders, with neither the skills nor the aptitude for the job. They go on trying to do what they believe won them a leadership position in the first place: being a sales person, or an accountant, or a “hot shot” programmer, or whatever. Instead of allowing their subordinates to get on with the job, while they concentrate on leading, they try to do the work themselves. Or, rather, they offload all the dull bits onto their team and keep the interesting, high-profile tasks firmly in their own hands.

The result of this choice? A working environment of hard-driving, macho, control-obsessed leaders (habitually stressed and overworked by trying to lead and do most of the work themselves too); plus subordinates bored out of their skulls and checked and measured every moment of the day. Not a bad recipe for increasing burnout.

Working in the service of values we loathe
You don’t have to stay. Compromising your values for the sake of a job is a choice: about the worst, most foolish, and most personally damaging choice you can make.

There’s nothing more to say about this, other than don’t do it—ever. It would be better to starve in the gutter and retain your integrity than prostitute yourself like this. The load of inner self-hatred that you will build up will poison you from within, wreck your life and relationships, and turn you inexorably into a monster. That is, if mental breakdown doesn’t get to you first.

Working for insufficient reward, whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback
This brings us full circle. Burnout doesn't arise merely from overwork. Many people work ridiculous hours and thrive on it. That’s because they believe deeply in what they are doing and get more than adequate rewards as a result. Often, the rewards they get aren’t material ones either. They work around the clock for a vision, for an ideal, for love, or for compassion.

Forget monetary rewards or prestige for a moment. Doing something purely for money is prostitution. That’s fine if prostitution suits you. Otherwise, think about what really matters to you—your core values—and work for those. Whether you make money as a result or not, you’ll be happier, more satisfied and far less likely to suffer from burnout, however long your working hours.

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Aaron Kassover said...

Today seems to be 'burnout day'! I just read an interesting article in New York Magazine on burnout and then saw your post. As usual, you make some good points. I also think the article's point of looking at burnout like ergonomics, where we can create the right work position and environment to avoid fatigue and burnout.

1:51 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for the comment, Aaron, and the link.
Well worth looking at.

2:03 PM  
Robert Pearson said...

Thanks for the heads up.
IMHO, a required part of having a Career is to recognize people suffering from burnout.

I wonder if "burnout" and "workaholic" are the same? I see a lot of the same behaviors. Maybe a workaholic is a permanent burnout?

The worst was when I had a "workaholic" boss who suffered "burnout". His denial of the condition was fatal to a lot of people's jobs. Since most of the companies I have worked for are now out of business it is difficult to measure his impact, or mine, on the company.

9:19 PM  
Alexander Kjerulf said...

YES! It is a personal choice, even though many people resist seeing it as such.

I wonder what it would take to get more people to wake up to the fact that having a hard or unpleasant job just to support a luxurious lifestyle is a bad trade-off.

I would like to add one point though: In my experience burnout doesn't come from working too much. If it did, then why can some people work 100 hours a week and feel great? Also, I've seen people work a strict 35 hours a week and burn out.

It's not about how many hours we work - it's how we feel during those hours, which of course relates strongly to the other five points you mention.

1:44 AM  
Charles D W said...

Interesting run of articles over the last few weeks. As I have always worked for others (stupid??) I have felt a strong empathy for much of what you have said.
Trying to find the time to read your book - A**z*n managed to their stuff even on this sice of the pond [Channel Isles].

Keep up the interesting posting.

1:48 AM  
Charles D W said...

another interesting article in a run of thought provoking articles. As I have always worked for someone else (usually a largish corporate) I can empathise strongly with much of what you say.

Trying to find time to read your book - even managed to get it on this side of the pond[cChannel Isles].

Keep up the good writing


1:52 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comments, Charles.

I hope you like the book.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:37 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Alexander.

You're absolutely right that burnout doesn't come just from long hours. As I said in the posting, it's more about the gap between the effort you put in, what you hope and expect to get in return, and what you actually do get.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:40 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Robert.

I don't think workaholism and burnout are exactly the same—though, as you say, the two are often found in close conjunction.

Workaholics spend all their time and energy on their work for a variety of personal and psychological reasons, often associated with avoidance of other issues in their lives. Many thus drive themselves to burnout. Yet some seem to cope very well and even thrive on their odd regime.

What both have most in common is the element of choice. People choose to become workaholics, like people choose to start smoking. In both cases, it's addictive and the element of choice becomes less easy to see.

Keep reading, my friend.

7:46 AM  

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