Why Bad Burnout Happens to Good People

There is an interesting dichotomy in the professional world right now. On one hand we’ve got the workaholics and on the other we’ve got those individuals in constant search of work-life balance. The workaholics scoff at the idea of “balance” and those who seek balance don’t understand the relentless obsession of the workaholics. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Well, it’s not as simple as that.

The workaholics are driven by and fueled by their chosen profession – it could be their calling, a desire to prove themselves to their family, or simply a need for a certain title or income. It’s about the work and what the work means for them – whatever the reason. Work often comes first and the workaholics are unapologetic about it. They don’t feel the need for a break from work because they typically enjoy what they do and don’t consider it work. Whether they are engaged in a side-hustle, on year 7 of their high growth start-up, training to become a professional athlete, or on the fast-track to making partner – workaholics are driven by their work. It may mean extremely long hours, personal sacrifices, working nights and weekend, but, again, for their own reasons, their work fuels them.

The work-life balance camp are looking for more separation, more boundaries between work and life. And they are unapologetic about protecting their time out of office. Up until around the 1980s, work-life balance wasn’t even part of our lexicon. It was just how the professional world worked. Most of the working population went to work and came home and that was that. Very few took work home with them and unless they were getting phone calls on their land-line or faxes at home, they were largely disconnected once they left the office. For the past 30+ years, as smart phones have gotten smarter and the competitive edge more competitive, the lines between “work” and “home” have become blurred. Workaholics tend to embrace this world. Work any time from anywhere – great! While the work-life balance individuals are rebelling against this new norm. Again, who’s right and who’s wrong?

I tend to fall somewhere in the middle. I believe there is a time and place for workaholism. In fact, my company is at a place in it’s growth where we need and want workaholics to grow alongside us. Instead of trying to get them to work harder, answer emails “after hours”, or chip in and help out with a project on the weekend, they are already there, sleeves rolled up, ready to get dirty and get the job done. The challenge I tend to have with my team is getting them to leave the office at a reasonable hour or take a vacation. That’s not a bad problem to have in my opinion.

And when it comes to work-life balance, I believe in work-life integration.

Here’s what work-life integration means to me: It’s the daily integration of growing, working, and playing. Now, before you get hung up on the playing part (I’m talking to you, workaholics!), remember it doesn’t mean your play needs to be 7 hours a day, it can be 30 minutes or an hour or two, depending on the day. The key is that each day you are 1) putting particular focus on growing yourself, 2) working hard on the most important task or project that will have the biggest impact on your business or job, and 3) playing and enjoying life. As a leader, it’s my job to make sure that my team is constantly touching all three of these areas each day. Integrating their work, their life, their family, their growth as much as possible day after day until it is a continuous loop of consistent growth. 

After all, there are 168 hours in the week and those people who are after work-life balance, aren’t looking to work 84 hours! And neither am I. I believe that if we are aligned with our natural behavior and doing work that fulfills us (no matter how many hours a week we do it for), we’re not going to feel like we’re a workaholic nor are we going to be searching for more balance. If we’re in alignment, it’s going to feel just right.

Regardless of my take on this whole work-life balance vs. workaholism thing, as leaders, we have to keep an eye on our team. When we work at the pace we do, really for any start-up or high growth company, you have to keep an eye out for burnout of your employees. We must manage our employee’s energy, their work-load, and what they are focused on. We must pay attention to when they need a break and need some rest and recovery time. It’s not as simple as time “on” and time “off” though. Most of my team, myself include, would rather be working than doing pretty much anything else. Who am I to tell them not to do what they like to do!?

But what we do need to watch out for is real burnout. Burnout is defined as the mental or physical collapse caused by overwork or stress. Rest and recovery time are critical for this. Taking time to unplug, exercise, get outside, or watch a Walking Dead marathon, all have their time and place. The piece I want to focus on here is stress.

Burnout doesn’t happen from the number of hours worked or even from the intensity of work. Burnout happens for a couple of reasons:

  1. When you are not growing.
  2. When you are out of alignment with your natural behavior.
  3. When you are not having success for an extended period of time.

So if you’ve got a company or team of workaholics how do you help them avoid burnout?

First, make sure you have a clear understanding of your direct reports’ goals, personally and professionally. Are you meeting with your team regularly. Are you encouraging them to take on a new project and pushing them to get out of their comfort zone? When you’re not growing, you’re dying. If your team members start to feel stagnant, or feel there is no room for them to grow at you company, the work they do tends to become less engaging and can lead to stress, which leads to burnout. Make sure you have a clear growth plan for each of the positions in your company and communicate that often. Not everyone will take you up on it. But knowing that growth is available is often enough.

Do you understanding the natural behavior of each of your team members? Do you know how they respond to stress? Do you know what work environments they thrive in? Do you understand their communication style? If you answered “no” to even one of these questions, it’s time to do a deep dive into your team members’ personality and behavior. There are a ton of free assessments on the internet – check out the DISC or 16 Personalities to start. Once you have a clear understanding of their behavior, you’ve got to ask yourself if they are in the right position in your company to achieve success. For example, if you have a High I personality (see DISC profile), and they are in a data entry position, with little people contact, that is a complete mis-match. Now, any intelligent individual can learn and perform a job. But they are not going to be fulfilled, they are going to be stressed each day operating outside of their natural behavior and if that goes on for too long, it can lead to burnout. Again, burnout isn’t just about numbers of hours worked, but time spent on projects, tasks, or in a job that is not the right fit. Matching natural behavioral styles with the behavior needed to thrive in a position is the cornerstone of our hiring practice. However, occasionally, mismatches occur. If you know your team, you can spot this and avoid burnout by shifting staff or tweaking job descriptions. In my opinion the fastest way to burnout is if people are in a company that they love, but a role they hate. And if your team isn’t aligned with the mission or vision of the company or their leader, then burnout will happen much, much faster. Make sure people are not only aligned with the right position for their behavior, but with where you and the company are going.

Burnout also occurs when an individual is failing over and over and over again. Okay, okay, yes, I am proponent of failure and failing forward. But there comes a point where a team member can just be banging their head against the wall, trying to get through, and nothing seems to be working. Failure like this, for a long time, with no clear wins can be exhausting, deflating, and can cause burnout. This is where you need to step in. Does your employee need to step back and take a day off? Do they need some additional training? Do they need to be taken off the project or have someone else come in to help? Is it simply too much work for one person? Does your employee have the skills to accomplish what you are asking of them? Do they need help re-prioritizing or chunking down the project into bite-size pieces so that they can accomplish one small part and have a victory and then build upon that? Going too long without any success, no matter how small, is discouraging and stressful, which leads to burnout. Help your team member get a win that they can build on.

Burnout can happen to the best of us. And as a leader, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on your team, watch for signs of burnout, and mitigate it as much as possible. When your employees are burned out it can have massive financial repercussions for your company in the form of costly mistakes, missed opportunities, or having a skilled employee leave. For your team members, the cost could be even greater with effects on their mental and physical health. When you team members have got their heads down, getting shit done, it’s your job to keep scanning the room, the company, spotting the signs of burnout and redirecting focus for the good of your team and your company.

Have you experienced burnout or seen it show up in your company? What were the warning signs? What are you doing as a leader to mitigate burnout in the future?

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