burn·out (bûrn out) n. 1. A failure in a device attributable to burning, excessive heat, or friction.
What is burnout, and how do you recognize it from regular work stress?
You’ve heard the phrase, “running on fumes” for a car nearly out of gas? That’s the same feeling as burnout. Unlike other types of temporary work stress that you face such as advancing your career, abrasive leaders, financial pressures and competition, burnout builds slowly across time and reaches a point of exasperation.
A concept first introduced in the 1970s, burnout is the opposite of engagement or performance. It’s the result of both low and negative energy. In other words, burnout corresponds to long-term emotional exhaustion and a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. Burnout leaves a person feeling hollow and helpless. Common symptoms are feeling anxiety, loss of focus, indecision, emotional distress, fatigue and even anger to the point that the individual is not functioning as before.
As a professional, you must manage conflicting priorities all the time. Your own desire for work-life-balance may lose out to your desire to get ahead or get promoted. From personal experience, burnout is something that creeps up on me slowly causing me to: 1) openly admit that “I’m crispy-fried” with a delirious giggle; 2) hum the tune to the circus; and 3) cling to the soothing thought that my bed is the only safe place where work stress can’t find me.
Sharing stories on burnout
The following stories are from my own experiences managing extreme work stress, exhaustion and burnout. In each case, I’ll share my lessons learned with you in the hopes that these first-hand experiences with near-impossible work situations will trigger positive changes for you, before you stop functioning.
The first story tells of a never-ending, fast-paced project and a last-minute request that challenged my work life boundaries forever.
The project that ate my vacation
I was working as a web programmer for a small company. The latest project was for a direct mail campaign in which the team was developing the concept, creative and online tracking website for the client. The project was on tight timelines which meant all of us were working late each night. This might date us a bit, but this was before the company had laptops so employees would physically work in the office until 9 or 10PM for six weeks.
In the first week or so, I recall we felt like warriors. We were marketing superheroes (or something). It was as if only this team could deliver the solution to the client in time. It was exhilarating to push ourselves day after day with pressure mounting and adrenaline racing.
Around two weeks at this pace, the honeymoon abruptly ended. Shoulders ached, and complaints were constant. My eyes were bloodshot and my neck kinked. Our small team began snapping at each other throughout the day. A dark cloud of stress seemed to loom over our office. Working late turned into keeping to ourselves with headphones on. We were heads down. We weren’t superheros at all. We were prisoners to the project.
When I did the math, I was at work each week more than I had personal time for myself. Some weeks, my billable time would clock 40 hours by Wednesday. Knowing that fact didn’t help. Still, I told myself it was temporary. The project will eventually come to an end. And each morning when the alarm would go off, I would sulk, hide and curse going into the office. I literally had to peel myself out of bed.
“I would rather clean the toilet than go into work today,” I thought.
6 weeks turned into 8 weeks
When the launch date neared, the client requested additional features and extended the project another two weeks. The gesture was generous given how hard the team worked up to this point. However, the extension was bittersweet. The team was ready for this thing to end. For me, the extension pushed into my already planned vacation to Portland, Oregon. After hearing the news, my boss called me into her office privately. I feared the worst.
“I need you to postpone your vacation.”
The conversation with her when she asked me to postpone my vacation, was to say mildly, one of the most difficult professional moments I’ve had. I felt so much guilt because I wanted to support my small company but also because I had already given so much of myself to the project. I didn’t want to give up on all the hard work and leave the team coming up short to the finish line. I was running on fumes, lacked motivation and felt so stuck by this back-breaking ask from my boss. I needed the vacation more than anything. I wanted to cry I was so torn.
During that tough conversation, I agreed to compromise. I worked the hours needed, and my company paid for my new airline tickets. I left a few days later than planned. I felt it was the right thing to do. However, while working those extra days, I got sick. The pace had finally caught up with me from the lack of sleep, unhealthy take-out food and stress. In the end, I made a huge sacrifice and compromised my health yet made my boss and client happy. My vacation was great, but I needed the first few days to just sleep and recover from the this whole experience.
- Sustaining a fast work pace is not sustainable. Everyone runs out of steam, gets unmotivated, gets sick or burns out even when you love what you do.
- Managing energy is just as important as managing time. When working longer hours, taking time to mentally and physically renew is invaluable.
- Don’t replan or postpone a vacation when your company asks you to. Stay in control of your personal time and well-deserved vacations. If you give in once, chances are the company will ask again.
So if I learned these lessons with my first case of burnout earlier in my career, why did burnout creep up on me at other times in my career? Up next week, a story on silly project code names and burnout that lead to increased team morale.
Want to vent about work stress that’s currently happening to you?
If you have or are currently feeling on the verge of burnout, post a comment or an email at Jessica at managingmindspaces.com.