In the summer of 2018, I burned out. I’m not talking about the burnout that can be remedied by going on a 2-week vacation. I’m talking about complete exhaustion and panic attacks every time I thought about work. Just looking at my work computer would cause intense feelings of panic.
Luckily, my previous employer offered disability insurance, and I had emergency savings. This allowed me to take 6 months off to focus on my mental health, quit my job, and later go back to work part-time.
For me, burnout didn’t happen overnight. There were many things that led up to the moment where I could no longer handle the stress.
For about 4 years, I had been working 45-55 hour weeks and commuting 45-50 minutes each way. In my organization, the standard workweek was 45 hours (not the traditional 40). Because of the work hours and the commute, I would be gone from my house for 11-12 hours each workday.
On top of the sheer number of hours, my workload was completely unrealistic. I consistently tried to discuss priorities with my boss, so that I could work less.
Every quarter, I would create my project plan with the amounts of time needed for each project. I would share when completing all the projects would result in significant overtime. Her typical response was, “And…?”
She would then dismiss my concerns. She was certain that things wouldn’t take as long as I thought they would. Then, she’d proceed to add more projects to my list.
At one point, my boss shared that the reason I didn’t get a promotion was that I “needed to manage my workload more independently.” So, I tried an experiment. If I put my head down and didn’t push back on my workload for the next 6 months, would I get the promotion?
I’m sad to say that when I didn’t set any boundaries, I was rewarded with the promotion. I was also exhausted. At this point, I had already started thinking about how I could negotiate a sabbatical. I was experiencing chronic fatigue and needed a break.
Around the time of my promotion, a perfect storm of organizational issues hit. I won’t get into the specifics. What I will say is that my boss (the CEO) wouldn’t admit that these issues were happening nor permit me to look into the causes.
No one felt comfortable going to her directly to discuss the issues, so everyone started coming to me. For some reason, people expected that I could do something about it (I couldn’t).
Then, other executives started to try to hold me accountable for fixing the issues. These people with no authority over my work would call me into their offices and tell me that I wasn’t doing my job. One executive even told me that I “wasn’t idealistic anymore.”
It was true that I wasn’t pushing for change as much as I had before.
I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. I was trying to carry out my work in a way that my boss expected of me (that I didn’t agree with). At the same time, everyone else was trying to hold me accountable for something different. And no one would talk to her directly about the issues but me.
All these things contributed to me completely burning out in July 2018.
Could I have done things differently to have had a different outcome? Absolutely.
But, was it my fault? After months of working through it in therapy, I can confidently say absolutely not.
What is Burnout?
According to Psychology Today, burnout is “a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.”
When we experience stress, our brains trigger a fight or flight response to help protect us. When this stress continues for a prolonged period, our immune system kicks into overdrive to help prevent illness.
Our bodies are not designed to sustain this “overdrive” for long. When we do, it leads to exhaustion. Our bodies burn out. As a result, mental and physical health issues arise, such as chronic fatigue, depression, anxiety, ulcers, insomnia. In extreme cases, we even see heart attack, cancer, or death.
Stress and burnout should not be overlooked.
According to a recent Gallup survey of full-time employees, two-thirds of employees experience burnout at their jobs. 23% experience burnout very often or always, and another 44% experience burnout sometimes.
The ramifications of burnout don’t just affect individuals. They impact companies as well. Employees experiencing burnout are 63% more likely to take sick time. They are less likely to discuss their work progress with their manager and are less confident in their work. They are almost three times more likely to leave their current employer.
Burnout impacts individuals and companies and must be addressed.
6 Causes of Burnout
Unsurprisingly, all six of these things contributed to my case of burnout.
1. Unmanageable Workload
The first cause of burnout is having an unmanageable workload. A workload could be unmanageable for many reasons:
- You might have too much work
- Your work might be too complex
- Too many things might be too urgent
The company, supervisor, and individual can all contribute to an unmanageable workload. Companies might have too many urgent priorities. Supervisors might not accept employees’ boundaries and push them beyond their limits. Individuals might also take on too much work. They might have difficulty with project planning or not be proficient in the skills needed.
In my case, it was a combination of all three. My team did not have enough capacity to complete all the work set forth by the organizational priorities. My supervisor was not willing to discuss the need for better prioritization. Because I was already feeling burned out, I gave up trying to push back and sought to do it all instead.
2. Lack of Control
Feeling like you don’t have control over your daily work or outcomes can lead to burnout as well. There are many things that could lead to feeling this way:
- If you lack the autonomy to do your work in a way that would be successful
- If you don’t have access to the resources you need to actually do your job well
- If people are coming to you with random requests at all hours of the day and derailing your progress on other priorities
- If your priorities, goals, and success metrics are constantly shifting
Burnout can be especially bad when you are held accountable for things that are outside of your control.
In my case, it felt chaotic when other executives tried to hold me accountable for things that my boss didn’t want me to do.
3. Rewards and Recognition
People will become burned out if they feel like the rewards don’t match the time and effort they are putting in. All these things can contribute to burnout.
- Feeling taken for granted
- Not being recognized for your work
- Being under-compensated for the work you are doing.
For me, compensation wasn’t an issue. I had successfully negotiated salary increases, and I felt like my salary matched the work that I was doing. Part of it was that I was not being recognized. I was working as hard as I possibly could. Yet, it felt like I could never do enough.
4. Unfair Treatment
Receiving or feeling like you are receiving unfair or inequitable treatment often leads to burnout. Unfair treatment could include things like:
- Providing someone with recognition while not providing it to others
- Providing support for some and not for others
- Promotions and/or raises that aren’t based on merit
When decisions are made in a black box and seem to benefit some over others, this leads to feelings of distrust.
In my case, I had seen certain people push back successfully on priorities. I had a male colleague who went to a very prestigious university. He pushed back on his priorities constantly. He was often successful in negotiating a reduced workload. It also wasn’t held against him when it came time for performance discussions.
It could be that I wasn’t as skilled at negotiating priorities. It could also be that they did not take kindly to pushback from a young female who had attended a state university. The organization held Ivy League degrees in high esteem. They often hired and gave the best projects to people with these degrees.
5. Toxic Culture
Toxic cultures can also contribute to burnout. Things that can contribute to a toxic culture include:
- Passive Aggression
- Talking about people behind their backs
If there aren’t mechanisms for conflict resolution, breakdown in relationships will persist.
My work culture was very toxic. The executives wouldn’t speak directly with the CEO about the challenges. Yet, they tried to hold me accountable for organizational change.
6. Values Mismatch
There are two ways that values mismatch can contribute to burnout:
- If someone asks you to do something that goes against your personal values.
- If the organization has stated values but people don’t actually ascribe to them.
In my case, both of these things contributed to burnout. In the organization, work-life balance was touted as a core value of the organization. Yet, people were expected to work crazy hours. They were pushed beyond their limits even when they tried to set them.
I was also being asked to do things by my boss that did not coincide with my personal values. Trying to communicate that in a way that wouldn’t cause her to get defensive was exhausting.
How to Prevent Burnout
After looking at the reasons for burnout, it’s clear to me that the solution can’t only lie with the individual. There are definitely things that we can do as individuals. But, companies and supervisors are not blameless. There are many things that they can and should do to prevent burnout.
What Companies Can Do Prevent Burnout
There are many things that a company or organization can do to help prevent burnout. Among these include:
- Do an audit of the organizational structure to ensure there is enough capacity to carry out the work.
- Create a performance evaluation system that places outcomes within the control of employees. This system could also help to prevent scope creep.
- Ensure sufficient and equitable compensation that matches the work
- Build an organizational culture that values balance, respect, fairness, and encourages open communication
What Managers Can Do to Prevent Burnout
There are many things that individual managers can do to help prevent burnout.
- Encourage team members to communicate about work-related issues and listen actively
- Help to determine what is driving heavy workloads (or burnout), so that you can help to address it. Once the underlying cause is discovered, help to address it and remove barriers.
- Build a culture of collaboration and support on your team. Make people feel like it’s okay to ask questions or ask for help.
- Reinforce with each employee why their work is important and how it contributes to the success of the team and company.
What Individuals Can Do to Prevent Burnout
As much as I’d love to see companies and managers taking the lead on addressing burnout, it’s unlikely to happen. As individuals, we are responsible for our health and happiness. We can’t depend on someone else to fix it. Our health and lives are too important.
Understand and Address the Issues
As individuals, we need to reflect honestly about why we feel burned out.
If it’s something that is outside of our control, we can try to address it with open communication.
For unrealistic expectations, we could set better boundaries. For a lack of control over outcomes, we could discuss how we could adapt your success measures. For unfair treatment, we could consider addressing it with our boss or human resources.
Sometimes there are things within our control. We might need to build a new skill around project or task management. There could be a need to build knowledge and experience around a particular body of work.
It’s important to find time to relax and do activities that help us recover. This will allow us to reflect on our situation, be honest with ourselves about what we need, and set better boundaries.
I hesitated to include self-care in this post. I used to use self-care to help me to adjust to the things that were causing burnout – not to address them. It’s critical that we don’t use self-care to adjust the negative things that are causing burnout. It won’t work long-term.
You might try everything within your control, and the problems could still persist. At this point, if it’s impacting your health and happiness, your only recourse is to quit.
Quitting is a hard decision to make. If your job is making you miserable and you’ve tried everything, I’d encourage you to quit before it gets worse.
Financial Freedom Builds Confidence and Provides Options
One of the best things that you can do to prevent burnout is to build your financial freedom. When you gain financial freedom, it starts to tip the balance of power between you and your employer.
When I began to truly understand the power of financial freedom and F-You money, I started approaching work differently. Now, I can admit that I made a mistake or need help without worrying about the ramifications. Saying no and setting firm boundaries doesn’t feel foreign. I can also communicate my boundaries with “authority.”
I also always know that financial freedom will provide me with the confidence to quit my job. I have a buffer that would allow me to do this without another job lined up.
In my case of burnout, I tried everything. The only thing I regret is not quitting sooner.
Have you experienced burnout? What other solutions would you add to this list?