Working Smarter

The Science of Why We Burn Out and Don't Have To

Posted by Joe Robinson

burnout woman.jpg

JOB BURNOUT is an accident. No one aspires to a state of exhaustion so complete you don't want to get out of bed. If we knew ahead of time that we were headed down this road, we could change course. But we don’t know that, because the chronic stress that drives burnout directs us down an unconscious track of mechanical momentum.

We don’t think about managing the demands that are pushing our buttons, we just keep reacting to them on autopilot on a route I call the burnout treadmill. Just keep going until the paramedics arrive. Unfortunately, they are arriving so we need a healthier approach to how we work and react to pressure, stress, and other people, and that means a conscious understanding of how we respond to burnout triggers and how certain personality traits and habits factor in to the equation. Stress management has to be as routine as brushing teeth.

BRAKE FOR BURNOUT

To prevent auto crashes, we moderate speed and make sure the brakes are working. To keep the accident of burnout at bay, we have act preventitively too, by putting the brakes on uncontested stress and perfectionism, and what researchers call self-undermining, from bad coping habits to lack of communication 

Most of the people I work with in my coaching practice suffer from burnout. They come to me after a long period of extreme work hours, workloads beyond their capacity, and high chronic stress from demands that have overwhelmed their coping systems, touching off anxiety, cynicism, and fear about what the future holds.

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They are not slackers; in fact, they are the opposite. They have worked so hard that they have gone beyond what’s healthy or needed to be productive in their work. They may think they are the only one who can get the job done right and don't delegate. Often, they associate endurance, quantity of hours on the job, with performance, when in the knowledge economy, it’s all about how fresh the chief productivity tool—attention—is. I meet them when the exhaustion, drop in performance, and medical issues tell them they can’t go on anymore like this. 

Burnout is what happens when chronically high demands meet low to no resources or support. The final stage of chronic stress, burnout is a condition of accumulation, unresolved stress that piles up day after day for months and years until it drains all coping resources—emotional, physical, and mental. It’s easy to get caught up in because chronic stress floods the body with adrenaline that masks the physiological impacts and makes us think we’re handling it, at least for a while—until we’re not. 

We're left in a state of chronic exhaustion, futility, and feeling a lack of personal accomplishment. Not only do you not have energy to do the job or live your life with joy, but you also feel like there’s no point to doing either. Cynicism and emotional distancing, withdrawal, and a host of medical issues follow.

CONTEST THE STRESS

Studies show a high incidence of depression, anxiety, and alcohol dependence in burnout cases (Ahola, 2007). Burnout is also a factor in cardiovascular disease, diabetes (Melamed, Shirom, 2006), gastro-intestinal problems, and stroke.

On the performance side, burnout triggers higher absenteeism and turnover (Maslach 2001), and presenteeism. The body’s at the office but not much else. It takes longer to get tasks done because of low energy and attention levels, so productivity is reduced.

There are situational factors that trigger burnout—the structure of the work, unrealistic deadlines, excess workload, and insufficient reward or support—but also individual causes rooted in personality traits and our own responses (or lack of them) to demands. The key to not fall prey to reflex burnout triggers is to be aware of the daily issues that drive stress, and resolve, dispute, communicate, and adjust them so they don’t push your buttons.

We all have a job we have to do. Nothing we can do about that. But how we do our tasks is something we can change. When we make adjustments to how we do our tasks and how we respond to others, we turn off the engines of burnou, which thrive on lack of control. When we make little and big changes, delegate, ask for help, control devices, and find ways to feel more autonomous, we eliminate the festering root of burnout—helplessness.

Research shows that when we exercise acts of choice and flexibility, we satisfy one of our core needs, autonomy, an antidote to burnout (which thrives on futility and lack of agency). One study (Bakker, Demerouti, Euwema, 2005) found that employees who communicate often with supervisors, get regular feedback (something you can ask for), have social support, and feel more autonomy as a result can have high demands but not get burned out.

DO EXTRAVERTS GET BURNED OUT?

The key to managing the stress that drives burnout is increasing control over demands and the thoughts and self-talk that undermine us. That’s where we gain autonomy and make work-life less difficult. But we have to set boundaries, which are a success tool, studies show (Nash, Stevenson, 2004). We can’t be doing two hours of work email at home. We can’t reflexively do 12-hour days without asking what’s wrong with workflow, delegating, or time management. 

And we have to speak up. We have to let others know the situation is untenable. One of my clients told her boss that though she loved her job, the toll of burnout on her and her family was no longer something she could accept. Something had to change. The boss agreed and removed a person driving high stress from contact with her and gave her a month off with pay to regather her crashed resources.

Proaction is the way out of burnout. Keeping everything inside is the way to keep burnout going. This client is an introvert, but she was able to step up and communicate her needs. Studies show, by the way, that extraversion is negatively associated with burnout. So if extraverts tend to have less burnout than introverts, that is instructive data. People more inclined to talk about challenges and ask for adjustments feel more control over events, and that control reduces the helplessness of silence.

EXHAUSTION LEADS TO MORE EXHAUSTION

In a fascinating study, Arnold Bakker and Patricia Costa examined the individual side of burnout. They found that, “Employees with higher levels of daily exhaustion show self-undermining behavior…Chronically burned-out employees are less able to manage their own emotions, and more likely to encounter conflicts at work. These self-undermining behaviors all contribute to higher daily job demands.”

Bakker and Costa found too that high levels of daily exhaustion resulted in mistakes that had to be done over, which pushes schedules back, creates more time urgency, and more pressure in an ever-repeating cycle.

Researchers have found the best antidote to burnout is something every employer wants: employee engagement. People who feel they are valued and participants in the way the work is done don’t get burnout out. Burnout scholar Christina Maslach has reported that the key dimensions of burnout—exhaustion, cynicism, and lack of professional efficacy—are the polar opposite of engagement's main domains: vigor, dedication, and absroption. 

The autonomy support framework created by the University of Rochester’s Edward Deci and Richard Ryan is an ideal antidote to burnout. It brings more teamwork, satisfaction, and something else critical for anyone to do something that’s hard—the right kind of motivation, intrinsic motivation. When we work, not for the external payoff, but for internal goals such as service, challenge, excellence, or craft, we satisfy our core needs of autonomy, competence, and connection with others and don’t go down the track to isolation, alienation, and catastrophic thoughts that lead to burnout.

Attention, then, is our exit off the burnout treadmill. The more attention we have on how we work, the fewer emotional reactions and mechanical momentum that can self-undermine us. There is nothing more important to pay attention to than your health, so let’s all make sure we jump on the triggers that set us off and not give stress a pass or buy the bravado that we can “take it.” Or one day, you get taken by burnout.

Tags: burnout, stress management, burnout causes, work overload, job burnout, setting boundaries at work, boundaries

Best Stress Management and Life Tool: Non-Reaction

Posted by Joe Robinson

Stress_leaping_canyon-1

If there are two words that sum up the central challenge of work and life, they are these: “Don’t panic!” That is because resisting the urge to react in a way that sets off the stress response and renders our brain’s decision-making faculties stupid goes against our design as emotional creatures.

We are programmed to react before we think. A couple hundred thousand years ago early humans couldn’t be relied on to think their way out of a jam—we didn’t have the higher brain organs yet, so we had to rely on primitive mechanisms that allowed the emotional part of our brain, the amygdala, part of the  limbic system, to call the shots any time we were threatened. The same is true today, even though we have vastly souped-up cognitive equipment. When demands overload coping capacity, the amygdala takes charge again—and rationality goes AWOL.

THE REACTION REFLEX

It’s just one of the many reasons why every individual and organization has to know how to manage reactions, and by doing so manage stress in the process. It's an essential work-life balance tool. The reaction reflex sets off rash, hare-brained, panicked decisions, crisis mentality, vengeful behavior (fight), and, of course, flight in the form of people quitting their jobs. Forty percent of job turnover is due to stress. Along the way, the emotional reaction of stress drives insomnia, cardiovascular issues, depression, and a host of other costly conditions, not to mention the fact that it’s contagious—spreading stupidity around the office.

Ignoring the problem makes it worse, since stress thrives on being unchallenged as the false belief it is. Stress management training gives employees tools to contest stress and the faulty ancient brain mechanism that keeps us reacting emotionally. The reality is we have 21st century brains and a cerebral cortex to think through a setback and do something that completely flummoxes the caveman/woman brain that wants us to go nuts several times a day: not react.

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If we don’t react when pressure builds, and we consistently let off steam from that pressure cooker in the form of stress reduction practices and recreation, we are in charge, not an artifact from early homo sapiens. The art of nonreaction is the key to managing setbacks, expectations, and just about all the other flashpoints and struggles of life. It’s an amazing ability that can transform our lives from fear and loathing to the confidence that we can deal with whatever comes our way.

BLIND EMOTIONS

When something happens that overloads the coping equipment, the goal is to not react blindly to it and buy the emotions that are coming from a bogus life-and-death story in our caveman/woman brain. Instead, you actively don’t engage with the reaction. You know the situation is temporary. You’ll get through it.

Yes, you might have 200 emails, but you can handle it. You’re not going to die from them. Yes, you are caught in a major traffic jam, but freaking out and racing down the median in flight mode to escape the herd is not a smart decision.

I watched a huge collision that happened when two drivers panicked and listened to their ancient flight buttons. A compact car two vehicles up from me on a gridlocked avenue swerved into the median to escape the traffic and go in the opposite direction, where there was no traffic. At that same instant an SUV came barreling up the median, and—crunch—two cars totaled, with who knows how much physical damage to the drivers. All because they reacted before they thought.

Stress management training teaches participants how to override the ancient machinery that desperately wants us to go crazy when something happens that we don’t like. It shows how without the reaction there is no stress. It’s not the deadline or what somebody says that drives stress—it’s our reaction to those events that causes stress. It’s the thoughts that arise from the emotional reaction, the story we tell ourselves about the stress, that creates the stress. 

DON’T TAKE THE BAIT

How do we change such an ingrained behavior? Instead of letting a story fanned by irrational emotions run you, the trick is to shut down the storyteller. There is no story, just the frame you put on it. You are not going to die from the stress trigger, and you don't have to be manipulated by it. You can catch yourself as the emotions go off and bring back your 21st-century faculties.

This neutral approach allows you to not take the event personally, since the emotions of that default are a mega-driver of stress. The task is to simply observe the situation, the thoughts, and not engage with them. Let them slosh into your brain and slosh out again. You aren’t going to fall for it. 

Nonreaction is a superb weapon against ourselves, against all the ways that we set ourselves up for failure because our expectations aren’t met, or we aren’t perfect, or things don’t work out. The art of nonreaction prevents us from getting too high or too low. You cut off the pattern as soon as it starts. No, I’m staying neutral. I’m not taking the bait. You resist judgments about the event. You’re not going to get tangled up in its effect on your ego, a trigger of so many of these emotional wildfires. You aren’t taking sides.

It’s a great feeling to know you can’t get pushed around by yourself, that you are in charge of your own mind. It’s a state of being jaded to the manipulation that has happened so many times before. We are on to it, to ourselves, to the buttons others push.

You and the people in your organization or team can be on to this toxic saboteur too, leaving dramas, unmanaged demands, frenzy, conflict, and poor performance behind. Being able to control this reflex with nonreaction is one of the most useful things in the life arsenal, and the earlier we learn it, the quicker we can get it out of our own way.

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Tags: stress tips, work-life balance training, stress and self-talk, work overload, stress management training, stress management speaker, stress, stress management, job stress, work stress, managing stress

The Thought Break: 8 Ways to Beat Device Reflex and Build Work-Life Balance

Posted by Joe Robinson

Task overload keeps out work-life balance

With all the time people spend looking down at their phones, future generations may be endowed with additional neck muscles to manage the posture. We don’t have to wait for one of the side effects of too much time in screen mode. Researchers have found that when the default in every spare second is to automatically check a digital devicd, you are doing serious damage to memory and learning.

The impulse to fill spare moments with a check of electronic devices robs brain neurons of the downtime they need to process and remember thoughts. Ideas, problems, dilemmas, musings, and experiences don’t have the space to be weighed, so we have a hard time remembering them, research at the University of San Francisco suggests.

In experiments with rats, they discovered that only when the animals took a break from activity were they able to process the patterns of a new experience. They suspect humans operate the same way. In fact, a very novel study from the University of Michigan, which examined how humans (monitored by portable brain sensors) reacted to natural surroundings, found the same dynamic. Walking in a park or in a natural setting created a meditative state in the brain ideal for reflection and processing.

NO TIME TO THINK

The research is providing a very good picture of why so many feel so overwhelmed these days in the always-on world. There’s no time to think. We can’t prioritize, solve problems, or take the time needed to plan an organized workday or time off the clock to refuel the batteries. Instead, there is constant commotion and busyness, which masquerades as productive behavior, but is actually very different from forward progress. Commotion isn’t motion. It’s a mechanical momentum without intentionality or mobility.

Nonstop busyness has become the real business today. Many of us live to be occupied, while being unconscious to what it is that we’re actually doing, since there’s no time for thinking. For busyness to work, it has to be connected with thought and prioritization. Otherwise, everything that comes through the unfiltered digital pipeline is urgent.

When there’s no allowance for critical thought, there’s frenzy and frazzle. Thinking is how we tamp down the load, decipher paths forward, delegate, and make adjustments to how we do our tasks that help us work smarter. It’s how we process the experiences and notions that plant the seeds that lead to discoveries and solutions.

SQUEEZING OUT MEMORIES

When we sleep, our brains process the events of the day, look for patterns, and file the data in our memories. Filling up every minute with reflex digital checking or busyness deprives brain neurons of the thoughts needed for processing during shuteye. That can affect memory, since the information is being squeezed out by preoccupation from entering the incubation process. Besides making our lives a lot easier, memories play an important role in mood state. Our memories are a kind of ongoing status report as to whether we like our lives or not. Researchers say we’re as happy as the most recent positive and novel experience we can remember.

On the front end of the day’s events, reverting to the digital default can affect working memory, since the self-interruptions play havoc with our ability to retain short-term information.

The habit of busyness can become self-defining to the point that if we are not in hyperventilation mode on a task every moment, there is guilt—even at home. Yet productivity is something that depends on informed performance, thought before action. Without thought, we can wind up doing more than we can do well and at times doing tasks we shouldn’t be doing, when others are more urgent.

THINK WORK-LIFE BALANCE

Without thought, there is no work-life balance. That is not the default position. In fact, it’s the opposite. A semblance of work-life fit requires proactive planning and regular check-ins to see how we are doing. Keeping work-life balance in mind can serve as a conscious check on the autopilot that drives frenzy and overwhelm. Having a work-life goal of low-stress, effective work practices, and time for family and friends outside the job insures time to plan and reflect.

A state of busyness can make it seem that you don’t have a moment for reflection, but that is a mirage from stress-addled thoughts that make you feel every minute is an emergency. The I’m-Too-Busy mental block is very effective at screening out the things we need to work more effectively or squash any notion of time off-the-clock for recharging. As the old saying goes, you have to take time to make time, so let’s look at times when you could do that and schedule something new and very exciting into your day: thought breaks.

1. The first ten minutes of your day. When you get into the office, before you check email, write down your top three priorities for the day.

2. Use the transition points between tasks or work spheres, when you have finished one and are moving into another, to take a moment to celebrate the finish of one task and think about what you want to accomplish with the next item.

3. Use coffee or water cooler breaks to take a deep breath, think about what you’re doing next, or muse on something unrelated to help rebooting.

4. Take a five-minute walk three or four times a day to let your mind reflect and wonder.

5. Shut off all devices at lunch and have uninterrupted time to space, observe, muse, or plan a weekend activity.

6. The first 30 minutes when you get home from work. If you’re doing exercise, do it without digital screens in front of you. But music is good for letting your mind drift to thoughts and associations that may connect some dots.

7. Anytime your brain is fried, and you are going in circles mentally, get up, take a walk, do some stretching, and let your mind reset. Even five minutes is helpful.

8. Do a work-life balance check once a week to see how you are doing. What are the challenges? What’s going well?

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Tags: productivity, work life balance programs, work life balance, stress management programs, email overload, work overload, work breaks

Work Overload: Speaking Up about Boundaries

Posted by Joe Robinson

Boundaries are key to work-life balance

Alarmed that marathon workweeks were driving out too many talented people, the Boston Consulting Group created a program to head off the problem. Called the Red Zone, it flags employees who log more than 60 hours a week for five weeks, citing their exploits on reports seen by partners and managers. “A hero is not someone whose light is on at 10 at night,” says Kermit King, the firm’s head of recruiting for the Americas.

A Red Zone event triggers a meeting with a Career Development Committee sponsor to find out what’s causing the pattern. The manager reviews the project to see where adjustments can be made to prevent an expensive burnout.

Solutions can range from reprioritizing duties, to adding more resources, to changing the timeline and better time management. The program lays down a marker that pushing to the brink isn’t a smart way to work. The Red Zone has increased the number of consultants who feel their job is manageable and, as a result, boosted the number of people who say they want to stay at the company and improved work-life balance. 

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THE GREAT UNMENTIONABLE

Unfortunately, few organizations are aware of the importance of clear boundaries on their bottom lines or talent. One tech firm bases promotions on how much weekend time you work—while struggling with a growing retention problem.

A Red Zone program could have saved Karen Walker, a marketing exec for a large Silicon Valley firm, from herself. An intense case of workaholism drove her to 90-hour weeks, as well as chronic hives, hair loss, and thyroid medication. “I will work something till I feel it’s worthy of the company’s name,” she told me, a dictum that overtook her health.

A few sensible boundaries can save a lot of turnover and medical bills. There’s a reluctance to go there, though, because a very powerful myth makes us think that success requires going to the absolute breaking point. Yet the research and case studies are unequivocal: success depends on boundaries.

Researchers at Harvard Business School found that the key component for successful business executives that gave them true satisfaction was “the deliberate imposition of limits.”

AVOIDING THE INFINITE MORE

“It allows them to say I don’t need to work away at this particular thing until I’m satiated and hate the very sight of it,” said Laura Nash and Howard Stevenson, authors of "Just Enough," in the Harvard Business Review. “This is ‘just enough.’ They recognize the importance of setting their own standards for ‘enough.’ And not falling prey to the lure of the infinite ‘more’.”

That’s what Susan, a Denver financial advisor I coached, discovered when she got to the end of her rope with 70-hour weeks. “I was hating work that I love and, by driving myself harder and harder, I had started to hate myself and my life,” she says. “My productivity was at a standstill, and I was always angry at myself for not accomplishing more."

The problem, she came to see, was that she was trying to be the best, an external goal, instead of focusing on doing her best, which is where the more important internal rewards come from. After shifting her outlook and revamping her schedule, she was able to set boundaries and improve her performance at the same time.

When a client recently asked her to do another loan report after she’d just finished one for this customer, she did something she never did. She said No. “I knew I had done enough,” she says. The client was initially unhappy, but called back the next day and apologized for being out of line.

“It feels great to know you can say you’ve done enough,” says Susan.

Research by Stanford Medical School’s Mark Cullen has uncovered something very revealing about the impact of overperformance on job satisfaction. Even if you love your job, if you do too much of it, you’ll hate it. Overly tasked people, says Cullen, don’t like what they’ve done at the end of the day. It turns out that too much work strips all the accomplishment, and fun, from what you’re doing.

THE SUCCESS TOOL

Over the last couple decades we have become more and more hesitant to set boundaries, but that’s no longer tenable in a 24/7 world. It’s time to reclaim boundaries and see them for what they are, the most basic management tool, a key to work-life balance that allows us to work more effectively. They are also an essential stress management tool.

A small but growing number of companies are recognizing that operating without limits is hurting bottom lines and retention. Two maladies associated with long-hours schedules, stress and depression, are five to seven times more costly to treat than other workplace illnesses. 

We all work more productively when we have a chance to think, plan, and organize. We get that from boundaries. A report out of Harvard on speaking up in the workplace called the word No the “voice-oriented improvement system.” Things get better for employee and employer when we find out what's not working and don’t do more than we can do well.

This same report said that people are speaking up at work—they tend to be extroverts—and there is not the negative repercussions to it that are feared. People live to talk about it.

SPEAKING UP AND LIVING TO TELL ABOUT IT

I do an exercise in my workshops where people who set boundaries share with those who don’t what happens when boundaries are verbalized. Sometimes nothing. Sometimes static, but often the boundary sticks and the person is actually respected more for it. They are not sent to the gulag.

Oftentimes, managers don’t know how many things you’re working on. Clarifying with them the tasks you’re doing, your duties and schedules can help him/her see that it doesn’t make sense to have you do an excessive number of things poorly that don’t reflect the real priorities.

Most people today are in retaliatory mode all day, simply reacting to devices and what comes at them. That drives a lot of action and assignments without thought. You can bring that thinking into the equation by asking questions and offering more productive solutions than the task or the schedule that takes you beyond the capacity of physiology and excellence.

Boundaries give everyone a clear picture of where things stand, which is what you want to be able to do at the end of the day. 

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Tags: chronic stress, burnout, work life balance programs, work overload, overwhelm, workaholism, setting boundaries at work, overtime costs

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