Keep Burnout at Bay: Staying in Love with Your Job

February 6, 2018


Man working on laptop outdoors

The difference between stress and burnout...

When we are stressed, we are under too much pressure. At work, stress is commonly due to tight deadlines, work overload, competing priorities or working with a person who radiates stress. (Yes, it can be contagious.) When we are stressed, we feel a sense of urgency and tend to be very active. Stress at work is fairly common, and, in fact, some level of stress is good for us, keeping us interested and productive.

Chronic stress, however, can lead to burnout—and burnout is the result of persistent stress for some people.  Not all those who are under chronic stress burn out—some people can maintain their balance, restore themselves and cope with stress more effectively than others. Also, research suggests the people most likely to experience burnout are those who feel their work is not significant or doesn’t make a difference.

Stress may lead to burnout, but they are not the same thing. Burnout is characterized by withdrawal, detachment and exhaustion.  The individual begins to shut down, losing motivation and feeling helpless. Burnout is a cycle of negative emotions, paralysis and disengagement. While stress may result in physical damage, burnout primarily causes emotional damage. But, burnout doesn't happen suddenly. You don't get to work one day and suddenly "have burnout." Burnout slowly inches its way into our emotions, making it harder to identify.

Are you on the road to burnout?

In addition to experiencing a high level of stress over a period of time, burnout shows itself in lack of interest or engagement.  Some examples of a changing mental state might be: You’re not so happy to help others out or to take on new projects. You find yourself complaining and participating in cynical “pity parties” with your colleagues. You’d hesitate to recommend your organization as a good place to work. You dread coming to work many days. You feel like you work for not with your manager. You become a clock-watcher. You don’t enjoy your work.

Check your expectations and how your job has changed. The workplace itself is faster and weighed down with new information. Our attitudes toward our work aren’t going to remain the same. ‘Work you loved in your twenties may turn to ashes in your hands in your thirties. The work hasn’t changed, but in all probability you have changed. It’s not a cause for despair, but rather a sign that it’s time to move on, to push your boat towards a frontier a little further from the shore.’  

Can you turn things around? 

No matter how well you do your job, you may not be recognized, valued, appreciated or rewarded for what you do. There are likely to be factors at work that you feel you cannot control:

  • Overly rigid and controlling managers
  • Too many responsibilities and tight deadlines
  • Conflicting or shifting priorities
  • Strained relationships
  • Little control over what you are asked to do and how you do it
  • Bullying in the workplace or a toxic environment
  • Lack of rewards, recognition or promotional opportunities

It would be easy to throw up your hands and become a victim. Refuse to be a victim. Start by recognizing that you choose to be in this job and accept accountability for your own satisfaction. Ask what can you do to make your current work more enjoyable? You are responsible for your happiness, and if you can’t immediately change the job you are in, then it is up to you to make the most of it. Can you improve the situation or develop a better reaction and more effective coping mechanisms – or-- do you need to explore other job options? If you do need to move on, it is still critical that you not let yourself fall into a negative mindset that will threaten to show itself elsewhere.

Happiness and satisfaction at work are mostly the result of a sense of autonomy, meaning and having fun, challenging things to do. That’s why caregivers often have high levels of job satisfaction even though their jobs are stressful.  Those who are most dissatisfied at work report feeling: unrecognized and undervalued; that their work is irrelevant and meaningless; a lack of harmony with coworkers and hostility towards their managers.

The bottom line: Change what you can.

Starting with your own attitude. Smile. Be gracious. Avoid negative or difficult people as much as possible. Consciously list three things that went right and you are thankful for at the end of every day.

Do you enjoy what you are doing 75% of the time? If so, moving on may not be the best choice. Sometimes we have unrealistic expectations about job satisfaction. Think systematically about what’s not working and what you can do about it. What do you enjoy doing and are good at that benefits your boss and organization? Do more of it.

10 how-to tips for renewal

Over time, your routines, habits, and responsibilities may have turned a great job into a forced march. Changing things up can be simpler than you think. Develop new skills and habits that bring challenge and purpose into your day. Eliminate negative thinking that is dragging you down.  Reinvent the way you see work and your career. Here are a few more ways to bring possibility into your day-to-day work:

  1. Inject positivity

    A positive attitude will make every day more pleasant and more productive. Make it your practice to think every morning what the benefits of your job are—what does it allow you to have and enjoy?  Take regular “refresh” breaks during the day and get away from your workspace if only for five minutes. Use relaxation techniques as you need them—deep breathing and other techniques can be done at your desk. Switch off when you leave work.

    Unless you are on call, mentally say good-bye to work when you leave. Do not check or respond to emails. If things are on your mind, write them down so you don’t have to think about them. Remember that, no matter how challenging the work gets or how demanding it is, at the end of the day it is only a job, and life is much more than that.

  2. Focus on what you can give.

    If you focus on the talents and expertise you have to offer, rather than dwelling on what the organization or management should be giving you, your mindset will change for the better. Identify what you’re good at and what you most enjoy in your work. Are you good with people, or good with numbers? Do you love organizing or creating?  List five talents and skills you have and how they could be showcased. What can you do every week for the next four weeks that will move you toward using and expanding them?

  3. Step out of your comfort zone and into something you like.

    If you are stuck in a rut at work, add an activity in your personal life that you find fun, playful or energizing. Maybe you have an interest you’d love to develop into a new career; maybe you’ve always thought you’d like to write a blog or create a YouTube channel; maybe you’d like to master a sport or join a book club. Sinking your teeth into something you love can improve your work hours, too.

  4. Do what matters first.

    We’ve said several times that meaning and purpose and value are what motivates us. Too often, urgent tasks leave no room for important tasks. Shield some time on your calendar away from never-ending emails and meetings to use on the parts of your job that matter.

  5. Make wise use of your time and energy.

    No one gets it all done. To reduce your stress, marshal your time and energy as you would financial resources. Pay attention to your body clock and schedule your most intensive projects for the time of day you have the most energy and focus. At the side of your “to do” list, keep a list of things you can do in 10 minutes, and get those done while you are waiting. Pinpoint your time sucks—experts tell us that most of us waste about two hours a day. Stay away from social media and multi-tasking; they are productivity killers.

  6. Cultivate resilience. 

    It just makes sense that those who are resilient and can bounce back from mistakes or disappointments will be happier at work. They will be more productive, too! Practice positive optimism; switch those negative tapes in your mind to positive messages. Avoid drama (and drama queens) at work. Don’t participate in “ain’t it awful” conversations, pity parties; blame games or blowing things out of proportion. Most importantly, view mistakes and problems as opportunities to learn and grow and succeed.

  7. Make your surroundings pleasant.

    Just as plants have different needs in terms of light, water and nutrition, we don’t all bloom in the same environment. A study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that workers who were empowered to decorate their own workspaces as they pleased were up to 32% more productive than those who were not allowed to do so.  These employees also reported enhanced feelings of organizational identification and well-being. Sprucing up your workspace with things like photos, plants and inspirational quotes may help you feel better about work, while your colleague may need earphones and a highly organized space. Try rearranging your space, adding new color and changing lighting periodically.

  8. Go ahead and reward yourself.  

    If others aren’t doing it, find simple ways to reward yourself for getting things done (or even making it through a pressured day.) Rewards can help increase motivation, so when you've got a difficult or boring task ahead, try promising yourself a small reward.

  9. Make friends at work.

    Research shows that employees with a best friend at work tend to be more focused, more motivated and more loyal. They also change jobs less frequently, get sick less often and have more satisfied managers. Strong supportive relationships can transform your job. 

  10. Figure out what you need and ask for it.

    Many admins assume their boss knows what they want, just as they assume they know what the boss expects from them. Neither is a sound assumption.  Unexpressed expectations are much more likely to be unfulfilled.  And, remember that hinting is not asking. Be direct. Propose that project you want to lead; ask for that training opportunity. Make your case.

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