Burn·out: noun. Severe physical or mental de-motivation caused by overwork, stress, or self-assessment

Let me start this article by letting you know that I have experienced burnout many times in my very successful career and family life. Burnout is something that happens when we over-work, when we over-stress, or when we self assess and realize we’re not what we want to be. I’ve experienced all three. I’ve also had the pleasure to manage multiple large teams spread all across the world so I’ve seen a lot of people burn out and helped them through it. This article is for anyone who is burned out right now or for someone who wants to get better at preventing or helping others get to the other side of burnout.

Alright, if you’re still here then you’re interested so before we really dive deep, let’s take a minute to get on the same page about burnout:

  • Everyone experiences burnout in their job and life
  • There are two types of burnout: Physical and Mental
  • Burnout is a safety-reaction brought on by your mind and body to prevent harm to yourself
  • Burnout is generally looked down upon in the work place, so people hide it
  • You can get to the other side, but not if you ignore it, and your life may change as a result of it

There are three areas that are important to learn about:

  1. The reasons for burnout (I call them Profiles here)
  2. The strategies for handling burnout
  3. What to expect as a result of burnout

Burnout Profiles

It is important to realize that you might be in just one profile, or you might fit all three. There isn’t anything right or wrong about it. If you understand it you can better anticipate Burnout and get through to the other side of it.

With each of these there are a ton of physiological changes that happen to your body that I’m going to skip over because I don’t think they really matter to figuring out which profile you or someone else matches, or to the strategies that help you get to the other side. If you’re interested, Google and Wikipedia are your friends.

Profile #1: Working Too Many Hours (The Workaholic)

This is an easy profile to describe and most people in corporate america have experienced this at some point. Working 60, 70, 80 hours per week for a sustained period of time will eventually catch up with you. Maybe you are assigned a big project or maybe your team released some production code that has problems or maybe a process is broken and there is a big push to address it. Whatever the reason for the long hours, you’ve been putting them in.

After a while you will experience a Physical Burnout.

Sometimes people will say that they always get a cold right after delivering a big project or right after working a lot for a while. That is most likely a burnout situation.

People who are in this bucket will be tired and may just dissappear or go unresponsive for a couple or few days. Why? Well, they’re generally sleeping or they’ve picked up an illness.

Profile #2: The Stressful Job

Stress over time causes physiological changes to the body and if it is too much or to acute your body will give you a burnout reaction. There is a difference between experiencing short term stress single event stress, and massive ongoing health-impacting stress. However, each can cause burnout.

This is called Stress Burnout.

People who experience stress burnout can get impatient or show a temper, lose passion, lose interest, or become physically sick.

Profile #3: The Self-Re-Assessment (The Mid-Life Crisis)

Our minds are arguably more powerful than our bodies. When we humans get used to something it is easy to ignore what we don’t like about our lives by simply continuing to move forward. Sometimes something happens that causes us to snap out of that comfort zone and self-assess. And, sometimes, that self-assessment results in a clear dislike for what we see. This can be so acute that is causes an immediate burnout situation. Or, it may build for a while before it arrives.

Often people in the USA have heard of the “Mid-Life Crisis” where someone, generally a man, suddenly buys a sports car and starts hanging out with buddies and changes his mood or temperament. This is really an example of Self-Re-Assessment Burnout.

People who experience this type of burnout are really looking to change something significant about their life, but they may not realize that yet, they may just be completely dissatisfied with who they are and how their life is going. Watch out though, this is different than Depression which can hold someone back for months or years. Self-Assessment Burnout generally goes through an arc of recognition, re-prioritization, and then application.

Burnout Strategies

If you look at the profiles you can see some common aspects in the physical and mental aspects to them. And so, you might be able to create a map of Profiles to Strategies for recovery. I’m not going to worry about that, other than to give you a simple list of common matches. I’m just going to give you some strategies that work for me and have worked for others too. Consider this to be a buffet. Take the ones you need to fill your “plate” so you can get to the other side. Burnout is completely real and you will get to the other side.

Strategy #1: Physical Recovery

You may need some time to physically recover from burnout. It may just be sleep but it often involves getting over a cold or illness too. Either way, the strategy here is to let your body get back to a healthy position. Take the time to sleep. Take the time to be sick and recover. Don’t place so much value on your work that you go back to it too soon, particularly if you’re returning to the very thing that resulted in your burnout.

As a manager helping a team member through burnout this looks like:

  • A work-paid vacation or “conference” or “training”
  • Simply letting someone know they shouldn’t be in the office next week
  • Being supportive of sick time and fending off employees who work from home while sick

Physical Recovery best fits with:

  • Profile #1: Working Too Many Hours (The Workaholic)
  • Profile #2: The Stressful Job

Strategy #2: Hobbies

This is my favorite strategy. The Hobbies strategy involves giving yourself something different to do for a while. When your mentally burnt out you often need to focus your mind elsewhere to get past the burnout. There are so many different things you can do here. Maybe you like to read. Maybe you have a hobby you like to apply yourself to already. Maybe there is something you have been meaning to do but haven’t gotten in to it. Regardless, the important thing is to give your mind and body something different to do that you personally value.

As a manager when I saw someone burn out I would often encourage them to work less for a while and “get a hobby”. I would hold them to it of course… asking them in 1/1’s what their hobby was that they were applying themselves to and showing my genuine interest.

Hobbies best fits with:

  • Profile #2: The Stressful Job
  • Profile #3: Self-Re-Assessment

Strategy #3: Ignore It

This is the least effective recovery strategy but it does often work. The idea is that if you just plow through it, the burnout will go away. This works for mental burnouts but not physical ones.

The problem is that ignoring a mental burnout can lead to depression.

I don’t really want to say more other than to acknowledge it. Sometimes this, along with “Change Your Mind” can be effective.

Strategy #4: Make Adjustments

This is all about making meaningful changes to your life that help you get in to a sustainable position. Maybe you’ve been working too much and you make the adjustment to work less for the next two months. Maybe you make an adjustment and stop accepting projects of a certain type. Maybe you make an adjustment and ask to be transferred to a different job that isn’t as stressful. Maybe you take up a very low-stress activity or start working out.

There are so many possibilities here, just like the “Hobbies” strategy. The key difference is that you’re making a meaningful, long term change to your life that feels good and helps you avoid future burnout.

Here are some ideas for adjustments:

  • Working a smaller number of hours
  • Increasing physical activity
  • Improving diet
  • Changing jobs

As a manager, you can coach people in to making adjustments but you have to care more for the person than for the work they do to make it work

This strategy fits with all the burnout profiles.

Strategy #5: Change Your Mind

“Change Your Mind And You Can Change Your Life” ~William James

One strategy you can consider is simply changing your mind to adjust for the fact that your life is the way it is. This is a common approach when someone close to you passes and you go through a self-Re-Assessment burnout. Realize, though that it is not a sudden solution to burnout, this can take a long time, like the grief cycle.

Some Thoughts

There is a lot of information available online about burnout but much of it goes straight to the clinical rather than really being something you can use as a human, or as a manager of humans. Managers, realize that burnout happens a lot and you are a key player in helping people recover from it and avoid it in the future. Fellow humans, burnout happens a lot and if you can start to see it coming in yourself and you are mindful of how to get to the other side, you will take much better care of yourself when it happens.


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