So This Is What They Call Burnout

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One of the first lessons you learn in leadership is how quickly your grand ambitions can be buried under an avalanche of reactive busy work, especially if your role falls somewhere in the zone of chaos known as middle management.

From day to day the priorities can swing wildly. It takes all you have just to keep your head above water. You put down one fire only to be presented with another unexpected challenge or demand that requires your attention.

You scramble, adapt, dance, dodge, and parry to the best of your ability, trying to make sure nothing slips while attempting to support your team. It seems there is never a moment to collect your thoughts or plan ahead. You sense it’s only a matter of time before one of the plates hits the floor.

The management assembly line is operating at the limits of your capacity but you care too much to let production stop on your watch. It’s how you’re wired. You’re going to keep fighting and giving it your best even though inside you feel tired, frustrated and anxious.

Despite your best intentions, the relentless pressure takes a toll on your mind, body, and emotions. As the weeks and months pass you eventually become exhausted, cynical and numb.  You turn robotic. The passion, interest, and joy in the work are lost along with your sense of purpose. You try to drum up a false sense of optimism for your team but it feels empty.

The day comes when you don’t want to get out of bed. You never thought it would happen to you. You’ve always been able to find a way through or some inspiration to cling to but today you can’t seem to muster the energy to get back on the treadmill.

“So, this is what they call burnout.”

You consider quitting but there are responsibilities. Bills to pay. People who depend on you. It’s an option but a difficult choice to navigate. And who’s to say that next gig won’t just be more of the same. You’re reminded how much you’ve invested to get to this point. Can you just walk away?

So here you are in your moment of truth. You can’t stomach the idea of things going on as they have been. Something has to give. Either the circumstances have to change or you have to change how you interpret and respond to the circumstances. Perhaps it will be some of both.

It’s time to call in reinforcements. You reach out to a friend who listens to your concerns and then follows with some questions to help you navigate your choices.

Ok, how did you get here?

You think about it. The problem has been getting worse over time as you’ve accepted more and more on your plate while never taking anything off. You realize there are things you could be delegating but how can you delegate if you don’t even have time to develop your team or train someone? If you’re honest, you aren’t even sure you have the right people on the team but you’ve been overwhelmed by the idea of even tackling that question given everything else you are dealing with.

So, how do you manage your time?

You wonder if some of the issues consuming your energy are self-inflicted. Have you lost sight of the real priorities? Are you managing your schedule or is your schedule managing you? You think about how you spend your days, what kind of tasks consume your attention. Are you chasing your inbox when you could be investing in the people and processes that allow you deliver real value?

Are you taking care of yourself?

Ouch. Not so much. You’ve been fueling yourself with caffeine, eating poorly, skipping workouts and failing to get enough sleep. It’s a recipe for exhaustion. This only adds to the burnout cocktail created by your internal expectations and the pressures at work. You recognize that this is an area that is completely under your control and yet you’ve let it slip along with other habits that used to help keep you focused and energized.

Who can you talk to?

You’ve been thinking about how to bring this up with your boss. It’s a tough conversation. Will you be considered weak because you ask for help, a reset of priorities or to shift some of your responsibilities elsewhere? Maybe you’ll be surprised. It could be they’ve really not been paying attention to how much has landed on your desk. You also recall a person you admire who seems to keep things in perspective and is highly effective in her work. Could this person be a mentor to help you through your work dilemma?

What’s your motivation?

Oh, that’s a big one. The question is reframed as “what do you love?” or “what drives you?”. It’s been so long since you really thought about it that the question just hangs in the air for a while. There was a time that you loved your work and thrived even though it was just as hard. What makes this different? You recognize some of the missing elements. Can you find a way to work some of those things back into your day? What would you have to let go? How would you need to prioritize differently?

But what if this doesn’t work?

Ok so you’ve accepted there are actions you can take, that are within your power and that might help turn this around or move you in the right direction. They’re worth trying. But what if the situation really is such that even with these efforts you keep finding yourself back on the brink of burnout? You realize you’re taking a risk either way. Staying in burnout risks your job as much if not more than taking action to deal with the problem.

Your friend reminds you that the only real question is your orientation. Will you be a passive or active? Will you decide what’s next or wait for the circumstances to decide for you? Every day you wait you are spending valuable life units in a situation that is killing your happiness. Just thinking about taking action begins to lift the dark cloud.

You are going to give it your best shot because you’ve decided this is something you need to do to grow and because you care about your team. Maybe you can even learn to enjoy the work again. And if the story doesn’t get better, you’ll turn the page, start a new chapter, maybe even a new book.

Tomorrow you will begin your escape from burnout.

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