This two-part series focuses on the terrible situation of burning out at work. Part one dealt with signs you should watch out for. In this part I touch on ways to avoid it in the first place.
I’ve spent a long time writing, and rewriting, this post because I kept seeing new examples of people burning out. You’ve probably seen it too, or maybe you’re dealing with it right now. It tough to see colleagues go through this, but I’ve learned a lot about why it happened to them. I’ve distilled these learnings into five main ways that might help you avoid this terrible fate.
5 Steps You Should Take To Avoid Burning Out
Step 1: Continuously destress and declutter mentally
If you’re like almost every other human being, you don’t like stress. Stress leads to mental exhaustion, and if this goes on for too long, you’ll eventually burn out. When you find yourself unable to make sense of the chaos at work, hit the breaks. Focus on decluttering all your tangled responsibilities and figure out what your priorities really are.
This isn’t easy to do, especially when you feel like the work, or problems you have to solve, keep piling up. To be brutally honest, though, almost anything that you’re doing can wait. Think about it this way, if you burn out, will these things get done properly anyway?
Takeaways for Step 1
From my own experience, and speaking with others on this topic, here are a few easy ways to help eliminate stress and declutter:
- Take a week off without communicating with work
- Spend a dedicated day decluttering your email, calendar, tasks
- Try working from home one day a week to help focus on completing things
- Whiteboard all your projects, tasks, and goals to get the big picture
- Organize work based on what will get you fired (or in trouble) and what won’t, focus on the biggest priorities first
If you feel like you can’t do any of these, stop for a minute and look around you. Are any of your colleagues doing them? Is your boss out on vacation or working remotely sometimes? If so, that means you absolutely can too. If you have trouble getting approval, make sure to explain your goal of increasing your productivity and focus. Hopefully your boss will be on board.
Step 2: Look to lessen the load on yourself
Being a high-achiever makes you a prime candidate for burning out. People give you more work to do, because they trust you’ll get it done. You willingly take on more work as well. You’re a problem solver, that’s just what you do. This is all great, except when that load starts to take its toll. You can only carry so much, eventually some things have to come off.
As an experience top-performer, you should be looking to multiple yourself rather than do more by yourself. Take for example a Lead Engineer. Would you value them more if they raised the quality and skill level of all the engineers in their group, or simply powered through the work themselves?
Takeaways for Step 2
If you want to lessen your load, become a multiplier and determine which tasks you specifically bring additional value to. Think about doing these things:
- Figure out what your unique value-add is, and focus tasks that utilize it
- Delegate more of your responsibilities to grow others around you
- Re-prioritize your projects and work, eliminate what you can
- Learn to not always be the hero, say no while still being helpful
I love this quote from Michael Hyatt, former CEO of Thomas Nelson:
“Determine what you alone can do, and everything else, outsource.”
What’s amazing about this step is that if you can do it, most likely you’ll grow your career even faster. Simply put, leaders are multipliers.
Step 3: Get feedback on where you stand today
During a recent company reorganization, this issue stood out for many employees that I interviewed. They felt left out, unsure of their current standing within the company. Some engineers and managers were moved to new teams while others were left behind; the intent behind it all never really being clear for each individual.
You’re more likely to feel burnt out when you’re struggling to get proper recognition for the effort you’re putting in. This is where feedback is critical. Don’t expect it to come at the right time, or in the right way, without you coaxing it out, though. If you can get constructive feedback, then you’ll start building trust with those around you. This kind of trust helps relieve some of your symptoms of burnout, because you’ll know that you’re on good standing.
Takeaways for Step 3
If you’re unsure of where you stand in the eyes of your manager, your peers, or even stakeholders, try these tips:
- Be open with your manager about feeling symptoms of burning out
- Make sure it’s clear to your manager how you want feedback and recognition
- Ask directly for actionable feedback and if your manager thinks you’re growing or stagnant
- Request 360 feedback (or anonymous if needed) from your peers
- “Manage Up” by making sure those above you know your contributions and successes
If you suffer from having a terrible manager that simply doesn’t care, I’m really sorry. Unfortunately, it does means you need to work harder to understand where you stand. Just don’t use a bad boss as an excuse for not knowing whether you’re doing an amazing job.
Step 4: Always know which direction you should be going
One common theme I heard from people burnt out after another company reorg was that they simply felt lost in the shuffle. Knowing the direction you’re heading in your career, and within your team, is something you should be proactive about. As a human, you can only live with uncertainty for a limited period of time before it starts to wear on you.
Takeaways for Step 4
- Get clear expectations from your manager
- Make sure you have an up to date career development plan
- Figure out what matters to the company, tie your priorities to that
- Start having conversations with other leaders to understand where they’re headed or concerned with
- Get a list of important problems that no one seems to be solving and head in the direction of tackling them
If you feel lost, my advice is to carve a path out for yourself based on your own career goals. That can be overwhelming, so it’s important to find a good mentor who can coach you along the way. If you’re fortunate to be in a group that’s growing, make sure you’re offering to take on the challenging assignments. Being proactive is a great way to get additional leadership responsibilities, which will help guide your own growth.
Step 5: Make a drastic change
As a manager, one thing I’m most proud of is helping people shake things up before they burn out. What’s ironic is that people who don’t do this end up having to make a bigger change later on anyway. Either you’re forced out of your role due to lack of productivity or you quit due to boredom or frustration.
If you’re making a drastic change, a rule of thumb always look internally for something new before looking externally. You’ll get the benefit of starting fresh, with the bonus of still leveraging your knowledge of the company and the relationships you’ve built. Of course, this isn’t an option for anyone, but it’s worth double checking for yourself.
Takeaways for Step 5
- Keep your eyes open for new job openings within your company
- Talk to your manager about wanting to explore new opportunities, if he’s supportive this can help a great deal
- Get your network to work for you by getting to know what other teams do and their subcultures
- Find others who have transferred teams or roles and learn from their experience
- Don’t be afraid to leave your team, it’s better than leaving the company
I’ve personally taken this step and it really does work. I was once on the verge of burning out and realized it was because I wasn’t being challenged enough. My manager was supportive, so over the course of many months we worked together to find the perfect move for me. It saved me from leaving the company too soon, and helped me leverage my experiences in ways that grew me even faster.
Avoiding Doesn’t Mean Never Experiencing It
You’re going to feel symptoms of burning out, but what you want to avoid is being totally burnt out, beyond the point of recovery. Growing in your career means staying fulfilled and motivated, you can’t do that if you’ve given up.
In today’s market, it’s inevitable that you’ll move on from your current company. That’s not really a problem, or something I’m advocating that you try to avoid. Ideally, however, you want to leave when you’re at your peak, not when you’ve got nothing left to give. Being remembered for your amazing contributions is really important and goes a long way for long-term career reputation. The impression you leave will land you new opportunities, or allow you to recruit former colleagues wherever you find yourself next.
Before you go, take a look around at work and see if you’ve noticed anyone exhibiting symptoms of burning out. If you found these past two posts helpful, point them in this direction and give them a lifeline before it’s too late.
Credit: Feature image by Freepik