Years ago, Discovery Channel ran a mini-series in which they tracked a class of aspiring Navy SEALs going through the grueling training phase known as BUD/S. At one point in the show, one of the instructors explained why “Hell Week,” which is what it sounds like, only lasted five days rather than a full seven. He observed that after a few days everyone who might quit already had and the ones who were left never would but risked seriously hurting themselves.
I wonder how many people in all kinds of work are at their own milder version of that: they won’t quit but their work quality is deteriorating due to burnout. I’ve gone through burnout phases before, and I’d venture that most of my peers have too at some point. Unfortunately, it seems the majority of us ignore the warning signs and just keep going. Surveys showing that 70% of employees in the U.S. are not engaged at work seem to support the idea of this walking-dead majority. Not all of that is due to people being overworked and fried. Still, I imagine a good chunk of those people used to be engaged in their work. What happened?
Some people take time off and re-assess things when they get to a point where they feel disconnected or in despair. They’re the smart ones; plenty of others fall into the “sleepwalking” stage. They’re too spent to approach their work with creativity and enthusiasm anymore, and their output predictably suffers. It’s an unhappy predicament, and yet there’s also a perverse pride people can start to take in this stage that makes it hard to kick.
If you’ve been in the workforce for a few years there’s a good chance you’ve come across sleepwalkers. They’re easy to spot; I’ve always thought the telltale sign of someone being in this stage is when they wearily volunteer to take on some assignment or other: “(Sigh)…I guess I can do it…Just add it to my pile…” That mix of cynicism, black humor, and fatalism shows that someone has lost hope that their situation can improve, much less that they are in charge of it.
The Checklist for Recharging without Quitting
When you find yourself exhausted but don’t want (or can’t afford) to up and quit, you’ve got to find ways to build your energy reserves back up. When you ask yourself the questions listed below, the key thing is to be honest with yourself. If you think you always have to be busy, you always will be. But if you can see that feeling perpetually swamped isn’t working for you and you want better, then you’re in the right headspace to answer these questions honestly:
- Are you addicted to being busy? The idea of busyness being at least a little bit like an addiction has gathered followers over the years. Regardless, if you need to feel busy, you’ll pack your schedule and volunteer for things to validate yourself. You have to be honest with yourself. If you’re doing it to feel good about yourself, you’re wasting valuable energy. Try not volunteering for something next time. The world will keep spinning.
- Can you get rid of meetings? Look at your calendar and take inventory of the meetings you’ve gone to in the last week or two. How many of them could you have not attended and been just as well off? If you ran them, how could you have done a better job with everyone’s time? Think about how much you would benefit from having even just two or three hours back to get important things done. Or just eat lunch maybe.
- Are you failing to finish? There is a concept from agile software development that may help you: minimize work-in-progress. A partially-done deliverable does no one any good, so cut down on the number of things you’re working on at once and focus on completing things. Having lots of tasks at different stages might make you look important, but more likely it’s making you unproductive and stressed.
- Can you work from home? I thrive on other people’s energy so I’m not a big telecommuter. My commute sucks though, and getting back two hours when I need to focus is sometimes what I need. Working from home even just a few days a month probably keeps me saner (eliminating one’s commute altogether has been equated to a $40,000 raise) and gives me back a night or two of doing things I’d rather be doing than working. (Life Pro Tip: Turn your computer all the way off when you’re done for the day so you’re not always “at the office” at home).
- Are you sabotaging your sleep? It’s probably unrealistic for you to get good sleep every night (who does?), but that doesn’t mean you can’t improve. If you’re really tapped out, set a goal of getting at least one really good night of sleep a week. Setting a sleep goal is as important as any other fitness goal. Try to get one night where you don’t drink, watch TV in bed or stay up too late. If this sounds lame to you, time to grow up.
- Are you taking your vacation? Except for my first year working when I stupidly thought I hadn’t “earned” the right to take a vacation, I’ve always tried to take real breaks. Remember, vacation is part of your compensation. Moreover you need time away to recharge mentally if you’re going to do your best work. There’s a reason so many people can point to breakthrough ideas they had while on vacation – good things happen when you give your brain a little space to breathe and think creatively rather than keep executing all the time.
Even if you aren’t feeling burned out, managing your energy levels is important for you to be successful. No matter how fast you run, your career is a marathon, not a sprint. You need to be able to sustain your pace.
Don’t Import Burnout
You might notice one point missing from the list: finding a new job. That’s because on its own, changing jobs probably won’t help. If you’re addicted to being busy or always have lots of work-in-progress, doing the same thing in a new setting won’t cure you for very long. Tackle the underlying issues and you’ll be in better shape whether you stay in your current job or, like I recently did, decide to start your own entrepreneurial journey (shameless plug alert: come check out UserMuse!)
The corollary is that as a hiring manager, you don’t want to bring in someone who’s already burned out. Mentoring your direct reports about managing their energy levels and working effectively is important, but you don’t want to important someone who’s already a wreck. If you work for an enlightened management team, require a new hire to take a vacation before starting. Failing that, give them a week or two before starting. Resist the urge to have them leave a job on Friday and start a new one on Monday no matter how much you want them to. If you really value what they can do for the business long-term, it’s the smart move.