We’ve all felt like we’re in a rut, uninspired, and burned out. Often the feeling lasts a few days and then goes away, but if it persists, it’s important to get to the root of the problem.
“Burnout is like a smoldering fire: If you don’t put it out quickly, you’ll soon have a full-fledged conflagration on your hands,” says Don Maruska, serial entrepreneur and coauthor of Take Charge of Your Talent: Three Keys to Thriving in Your Career, Organization, and Life. “Job No. 1 for every person is self-management. If you aren’t at the top of your game, how can you win and enjoy the success?”
Research from the University of Zaragoza in Spain identified three types of career burnout:
- Frenetic burnout that comes when you work increasingly harder, to the point of exhaustion.
- Underchallenged burnout that occurs when monotonous conditions fail to provide satisfaction.
- Worn-out burnout that happens when you have prolonged stress or a lack of control or acknowledgement.
How you cope or handle your burnout will depend on its source.
As a surgeon, Akram Alashari, author of The Power of Peak State: Massively Enhance Your Personal Potential, has experienced burnout and witnessed it in his colleagues. “Health care has the highest rate of burnout compared to any other industry,” he says. “It is very important to unplug from work and to relieve ourselves from daily hassles.”
If you’re in a workaholic mode it can be hard to make time for rest, so the first step to being able to unplug is to fully understand, both intellectually as well as emotionally, the benefits of unplugging. “Taking a mental vacation and unplugging allows the individual to escape the daily grind, and better appreciate the bigger picture,” Alashari says. “This means engaging in deep meaningful thought, and reconciling thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes about one’s life and place in the world.”
It’s also important to evaluate your life story so that you do not identify yourself with your occupation. “Identifying yourself as your profession can severely narrow your perspective and cause you to think and behave in ways that are only consistent with that profession,” says Alashari. “For example, I am a doctor, but I identify myself as a human being who is trained and specialized in medicine and the healing process. This allows me to better understand the world and other peoples’ perspectives. Improving your personal narrative can greatly reduce the stress of work.”
Unplugging will give you a break from worries and obligations, providing time to spend on doing something that brings joy for the sake of happiness itself. “Creativity, euphoria, flow state, and peak experiences often occur while one is in an elevated mood during recreation,” says Alashari.
Sandy Gould, senior vice president of culture, coaching and communicating for Yahoo!, experienced career burnout in 2016 and announced he was leaving the company, which was reported by Fast Company.
A literal dream just before he left the role led to a change of heart, a reinvention of his responsibilities, and a move to New York, keeping him at the helm of Yahoo’s HR efforts.
“Ask yourself what you love doing and really want to do,” Gould suggests. “The goal is to find something you are as passionate about as Luke Skywalker was about joining the rebellion, or as Spider-Man and Superman are about saving and protecting people. When you do what you love and use your superpowers for good, you will create in the best, most powerful, and fulfilling ways.”
Gould shares his seven-step process for getting through underchallenged burnout:
- Identify what you love. “What do you love doing at work?” Gould asks. “What have people said you are good at? What do you want next: a title, more money, a role, or a skill?”
- Find and build your superpowers. “What successes have you had, and what superpowers helped you achieve them?” Gould asks. “What do you do differently than others? How will [you] do the job in a way that reflects [who you are], leverages [your] superpowers and creates something awesome?”
- Seek advice and get feedback on what people think you love and are great at. “Also ask people how they have found their destiny,” he says.
- Build a plan to take steps that lead you to your destiny and use that plan to move forward.
- Don’t follow the plan. “As my friend [fashion stylist] Joe Zee wisely said, You have to have the plan, but then break it when opportunity leads you down an even better road,” Gould says.
- Focus on what matters to you. If job, title, compensation, experience, or people are your priority, focus on that, because that will make you happy. It’s what you need. Don’t listen to conventional wisdom that says you are supposed to do something at this time, this way, or care about this the most.
- Customize the job to your unique approach.
Gould had been trained in Rabbinical studies, philosophy, psychology, leadership, and counseling, and his first job in human resources demanded sales and recruiting. “I blended counseling, coaching, management consulting, and ethics with sales and recruiting,” he says. “I offered my clients more consulting services and I focused on building relationships with clients and candidates, as opposed to a transactional focus on generating fees. As a result, I was the top producer for seven years and promoted to VP in record time because of my unique approach. Most importantly, I loved my job and the experience, connections, and learning.”
Worn-out burnout happens when you encounter stress and lack the motivation needed to get through it. Fantasizing about quitting might help you get through the day-to-day, but finding ways to reduce or eliminate the problem is better.
“In surveying the popular literature on the topic of employee burnout, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that diagnosis and treatment rests almost exclusively on the individual’s pro-action or self-help,” says Martha Bird, business anthropologist at the human resources services provider ADP Innovation Lab.
First, reconnect with your intention, suggests Maruska. “Find a generous listener who will ask you, ‘What are your hopes about your work?’ and reflect back what they hear,” he says. “Encourage them to probe deeper and ask, ‘Why are those important to you?’ These questions stimulate positive, constructive thinking and help you refocus on what’s important to you. They renew your mental energy.”
Next, examine what’s getting in the way and be prepared to address it. “Create a chart and list everything, even minor items that contribute to your feeling of frustration or burnout,” says Maruska. “If you’ve been in your job for a while and are candid with yourself, you probably have dozens of items. Often, we accept conditions as givens when actually there are ways to change them. We just haven’t seen how yet.”
Then act. Worn-out burnout often happens when we give our power to someone else, says Maruska. Take back ownership of your story instead of waiting for someone else to make things better.
Employee burnout is at epidemic levels, and companies would be wise to pay attention, says Bird.
“While there are many triggers to worker burnout, some not even directly related to work, it is clear that those companies that take an active role in building caring workplaces with workers who at the end of the day feel well taken care of will be profitable–profitable for the individual, for the community, for the customers, and for the products,” she says. “Failing to understand the cultural contexts and specific human needs in which burnout flourishes or fades ensures it will remain a pressing concern for companies seeking competitive advantage today and in the near future.”