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How to take risks at work when you feel burned out

This consultant writes many individuals come to her feeling overwhelmed but still having the feeling there’s more to their journey.

How to take risks at work when you feel burned out
[Photo: Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images]

Have you ever felt pulled in too many directions? Have you ever felt that those in your professional life were being demanding or that no matter what you did your manager wasn’t satisfied? Have you ever felt that despite your best efforts, you weren’t doing enough? Most of us have been there, and most of us at some point have been told that the solution is “better balance.”

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As a speaker on gender-related issues, I frequently get asked to discuss work-life balance. However, I respectfully decline this topic in favor of a more realistic and empowering approach to “time and energy optimization.” While balance is an elusive ideal at best, it also misses an essential point. Instead of imagining a scale with two sides that we’re trying to balance, we would be better off imagining a wallet with a limited number of dollars. We have a choice of where to invest those dollars—our time—and we want to invest them in the activities and tasks that produce the most returns. Optimizing our investments means that we have more opportunity to risk intelligently. Not optimizing them will likely result in ongoing feelings of conflict and tension and little energy or time to invest in the chances that matter.

Consider what is the rate of return on your investment of time and energy (hint: If you’re investing based on assumptions rather than informed insights, you’re likely unintentionally creating a career and life with more tension and less time and energy for risk).

The challenge

I often hear in my work from women in the workforce, which paints a picture that they can occasionally struggle to take risks due to competing priorities and feelings of conflict.

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It’s easy to feel that you have too much on your plate to leave room for risk or that you already feel stretched, so risking on something important is not even possible. My study revealed that when women are asked why they avoided risk, “competing priorities and commitments in other realms of life” ranks in the top four crucial barriers to risk-taking. When you feel depleted, burned-out, and stretched, your appetite for making bold moves will inevitably decrease.

Before we delve more into this topic, it’s important to clarify I am not discussing balancing work and family. Feelings of conflict, tension, burnout, and exhaustion are not reserved for parents alone. Any woman, at any stage of her career, can face these physical, emotional, and psychological burdens. Research shows that the pandemic has only heightened these struggles, and those in the earlier stages of their careers have not been not spared. A study from Indeed found that burnout, a state of emotional and physical exhaustion, is on the rise, and the most-affected populations are Gen Z and millennials. Other studies have highlighted similar trends since the pandemic, with Gen-Zers the most dissatisfied with current work and life arrangements. Competing priorities, burnout, and feelings of conflict can be experienced by anyone, irrespective of marital or parental status, age, or career level.

If we want to risk intelligently, we must address these feelings of conflict. If balance isn’t the answer, what is? The answer is optimization.

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The solution

Reduce feelings of conflict, use curiosity as a tool. It can help you make informed time and energy investments.

The key to alleviating or reducing feelings of conflict isn’t in working harder but in getting smarter around the needs, expectations, and desires of those who matter to you and have a stake in your career and time and energy investments to produce the best returns. While curiosity can’t give you more hours in your day, it can help you make the most of those hours so that you can reduce feelings of conflict and free up your time for risk-taking.

When working in consulting, rotating across strategic and people projects in different companies and locations, I realized that the success of most organizations hinges largely on their understanding of the needs of their primary stakeholders, those who have a stake in or influence on the future of their business. These include internal stakeholders, such as employees, leaders, board members, and external stakeholders, such as clients or customers. Leaders seek to understand the expectations of these important people in a structured way, such as stakeholder assessments, customer needs assessments, market assessments, client surveys, and talent and employee surveys and focus groups. All these assessments are based on asking questions to understand the needs and desires of others, ensuring that the business is functioning on data, not assumptions. Despite the fact that understanding expectations is core to the successes of the world’s leading organizations, many women don’t apply these skill sets to their professional and personal lives; they don’t ask.

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One of the biggest mistakes that I see women making in the workplace is investing their precious and limited time and energy based on assumption rather than insight. My best bit of advice: Ask, don’t assume. It may seem simple, but asking has the power to transform your work and life and to reduce feelings of conflict as you optimize your investments. In short: Use the power of curiosity to optimize your career and life.

Many early-career women with whom I work report feeling stretched and burned out, and this affects their appetite for risk, as risking intelligently takes both time and energy. While we all have 24 hours in the day, what can differentiate us is whether we invest that time smartly and in the activities that produce the most returns. I often see women at earlier stages of their careers investing in activities that they think matter at work while overlooking what is actually critically important to their managers and teams. When I say, “Have you asked your manager what matters most to them? Have you set up time to understand how best to prioritize your tasks according to what is important to your leader?” The answer most often is no.

It’s easy to fall victim to frantically investing time in things that don’t matter, with increased feelings of tension and conflict. I see women receiving negative feedback in performance reviews and delayed promotions because they weren’t prioritizing and executing on the things that mattered most to their managers. They were pushing a boulder up a mountain only to reach the top and realize that they were climbing the wrong mountain. They never approached the climb with a spirit of curiosity and never asked their manager for directions on which mountain to climb. I often see women doing this at home as well, investing in things they think matter to their partners and families while not realizing that what really matters is something else. This is poor investment with poor returns.

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Excerpt adapted from Begin Boldly: How Women Can Reimagine Risk, Embrace Uncertainty, and Launch a Brilliant Career, by Christie Hunter Arscott (Berrett-Koehler, 2022). 

Christie Hunter Arscott is an advisor, speaker, and author of the book Begin Boldly: How Women Can Reimagine Risk, Embrace Uncertainty, and Launch A Brilliant Career

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