You know, as learning and performance professionals, we should know better.
I don’t know whether it’s our drive, our creativity, our passion, or just our desperation (the majority of us are not paid well), but we sure do like to work in crazy environments. Aren’t we supposed to be the experts in meeting human needs to increase learning and performance?
A few years back I experienced a burnout. I’ve come to realize that I did it to myself, that it wasn’t just my work environment or employer. I’ve seen more than one other person do it to themselves, too.
We live in crazy times, where even what is considered a good salary barely pays the bills. Professionals and potential clients alike scoff at reasonable living wages/compensation because there’s always someone willing to do it cheaper. “You want that much? I can go to Fiverr and pay somebody five dollars to do that.”
Add in some of life’s more tumultuous events, the desperate drive to prove yourself and provide for your family, and the fact that most employers stand in a position of strength relative to the vast majority of their employees, and you have a perfect recipe for burning out your best people.
I remember, before my burnout, talking to someone who was working for me on a project. He told me, “I just can’t concentrate. I want to do a good job on this, but I just look at my computer. Then I find myself getting up and looking around, out the windows and such.” I cannot tell you how glad I am I handled that situation with great respect and empathy. We prayed together. We worked through the issues together. Even though I wasn’t able to continue working with him for that project, I followed up with him more than once, wanting to make sure he was okay.
Because I would need all that and more when it was my turn. And I was nigh in the middle of running towards that same state in that moment, although I was unaware of it.
So, how’d I burnout? Let me tell you, so you can learn from me and avoid a burnout yourself.
In this post, I share seven sure-fire methods I used to reach my own burnout, and I close with what leaders of people should know about burnout.
1. WORK MORE THAN 60 HOURS A WEEK
Or heck, just do what I did and work an average of 90 hours a week for two years. In the midst of this project, I broke the company record for number of hours worked in a two-week period.
How was this possible? I was desperate. This was my first major project, and it needed to be a success. I thought pouring everything I had into the project would make it better. Also, the way I had solved all my previous “impossible” projects (I still love it when people tell me something can’t be done and I prove them wrong by doing it) was not so much by planning or brilliance but just by hurling myself – everything I had – at the problem until it was conquered.
It’s great to go to war like this on a meaningful project once in a while. It’s good for you, and, like the song (and Solomon, in Ecclesiastes) says, there’s a time for it. But we don’t go to war all the time. And you don’t keep your people on the front lines all the time. You take turns. Everyone does his or her part. A ship whose entire crew is at battlestations for days quickly loses its ability to fight.
When you engage in actual fighting, if victory is long in coming,
then men’s weapons will grow dull and their ardor will be damped.
If you lay siege to a town, you will exhaust your strength
– Sun Tzu
Seriously. Don’t work more than 60 hours a week. In fact, research shows that we humans need to limit ourselves to 40-hour workweeks.
I state 60 here because I include personal professional development and research time in my workweek, and have 20 hours a week slotted for it. I didn’t make up this schedule. It’s what I adapted after I burned out. Don’t work more than 60 hours a week!
2. NEVER TAKE A DAY OFF
At the time before I burned out, I was building up another company, and unknowingly treating it as if it were my own, despite the fact I was never promised anything for taking such drastic measures to ensure its success. The reason I did this was because I was loyal, and gave my very best to a great man who was there for me when I needed it (and I’d gladly follow him to the gates of hell and back, again).
I worked every day, every single day, for years. Even on my days off I would work and read and fiddle and tweak and work and develop side projects – mostly for the good of the company. That’s all great if you’re building your own business or getting out of debt and you have the wherewithal to work six days a week.
But no matter your belief system, there’s a reason the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob tells us to take a Sabbath every week. And it’s for our own good. Have faith that your world won’t crumble because you decided to get the rest you need. Trust you’ll be better for it. If anyone knows what He’s talking about, it’s God. If you don’t believe Him, that’s okay, science backs him up.
Every week, take a day off. As hard as it is, don’t do any work on that day and spend it resting with those you love.
3. SLEEP ONLY FOUR HOURS A NIGHT – OR NOT AT ALL
During that project I mentioned earlier, it was normal to work until 2am, collapse, rise again at 6am and start all over again. There were many, many nights where I dared not sleep at all. I skipped meals. I did not exercise.
I did this because I was “building my wall” and considered this my time of war – a time when sleep should be sacrificed.
Don’t do this. In fact, the more difficult the problem, the less likely you are going to be able to solve it without rest.
The great programmer, Robert C. Martin, says it best in his book The Clean Coder.
“Can’t go home till you solve the problem? Oh yes you can, and you probably should! Creativity and intelligence are fleeting states of mind. When you are tired, they go away. If you then pound your nonfunctioning brain for hour after late-night hour trying to solve a problem, you’ll simply make yourself more tired and reduce the chance that the shower, or the car, will help you solve the problem.
“When you are stuck, when you are tired, disengage for a while. Give your creative subconscious a crack at the problem. You will get more done in less time and with less effort if you are careful to husband your resources. Pace yourself, and your team. Learn your patterns of creativity and brilliance, and take advantage of them rather than work against them.”
Going without rest will take its toll on you. The longer you go, the higher the toll you will pay.
If you’re one of the few that can go on less than 8 hours of sleep a night, great. Factor that in if it’s true, but know you are more than likely fooling yourself. It’s been shown, over and over again, that the vast majority of the population needs 7-8 hours of sleep.
Studies have shown that when you don’t sleep, you start hallucinating, you start thinking people are after you, your memory and ability to learn goes caput, and your brain literally starts eating itself.
Get your sleep. Or else.
4. SAY YES TO EVERYTHING
When you’re sleep-deprived, you start thinking you’re superman. You believe you can do anything, and your ability to rationally consider how long something takes to do goes out the window.
Yes, I’m still talking about sleep. Because, for the sleep deprived, that last point didn’t really kick in. Seriously, if you’re reading this, I’m probably talking about you. Consider the following, from Dr. James B. Maas’s Book Sleep for Success: Everything You Must Know About Sleep but Are too Tired to Ask:
“Most of us are moderately sleep-deprived; not just tired, but deprived of the very rest that is integral to health and competency in waking life. Pilots, doctors, nurses, teachers, students, politicians, executives, truck drivers, store clerks … all are veritable zombies.”
A lack of sleep destroys your ability to cope. For me, that meant, in part due to fear, in part due to desperation, and in part due to lack of sleep, that I said yes to every project that came my way.
I have learned since then that exemplary performers in any discipline say no far more often than they say yes.
Set your boundaries and stick to them. If you are working hard on refining your craft every day, sharing what you do with others, and meeting the needs of others, the work will come. Work that pays well.
I have also learned from Alan Weiss, in his book Value-Based Fees, that “consultants, not clients, are the main cause of low consulting fees.” Desperation, and the accompanying lack of sleep, is a part of that.
In fact, Weiss states, “Value is often a function of not agreeing, not being supportive, and not being a ‘yes person.’ How willing are you to disagree, question basic premises, and refuse impossible expectations?”
Exemplary performers say no more than they say yes. People who burnout say yes more than they say no.
5. DON’T TAKE VACATION AND FEEL GUILTY FOR RELAXING
A long time ago, as a teenager, I believe, I read a book that belonged to my dad. It was entitled, When I Relax I Feel Guilty.
As a kid, I never understood why people would ever feel guilty for wanting to relax. It’s funny, I even asked my sons (almost 7 and 11) to help me search my bookshelves for it tonight, and they were both taken aback by the title. “Dad, do you feel guilty for relaxing?”
I hope I’m not perpetuating bad habits.
Because now I totally get it. It’s really hard to step away to sharpen the saw in our current economic reality. If I’m allowed to paraphrase, Thomas Friedman, in his book, The World Is Flat, admonishes us that the rest of the world is running faster than we are and will give the lazy a good trouncing if we don’t get it in gear. Dave Ramsey warns us to run with gazelle intensity to get clear of debt and start building wealth, or the lion will eat us.
Kinda hard to enjoy a videogame while you’re worried about you and your family being eaten.
But if we want to be highly effective, leave work alone while you are on vacation, and make the most of those moments of life. Again, even soldiers don’t stay on the front line forever. We need to rest and rejuvenate from time to time.
6. WORK IN A CAUSTIC ENVIRONMENT
In the book The Truth About Burnout: How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What to Do About It, the authors argue that the cause of burnout “lie more in the job environment than the individual.”
They state work overload, lack of control (the inability of most employees to set their own tasks and priorities), insufficient rewards (doing more work for less pay), the breakdown of community, absence of fairness, and conflicting values all lead to burnout.
I agree completely, and I’m going to be following up on this in a separate post.
For now, I’ll simply say this: learning and performance professionals, in particular, need to be keenly aware of the basics in what it takes for humans to learn and perform in a sustainable manner.
You can’t be learning and performing on an empty stomach while you’re worried about being fired by an incompetent manager (who’s blaming you for the state of the project) after you’ve stayed up all night carefully putting into place everything the manager asked you to do (while the manager was sleeping) even though it was against your recommendations and you knew the manager was just going to ask you to change everything the next morning as directed by the equally caustic client’s whims.
No one should be expected to work this way. People died for our ability to have a 40-hour workweek, but in the age of the gig economy, overwork is becoming the workplace norm. It’s something akin to Stockholm syndrome when people celebrate working yourself to death.
7. DON’T SHARE YOUR MISERIES – OR TAKE TIME TO MOURN THEM
“Most people don’t know that tragedy and silence have the exact same address.” – Rudy Francisco, “Complainers”
When “you get punched in the esophagus by a fist full of life” – I strongly encourage you to be open and share your struggles (and the causes for them) with safe people you trust. I also encourage you to give yourself the grace of rest and respite.
When I am open with my wounds, it’s like pus just drains out of my soul, and I’m suddenly exhausted. I proceed to veg out and watch anime. I recommend Naruto – and lately Boruto. There’s no way I’m going to be brilliant after I just finished talking about some traumatic childhood experience for the first time. After I relive the terrible, I’m going to be a puddle of goo for a bit.
Because the legendary Sheryl Sandberg learned firsthand what it’s like to lose your spouse, Facebook employees now get 20 paid days of bereavement leave. Thankfully, I do not have that experience – and I hope I won’t for decades to come (if ever!). Yet we know that people need to take time off in order to deal with traumatic events – this is true for both our past and present. Find a way and a space to make that happen.
If you can’t take time off while dealing with tragedy, give yourself margins. Go to sleep on time. Like at 10 in the evening. Wake up on time. Perhaps around 6. But get your eight hours of sleep in and don’t work more than 8 – try to get away with working less, if you can. To be clear, I’m not advocating you work less than you agree to, I am advocating you work less – perhaps even part-time – when you’re getting your feet back under you.
Even in the midst of working through this, exercise three times a week – but it’s okay if you don’t finish Insanity-level workouts all the time. Eat good and nourishing food. Write down the good things that are happening just because you’re still alive. Go back and read those good things often.
When we experience tragedy, it takes time to find our voice. It takes time to heal. It takes time to figure out who we are again.
WHAT LEADERS NEED TO KNOW ABOUT BURNOUT
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.” – W. Edwards Deming
Leaders must carefully consider the systems they have in place to operate their organizations.
Wherever possible, automate. Let machines do what people should not be.
But this automation shouldn’t be done so you can fire 50 people and hold that as a threat over everyone else. Rather, teach everyone to add value, show them where they fit in the Great Game of Business, and be radically candid while striving to create a community of shared vision and values.
If you send out a call to arms and ask people to work all-nighters to get a project ready for that all-important client, you need to find a way to make sure your people get the time off they need to recuperate and set up systems to where that doesn’t happen again – or the “all-nighters” happens once in a decade.
Your people find a way to deliver for you. If you want them to be engaged and loyal, find a way to deliver for them. Ideally before they burn out.
If it’s already happened, or if you see them doing the things I mention here, take the time to empathize and perhaps even directly challenge your people to take time off.
So, if you want to foolishly burnout:
- Work more than 60 hours a week.
- Never take a day off.
- Sleep less than seven hours a night.
- Say yes to everything.
- Don’t take vacation and feel guilty for relaxing.
- Work in a caustic work environment.
- Don’t share your miseries – or take time to mourn them.