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Let's Talk About Burnout

Woman lying facedown on bed, exhuasted.

Burnout. It’s an ugly word. In many people’s minds it is closely tied to failure, not being able to cope, and personality flaws. It took me a long time to admit that I had burned out from my teaching job, primarily because it felt like that was pointing out to everyone that I was not enough. I didn’t have what was needed: the passion, the drive, the skills, the whatever to make it.

Instead, when I left teaching I told people that the new position I had been forced into “wasn’t for me.” That I had been dreaming of other things and was ready to go pursue them. That it was time for me to move on. All these things were true (I knew I would never teach for my whole career), but I never used that word “burnout” because I didn’t want to be blamed for leaving.

Turns out, I was burned out and I should have said it because burnout is not actually what I thought it was. The nonprofit organization International writes in their article Burnout Prevention and Treatment, “Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.” (emphasis mine)

Similarly, in her article Burnout is Not Your Fault Occupational Therapist Erika del Pozo quotes researcher Christina Maslach who describes burnout as an “unmanageable workload, lack of autonomy, insufficient rewards, lack of community and social support, unfairness and injustice, and value conflicts between you and your organization.”

Ah, so that’s the part I was missing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t enough for my job, it’s that I wasn’t enough for my overly demanding job with insufficient rewards, unmanageable workload, and lack of autonomy (all problems created by my employer). Take away the social support piece (I felt that one hard) and value conflicts (I didn’t have time for parts of my job I valued most) and it was a perfect setup for burnout.

As Erika del Pozo points out, corporate America (and I would add educational America) tries to place the blame for burnout squarely on the shoulders of the employees so that they don’t have to face any of their own unrealistic expectations. They want to run a few workshops throughout the year about the importance of stress relief, yoga, or meditation and then pat themselves on the back for giving you the “tools” you need to handle your stress.

Woman getting a massage.
Massages can't make up for a terrible job.

Yup, that checks out. I remember that in-service day we spent doing yoga and getting shoulder massages in the high school gym. It really changed my life. (Cue eye roll)

Madeline Will writes in her Edweek article Teachers are Not OK:

Encouraging yoga or meditation can’t make up for systemic issues that cause stress, experts say. “You can’t deep-breathe your way out of a pandemic; you cannot stretch your way out of terrible class sizes; you cannot ‘individual behavior’ your way out of structural problems,” said Chelsea Prax, the programs director of children’s health and well-being at the American Federation of Teachers. “Those are effective coping measures, but they don’t change the problem.

Of course, the people asking you to work extra, take on additional responsibilities, redo something, or whatever unrealistic expectation they are adding to your plate are never the bad guys. It is always coming from higher up or from some vague group such as “clients.” And in education, any time we were asked to do something additional it was always “for the kids.” A group which we absolutely couldn’t disappoint even if what we were being asked to do was torture them with more tests or something ridiculous like that.

I don’t get it, we live in one of the richest countries in the world and employers act as if they don’t have enough money to let people do their jobs right. To do what they are best at with all the time and resources they need to do it well. To have the best job possible that serves others in the best way possible. Basically our whole work model is based on a scarcity mindset that assumes we have to squeeze ten days of work out of five in order to “get ahead.” It assumes that more profit is better than successful employees. It assumes that employees that are stressed and overwhelmed by their jobs are just as effective and those who aren’t. It’s a pretty crazy way of seeing the world.

The problem is that we, the workers, have also bought into this mindset and we allow organizations to treat us like this. We also live in this scarcity mindset that assumes there aren’t other jobs out there, that there is nothing better, that leaving our job or fighting for better working conditions is going to somehow ruin us. That we can’t ask for better. That our own success and self-worth is tied to meeting the unreasonable expectations put on us. That we want to please the people who take advantage of us. That we owe it to our customers/students/colleagues to keep taking what our bosses hand to us.

Man working on computer at coffee shop and looking stressed out.

And this stuff is all legitimately scary to think about. I’ve been in that position trying to figure out what I could do to fix the situation and feeling like all the options were too terrifying to consider. Wondering if there would be repercussions for speaking out. Feeling the discomfort of not being “part of the team.” Wondering if there really was better out there and if it was time to leave, but who really wants to start all over again if they don’t have to? Reading those job listings and not feeling like anything was worth moving for. And of course, all this is compounded when you have families and people depending on you. Then the thought of trying to find a better job (if such a thing exists) seems like a stupid pipe dream. Better the reliable job you hate than the dream job you cannot find, right?

Here’s the thing, though. If people don’t start demanding better jobs it will never happen. There will be no incentive for employers to change the system. If employees keep stepping up to the plate and giving 150% every day, then the bosses will just keep pushing the limits. If people continue to give them what they want, they will keep asking.

What might it look like to demand better working conditions or more reasonable expectations? It might look like switching to a better job or it might look like demanding better treatment in the job you are already in. One of the interesting things that has happened through the Covid chaos is that people are starting to see how their jobs are unreasonable and are putting pressure on companies to change their outdated and harmful practices.

  • We see this in Amazon workers trying to unionize.

  • We see this in job shortages all over the US where people are choosing not to work for minimum wage at jobs that expect too much.

  • We see this as workers are demanding better benefits.

  • We see this as people advocate for raising the minimum wage to something a family could actually live on.

  • We see this from people demanding more flexible hours or remote work.

  • We see this as record numbers of teachers, airline employees, and nurses are leaving their jobs.

Can this possibly be something good coming out of Covid? I certainly hope so!

In the article I mentioned above, Burnout Prevention and Treatment, they have this great explanation about what burnout is and how it’s fundamentally a problem of unrealistic expectations. They then end the article with five tips for dealing with burnout that all include personal coping mechanisms. Now, I do think that self-care is really important in a high-demand job. But if the burnout is a direct result of expectations that are too high, then coping mechanisms aren’t going to fix the problem. They are just going to help you cope. Not thrive. Not hit it out of the ballpark. Just cope. Because the fundamental flaw in the job is not going away by ignoring it. So practice self-care, but also start to think of how you can influence the system as a whole.

So what do we need to do in order to look at burnout as more of an institutional issue rather than a personal issue?

First, I think it means you need to do your own work to take care of yourself, but you also need to hold your employers accountable for what they are asking you to do. You are not superhuman. You can’t squeeze water from a stone. If you can’t do what you are being asked to do, then you need to start admitting that.

Second, you need to stop offering work for free. Even if you work for a great nonprofit organization or a school that serves underprivileged kids, you deserve to be paid for the work you do. If you are paid to work 40 hours a week, then work 40 hours a week. This gets dicey for those working a salaried job, but there are still some reasonable expectations that you should have time for things other than your job. If an employer is handing out 80 hours of work a week for a sub- $100,000, then that’s unrealistic. Set some boundaries for how much extra time to give to the job outside of set work hours (that might be zero for hourly employees) and stick to it.

Third, you need to stop tying your ability to meet these unrealistic expectations with your own self-worth. You can be really good at your job and still not be able to do 50% more work than is reasonably possible. You are not a failure because you didn’t get that 80 hours of work done this week. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s your problem.

Fourth, you need to stop believing that it can’t get any better. For those of you who love your jobs but feel constantly overwhelmed, then it is time to stand up and demand more reasonable expectations from employers. For those of you who hate your jobs or feel stuck in your jobs because you think there is no way out, it’s time to stop believing those lies and move on to something that fits better.

The big question to ask if you are seeing signs of burnout are: Do you like your job enough to stay and fight for it? Can you use some of these tips to create boundaries around your time? Can you find ways to maximize the stuff you love so you get satisfaction you need?

If the answers are no, then it’s time to work on another plan. For me, there was very little I could do to redeem the demands of my job. My body was telling me I just couldn’t go on as I was. Leaving was the best option. If you are feeling this way, then read my blog post You Can Quit Your Job.

If the answers are yes, then here are my suggestions for specific things to do to avoid burnout and put the responsibility for it back in the hands of your employer(s):

Evaluate YOUR priorities: Put more time into the parts of the job you care about and less into parts of the job that you don’t. If you care about nothing in your job, then that’s a clear sign it is time to find a new job.

Say no: Start refusing additional projects, extra responsibilities, volunteer work, last minute requests for help, and other people’s responsibilities. If you feel like you absolutely cannot say no to your boss for any reason, that is another good sign to look for a new job.

Don’t finish work: Did you try to say no or tell your boss that you couldn’t get something done but they didn’t listen? Here’s something crazy: Then just don’t get it done. Don’t kill yourself to finish something you said you couldn’t finish. If you do, you prove them right and you wrong. You also leave that door open for it to happen again. If you are in this situation, keep track of your time spent on the task/project and then go to your boss and say, “I spent this amount of time on it which is all that I had available this week and I got this far.” Let them figure out what to do with the rest. Most importantly, don’t let yourself feel like a failure! You are holding a boundary. That’s a GOOD thing!

Don’t consistently do work you aren’t getting paid for: No volunteering for extra activities. (I’m looking at you teachers who do all kinds of things for families that you don’t get paid for but make your district look good.) No putting in an extra hour after work every day finishing things up. No spending your weekends catching up on tasks that you didn’t have time to do during the week. If for some reason you choose to do this, then you have to let your boss know. If they see the work getting done but don’t know you are putting extra time into it, then they don’t even have the information they need to make better scheduling decisions in the future. (And yes, I know that sometimes we want to do that volunteer work or just get caught up to feel better, I’m talking about consistently giving extra time to your job for free.)

Do it 75%: Sometimes parts of your job are not worth doing 100%. I know that sounds sacrilegious to say, but it’s really true. That initiative coming down from on high that no one really cares about but you have to do to make the board happy? Just put something on paper and hand it in. That training you are required to complete but has absolutely nothing to do with your daily work? Do it fast and sloppy and move on. You don’t have to do everything at your best. Coming from a perfectionist, this is painful to admit, but learning to live with it saved me a lot of time and stress.

Refuse to feel guilt: Don’t let employers guilt you into anything. Unless your job is also your driving passion in life, there are probably better things you’d rather be doing. Saying yes to that thing you don’t want to do at work means you have to say no to things that are more important to you.

Become more efficient: There’s a lot of stuff we do in our jobs that don’t have to be redone over and over. Read books, watch videos, hire a coach, or ask your boss to hire a specialist to help you create systems to make your job easier. There are so many things that can be automated, standardized, simplified, and streamlined. Figure out how to do it. And don’t let your boss just add more work to your plate because you are smart enough to streamline work. Use that time you created to do the important things better. (Or maybe just don’t tell your boss that you are working faster and use the time as you see fit.)

Ask for things that will make your job better: Can you ask for a flexible schedule to work from home a few days a week? Can you request a better copy machine? Maybe you can move away from someone who really stresses you out and get a workspace that helps you focus? Think about what would help you do your job better or reduce your stress and then at least ASK for it. Again, if your boss sees the work getting done and doesn’t realize what it is taking out of you to do it, then they can’t fix it. If you ask for something reasonable that will make your work life better and they say no, this is information you can use to evaluate if this is a good place for you to continue working.

Create some expectations for what you need: If you think you can make some changes and redeem your job, then put a time limit on it. Do you expect to see change in one month? Three? What do you want to see change in that time? How do you expect those changes to make you feel? Write down some concrete ideas, and then put a reminder on your calendar to go back and look at this again after you’ve passed your time limit. Evaluate your expectations against reality. Are you happy enough to stay in your job, or are there signs that it is time to move on? Have you made some progress but need to keep working on it? If so, make a new time goal and set new expectations and then keep making changes. Hopefully you can make your job work better for you. If not, it’s time to move on!

Burnout is real and it hurts. No matter how hard to try to make it seem ok, there is nothing pleasant about losing your motivation, falling into depression, or being exhausted. Don’t let your limiting beliefs keep you stuck in a situation where you have to deal with unrealistic expectations from employers. If you are starting to see signs of burnout, then it is time to decide if you are going to take steps to create better conditions or move on to a better job. If you feel unable to decide what to do, then talk to a career coach who can help you figure out what isn’t working for you and give you the support you need to make new choices. You don’t have to live with burnout. You can create a better future for yourself.

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