Giving Work Your “All”?

Giving Work Your “All”?

Why saving some energy may be the better choice for the long haul.

A story of Burnout

No matter your profession, entering the workforce is usually an arduous task. Work environments are brutal in entry level positions. The hours required are long. Some might say that this difficult beginning is what is best for us. I would argue that there are ways to train the newest in our workforce without burning them out in the process. Here is my story.

As a social worker, we serve for two years before becoming licensed. Often these beginning positions are in agencies. A new therapist is often treating clients beyond their skill set. It may be that they could be supported and built up to achieve a higher level of care. In my experience, however, meeting time was used to train us in documenting instead of equipping us to serve better. Lunch was spent at our desks completing the required paperwork for the day. Our calendars were filled with back to back appointments, with no time to do the tasks the agency was demanding of us or learn ways to truly help the population we were serving. We were exhausted both by the number of cases and the intensity of their emotional needs.

One of the senior members of the team, who had kept this pace for a couple of decades, would tell us, “Well at least we know what the abuse is like here. If we leave, it could be worse.” At all the company meetings, the leader would joke to someone who was moving on, “We will miss you… but you’ll be back!” Further consolidating the hopelessness in finding a better employer elsewhere. It was a physical, mental and emotional marathon every week. As a result, life became work and work became life. Very few evenings were spent with friends outside of work because the hours were late and the day started over again before I knew it. On weekends, I would spend the first 24 hours emotionally processing the exhaustion. Most people on my team would spend an additional day in the office (unpaid) to complete the required paperwork.

The result of feeling like I had no control of my workload in a chronically stressful environment with high pressure to perform well would very likely have been burnout had I continued with the agency much longer. I served the two years that my license required and made the decision to start a practice. It felt scary, risky and uncertain, but ultimately, the risk paid off.

The Small Choices Matter

If asked to choose between success or mental health, which would you rather have? Logically, deciding that your health (mental or physical) is the priority over your work is a no brainer.  Without your health or your life, there would be no work. It seems simple when given this perspective, but how many times have you chosen work in the minute details of your day?

It is the small moments over time that add up. You’ve chosen to shorten your break time and eat a less nutritious lunch as a result. Or you’ve chosen to schedule yet another meeting and skip the workout on your schedule. If we engage in work without a very clear definition of what success means to us, it is incredibly easy to sacrifice health.

Burn out happens when your exhaustion becomes greater than the demands of your work.

  • Things that used to bring excitement, don’t.
  • You may have thoughts about suicide or find yourself joking about it.
  • There can be the underlying feeling that everything is meaningless, be it a walk, a meal, or much needed sleep.
  • You can’t motivate yourself to take care of your basic needs.
  • You begin to doubt your ability to accomplish anything meaningful.

Often, the people closest to us see that we are experiencing chronic work stress before we do. These close friends and life partners may start softly (or loudly) whining about missing you, feeling like you have been absent or commenting on how job stress is affecting you.

How Are You Doing?

What does it feel like in your body when you read my experience? What experiences, words, or memories come up for you right away? If you are resonating with the experience and some of the symptoms, there may be an incongruity between your current schedule and your needs.

Quiz: Are you experiencing burnout?

  • Feeling exhausted without a clue of how to revive yourself?
  • Find yourself crying more often than usual?
  • Finding yourself having difficulty focusing?
  • Waking up in the night and having difficulty falling back asleep when all you have wanted all day was to pull the covers over your head?
  • Feeling like you are just not effective at anything you attempt?

It may be time to take a big picture assessment of your life. One exercise that is helpful is to allow yourself a week to continue living in the current reality of your life. Take note each hour of the week of how you are spending your time. In another column, rate (on a scale of 0-10) how you feel each hour, 0 being miserable and 10 being joyful. Then ask yourself: Is what you are doing bringing value? Is it draining you? Are the things that are bringing value outnumbering the more difficult activities?

Who You’re Up Against

Why do we get off track with our work-life balance? Is the system working against us? You might be tempted to believe it is your employer who is working against you, but the signs all point to you. You are your own worst enemy in the battle of burnout. Your employer plays a close second. If you are your own employer, you’ve got the whole arrow pointing at you.

One perspective set by a viral article from buzzfeed, is that the millennial generation has been trained to work 24/7 and be unbelievably efficient in order to compete in the capitalism that is today. They propose our efficiency turns against us, as it never has a payout that is sufficient. Ultimately, we have been told “work hard, it will be worth it”, but the article suggests that working so hard never produces the peace and security that we are ultimately looking for.

With the average age of burn out being 32, it seems that this generation is burning out less than a decade into their post college careers. It is assumed that they are attempting to work very hard so they can stop working and rest. This is called the FI/RE movement (Financial Independence and Retiring Early) and some think it causes the burnout, while others think it is the millennial answer to burn out. It is a “Which came first? The chicken or the egg?” situation. Burning the candle at both ends in order to finish the working part of life and enjoy the living part is the goal, but is it really possible to handle the lifetime of work and retain healthy mental functioning?

It is a popular notion in elementary schools to incorporate as much technology as possible, learning to do things faster and with more accuracy. We have a loathing for mundane chores and activities that could be better done by a machine or robot. However, it is exactly these activities, such as walking, sweeping, washing the car, taking out the trash and dusting that bring a sense of grounding, routine and reward. These days with the pandemic, we are using online shopping more than ever. The activity of shopping, touching, collecting and bringing home has been cut short. Our expectations of ourselves are as if a robot was accomplishing the task. We are not robots. It is my opinion that trying to be a robot makes our human wiring malfunction. We need space to breathe, to find our way into a flow, to explore what really brings us joy.

Does your work environment give you the space you need? Your work environment can protect you from or make you vulnerable to burnout. There are specific ways that your work can make you more susceptible to burn out.

  • Expectations that are unrealistic
  • Feeling like you have no control
  • Humanity is not acknowledged, expectation has zero error

This can be from outside of yourself or internally. Is it time to reevaluate the expectations you have of yourself?

Resiliency Tips

Here are ways that you can set boundaries with your work to protect your mental health and continue to accomplish great things with your life.

Often, you’ll find a well intentioned solution for burnout is to “take a nap”. While doing nothing for 10-15 minutes is a great way to reset when you are feeling overwhelmed, it is just the beginning for finding healing from burnout. It is a fantasy to imagine a seven day yoga retreat that will magically cure your burnout and your relationship with work. Finding the time and making the priority to incorporate skill-based self-care into your life is the best answer to curing or preventing burn out.

Skill-based self-care is more in depth than a nap or a bubble bath. There are research findings that say twenty weeks' worth of yoga or Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (under instruction for three hours a week and then practicing for seven hours a week) helped people suffering from chronic work stress recover from a state of burnout. Yoga and CBT are effective because they engage rewiring of the mind and syncing the mind with the body.

This is hard, focused work that takes time to learn and implement. There are some other, less time invasive, strategies to take steps toward a healthier work-life balance.

When you feel burnout in your energy and ability to focus, research suggests

  • two cardio focused workouts a week and
  • one strength based workout (each for a duration of 30 minutes) improves your energy.
  • 5 minutes of mindfulness before bed to help improve the quality of sleep you are getting and improve your memory

Relationally, action steps may include

  • DISC training or some other type of interpersonal skills training to help you manage conflict in the workplace
  • tending to your healthy relationships until you have enough enriching relationships in your week that counterbalance the stressful ones
  • You may delegate tasks (or people!) that are better suited for someone else

Who We Work With

We can accomplish so much more when we work as a team, but it is often that team that creates the stress that leads to burn out.

Boundaries are essential. Boundaries with our own work, closely followed by boundaries with the people we work with. It is your responsibility to teach others how to treat you. If you have a difficult relationship in your work environment, it may be that you can improve your skills with communication or boundary setting. It may be that you have to take short breaks, limit your interaction with certain people or take an extended break from a relationship in order to create a sustainable environment for yourself. The personalities that surround you are as important as your skills in interacting with other people and both are good to take some time to evaluate every so often.

What You’re Working With

There are no hard and fast rules because, with each season of life, we have a different appetite and capacity for stressors. Know what you have to give and acknowledge that it is ever changing. Resources, responsibilities, time restraints and physical capabilities are constant moving pieces as you create your ideal schedule and care for yourself during your career.

In business, you want to ride the waves of momentum. Occasionally a large wave can gather and you are on top, feeling completely out of control and overwhelmed. The typical encouragement is just to hold on for dear life and squeeze as much juice out of the lemon as you can. This is great advice for becoming wealthy and building a booming business. However, if you are already physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted, stop squeezing the lemon. There can be many opportunities offered all at once that you feel it would be a shame to pass on, but if you keep saying yes beyond your limit and it comes time to implement them, the motivation will not be there. This becomes a source of shame and beginning to doubt your abilities, which leads to only trying harder. This is when your physical health can be compromised. (Think… making way for the large amount of work by eating meals in front of your computer or skipping them altogether.)

You may be able to take on a heavier load for a short period of time, but there needs to be an exit strategy and allotted time for renewal and rest.

Healing Begins When the Trauma Ends

Learning to use coping strategies in order to stay alive is very different from eliminating what is toxic in order to thrive. If the trauma is still ongoing, healing cannot begin. When we handle burn out by arming ourselves with all of our coping skills for the stress that we are going to continue to swim in, we can survive. However, we will not blossom into the best version of ourselves. We will eventually find ourselves struggling with the symptoms that we were working to treat, as burnout cannot be beat by simply adjusting to a traumatic pace and relationship with work.

Healing from burnout will not happen until the chronic work stress is over and the person can begin to process their experience. The definition of trauma is enduring something that one thought (either consciously or subconsciously) might kill them. Once it is over, one can fully internalize that they are, indeed, alive. Then they can, both consciously and subconsciously, begin feeling alive again.

Create Breathing Room

When you are mindful of the limited resources that we have as the human species, you will make choices that respect your boundaries. When we push ourselves past a reasonable limit our fire burns out.

Live a life aware of your boundaries and begin to create margin. Create space between your limit and your effort. There, you will experience the joy that your hard work earns you. This is what is necessary for a lifelong healthy relationship with productive and satisfying work.

Articles Referenced

Is the FIRE Movement a Cure for Millennial Burnout? - Paychecks & Balances

Our best bet against burnout is self-care, just not the kind you think

4 Steps to Beating Burnout

How to Overcome Burnout and Stay Motivated

The science of burnout | Training Journal

How Entrepreneurial Burnout Impacts Your Work and Frame of Mind

Burnout in Mental Health Services: A Review of the Problem and Its Remediation

Job Burnout: How to Spot it and Take Action

Career Stress: The average age of burnout is now 32 and home working is making it worse.

How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation

Emily Yi, LCSW. Contact information: 904-357-0536 /