Explainers

Breaking the Cycle of Burnout in the Workplace

If you’re investing too much time in work, you may rationalize unhealthy behaviors to prove to others, and yourself, that it’s worth it.

In particularly challenging times, leaders often feel they’re being asked to give more, when they already have less to give. And realistically, much of the current state of affairs is well outside your zone of control. Feeling burned out is entirely reasonable, and if you recognize it early enough, you can implement some practices to help both you and your team recover. But as we enter the third year of the pandemic, there’s a real danger that burnout is becoming endemic—that we start choosing burnout, and end up in a vicious cycle.

It sounds counter-intuitive: why would anyone choose burnout? When you’re burned out, your ability to self-regulate suffers, leading to conflicts with colleagues. Your leadership becomes hyper-focused on one thing, rather than balancing your skills and personal development. Meanwhile, your family and friends feel neglected. But if you’re investing so much of your time—so much of yourself—in work, it’s tempting to rationalize this behavior, to prove to others, and yourself, that it’s worth it. You might find yourself justifying it with statements like:

  • “I’m the linchpin.” You’re the only one who can do a mission-critical activity at your company. Or, you’re the only one who can do it at the acceptable level of excellence.
  • “No one else gets it.” Maybe your colleagues are in fact capable, but they don’t see the value in what you’re doing—so you have to do it, or it won’t get done.
  • My family is counting on me.” You’re the sole provider or breadwinner in your family, so any sacrifices are in order to support them.

When you’re stuck in this cycle, these justifications have to stay true—or else, why would you have made so many sacrifices? As a result, your work style becomes linked to the work. If you’re the linchpin, you’ll make sure you’re the only one who can do that work, hiding information so others can’t succeed. When others try to help, you see it as making you irrelevant, and you prevent them from moving up the ranks. Ultimately, this means that you’re not showing up for leadership conversations at your best: you’re too committed to how you’ve been doing things to be objective.

If some of this feels a little too close to home, it’s never too late to break the cycle. Try some of the following:

  • Talk to someone you trust. Find an advisor or mentor, or get a coach—someone who can hold up a mirror and help you understand if you’re stuck in a burnout cycle.
  • Start with a retrospective of your leadership. Look back on the year to assess your engagement and energy levels. How did these impact your overall well-being? When did you feel energy was missing, and how can you replenish it?
  • Take rest seriously. Adopt a professional attitude towards your rest and well-being: you can’t perform without it. This could involve tech-free time to make sure you’re truly disconnected.
  • Build a culture of support. One of the best ways to reduce your own stress is to help others. Be gentle as people try out new things, and be willing to listen—it’ll make others more likely to return the favor when you’re stressed.
  • Remember you can’t solve this alone. These are widespread issues, and while stress management techniques are helpful in the moment, organizations need to make systemic changes to truly address burnout.

Finally, be forgiving of yourself, and your colleagues: it’s highly unlikely that you’ll fix all the challenges of the last two years overnight. Making slow but consistent progress—and taking breaks before you desperately need them—will help you rebuild resilience.

Published January 11, 2022

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