Prescription for Leaders – fireproofing your company: 6 steps to prevent burnout at work

This post is authored by guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it.  Welcome Travis!

The Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that Americans are now working about 160 hours a year more than we did just a few decades ago. Together with an accelerated pace of work, near-constant interruptions thanks to technology developments, and the toughest economic environment and most uncertain geo-political landscape of the last fifty years or more, it is no wonder burnout is on the rise.

With its devastating impact on employee engagement, employee retention, and organizational performance, burnout deserves some proactive attention. Here are six tips to fireproof your workplace from the effects of burnout.

1. Develop a BHOW. Many people have heard of the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) made popular by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. Goals are great, but more important yet is a Big Hairy Outrageous Why. In the face of long hours and delayed gratification, few things sustain us as well as a compelling reason for our work. Is your mission alive in your company? Have you talked about it in the last 7 days? Can every person in your organization articulate it? Lead with a big why.

2. Encourage “Be” Goals. Continuing on the theme of purpose, take the “why” concept to your individuals’ and organizational goals. In addition to articulating what you want to “do”, encourage your people and teams to define (in writing) who or what they want to be. On an individual basis, have employees write their eulogy and really think hard about what they want to accomplish as leaders, subject matter experts, parents, spouses, and community members. Helping people achieve their personal goals will draw them closer to your company, add intrinsic rewards to challenging financial times, and energize them to perform their best at work.

3. Master the Fundamentals. Identify the essentials required to perform any function and make sure people understand the fundamentals. Then get them performing the fundamentals consistently. Over time, encourage people to master these fundamentals and recognize such mastery to encourage others to gain confidence and achieve high performance in specific work areas. Keeping people active and achieving, even with small wins, can head off burnout.

4. Embrace Oscillation. Coined and discussed at length by performance psychology experts, Dr. Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz, oscillation reflects the world’s natural rhythm. Just as day goes to night, people are meant to oscillate between periods of stress and recovery. Too much stress or too much rest erodes performance. To achieve their potential, people need to push themselves hard, flex their mental, physical, and emotional “muscles”, then rest. The rest can be purely a matter of perspective (e.g. thinking of the traffic jam as an opportunity to enjoy an extra chapter of your audio book) or it can be more tangible, like exercising to relieve stress.

5. Level the Playing Field. Are people in your company held to a singular bar of excellence, such as assets under management or new sales per quarter, or are they recognized for performing with excellence based on their role and experience? A single measuring stick seems logical, but people are different, and their ability to contribute may vary based on their experience and function. Just as you wouldn’t throw fast balls to your new t-ball player, you shouldn’t compare new sales people to your rainmakers if you want to encourage and keep them. Instead, establish objectives for people relative to where they are in the company and where they are on their journey, and push people to achieve their potential.

6. Taper. Have you ever run an endurance race such as a marathon? If so, then you have probably used the taper to recover your mental and physical strength at some point in your training. Periodically tapering involves backing off the stress level for a week or two, catching your breath so to speak, and preparing for another hard drive. Distance athletes do this religiously, but organizations rarely back off. To the contrary, backing off is seen as wasteful and weak. Companies push their people every day, all year long. The result is exhaustion. One week a quarter, plan some training, celebrations, or offsite activities. Mix up the work and watch as people push harder in the weeks that follow. New ideas flow. Sparks fly, and performance improves.

If your goal is to grow and prosper, you must be intentional about staving off burnout in your work environment. Establish meaningful purpose behind their work, set your employees up to win, help them be more productive and effective, and be sure they are experiencing results, rewards, recognition, and relief in their work.

What have you done to avoid burnout in your workplace?

 

About the author. As president of IRUNURUN, Travis Dommert works with leaders and their organizations to help them achieve their potential through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. To learn more, visit the IRUNURUN blog here.

“I need a vacation”… but should you take one?

This month we’ve been talking about burnout. It is virtually impossible to talk about the topic of burnout without the phrase “needing a vacation” popping up almost immediately. So, how do we give ourselves permission to take a break and what is the right kind of break to take?  I have a neighbor of mine who’s mantra is “I need a break.” And she doesn’t hesitate to give herself one. She simply takes a vacation whenever the urge arises. In fact, she has taken so many vacations this year (I lost track at over 15) that she has been physically gone from her home more than she’s been there.  The irony is as soon as I greet her upon her return and ask how it was, she immediately starts up again with “I need a break… a vacation from my vacation.”  Clearly, whatever she is doing is not working. There is an art and science to taking a break. This post is about solving that puzzle for you.

The Science

Experts routinely point to the need for taking a break in our lives as a means of keeping us renewed, refreshed and recharged. Vacations can serve this purpose well. They allow us to disconnect from work, reconnect to what matters and often come back with a fresh perspective. What we also know is that as a culture, Americans tend to take vacations at a significantly lower rate than other developed nations – in some cases only mere days vs. the weeks of “holiday” our European counterparts commonly enjoy. Arguments have been made that this lack of downtime in our culture has contributed to our higher rates of burnout and may even lead to higher divorce rates and family instability.

The Art

So, the answer is that we need to take a three week vacation, right? Not so fast. Here’s where the “art” of vacationing comes in. It varies from person to person. So while we know we need to take a break, there are several important things to consider as you determine the right break for you:

Are you better idling the engine vs. turning the engine off? If you’ve been watching closely, you’ve probably noticed that this post is a few days late. Well done my dear Watson. And here’s the reason why: I took a week and a half vacation at the end of November. I turned off the engine, but not just one engine.  I turned off my work engine, exercise engine, spiritual engine, etc… Jump starting all of those engines since my return has proven to be quite difficult. Here’s what I’ve learned about myself: I do much better with “idling the engine” vs. turning the whole thing off. In other words, a long four day weekend does the trick for me vs. taking several weeks off.  What about for you?

Can you leave work for that long without it piling up? The reality over the last few years is that with nearly all organizations running lean and doing “more with less,” it is all that more difficult to leave work. So, can you find a way to leave work without returning to 1,000+ e-mails? Consider delegating and / or giving plenty of notice to everyone around you to minimize your workload upon your return.

Will you still have a job when you return? An even worse reality in this economy is that in some cases when people leave for extended periods of time, if the organization runs “too smoothly” without them, it might highlight they aren’t necessary. Don’t leave if the axe is still falling in your organization and more downsizing could be looming.  That’s a time to make yourself seen and valuable, not missing and unnecessary.

Sight-seeing vs. beach chairs and daquiris – what recharges your battery? Ask yourself what renews you. Is it high levels of activity and adventure or the opposite – quiet and relaxation? Knowing this can prevent you from taking the wrong vacation and coming back needing a “vacation from your vacation.”

Who’s going with you? Kids? Significant other? Friends? Going solo? Who you bring with you will directly impact what gets recharged and what might not get recharged. What do you need? Choose wisely.

Be sure to enjoy the build-up. For many of us, the planning process can be just as rewarding (if not more so, ironically) than the actual vacation itself. Planning the perfect vacation can give us a short-term goal to look forward to when we are in the midst of stress so be sure you are enjoying the anticipation and planning.

Finding the Right Plan for You

Here’s where I wish I could tell you what you need to do. I can’t. I can tell you what I’ve learned about myself over the past year. I’ve learned that long vacations don’t work nearly as well as do short breaks for me. I’ve also learned a painful lesson that if I don’t take time to recharge, I’ll come dangerously close to burning out. Those of you who saw me in August know that all too well. So what am I going to do about it? I’m planning four mini-vacations (essentially long weekends) next year to keep myself recharged. Some will be with kids, some won’t. I’ve already got the first two on the calendar and I can’t wait!

In the end, learning how to take a break and recharge is an art and a science. We know we need to do it, but the “how” varies for each person. Try some new things next year to strike the right balance for you and let me know what worked for you.  If I can’t use it, I know my neighbor will be happy to.

 

Burnout Factory: The modern day work environment

This post is authored by guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it.  Welcome Travis!

For years, certain industries like investment banking, consulting, and medical practice have beenknown for burning people out. After all, the hours are long, and stress loads are high. Only thetoughest, hardest-working, most resilient people make it up the ladder, and the scars of stress are worn like a badge of pride.

After all, that’s why they say, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen”, right?

Well, two points deserve discussion. First, the same factors driving burnout in big professional services firms are also present in just about every work environment in America today. Second, working under these conditions dramatically erodes performance of both individuals and the organization.

Let’s briefly review the causes of burnout. Burnout develops over time from accumulated stress, extended periods of overwork, or simply a general lack of effectiveness and productivity. Effort goes in, but results don’t come out.

For burnout to develop, some aspect of the results, rewards, recognition, or relief that follows the effort fails to meet expectations. As this gap continues, burnout grows. People become exhausted. Shame and doubt ensue. People become callous, and finally they begin to check out as failure and helplessness set in.

Stop. What is it that causes people to feel ineffective and unproductive? The drivers are everywhere today:

1. Technology. Before the invention of electricity, we slept more. Before the invention of voicemail, email, twitter, texting, and facebook, we wrote letters and memos that took days or weeks to arrive. Now, regardless of your job, we are connected instantaneously, day and night.

The result: more activity, less time to recover.

2. Global competition. Before globalization, we competed with companies in our own town. Now we compete with everyone, everywhere, all the time.

The result: more stress of competition.

3. Multi-tasking. Rather than working on specific topics one-at-a-time, we can now check email, take calls, listen to music, watch tv, or play video games all while “working”.

The result: more interruptions and switching among activities.

Sidebar: Recent studies have shown that our brains don’t switch among activities very well. In a London study, 3 groups were given an IQ test. The top scoring group focused on the test and nothing else. The bottom performing group completed the test while responding to email and phone calls. Amazingly, the group that finished in second spot was…drumroll…stoned on drugs. Stoned! And they outperformed people working while responding to calls and email. Does that sound familiar?

4. Disconnectedness. More virtual working, distance collaboration, and focus on short-term financial results versus culture and people.

The result: greater apathy with respect to the company and coworkers.

5. Lack of reward. For three years, unemployment has been stubbornly high, revenues, salaries, and incentives have seen intense pressure, and home values have eroded. Benefits have been cut. People are doing more with less.

The results: people have worked very hard with diminishing returns.

Whether you are a teacher, a preacher, or a corporate leader, trends in the world and marketplace have turned work environments into burnout factories. In the 1970’s, burnout studies began in caregiving environments. Nurses, doctors, and teachers were considered particularly prone to burnout. Forty years later, people in professional work environments are experiencing such intense burnout, that some people are turning to caregiving roles simply to get the satisfaction of doing worthwhile work.

Want to break the burnout trend by fire-proofing your workplace, read our next post in this series.

About the author. As president of IRUNURUN, Travis Dommert works with leaders and their organizations to help them achieve their potential through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. To learn more, visit the IRUNURUN blog here.

Putting out the flames of burnout

This post is authored by guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it.  Welcome Travis!

In his recent article, The Four Stages of Burnout, Licensed Clinical Social Worker Mark Gorkin shares the progressive phases of burnout and helps people understand the steps that may be necessary to get back on track. In his “Vital Lesson on the Four R’s”, he says you are laying the groundwork for burnout if you are routinely exerting effort without getting a dose of Results, Rewards, Recognition, or Relief.

As the stress and strain accumulate, you start to experience these stages:

Phase 1: Exhaustion. Physically, mentally, or emotionally, you are shutting down.

Phase 2: Shame and Doubt. You question yourself and your abilities.

Phase 3: Cynicism and Callousness. You start to protect yourself and become critical of others.

Phase 4: Failure, Helplessness, and Crisis. The fight just doesn’t seem to be worth fighting.

Danger! What can you do about it? First, confront denial, false hope, cynicism, or helplessness. Grieve past and present losses, but turn guilt, hurt, anxiety, and aggression into productive energy. Acquire and apply skills and technology for turning problems into positive attitudes and actions.

Putting Out the Flames of Burnout

If you or someone you care about is suffering from burnout, there are some straightforward steps you can take to get reengaged and build what psychologists call, “resilience”, the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences. After all, burnout is not directly the result of stress or difficult situations; it is the result of how ineffectively you are equipped to handle them.

As the American Psychological Association (APA) points out, “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

Here are 10 ways the APA suggests you build resilience (paraphrased):

1. Make connections. Good relationships can strengthen and build you up. This may require accepting help from others, an important first step in reclaiming hope.

2. Avoid seeing crises as insurmountable problems. Try to look beyond the present to how things in the future may be a little better. Even “a little better” may give you the spark to re-engage.

3. Accept that change is part of living. Certain goals may no longer be attainable as a result of adverse situations. Accept circumstances that cannot be changed and focus instead on what you can alter.

4. Move toward your goals. Develop some realistic goals and do something regularly – even if it seems like a small accomplishment – to move toward your goals. Start with something as simple as “one thing I can accomplish today that helps move me in the direction I want to go”.

5. Take decisive actions. Act on adverse situations as much as you can, rather than wishing they would just go away.

6. Look for opportunities for self-discovery. People often learn something about themselves and may find that they have grown in some respect as a result of their struggle.

7. Nurture a positive view of yourself. Develop confidence in your ability to solve problems and trust your instincts.

8. Keep things in perspective. Even when facing painful events, consider the stressful situation in a broader context and keep a long-term perspective. Avoid blowing the event out of proportion.

9. Maintain a hopeful outlook. Try visualizing what you want, rather than worrying about what you fear.

10. Take care of yourself. Pay attention to your own needs and feelings. Engage in activities that you enjoy and find relaxing. Exercise regularly. Taking care of yourself helps to keep your mind and body primed to deal with situations that require resilience.

The APA adds that there are other powerful methods for building resilience, including regular periods of meditation and prayer. The more you can do to build resilience, the better equipped you are to handle stress and strain…and recover from or avoid future burnout.

About the author. As president of IRUNURUN, Travis Dommert works with leaders and their organizations to help them achieve their potential through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. To learn more, visit the IRUNURUN blog here.

Are you burned out? Take the burnout QUIZ

This post is authored by guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it. Welcome Travis!

With the prevalence of long hours in the workplace, pressure to perform, and constant connectedness (thanks to email, voicemail, texting, twitter feeds, instant messaging, facebook, etc.…good grief), it is not uncommon to hear people talk about feeling burned out. You might feel this way, too. But are you really burned out?

The Quiz. You may be prone to burnout or experiencing burnout if:

1. You have perfectionist tendencies and work under chronic time pressures.

2. You are prone to depressive feelings and find yourself easily frustrated or angered.

3. You work in an isolated environment and lack relationships or feedback from others.

4. You routinely question the importance of the things you do.

5. You don’t feel much satisfaction from your efforts, regardless of how hard you try.

6. You are rarely recognized for doing a great job.

7. You cannot complete your most important activities in the time you have.

8. You lack the resources (people, tools, budget) to do your work properly.

9. You lack the authority to make decisions and influence how your work is done.

10. You feel decisions are not fair or are made in a manner inconsistent with your values.

So what exactly is burnout and how does it differ from run-of-the-mill stress, lack of sleep, or other common issues in our harried lifestyle these days?

Burnout is a progressive condition in which people detach from their work and relationships as a result of prolonged stress and strain. If you are familiar with “engagement”, burnout is the opposite. It results in reduced effectiveness and productivity, cynicism, apathy, and despair. Unchecked it can spiral to a point of crisis where the mind and body literally breakdown. It’s not good.

If you are wondering if it is possible to do your best work and be burned out, the answer is unequivocally “no”. So if you are doing great work and think you might be burned out, the good news is that you probably aren’t there yet. There is time to right your course. The bad news is that if you are burned out and you think you are doing great work, you’re not. You may be only kidding yourself.

It may also be helpful to consider what burnout is not. Burnout is not a recognized, classified mental disorder (according to the American Psychiatric Association). It is not depression or anxiety or a mid-life crisis, though it may accompany those issues. It is not routinely treated with medication, in and of itself. But it is a real problem. The World Health Organization recognizes burnout as a “problem related to life-management difficulties”.

So if you identify with several of the observations above, you may be more prone to burnout. You may be experiencing some early stages of burnout. You may even have a full-fledged flaming case of burnout. Take heart; there is hope. In the posts to come, we’ll explore the stages of burnout and how to fire-proof your work and life.

About the author. As president of IRUNURUN, Travis Dommert works with leaders and their organizations to help them achieve their potential through focus, consistency, and accountability. Travis is a graduate of Northwestern University and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University. To learn more, visit the IRUNURUN blog here.

 

“Burned Out”

“Burned out” – all of us can relate to that feeling at some point in our careers and lives. In those “burned out” periods we feel overwhelmed, exhausted, anxious and stressed. Stick a fork in us, we’re “done And in those moments, all we truly want is for it to stop. We dream of leaving it all and moving to the beach, or worse, we dream of something “happening” to us that forces us off the treadmill. I had a client once tell me that she “dreamed of getting hit by a bus” so her stress would all come to an end. What a horrible and depressing thought.

This month we’ll be tackling this all-too-common and painful dysfunction: “Burned Out.” Not only is it an important and timely topic for each of us today given how much is on each of our plates, but at its core, this topic is actually about realizing one’s potential. It comes down to learning how to develop a healthy relationship with stress and using stress to help us to stretch and grow rather than letting stress get the best of us.

To that end, we’ll be tackling the following questions throughout the month:

  • What are the signs that I am burned out?
  • How can I manage burn out at work?
  • What are ways I can manage burn out away from work (at home, etc…)?
  • If you are the boss, how do you help your employees from getting burned out?
  • What are ways to “fire proof” your life going forward so burn out doesn’t strike again?

Joining us on this journey this month will be a guest expert / columnist, Travis Dommert. Travis is the President of IRUNURUN a performance and accountability system designed to help individuals and organizations achieve their potential and in his words, he’s an “expert in quitting”, or more accurately, understanding why people quit and helping them avoid it. Travis, welcome!

Every week, we’ll kick off the conversation by taking on one of these big questions. By the end of the month, if we haven’t cured this dysfunction, we’ll do a darn good job treating it!

At its core, avoiding and managing burnout is all about developing a healthy relationship with stress. When stress gets the best of us, it is not a pretty picture. If you’ve ever seen the movie “Real Genius” starring Val Kilmer, it has one of the best “burnout” scenes I’ve ever seen. I won’t spoil the surprise, but notice everyone else’s reaction when the “break” happens and watch what happens to the empty seat…