Burnout does not have one, singular cause. Multiple factors contribute – your industry, your manager(s), your personality, your personal situation, plus your background (what did your parents expect from your career? How were you taught to define success?).
Obviously your workplace itself is key, whether it’s a start up, a huge corporation, or your own freelance business. A Gallup study determined that there are five workplace factors which directly contribute to burnout, and you don’t have to tick all five boxes to be on track for flames.
Which of these apply to you?
1. Unfair treatment
Unfair treatment boils down to (1) poor relationships and (2) being undervalued.
Relationships are the fabric of life – as much as work might be about increasing company profits or receiving your paycheck, the interactions we have with other human beings color our day-to-day experience of what we do, as well as why and how. So, when your boss is biased against you or you are bullied or mistreated by a colleague, this has a huge impact on your workplace experience.
This also manifests if you are not sufficiently remunerated for what you do. It might be less personal, but not being paid enough sucks and quickly feels pretty damn unfair.
During a previous economic crisis, I leapt at a job in which I was vastly underpaid for long hours. While I was glad to be employed, the underpay-factor nipped at my subconscious and eventually left me demotivated and cynical about all the effort I was being asked to put in. Money is the most obvious way we measure value in our society, so if you’re not being paid enough it’s a pretty clear message about your employer views your worth.
If you can’t trust your boss, a colleague or the executive leadership of the company you work for, it “breaks the psychological bond that makes work meaningful.” In other words, unfair treatment in whatever guise is demotivating and potentially debilitating.
2. Unmanageable workload
Burnout was first primarily observed in the medical and healthcare fields. Right now during COVID, it’s clear that many of these incredible people have an entirely unmanageable workload. Even in ‘normal’ times, the rate of physician burnout is somewhere between 40-50 percent. The physical, mental and emotional toll of having far too much to do is enormous.
When your workload is unmanageable, the quality of what you produce suffers. In turn, when you’re not capable of being your best, your ego hurts because you’re no longer getting gold stars on A-grade papers. As documented by sports psychologists, this “mental quicksand” damages your confidence which impacts on your performance and creates a vicious circle.
Even the highest performing employee can quickly shift from optimistic and ‘in control’ to hopeless and spiraling when overwhelmed by an unmanageable workload. In a ruthless, high-pressure, corporate environment, or under the strain of running your own business, it’s a strong indicator for burnout.
3. Lack of role clarity
This might seem obvious, but studies show a significant number of employees don’t know exactly what is expected of them. I’ve witnessed it particularly in companies where job security is low and employee turnover is high. If expectations and accountability are moving targets, it can be exhausting just working out what people want from you.
For gig workers and freelancers in what is an incredibly competitive market, this can manifest in poor briefs (or no brief at all) from clients. You give a quote for X, but the client thinks you’re also delivering Y and Z (and maybe also the rest of the alphabet) and rectifying the disconnect is super stressful. Getting clear on your job description/brief is key to managing expectations so you can frame and attain clear, achievable goals.
4. Lack of communication and support from manager
If your boss/managers are distant, stressed, unclear, nasty, etc., you might doubt whether you can rely on them when the shit inevitably hits the fan. This lack of support means that you’re missing a vital psychological component for workplace confidence. If you’re feeling uninformed, isolated, or attacked by your manager or by leadership generally, this fundamentally compromises your creativity and your sense of respect. If this is an issue, explore the options (all the options, no matter how remote they might seem) to change who you report to and get the support you need.
5. Unreasonable time pressure
Unreasonable time pressure has come to seem like an intrinsic aspect of our work lives for many of us, whatever our workplace looks like. Gone are the days where you had to be at your physical desk to work – COVID has highlighted how many of us are capable of WFH, WF bed, WF car, WF wherever the heck we are. The boundaries were already long gone. And boundaries are healthy.
For those in the gig economy and freelancers, unreasonable time pressure is inescapable. One friend is a freelance writer and struggles with clients who don’t understand the research and editing aspects that form an essential part of producing the amazing articles she writes. Another is a web designer whose clients often think she can wave a wand and POOF!: a breathtaking website comes into instantaneous existence.
Some professions are intrinsically time-sensitive, like emergency responders. And even as a finance lawyer, time was a huge driving factor. Deadlines were agreed between our client (the bank) and their client (the company they were lending to), and we just had to make it happen – even if this meant working literally around the clock to orchestrate a complex legal arrangement in dozens of unfamiliar jurisdictions. Sound stressful and a touch tedious? Bang on.
In the longer term, when deadlines slide, this impacts upcoming projects and creates the ongoing stress of being constantly behind schedule.
How do you overcome these factors?
Short answer: it’s not easy. Partly because the corporate environment is set up to prioritize productivity over employee wellbeing and is highly resistant to change. Partly because to some extent, these factors may be largely beyond your realm of control. I mean, you can’t singlehandedly turn your asshole boss into a lovely person (if you can please DM me rn).
But think about the aspects you can control – speak to HR or a trusted colleague about your options if you are being treated unfairly or if deadlines are out of control. If you’re a freelancer and your client doesn’t understand timeframes, speak to them about the importance of taking time to ensure exceptional results (this has saved my butt on several occasions, and a sensible client will appreciate your attention to quality and professionalism). If you’re really not sure about the scope of your role, write down a few questions that would help clarify things and take these to your manager or HR.
If this all sounds overwhelming and insurmountable, it’s not. Burnout can be prevented, healed from, and can even change you for the better. I know from experience. And if you’re looking for a lifecoach for support and guidance for that change, I’m here for you – hit me up now.