Burnout or Flameout?
Bob and Alice arrive in the parking lot at the same time just about every day. Alice steps smartly out of her car, grabs her attaché case and walks crisply toward the entrance of the large building. Bob gets out of his car as if he is getting out of bed. He is making progress all the time, but doesn’t seem to be anxious to make the trip to the same front door as Alice. “Hey Bob, How ya doing?” shoots Alice as she strides past Bob. “Hey” is Bob’s reply, as he looks up, caught off guard.
Up in their separate offices, Bob falls into his desk chair, unpacks his brief case, putting his lunch in the bottom right drawer, a file he read last night, in his in-box, and a small thermos of coffee on the left side of his desk blotter. He looks around his desk to make sure nothing has changed since he left late last night.
Alice puts her attaché case down on her desk, punches a button to start her desk computer, picks up her desk phone to check messages, while writing a reminder on her already established “to-do” list on her desk planner. While listening to the phone messages, she steps sideways to the in basket and pulls the three folders out, sorts them quickly and places one on her desk and replaces the other two back in the basket. When the messages are retrieved, she takes her iPhone out of her attaché case and places the attaché case on the floor immediately juxtaposed to the right side of her desk and sits down to face her computer, which now only needs a password to activate it. Emails start to fly as someone enters her room for advice. She looks at the person in front of her and chirps, “What?” This conversation will be curt and done in 15 seconds so Alice can get back to her screen. She glances at the upper right corner of her computer screen and mentally notes she has 43 minutes until her first meeting. She computes that reading the file in front of her, answering her remaining 9 emails, making 3 calls, and annotating 3 suggestions for the upcoming meeting is doable. No problem.
At first blush these two employees have almost nothing in common, but the truth is, they are closer than you can imagine. At the present rate, it will be a photo-finish to see which one cracks under the stress they are experiencing.
Right now, Bob is tired, worn-out, dragging, pessimistic, listless, and his first glance at the office clock shows 9:45 am. He is beat and the day has just started. By the end of the day, he feels as if he has run a marathon in cement boots. He has no humor, everything is difficult, and work is just work. But he cheers up at the end of the day because he can go home. Home, where he can try to get some rest and come back to repeat the same thing all over again tomorrow. He is suffering from “Burnout.” Anybody been there? Anybody there now?
Dictionary.com defines Burnout as: “Fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.” Yup. Sometimes you read this definition and feel like your picture should be captioned just to the left of the definition in the dictionary so people can see an example of what it looks like. It’s a horrible feeling that a lot of employees have because they have simply been given a lot of work to do. More than they feel is possible to do and they feel the pressure all the time. Their in-box is always overflowing and there is always some place they need to be or a meeting to attend and there is never enough time to get their work done. They just can’t get ahead. This is certainly no bed of roses, but as bad as this is, there may be something just as bad or worse. WHAT? ARE YOU KIDDING? HOW?
Let’s take a closer look at Alice – and see how. How about “Flameout?” My definition of Flameout is: “Fatigue and or frustration resulting from the individual’s high level of energy expended toward excelling at a particular endeavor(s).” In this case a lot of the same symptoms exist: she is tired, frustrated, and stressed out, but these feelings come from the other side of the “stress pendulum.”
Alice is like so many people who are driven to excel. They want to accomplish a lot – and they want to do it right now. They are tired, but running on adrenalin. They are edgy or “wired” all the time while they continue to be myopic or super focused on their work activities. The concept of over-time is a given for them, in fact they feel cheated because there are only 24 hours in a day. Their mind is working over-time so sleep is fitful and difficult. They don’t eat often and when they do it’s usually a poor choice. Their body is being drained, just like a flying jet plane running at full throttle and running out of fuel – “Flameout” is taking place. And the worst part of this is … they are doing it to themselves.
On one hand we have Bob who is beat down by all the work he has to perform. People keep giving him work and he never gets to the bottom of his “to-do” list. Things seem to mount up and his only solution is to stay late and then take work home in order to complete it. He’s fairly competent and wants to do his work, but can’t catch up.
On the other hand we have Alice who is hyper-driven to excel at every turn, she never says “no” to anything or anybody, in fact she asks for more. She does everything she can at work and fills her evenings with group meetings and works social events to ensure the right people see her. She doesn’t want to go home because all the material she needs to work on is at her office. Although she works 65 hours a week, she feels it necessary to get her MBA degree right now. She might have several lofty goals and one might be to be to achieve CEO status in 10 years and nothing is going to get in her way!
Amazingly these employees have similar symptoms. Both Bob and Alice have trouble sleeping, have difficulty focusing on any one thing at a time, feel upset or edgy, they have zero patience, sometimes feel depressed, frustrated or confused and don’t spend enough time with their family. A lot of the symptoms are remarkably similar. You look at them and think they are suffering from stress, which they probably are, but the causes are not the same and therefore cannot be treated alike.
There are some obvious differences between these two types of people, which bring them both to the level of stress they now enjoy. A short list below shows some of the differences.
No goals Unrealistic goals
Low self-esteem “Superman” Complex
Solutions? Yes, there are some things both these folks could do to help themselves. Let’s start with Bob, who is suffering from Burnout and see how we (the good leaders we are) might advise him on how to get out from under his current state.
“No goals” One of the things that keep people “where they are” is not having a plan to get out. They are sure they don’t like what is going on around them and to them, but they feel “paralyzed” or “locked in” to the situation. If you ask, they can give you half a dozen reasons why they cannot move. However, in most cases they can do something, but may not see it on their own. As a good leader you might be able to help Bob with some coaching that leads him to come up with the reality that having goals can help him move up and out of the situation he finds himself in at this moment. Once he realizes that, you can help him formulate some realistic goals for him to strive toward. When he establishes some short-term goals, which he can accomplish, it will give him some hope, build self-esteem, and improve his attitude. From that point you can work on helping him establish some longer-term goals leading to a real change in his life. The major point here is that you “help him” find his goals, not “tell him” what they should be.
“Passive” Being either passive or aggressive has its own tribulations. Although some aggressive people do get results, few people want to work with them and their style can hamper morale. Passive people, on the other hand, rarely get what they want because they have a tendency to not be heard, frequently are afraid to say, “no,” and people take advantage of them. Being “assertive” is where we need to live. Assertive people are confident, even-tempered, and firm. Again, some coaching here can help the passive “Bobs” in your group. By giving them some quality objective feedback on what you see and how to improve on it they can become more assertive. This is not as difficult as you would think. If you support your people, they will be ready to try and once they feel how much better assertiveness feels, they will be happy to pick up that role. As we know, “nothing succeeds like success.”
“Low self-esteem” This comes from not seeing or feeling positive results. Everyone makes mistakes, but some people dwell on them, magnify them and don’t learn from them. Giving Bob some tasks that you know he can do well will start to build up his confidence. As this increases, you can increase the difficulty of the taskings and as the difficulty of each task increases and his completion rate matches, so will your recognition and praise. This takes some time and patience, but in order for self-esteem to rise, actions have to be completed that demonstrate it’s deserved.
“Fear” Fear of doing a bad job, not getting everything done, losing their job, looking bad in front of their peers, and fear of never getting out from under all the work can lead people to the brink of disaster. Due to their previous history, some of these thoughts may seem to be well founded, but this attitude has to change – and you can’t change it. They need to understand that if they “do their best” you will take what ever they produce and be happy. Think about it; if they truly do the best they can, wouldn’t you be happy? Now, if they don’t do their best…then it’s up to a good leader to help them with some solid objective feedback.
“Unorganized” Now, here we can really make some headway. Not being organized and the inability to prioritize will kill productivity every time and is usually one of the main reasons people do not get their work accomplished. Organization and prioritization are skills, and skills can be taught. The good thing here is that there must be 500 books on the open market and 1,000 qualified trainers out there to help with this problem. Training and education in this area is not hard to find and it can make a difference quickly and with a little reinforcement can form habits that will make a difference for a lifetime. This is one of the best ways to build self-esteem. If you cannot train your people yourself (for any reason), then get someone who can.
NOW, let’s take a look at Alice and how we might be able to help her with her Flameout issue, before she runs out of fuel (energy) and ultimately crashes.
“Unrealistic goals” In this case, having goals isn’t the problem. It’s that these goals are extreme and not realistic, at least not for human beings. Sometimes it’s the action itself or it might be the timeline associated with its completion. In this case, when stress is really high, it’s usually a combination of both of these. We are not suggesting the goals shouldn’t be difficult, but being realistic is a critical part. After you have just been promoted, wanting to reach the next rung on the management ladder in 3-5 years is far more believable than 6-8 months. The only way a good leader can help with this issue is to find out what the employee’s goals actually are, and then through some quality coaching help them to reassess and restate some better or “more attainable” goals. In most cases the actual goal itself isn’t the problem. It’s usually the time frame – and an adjustment to that does not discount the person’s capabilities, as much as acknowledging all the limitations that surround the achievement of the goal itself. For example: achieving the next rung in the management ladder is a great goal, but the obstacle may be that there are only one or two positions higher and someone has to leave one of these positions first before the employee can move up into it. These are probably sought after positions so people don’t want to leave them. The aggressive employee has no control over this and getting frustrated over that obstacle is both ineffective and unproductive.
“Aggressive” As mentioned previously, being aggressive or passive might not have the result you desire. Overly aggressive people are usually results oriented, which is their good characteristic. There is nothing wrong with that. The problem is with the methods used to get the results. Fear, sarcasm, ridicule and short tempers may work for some people, but not many and not for long. Intelligent people do not last long around aggressive people and passive people are so fearful they retreat to doing only what they are told and offer nothing more – until they leave. Again, some coaching to point out objectively what this “behavior” leads to is necessary and essential to help people understand how they might improve. This is one of the most difficult situations a supervisor has to face because of the ingrained temperament they face. Regardless, there is no other option, so put on your “big boy pants” or “big girl shoes” and have the conversation.
“Superman Complex” Indestructible, unbeatable, can do attitude, and more powerful than a locomotive. Yeah, that’s her! Or at least that’s what Alice thinks. And she will think those same thoughts right up until the time she “snaps.” It usually happens in a couple of different ways. The first and most prominent is an outburst of emotion. Uncontrollable crying, sudden deep feeling of depression, overwhelming fatigue, or total loss of comprehending what you are doing in a particular moment are all signs of being stressed beyond your limits. A second way stress manifests itself is much more direct. You are at your desk doing your work when somebody says something that irritates you and the next thing you know, you wake up in the ICU with a nurse 6 inches from your face saying, “Can you hear me?” Neither one is much fun. The point is, you don’t know that you have fallen pray to this dragon until it’s too late. You don’t see it yourself. It takes a good supervisor to see this and give you some advice on how to back off from some of the stuff you are attempting to accomplish. The ideal way to handle this is through good coaching that allows the employee to recognize the symptoms themselves so they are empowered to back off on their own, but this particular issue is tough to truly see in yourself, and if you see it, you may well be tempted to “go it alone” because, well…you are “superman.” If you see it in your employees, talk to them and if someone points it out in you – listen to them and ask for help. If someone brings it up to you, it must be pretty bad because it takes a lot of resolve to confront someone with this particular character flaw.
“Overextended” This is a natural follow for the “Superman Complex.” And it’s because your lips cannot form the word, “No.” You say yes to everyone about anything. It’s sort of the same problem Bob has, but you go one step further. You are a team player and you can and want to help. You’ll say, “yes” to anything because if you don’t the boss might think you are not capable. You will also say “yes” because you sense they “trust” you to do it. And then there is, “Well, they wouldn’t have asked you to do it if they didn’t think you could!”
Remember this: every time you say “Yes” to someone else, you are saying “No” to you. Personal or professional – it fits. So, when you continually say, “yes” at work, you are taking time from all your other projects to do, now yet, another one. And you wonder why you are “flaming out?” You have essentially asked for it. Don’t be afraid to work hard, but don’t ask for or say, “yes” to more than you can genuinely accomplish.
“Political” If you want to get ahead, you have to play the game. We all know there are “politics” going on in the business world and we would be foolish to deny it. However, you can be smart about it. It’s sort of like praise in a way. “If you praise everyone all the time; you praise nobody” is the well-known phrase. If you try to go to every meeting, party, get-together, and soiree everyone has; whom are you trying to impress? If you are going to “play the game” learn the rules and be selective. I’m not saying playing the political game is good or bad, but it can steal time from you both professionally and personally. In this case a mentor (not a supervisory coach) may be the best one to consult with.
As you can see, the stress symptoms may look the same, but in fact the reason is not. It’s like going to a doctor with a stuffed up head thinking you have a cold, which in fact turns out to be allergies.
Stress is the villain here and we need to take control of it before it controls us. Good leaders know their people and know when they are under pressure. Everyone needs “some stress” to get work done, but there is such a thing as too much. Be a good leader, listen, watch and talk with your people when they seem stressed.
People will work for people who care.