How Business Leaders Can Overcome Burnout
Is it stress? Or is it burnout? Contributor Chuck Sharp shares his experience with business burnout and what worked to help him overcome it.
While walking out of the Southwest terminal at Dallas Love Field Airport the other morning, I saw a magazine cover that caught my eye. It read “How To Deal With Burnout.”
I immediately wanted to read it.
I’ve gone through phases in my career where I’ve been burned out; where I’ve felt anxious and depressed and lacked the motivation to do anything about it. The longer I felt burned out, the worse my self-confidence got. What a helpless feeling and destructive cycle.
Two Burnout Factors
Two things can cause professional burnout – at least for me.
First is my boss. I have to like them as a person and know the feeling is mutual. I hear people say that business isn’t personal. Well for me, it is personal. I have to enjoy working through problems with my boss, and I have to want to make them succeed.
Second, I need to feel like I’m making a difference. I need the autonomy to make decisions and be able to see the impact I’m having on the business.
I remember working for a Fortune 500 company just out of graduate school. I sat in a cubical farm as big as a football field. The big event of the week was spicy chicken strip Thursday. I worked as a database marketing analyst, a role in which I would analyze data and make recommendations that nobody would act on. I felt like the character Peter Gibbons in “Office Space.” I lasted 11 months at the job before getting too burned out to continue.
Burned Out Isn’t The Same As Stressed Out
Harvard Medical School of Psychiatry faculty member Steven Berglas warns that it’s important to differentiate between being burned out and stressed out.
Because people often fail to distinguish stress from burnout, they frequently try cures that aggravate rather than relieve those conditions. Stressed chief executives, exhausted by confronting threats, need a two-week vacation. Burned-out CEOs, bored and doubting that they still have the vitality they once had, go stir-crazy on a “relaxing” vacation.
I’ve felt both burned and stressed out. A two-week vacation always helps me, but if I’m burned out I fall back into my same listless state when I return to work. When I’m stressed out, I’m able to overcome the problems and want to wake up in the morning and go to work.
In 2007 I sold my company, Sharp Analytics, and went to work for the acquiring company as part of the terms of the acquisition. I loved the people I worked for, and I enjoyed working for someone else for a change. I didn’t have to worry about payroll, and life was good.
But after about 3 1/2 years, I could tell I was starting to get burned out.
Signs Of Burnout
Burnout creeps up on me. It’s not like one day I notice I’m burned out. Rather I start to hear comments from people about my enthusiasm for work. Or I stop throwing myself into new business pitches that were once so important to me.
In her article titled “How to Beat Burnout At Work” from theguardian.com, Sandra Haurant warns that burnout can take years to notice. It’s a gradual thing that happens over time. It slowly chips away at your ability and desire to add value to your firm.
In 2010, I started to realize that I had to up my game. My performance was diminishing. My mind would naturally start working on something that I was passionate about, and that wasn’t what I was getting paid to do.
My passion drove me to work late in the night on a new business idea. I’d write on the walls of my garage, and I came up with the idea for the company that is now Right Intel.
I approached my company with the idea, and they decided to not pursue it. I was left with the choice to either stay (and eventually get fired because I was burned out) or leave.
The Burnout Cure
Now I’d like to be able to tell you that there are easy fixes to burnout. That yoga and a better work-life balance will help you get through the difficult times. But I don’t believe that. I think burnout is only cured by being challenged – by forcing yourself to take the unnatural step away from security toward insecurity.
For me, I told my boss in 2011 that I was going to leave and start Right Intel. I can’t tell you the emotional turmoil I was experiencing. My family was happy with where we were. We were financially secure, but my wife knew I was dying inside and that I needed a change.
The minute I decided to quit my job I was cured from burnout. Funny, right? I now had bigger problems to solve for, like figuring how I was going to support my family. How I was going to start a company that wasn’t going to suck. How I was going to find customers, investors and developers to build my product.
Since then, I’ve worked all the time; I’ve been challenged and happy. No burnout in sight. Work-life balance is tricky and getting stressed out happens.
But a vacation solves that problem, then I’m back at it.
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