What is Burnout? With Dr. Stanley J. Ward

Dr. Stanley J. Ward supports leaders who do work that is both needed and challenging. While coaching leaders to successfully accomplish this kind of work, he found that many of them struggled with issues related to burnout. In his latest book, How to Beat Burnout for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Team, Dr. Ward shares small experiments that have produced big results for both him and his clients as they push back against burnout and pursue something better. He shares some of his insights below.

What is burnout?

Think of burnout as what happens when you run a car engine without any oil. The oil allows the various parts of the engine to move powerfully without doing any damage to the engine. When you run out of oil, you run out of what keeps the engine from damaging itself. The problem here is that the engine can keep running for a while without oil – all the time doing more and more damage to itself until it finally damages itself beyond repair.

This is different from running out of gasoline for a car. When the car runs out of gas, it simply stops working without necessarily damaging itself. Burnout happens when we keep running and end up hurting ourselves.

Why is burnout so prevalent?

  • Humans are built to follow natural cycles of exertion followed by relaxation. In our “always on” or “grind it out” culture, we can get into patterns where we are constantly exerting ourself and not allowing for appropriate cycles of rest. If you follow this pattern long enough, there is a very real price to pay.
  • We can also connect burnout to spending too much time in a state of “fight or flight.” When you think about how much of the information, news, etc. that bombards us is designed to get our attention by putting us into a sense of fight or flight, and combine that with the amount of caffeine that many professionals drink (guilty here as well) – and that caffeine activates adrenaline which activates fight or flight responses, one can see how the environments we find ourselves in lend themselves to promoting burnout.   
  • The  current strains related to the coronavirus make all that even worse. Now we find ourselves fighting against a virus that we can’t really see and we can’t know for sure when we are safe from it. And, all that is going on during an unprecedented economic downturn. No wonder so many people are feeling especially tired and overwhelmed right now!
  • I also think there is a “high stakes” sense to life that I don’t remember feeling in the 70s and 80s as I was growing up. We start pressuring students early to think about going to the “right” school so they can get the “right” grades and find the “right” job. Add to that stresses related to student debt or medical expenses that can feel like they will “never” go away.
  • Another struggle for me is that I am a thoughtful person who can easily “live in my head” (It really is a fascinating place up there – I promise!). The problem here is that ruminating (turning things over and over in our heads) causes stress and some of the negative affects of stress. The Center for Creative Leadership points out that pressure is inevitable in life. It’s when we begin to ruminate on it that “pressure” turns into “stress.” (https://www.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/WakeUp.pdf)

What are some signs of burnout?

There are three things to watch for. When all three of these are present in a high degree, you have burnout.

  1. Emotional Exhaustion. Have you ever been so tired at the end of the day that you felt “numb” or experienced “brain fog”? These can be signs of emotional exhaustion. We want to pay attention to this because it is usually the first symptom to arise when we are on a path toward burnout. If we don’t address this, other issues appear as well.
  2. Depersonalization (disconnection/cynicism). It makes sense to think that once we are really tired, we begin to withdraw or disconnect from the world – including relationships at work and home. For leaders, this can be especially problematic because positive relationships and trust are what help us stay effective in our positions of leadership. Since we inevitably have to make decisions that are unpopular, we need to keep investing in “social capital” with our teams so that we don’t run out of those positive relationships. The same thing is true for our home lives. When we find ourselves withdrawing both at work and at home, we are setting ourselves up for burnout and it impacts the people we care about – not just ourselves.
  3. Lack of personal effectiveness (ineffectiveness, lack of power/control). If you’ve ever felt like a hamster in a wheel where you are endlessly running but going nowhere, then you have experienced a sense of ineffectiveness. This strikes us when the choices we makes seem to have no real impact. It can happen when we lack the skills to do the work in front of us or when we feel poorly managed by those we report to.

What are some tips for helping with burnout?

Put simply – pursue the other end of the burnout spectrum.  Find the things that energize you, help you connect with people and purpose, and help you feel effective both at work and home.

A friend of mine who is a therapist gives this advice to his clients struggling with anxiety/depression, and I think it holds true here as well: “Each day, do something necessary, something meaningful, and something fun.” When you do something necessary, you push back against ineffectiveness. When you do something meaningful, you are reconnecting with your sense of purpose. And when you do something fun, you reenergize yourself. 

Finally, consider working with a coach. A good coach can help you identify and take action on the things that will move you away from burnout. If you find yourself dealing with high levels of anxiety or depression as part of your burnout, connect with a counselor. Please understand though, the work is ultimately up to you – a counselor or coach can not do the work for you. They can only help you see the path to take.

You can purchase Dr. Ward’s book How to Beat Burnout for Yourself, Your Family, and Your Team on Amazon. Additionally, Dr. Ward is currently offering one free strategy session to any leaders who simply need a thinking partner during this challenging session. You can contact him here: www.stanleyjward.com