Careerbuilder says that nearly half of employers say workers are burned out on their jobs.
I read earlier this morning a great article by Tony Schwartz asking, “Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?”
He suggests, “It’s not just the number of hours we’re working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.”
There sure are days that I have felt like that. Schwartz suggests that with too many things going on at once, we rarely have a stopping point or finish line from one task or project to another. What’s more, “Technology has blurred them [the lines between work life and personal life] beyond recognition,” writes Schwartz. “Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It’s like an itch we can’t resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.”
I have to admit to being a junkie in that regard. In fact, it’s sometimes a bone of contention between my wife and I. My phone vibrates, I read the email, I drop what I’m doing and respond. What’s more, I’m not alone. I know this because I’m usually answering a colleagues after-hours request for information—some of which are sometimes time-stamped at 1:00 or 2:00 am.
It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s a meeting, a conference call, and sometimes even conversations on the phone, sometimes I find myself checking email, answering a text message or actually trying to have another conversation. This is a problem at a number of levels, but in relation to people feeling a sense of burnout, it’s a huge problem. “But most insidiously, it’s because if you’re always doing something, you’re relentlessly buring down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour,” says Schwartz.
Just last night I was having dinner with a friend who complained about feeling burned out and frustrated. The particular role she plays in her company sometimes requires her to help her customers when they have an after-hours problem. “I’ve stopped taking my computer home with me,” she said. “I’m just burned out. I can’t be ‘on’ all the time.” If nearly half of people in the workforce feel this way, she’s obviously not alone.
“The best way for an organization to fuel higher productivity and more innovative thinking is to strongly encourage finite periods of absorbed focus, as well as shorter periods of real renewal,” suggests Schwartz.
That’s one reason that motorcycle time has become so important, maybe even sacrosanct to me. Schwartz suggests some practices or policies that might be worth promoting if you lead or manage people. I think they are worth repeating here:
- Maintain meeting discipline: Keep meetings short, start and stop on time and insist that all digital devices be turned off during the meeting. Instead of an hour, keep meetings to 45 minutes so everyone can stay focused. We’ve all been in multi-hour marathons that never seem to end. I’ve actually witnessed colleagues fall asleep before. I recognize that sometimes long meetings can’t be helped. I’d suggest providing breaks, snacks or other things to keep people from zoning out during the course of a necessary long meeting.
- Stop demanding or expecting instant responsiveness at every moment of the day: One of the biggest challenges facing project leaders is the constant barrage of task requests that are unrelated to any particular project that often pelt and interrupt people throughout the day. Schwartz suggests allowing people to turn off their email during certain times of the day, I’d suggest a procedure for systematically collecting and prioritizing those requests so people can stay focused on those things that provide the most value. If we can eliminate email, text and other “drive-by” forms of project requests, we’ll be better able to help people, as Schwartz suggests, “…sustain attention on their priorities.”
- Encourage renewal: “Create at least one time during the day when you encourage your people to stop working and take a break,” suggests Schwartz. This resonates with me because I fail to do it. Not because of any external mandate, but because it’s easy to get wrapped up in the work of the day and forget to stop and take a breather. That being said, there are times when I will take a walk around the building to clear my head or make a quick trip to the lunchroom to grab a snack. Encouraging that type of environment is important to keeping people’s minds and ideas fresh.
Schwartz also suggests some things that individuals can and should be doing for themselves:
- Do the most important thing first in the morning: He suggests, if possible, doing this from a private space where you won’t be interrupted for the first 60 to 90 minutes of the day. In reality, the biggest challenge will be to resist the impulse to acknowledge every ping and buzz from emails and IMs (at least that’s true for me).
- Establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically: It’s really easy to get distracted by the urgent and ignore the real priorities. Schwartz calls it the “tyranny of the urgent.” He also suggests finding a place that’s relaxed and conducive to open-ending thinking. In our office we’ve got a number of very small conference rooms that are perfect for this type of work—and yes, I did say work. It’s neither daydreaming nor goofing off. I agree that it’s important to do once in a while.
- Take real and regular vacations: “Real means that when you’re off, you’re truly disconnecting from work,” says Schwartz. My family spent four or five days last fall camping in the Unitah mountains of Utah. I spent the first 24 hours worrying about what I couldn’t access on my iPhone because we were remote enough that I couldn’t get any service. It quickly became a “real” vacation and was incredibly relaxing. What’s more, the world hadn’t come to an end by the time I got back. We’re thinking that a cruise sounds good for this year.
Schwartz suggests, and I agree, “A single principle lies at the heart of all these suggestions. When you’re engaged at work, fully engage, for defined periods of time. When you’re renewing, truly renew.”