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What You Need To Know About Executive Burnout

The word "burnout" is a buzzword used loosely to mean that persons have experienced enough pressure and anxiety (stress) over a long enough period to make them throw in the towel finally. The focus can be at work, in which case they give up their job or career. Or the stress can be with their family, spouse, or significant other, in which case they end the relationship or run away from home. People also become burned out on hobbies, sports, volunteer work, or other focused activities. However, what they usually mean is simply that they have become bored, feel a lack of challenge, have lost enthusiasm, and need to give it a rest, whatever "it" happens to be.

Work-related burnout is a common phenomenon across our industrialized world. For the most part, it is entirely preventable. If you know what to watch for, there are things you can do to prevent your burnout and that of the people you supervise. In a nutshell, burnout happens when stress gets out of hand for a long time. It is the disaster waiting to happen when stress management practices are ignored. It makes little difference whether you are in charge of a one-person business, a business owner, a business manager, or simply "the boss." As the leader, there are stress management practices that make a difference and which, when practiced, head off burnout and lead to a more peaceful, enjoyable, and long-lasting workplace environment. At that point, you become the hero!

Stress in the workplace is not new. Every increase in productivity comes about not by magic but by effort and intensity. The workforce pulls together, works hard, puts in long hours, and concentrates. The standards are set high. But, of course, there is stress! Stress can lead to losing the highest motivated workers, managers, and executives when it becomes burnout. One would think that the highest motivated people, especially among the ranks of managers and executives, would have the most staying power. But stress allowed to run out of control is not respectful of class: nobody is immune.

Dealing with Multi-Tasking

It would be a fair guess that almost all the managers have to engage in multi-tasking every day. There are two types of multi-tasking: enjoyable and horrible. It is most likely that one will either love multi-tasking or hate it. While it is stressful no matter what, multi-tasking is even more anxiety-inducing for those who hate it. Those who don't hate it tend to derive satisfaction from "conquering" the challenge, proving that they can handle the situation when the chips are down, and it does or die. Those who hate it often have difficulty concentrating and staying focused. Try this simple layman's test (answer yes or no):

  • Do you enjoy and do reasonably well while doing such things as watching TV and reading something light simultaneously?

  • Are you able to converse while doing some other task simultaneously?

  • Can you follow two lines of thought simultaneously without getting a headache?

If you answered yes to these questions, there is no reason you cannot handle—or even learn to enjoy—multi-tasking with little to no anxiety. The point is to achieve a minimum of stress and maximum satisfaction from multi-tasking. If your answer to these three questions was "no," multi-tasking must be approached slowly and carefully. It will likely cause you fits if you try to rush, and employees who aren't prone to multi-tasking will want to quit if they are pressured. So, for example, suppose you or any of your employees have severe problems with this issue. It might be advisable to consider outsourcing some of the tasks involved, reviewing and redistributing duties and responsibilities, or rotating some of the most stressful jobs. Ignoring this stress is an open invitation to burnout: yours or those who may work for you.

We find ourselves trying to sort mail and answer a phone call simultaneously. We try to finish something on the computer while jotting down important things to remember to do next, tasks that we forgot to jot down before getting started on the day's list. Often, we need to stop with a task half-finished because something more substantial, such as speaking with a distressed employee or customer, has come up. Then, we must return to the first task to get it finished and hope to pick up the train of thought.

Three Secrets of Managing Multi-Tasking

It might feel that there isn’t enough time to take a break because the work of managing is never finished. That is where the three secrets for managing the stress of multi-tasking come into play. They are:

  • Maintain good order.

  • Turn frustration into satisfaction.

  • Manage the use of time.

Maintain Good Order

The most common casualty of the inevitable stop-and-go work pace is filing. It is so easy to pile up things that need to be filed. Those piles grow almost as if by magic. Filing is the first key for those wishing to achieve good order. Never let a day go by without finishing the filing. Filing is the secret to being able to find things! Spending time looking around for information, letters, bills, receipts, and messages is probably the number one cause of frustration in small business management. The second key to heading off frustration lies: in turning frustration into satisfaction.

Turn Frustration into Satisfaction

Satisfaction makes a joy out of what otherwise would be a budding nightmare. Good order begins with finding things. Finding things starts with putting them where they belong. Putting them where they belong means attention to filing every day, perhaps every few hours. The manager's work is not dramatic or earth-shaking most of the time. It can be so ordinary that the lack of challenge itself becomes a road to burnout. The secret is always the same: view the tasks as satisfying instead of boring. If this approach means taking more time, then so be it. Better to work longer and get the job done right than to hurry and work in a constant state of uproar, frustration, disorganization, and low-grade chaos, always trying to do two or three things simultaneously.

Manage Your Time

Schedule breaks if you ever want them to happen! The road to patience runs right through managing a small business. It starts with reflecting on the most effective strategies for handling multitasking. No matter your approach, some fundamentals will always help. These include organizing the daily activities, scheduling them, and sticking to the schedule as practical as possible. For a plan to make sense day after day, specific simple components come into play:

  • an organized approach to filing

  • organizing and prioritizing the day's tasks

  • keeping track of what needs to be done tomorrow

  • carefully attending to messages

  • keeping routine and clear notes in the datebook and accurately posting deadlines

  • taking frequent short breaks instead of waiting for a "better time" to take a break.

So, multi-tasking in the small business setting is impossible to avoid. Still, it can be a plus by maintaining good order, turning frustration into satisfaction, and managing time wisely. Make lemonade out of lemons.

Quitting Time

Many of us have worked for a boss who had no quitting time for him or herself. He or she would work until they became too tired to move or even see straight. These were the worst bosses because they imposed their quitting time standard on those they managed. The job never ended. Leaving work at the end of the workday was viewed as a betrayal.

Start with yourself. "A good manager goes home when the day is done." Say that over and over until it becomes your mantra. The implication, of course, is that a good manager organizes the work to be done realistically. When is your workday done? When does your workday begin? What is a realistic amount of work to be accomplished within that time frame? When your quitting time rolls around, the thing to do is go home. Your work will be waiting for you when you come back. The world does not hinge on your doing several extra work hours every day. But your life outside of work might well hinge on having you there instead of working overtime. Have you ever heard anyone on their death bed saying, "Gee, I wish I could work another day?"

When you have six good hours to work on a given day, schedule six hours of work for yourself, not seven or eight or nine! Six hours might be par for the course, given time for breaks, lunch, and interruptions. Your first responsibility for time management is getting the most out of the time available. That begins with recognizing how much time is available, first for yourself and then your workers. Productivity can be measured by how well that time is used. For example, the frequently working overtime manager is not managing well. The employees who are often asked to work overtime are being mismanaged. Hours that should otherwise be spent on your personal life, or your employees' personal lives, are being occupied by the company. This is a recipe for trouble and an indication of severe mismanagement.

Leaves and Vacations

The current trend for many people is to skip their vacations, cut trips short, or take work with them when they travel. This goes right along with sleep deprivation, a national epidemic. Add overtime work to this picture and what you will get is fatigue, stress, health problems, burnout, and rising employee turnover rates. As a manager or self-employed person, if you follow this recipe, you will discover that work is no longer satisfying. You are also likely to find out that you can't beat the odds—you, too, will end up stressed, exhausted, and battling health problems before retirement age.

So, take your breaks, go home and have a life when the workday is finished and enjoy those vacations!

Decompress Between Work and Home

Only one in four managers in 2021 strongly agree that they can maintain a healthy balance between work and personal commitments. (Jim Harter, 2021) My advice is: Leave home at home, and leave work at work: standard advice for business managers. There are two reasons for this. First, it is good to put work out of your mind, then come back to it fresh the next day or after the weekend. Those who think about their work outside the workplace are prone to worry. Worry quickly leads to anxiety and potentially to burnout. Eventually, you may dread, or even hate, the thought of going to work. It is suitable for the manager—not to mention the business and employees—when they are off the job outside of the office.

Second, if the manager does not leave work at work, some of the worry, stress, and problem-solving at work will creep into their home. That, in turn, allows the manager's work and responsibilities to move in with the family. Even for managers who live alone and/or do not have a family, it is not good to routinely bring work home or allow it to come home mentally.

Those who work from home need to develop routines that keep their work in the workplace and prevent it from permeating the entire house and living space. This is challenging but not by any means impossible. Start by closing down the day's tasks, putting things away, closing the files, locking up anything that needs to be secured, then closing and securing the office or workplace. That ends work physically, but it also helps to close out the workday mentally.

Those who work away from home might consider engaging in a short activity between work- and home life. This could be a short walk, a few minutes in the park, a drive home listening to music, or an audiobook or podcast that is neither work nor home related. It would be advisable for those who plunge directly into traffic to take a walk once you arrive home, even before going into the house.

The same principles of keeping work at work, and home at home, apply when you leave home to work. Read the morning paper, take a walk, look at the flowers, and have some coffee between home and work. Do something that is neither home- nor office-related to leave home behind before entering your office or workspace.

Remember, the best way to manage stress is not to have any in the first place. By leaving stressful matters behind, it is possible to go to either your workplace or your home with a "clean slate" instead of bringing the stress of one with you to the other. By emphasizing that you go back and forth between two worlds, as it were, you create the benefit of relief when it is needed. You allow yourself to participate with full attention wherever you are, without being bogged down by extra concerns from wherever you were. Living in the now is not something reserved for people in recovery but something suitable for everyone.

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