Lately, it feels like if you’re not working 80-hour weeks, you’re not working hard enough. The willingness to work long hours in the hopes of rapid career growth has a name, and it’s not spelled B-O-S-S. Chronic overachievers often rely on a “I can do it all” attitude to feel accomplished and secure in their jobs. But what this attitude doesn’t rely on is reality. When you try to do everything all the time, you’re mostly likely to only achieve one thing: burnout.
Burnout can lead to serious physical, mental, and social consequences but it doesn’t happen overnight. The Harvard Business Review aptly describes burnout as a slow fizzle—something that builds over time before imploding.
In particular, burnout is common among high-level executives, who typically reach their positions by being chronic achievers. There are cautionary tales from successful leaders that serve as a lesson in what not to do.
Despite how it presents itself, there are ways to avoid burnout and still grow in your job. Taking the time to learn from the experiences of other overachievers can help prevent the worst of burnout from taking ahold of your professional life.
The Burnout Sabbatical
When a person tends to always be “on,” they increase their likelihood of crashing and, well, burning. According to a 2014 study by Monster, 61% of employees have experienced illness because of work-related stress, with 42% deciding to quit to avoid burnout:
- James Green, the former CEO of Giant Realm, an online advertising firm, began dreading his commute through New York’s Penn Station each morning. His role as a “turnaround specialist” meant often selling off companies and firing hundreds of people. Though emotionally drained, he never hinted at his condition because leaders cannot be “emotionally erratic.” Instead, the stress led him to sell off his company so he could sail around the world with his family before returning to New York as the CEO of another internet advertising business.
- Similar to Green, Dustin Snell, the founder and CEO of Network Automation Inc., reluctant to equate the feeling of “running in place” to a burnout, took a year and a half off to spend time with his newborn daughter. He eventually returned to his company as CEO with new perspective.
- Some leaders, however, don’t have the opportunity to take years off only to reclaim their jobs and titles. At Lloyds Banking Group, PLC chief Antonio Horta-Osorio left his role of less than a year for a two-month rest. His business was hurt and an interim leader was put in place in case he did not make it back to the company at all. But he returned, well rested, and began the battle all over again.
The average non-CEO often can’t afford to take several months or years off, but there are mechanisms in place for employees to take time for their mental well-being. In the US, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants employees of 12 months or more 12 weeks of unpaid leave, while their job and health benefits remain intact. While this leave is most often used for women on maternity leave, it’s available for anyone who has a qualifying condition, such as depression or anxiety.
In general, taking breaks is key to better productivity. Some companies have sabbatical or paid time off policies for an employee needing a mental health break who would like to return to work after a period of time.
Answer Passion Instead Of Email
Burnout doesn’t just exhaust a person’s mind and body. For some, it’s spirit that suffers the most. Employees who spend long hours at a job can begin to lose their passion.
A former Yelp employee wrote a manifesto under the pen name “Eevee,” claiming they would never return to the tech world again. After working excruciatingly long hours, they found they could not manage to have any sort of personal life in their downtime.
Eevee wrote: “The breaking point actually came during a two-week vacation at the end of May. The first week was relaxing, productive, glorious. Then I passed the midpoint and saw the end of my freedom looming on the horizon. Gloom descended once more. The difference was striking, and I knew I had to stop.” This turning point was freeing for Eevee, noting they no longer cared about the work they were contributing and that they couldn’t wait to start the rest of their life.
Glynnis Macinol also found that her work life was consuming her real life. In an essay for Elle, she wrote, “I was resentful of anything that caused me to miss work, including, but not limited to, people who expected me to hold uninterrupted conversations over dinner.” Eventually, she ditched her dream job and her BlackBerry and took great pleasure in answering the “What do you do?” question at cocktail parties with one word: nothing. She equated her very real burnout to being tired, stressed, bored, and in need of a vacation and a lobotomy. Her new life of nothing was scary, but totally liberating.
While it’s common not to want to return to work right after a vacation or long weekend, the daily struggle to get out of bed may mean you’ve pushed too hard at one job, like Eevee did. Or perhaps you’re feeling like Glynnis, who could not sit down for dinner without picking up her phone and email.
Notice this internal struggle when it comes up and make a conscious effort to schedule free time each day. It’s also important to have a conversation with your manager about how a work-life balance is important and you really appreciate “offline” hours in which you’re unavailable for work issues. Confronting these warning signs before it comes to ditching your entire career for good is important, as finding a new job and new passion can be even more daunting.
How Did I Get Here?
Then there are the leaders whose intention is to make time for themselves regularly and it slowly slips away. Often, those whose free time is replaced with work are telling themselves it is because their job is the newest passion:
- For Angela Benton, keeping up the level of passion and intensity with her company NewME became a challenge. She was exhausted and, despite the hours she worked, totally disconnected from her purpose. Her answer was to become “more deliberate with her time,” carving out a few minutes or hours to reconnect with herself through meditation.
- For Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post and unabashed proponent of sleep, she literally didn’t know how she got there. “There” being the floor of her home office after waking up in a pool of blood. Seriously freaked out, Huffington asked her doctors to run several tests but nothing was clinically wrong. She was just burnt out, which led to passing out, hitting the corner of her desk, and cutting her eye open. Since her fall, she’s been more mindful of the way she works and it’s clear reevaluating her schedule is doing wonders, as she’s even more successful than she was pre-2007 burnout.
While passion for your work is a powerful motivating force, it cannot be your reason for existence. Just look at the companies that are changing the way we look at perks, including things like meditation, gym memberships, kickball teams, and book clubs in with the regular medical and PTO benefits.
Great companies understand their employees are most successful when they’re not exclusively thinking about work and also when they’re encouraging time spent outside of the office. Slower moments like meditation classes are helping employees disconnect and sleep better, leading to a fresh outlook at the beginning of each day.
Avoid The Crash (And The Guilt)
Two ways to avoid burnout are to use balance and prioritization in your workday—and making sure these practices align with those of your organization. It’s common for people to have misconceptions of what their boss expects of them. In one poll, managers were asked how many of them expected employees to answer emails in evening hours and 20% answered yes. When posed the same question, 80% of employees assumed their bosses wanted after-hours emails answered promptly.
It’s also key for leaders and managers to mimic the expectations they have of their teams. Sheryl Sandberg, preacher of having it all at Facebook, took years to not feel guilty leaving work at 5:30pm daily in order to eat dinner with her children. If a successful and talented COO of a multi-billion dollar company struggles with leaving work on time, what is the average worker to do?
Feeling the signs before they happen, such as not caring, not sleeping, running on adrenaline, and/or feeling like you are drowning probably mean it’s time to sit down with your manager and HR and acknowledge that working longer hours is not leading to your most productive and happiest self. You might just be surprised at the results.