While I’m not a medical professional, I’ve been through several burnouts and some of my team members have blanked out for a few weeks before getting back on track.
Here are several observations and thoughts of mine regarding burnouts.
1. Burnouts Are Often Not Directly Related to Work
All of my burnouts and most of the cases I’ve observed were not directly related to work.
Sure, work overload is a contributing factor. But more often than not, there are family troubles, sick family members, additional responsibilities or duties (looking for a new house, car troubles), or an uncomfortable office environment which may be a serious contributing factor to the problem.
Which is why I’ve seen people burn out while spending no more than 5–6 billable hours at the office. Their mind is fully occupied with other problems that they don’t have a practical, quick solution for while being a high priority on their list.
The frequent conversations around the proposal of a 4-day work week or reduced working hours bring up examples of musicians or professional athletes who don’t appear to be working a traditional 40-hour week.
The fact that a football player spends under two hours on the field doesn’t account for their practice sessions, their sleeping habits, food regime, abstaining from alcohol, and a number of additional factors they have to comply with. A music tour may merely include a 2-hour concert too, but never forget the travel, sound check, setup, media interviews, and again — keeping your gear or voice intact with a tough regime to follow.
As the first step, always validate against external factors contributing to the rise of a burnout streak.
2. Skills May Not Match the Job Description
The skills gap is one of the reasons why burnout is common for entrepreneurs. Starting a business depends on business chops, marketing, and sales skills, understanding tech requirements, dealing with finances and legal contracts, negotiating requirements with prospects, offloading work to team members or third-party vendors.
Most people need to run a business for 5–10 years in order to get comfortable dealing with most activities (and grow a thick skin). Fresh entrepreneurs often don’t make it through the first few years – leading to 90% of the startups failing.
This could easily translate to an employee at work. The caveat is aligning the skill set with the job requirements. Inexperienced, entry-level employees may require another 2 or 3 years in order to get fully “up to speed” with the business goals.
Larger corporations may have open positions for inexperienced team members. Smaller and mid-sized teams are usually fast-paced and require more from their team members. They need to stay on the market which requires higher motivation and more time spent. A misalignment may easily overburden an employee and lead to burnout.
If your team is prepared to skill up together, this may work. But false expectations can cause friction, leading to the consequences of burning yourself or a team member out.
3. Work-Related Burnouts Are Easier to Intercept Earlier
Office burnout takes weeks, if not months, before evolving and crossing the “intervention” line.
Smart business owners and HR managers should be able to see the pattern early enough. While there’s often a mismatch between the expected delivery volume and the time frame, there are ways to rectify that early on.
An employee who is “about to burn out in a month” may take a couple of days off and double up on their efforts over the next week. It’s often a good practice to just send someone on a last-minute vacation (to a spa or on a trip) in order to retain their energy forward.
We spoke to Adam Culp and Joe Ferguson on the No BS Engineering podcast discussing burnout consequences and what everyone faced in the world of IT over the years. The episode is available here:
4. The Stress-Management Layer Is Elastic
I remember my university days. I was already 4 years into full-time work and my fellow students were complaining about receiving a C for an exam, often crying all night, barely able to handle the pressure.
I couldn’t grasp that at all when compared to running a team of 5 and building an international multimedia platform for a telecom operating in several countries. It was all about increasing responsibilities and the types of challenges solved on a day-to-day basis.
That is why burnout “survivors” can often handle an increasing amount of pressure and stress for a longer period of time after the first or the second hit. Gradually increasing responsibilities and improving professionally allows one to undertake more serious business challenges.
The good news is that those who have gone through a burnout CAN monitor their energy levels if they are smart enough. Symptoms are all the same. They can act before it’s too late and reclaim their balance with whatever works for them.
Not everyone is able to gauge that reliably though. It’s easier to recognize the pattern but falling down the rabbit hole is just a step away.
5. High Responsibility Burns More Fuel
One of the ways to “step back” is temporarily switching to a role that’s less energy-consuming.
For example, if a senior developer has been promoted to a team lead position 5–6 months ago (leading to extra stress), they can ask for a vacation or getting back to a programming role.
Not all developers are great team leaders and all new team leaders require an onboarding and adjustment time. If they feel like it’s a burden, it may take a longer period of time and a gradual transition before stepping in comfortably.
The same goes for jobs that require your attention outside of regular working hours. I’m not referring to the occasional hour or two in the evening, but support shifts and “on-call” duties which may get overwhelming. Lacking the time to recharge for a continuous period of time inevitably leads to additional consequences.
6. Finding the Core Reason Is Paramount
What we started with earlier is that work is often involved, but there are side factors (family, friends, expenses).
Most of my employees, who feel like they’re reaching a burnout point, ask for a few days off — or even half-days — until they get some of their other problems in order.
- Sometimes a sick child requires regular trips to the hospital or additional trips to the local health center
- Or a parent visiting for a medical procedure
- A burst pipe at home wrecking havoc
- A malfunctioning car or a car accident causing commute friction
To alleviate that, do offer flexible work hours and occasional “work from home” for local team members. This allows for more flexibility in terms of resolving side problems as well (together with investing more in health and sports activities).
7. People Refresh in Different Ways
The gym may be a go-to place for some, others prefer to run in the mornings, or hike up a mountain if they’re up for it.
Some introverts would rather spend the weekend reading a book or watching movies. To each their own.
Employees should find what works for themselves. This is a common mistake with many workers who don’t know how to manage their energy levels and relax. It’s not something that the company can help with – even if you receive a week off, if you are unable to utilize it and recharge, it is pointless (if not worse) in terms of fighting a burnout.
8. Variety Helps a Lot
Monotonous and boring work can certainly contribute to burnout.
As a retention policy, most organizations invest in ongoing assessment reviews and interviews with different team members. This could be conducted by direct managers or senior management (depending on the work procedures).
Switching people between projects every now and then, offering certification courses, providing career growth opportunities are good ways to keep people happy, motivated, and excited about their work duties.
This conversation goes both ways, of course. Diversity is not always trivial, if a project demands multiple people full-time for a year, frequently rearranging resources is an expensive venture. Yet, it’s not impossible, and sometimes there are external activities that need attention and may serve as a source of variety to suppress a burnout on the rise.
9. Never Ignore Your Health and Sleep
Health conditions, irregular sleep habits, lack of exercise are major factors contributing to sickness and burnouts.
Investing in your own health can drastically improve your stress elasticity and overall comfort levels at work and at home. This is often overlooked by most people.
Adjust your food habits, take enough time to sleep, exercise at least 2–3 times a week, and this may resolve the most troublesome situations both at work and at home.
Find out more about burnouts and some of these best practices here: