Harvard Square fight that started it all.

Avoiding Burnout – Thoughts from a Transition Coach

Stephen P. Gallagher

Let me start by reviewing my notes about “burnout.” Altruistic, service-oriented people tend to overcommit and then get exhausted trying to follow through. These same talented individuals might believe that they can do it all – feeling omniscient, omnipotent and unable to admit mistakes – a dangerous combination in anyone. Of all personality factors affecting burnout, rigidity is the most closely associated with burnout. When unaware of her rigidity, a service-oriented individual might insist that she has the single best approach for each problem, and blames her frustrations and ineffectiveness on other people rather than looking into herself.

I’d like to offer to help an extremely hard-working, altruistic, service-oriented individual gain better control of work-related commitments to avoid the possibility of burnout. I’d like to focus on four narrow areas for change:

  1. Cope more effectively with both short- and long-term stress
  2. Develop greater self-respect, energy, and enthusiasm for life
  3. Obtain lasting improvements in physical and psychological well-being
  4. Cultivate and integrate mindfulness in everyday life

Cope more effectively with both short- and long-term stress

We all serve many masters and you often have so much on your plate you forget about your own needs. I can see you as a burnout candidate, because, burnout generally consists of three factors: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (treating people as objects), and a feeling of low personal accomplishment. This three-headed monster makes work an intolerable burden rather than a source of purpose and meaning, making you, either work harder and harder or eventually just give up.

The toxic combination of high responsibility, low sense of control, and isolation sets the stage for a sense of exhaustion, powerlessness, and helplessness.

You have surrounded yourself with good people who should be able to help you reduce some of your stress if you would allow them to do so. Once you accept that change is needed, you can begin identifying highest priority routines and those that are no longer even needed. You seem to spend time filling in when someone does not perform as expected. Are your expectations too high? Have you been clear on what you are looking to accomplish, and have you been available to follow-up on assignments? Have you considered alternative approaches? Finally, could you be too tolerant of others who consistently fall short on performance goals?

The essence of what you do is “high responsibility,” so there is probably not much you can do to alleviate stress associated with the job itself. The “low sense of control” is probably something you can work on, even though you have an ongoing struggle to muster needed resources.

Some things are worth fighting for.

Develop greater self-respect, energy, and enthusiasm for life

How often have we talked about the importance of taking care of yourself first? You clearly are proud of running many ongoing projects that seem to need your hands-on involvement. You have reliable people around you, but at the same time, you seek review of everything before it is released. The buck certainly stops with you, but in order for you to move on to higher level and more manageable things, you need a trusted ally working with you.

I do not see any sign that you lack self-respect, but I do sense that you are increasingly more frustrated by individuals who won’t take the time to understand the value of your life’s work! You are also still stuck with the 24-hour day.

How you maintain high levels of energy and your enthusiasm for life will be your ongoing challenge. Are you getting enough sleep? Are you getting up in the middle of the night with your mind racing to start your next day? Are you able to take the time to prepare the right foods, get a reasonable amount of exercise and quiet time to rejuvenate your soul, and time for family? I know this is a constant struggle, but it seems to me that your plate is filling up faster than you have been able to take things off your plate.

Cultivate and integrate mindfulness in everyday life

This one is a long shot. I have been a student of Mindfulness for a long time. Although I have never really been comfortable taking Yoga or Meditation classes, I constantly work on staying focused on the more important things in life. Maybe that is a privilege of coaching others, but if I had to do it again, I would eliminate unproductive meetings from my daily routines, and I would be better at balancing work with family.