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Henley Leadership Group Blog

3 Crucial Ways To Avoid Burnout


Previously published on Forbes.com.

Working a 70-hour week isn’t cool. It means that you have sacrificed something important – exercise, time with family, downtime. I cringe when a client tells me they work a 60- to 70-hour workweek. Overwork can take a toll on you in ways you may not even realize. I’m not talking about a big project crunch that demands you work a few long days and maybe an occasional weekend. I’m talking about that ongoing, month-after-month grind that turns into years of too much work and not enough play.

The “working-too-much” meter looks different for everyone. You may not think you work too much. Often you learn you do from the people who miss you – your partner, your kids, your friends. And they let you know by complaining about it. Of course, there are also some simple signals you can see for yourself: First, you may hear yourself saying you are “exhausted” more and more often. Are you listening? Second, you may be feeling lonely. The more people feel burned out, the lonelier they are. And third, you’ve noticed that you’ve become somewhat cynical. You’ve started to look at the glass as half-empty. You just don’t care like you used to.

And here’s the thing: More hours at work doesn’t necessarily mean you get more stuff done. Sara Green Carmichael writes in her HBR article, “There’s a large body of research that suggests that regardless of our reasons for working long hours, overwork does not help us. For starters, it doesn’t seem to result in more output.”

She goes on to cite a study conducted by Erin Reid, a professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business, which found that managers couldn’t even tell whether employees were really working 80 hours a week or just pretending to. It also wasn’t evident that the over workers were actually accomplishing any more than the others. While managers did penalize employees who were transparent about working less, Reid was not able to find any evidence that those employees actually accomplished less, or any sign that the overworking employees accomplished more.”

 Ask yourself: Are you really getting a return on all those extra hours you’re putting in? If you know you work too much, you have two choices: Keep your head down and ignore the signals that you are burning out or make much-needed changes. If you choose the latter, you’ll need to consider the common causes of burnout and which one might be at play in your life.

The Causes of Burnout

One cause of burnout is having to travel excessively for work. Several years ago, I was working as a consultant for a boutique-sized consulting firm. Our largest client was in southeast Florida. I live in Seattle. Every Monday morning, I packed a suitcase and headed to the airport for an all-day cross-country haul. Our team would work with the client Tuesday through Friday, and I would arrive home Friday evening completely used up. My three children needed me, they missed me. But I had almost nothing to give them. The late nights of client dinners and preparing for the next day had taken its toll. After six months of this, I was burned out. I cried a lot during what little time I actually had at home. I was just so tired. And two days at home was never enough time to recover.

You might be burned out from other factors. Some of them are: unrealistic deadlines, uncompensated work beyond the initial scope of your role, stressful interactions with colleagues or customers and excessive demands to be available at any given moment by email, phone and on weekends.

So, let’s assume that you’ve seen the light. You know you are at risk of burnout and you are ready to do something about it. Here are three ways to begin:

Three Ways to Stave off Burnout

1. Exercise. Strength training has been shown to have a strong impact on brain function, which reduces the effects of overwhelm. In one study, just 20 minutes of leg strength exercises enhanced long-term memory by 10%. Research has proven that exercise promotes brain health by releasing hormones, which encourage the growth of new brain cells. This process is known as neurogenesis or neuroplasticity.

Memory and cognition are not the only benefits associated with physical fitness. Exercise is also known to dispel depression — in many cases more effectively than antidepressants. One of the ways exercise promotes mental health is by normalizing insulin resistance and boosting natural “feel good” hormones and neurotransmitters associated with mood control, including endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate and GABA.

Whenever you can, simply move. Or at least stand up. A stand-up desk is a great option if you have an office job. Park further away from the entrance, take the stairs instead of the elevator or conduct walking meetings. The options are endless for moving your body.

2. Gain control over your “monkey mind." Just ten minutes of meditation a day can help train your busy mind to fall silent at your command. This comes in super handy when your mind starts racing at 2:00 a.m. A regular practice of meditation can help you sleep better.

3. Set clear boundaries. Declare what time you will leave the office. Dinner with the family is no longer a thing for people who work over-long. When Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, insisted on leaving the office at 5:30 every day to get home for dinner with her two kids, the Wall Street Journal said her announcement “stunned the world.”

In a 2014 interview with Time magazine, EY’s CEO Mark Weinberger shared about the promise he made to his family to keep them as a priority when he stepped into the CEO seat. Of course, this promise was tested. The first came in China after he delivered one of his first speeches as CEO. Employees asked him if he would be taking selfies on the Great Wall with them.  He said he couldn’t. He was flying back to Washington, D.C. for his daughter’s driver’s test the next morning. Remarkably, he kept his promise to his daughter.

“Afterwards I got hundreds of emails: Not a single person remembered the terrific speech I gave, but everybody remembered I went home for my daughter,” he says. “It brought home to me how powerful leading by example is. You can have all the initiatives you want saying you can have flexibility, but until some of the real leaders make the choice to choose family, I don’t think people feel like they have real permission to do it.”

Avoiding burnout is vital — not a nice to have, but a must-have. Good employers make sure that both the well-being of the company and the well-being of each employee is held in equal regard. This allows people to bring their best to work and to create and serve in ways that make a true difference.