Let’s talk about burnout. Why? Because most people approach the thought of burnout by associating it to weakness. A failure to rise to the occasion. Succumbing to hardship and not overcoming new challenges. This is especially true for me. As a man raised in a home where pain is temporary, chicks dig scars, toughen up and just push through the pain, it was hard for me to objectively assess my own personal challenges and my fight with burnout, stress, and anxiety.
How burnout happened for me
The hard part for me was that I did it to myself. I’m a self motivated hard worker who has high expectations, both for myself and those around me. I aim for perfection, and rarely like to settle for much less. I’ve never cared for goal setting, planning, or setting reasonable deadlines. I want to jump into a project, move forward as quickly as possible, and don’t want to stop until I’ve created something absolutely amazing. The challenge arises when an unstoppable force meets and unmovable object — or how about a slow moving object. The pace of change that an organization can handle is much slower than I’d like it to be. There are many publications discussing organizational change, change management, innovation etc. that all say the same thing “change takes time”. At the end of the day, my stress came from trying to force organizational change at a pace that was completely unreasonable, even when deploying tactics from agile project management, design thinking, ITIL, you name it.
What burnout looked like for me
Close your eyes and picture burnout for a moment. What does it look like? Do you think you’re burnt out? Why, how does burnout manifest in your actions or mood?
A common marker of burnout, and one that I faced was negativity, pessimism and cynicism. I’m usually a pretty positive person. I see the world for what it is, and my perspective of the world is that of a realist. There are many challenges that we will face, I don’t think otherwise, but generally I think that we can overcome just about any obstacle. I look at problems as opportunities. Just because something is going to be hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
My positive attitude started dwindling, but that’s not how I identified my burnout. For me it was something else completely.
Canary in the coal mine
I have 3 dogs. A lovely band of misfits. They’re all rescues, a bunch of mutts, with all of their own problems. One is terrified of people, the other has clearly been hit. For all of their foibles, they’re absolutely lovely dogs. They seek affection, want attention, listen occasionally, and at the end of the day, they just need to be loved.
We had another dog before these three. Her name was Abbie, she was a Rottweiler mix, with her own separation anxiety and other issues. Abbie and I were besties. She was stuck to me like glue, she was a 95lbs lapdog. We were inseparable, and she made me feel like the most amazing thing in her life. She went nuts when I came home after being gone for 5 minutes, she would spoon with me all night, even when it was so hot out that she was panting. We would play for hours together.
I’ve always missed the bond I had with Abbie, especially because I feel like I haven’t yet forged that same bond with my new dogs. I used to think that maybe the new dogs just don’t like me as much. They aren’t looking for the same thing from their human. Maybe they’re past situation was so much worse than Abbie’s that they’re incapable of bonding the same way.
I have since changed my perspective. Dogs have an intuition for good people. The reason why my dogs hadn’t taken to me as well as before is that I was different. I had Abbie before I was in a leadership role. I had Abbie before I had money to manage. I had Abbie before I had stress.
I now look at my dogs as canaries in the coal mine. An early warning sign of problems. If I get frustrated with them, or they seem distant, I look inward. Dogs don’t carry a grudge, they don’t do things to spite you, and they don’t formulate an opinion of you based on anything other than your actions.
My dogs and I grew distant because I lost my patience. I was quick to anger. I was too busy focusing on work to focus on them. They weren’t happy when I came home from work because I wasn’t happy. Walks became a chore because they pulled my focus away from work, away from solving problems. I lost the ability to just sit and pet my dogs, whether it be for 5 minutes or 50 minutes. That’s when bonds are made, and I just didn’t have the time, patience, or headspace to do that.
The same thing that helped me identify my burnout has been a big help overcoming it — my dogs. I’ve aligned my mental wellbeing with my relationship to my dogs. I know that if I spend more time with them, not only will we grow closer together, but I’ll be better for it, mentally. Sitting and petting your dog can be meditative. You should feel free to take the time to go out for a walk and enjoy yourself. Play time isn’t wasted work time — it’s necessary for balance.
Spending more time with my dogs isn’t that only thing I’ve changed to eliminate burnout. I’ve taken steps to change my expectations, set clear goals that are reasonable and achievable, ensured alignment between the work I do and the work that brings me joy, and I’ve set clear boundaries between my work life and my personal life — but we can talk about all of those things in a future post.
If you think you’re suffering from burnout, take action, and get some help. Many companies have an Employee Assistance Program that offers stress coaches and other services. Speak with your manager about some of the challenges you’re having. I also use meditation and journaling as a way be more present in the moment and to combat negative self talk.
If you’re interested in learning more about stress and burnout, I found this article helpful: https://www.forbes.com/sites/learnvest/2013/04/01/10-signs-youre-burning-out-and-what-to-do-about-it/#6f92565f625b