Burnout on the Job: You Own It and Only You Can Fix It

I am done!” Background: A few years out of college, into their second job, dislikes job and abusive work environment.

I am just going through the motions.” Background: Baby Boomer, laid off but just bounced back, hates to get up every morning. Wants to get out but can’t.

I am so over this job.” Background: Gen X, 10-12 years out of college. Multiple promotions. Very successful for her age with lots of responsibility, but wants to do something else. Does not know what “something else” is.

This is just a sampling of the emails and texts that I have received from friends over the past few weeks. They are all at different stages of their career, but what I am noticing is that there are very few people that I know who are at “career nirvana.”

Is there anyone out there who really loves what they are doing?

Stages of burnout

I find it hard to find people today who are truly happy with what they are doing. Are we all on a treadmill to oblivion and using work only as a means to an end?

My father ran a couple of small businesses when we were growing up. He was always happy, things were good, living the dream, and I never heard him complain. His retort was that we all bring on our own angst.

But the more I watch,” the more I see misery — in lives, in careers, in families. Sometimes I think maybe I am missing something, Am I supposed to be on the verge of burnout, too? Am I too supposed to complain about something being wrong in my life?

Solutions, not problems

I worked with an HR professional at one time who was just beyond brutal to employees. What I later found out was that her life was falling apart and any interaction with anyone brought all of it to the forefront.

As we interact with people throughout our day, we too see the signals of people on the verge of losing it. Sometimes, the slightest little action creates a reaction that is completely out of proportion.

One of my management principles has always been this: do not come to me with a problem if there is no solution attached. I once reported to a CEO who taught me that valuable lesson. After a few times of interacting, her comment was “I have enough problems as it is, so do not enter those doors again unless you are presenting solutions.”

Lesson learned.

What is “IT?”

What does this have to do with being happy with your life? If you do not know the solution, no one else does. You are the master locksmith to your inner sanctum. There is not a book written, a speech made, a conversation, or a piece of advice that is going to solve it if you do not know what “IT” is.

“IT” is elusive, but you must continue on that search because at the end of it is your own little rainbow. As my kids would say, “it’s mine, all mine!”

I remember watching a documentary about a tribe of jungle people living basically in tree huts and surviving on what was harvested or killed to eat. The narrator made a point that with despite having nothing but a hand-to-mouth existence, these people described themselves as happy. Despite what we would see as misery, they were a happy bunch.

Based on their reference point, they were as happy as can be.

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Workplaces as incubators for burnout

What about us? We all have jobs, some great and some not. We have a living existence, some great and some not. Yet, people still complain regardless of that, and the burnout oozes every time they open their mouth.

There was a research study done a while back that examined lottery winners, and the constant thread that came out of the study was that the vast majority of them ended up being miserable. Yet, everyone wants the big financial component, as if that equates to happiness.

One other finding from the study was that whatever the situation you were in before your windfall, it was magnified afterwards. In other words, nothing changed for the winners — it only got worse.

Our HR issue is that workplaces are populated with the burnout examples listed above. In many cases, you’re doing the work of three people at your job.

Some weeks you spend more time at work than at home. You missed your child’s events. By the time you arrive at the office in the morning, you feel more exhausted than rested. When the weekend is over, you need another. You begin to hate Sundays because you know what is next.

With mass layoffs, pay cuts, seemingly endless workdays, and disappearing vacations, people today are coping with an enormous amount of job stress. And job stress trickles into home stress. When you are overloaded, stress is the byproduct.

What can we do

This is a dilemma that must be faced within organizations as well as by employees. Each entity plays a role in trying to figure this out.

Best practices will not solve this because what works across the street may not work on your side. We each must look within ourselves to find the personal solution.

There is not a magic bullet that will help; what works for me will not work for you. Each one of us has our own mysterious equation and the problem is that no one is going to solve it but you.

Each one of us is the master of our universe. We hold all the answers to our well-being. No one else does. So whenever you feel burnout approach, remember, YOU OWN IT and only you can fix it.

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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1 Comment on “Burnout on the Job: You Own It and Only You Can Fix It

  1. Not entirely on the mark in my opinion. While it is true that SOME of the causes stress at home and work are under our control, many are not. This holds especially true in the work environment where job performance is increasingly tied to doing more for the employer, and often with fewer resources. It is nice to think that we are the masters of our own universe, and how we perceive the ever mounting challenges can overcome burnout.

    However, the Yerkes-Doddson curve tells us that everyone has their limits.

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