Warning: Turn Down the Heat

Originally published: 10.01.10 by W. Theodore (Theo) Etzel


How to protect yourself and your business from burnout.

Shorter hours, more money, happier employees, less stress, clear future, longer vacations... all is great with the world. Is this your reality? Hopefully so, but this is a reality for only a small percentage of us.

In many industries and businesses, I see this instead: lower margins, fewer resources, tighter cash, greater stress, more demanding clients, shorter tempers, uncertain economic futures, and longer hours that still don’t seem to be enough. This reality reflects what’s happening in the business world.

The result is that not only could you — the leader of a company — experience burnout, but also the entire organization can suffer. The bottom line: If you aren’t addressing the very real threat of burnout, your business is at risk of underperforming.

What Causes Burnout?

Simply stated, burnout is an ongoing and sustained feeling of being overwhelmed and unable to make a significant difference in the outcome of events. This feeling becomes stronger as it is allowed to continue. It also is influenced by personal demands, civic demands, and self-pressure to maintain a certain lifestyle or community persona.

Allowed to manifest fully, a general sense of “I just don’t care anymore.” creeps into the subconscious and then the conscious thought process. Physical symptoms and acting out follow. If a leader exhibits these traits, employees and clients will follow suit, potentially damaging the organization.

Burnout is vastly different from temporary frustrations in the everyday game of business and life. We all experience periods of frustration when a situation does not resolve itself quickly or is out of our control for a while. These are normal occurrences, and we rise to the challenge and fight the good fight.

If a person finds that they have lost the desire to jump into the fight, have a feeling of not caring, or an almost give-up or givein attitude, then a deeper examination of where they are in life needs to take place because this could be burnout.

Anyone can experience burnout. These days we are all fatigued from economic malaise, political tug-of-war and polarization of ideologies, and from news on the battlefronts many miles from home. These realities wear on people, both inside and outside the workplace.

Additionally, in recent years, many companies have had to lay off staff and cut hours. These actions, while necessary, transfer more work to fewer people, again causing a feeling of “too much work, not enough time.” Paying attention to the balance in the workplace is very important. If people are not allowed to find fun or reward in what they do, burnout is not far behind.

This goes for the leadership as well.

Take Care of Yourself First

What can you do to keep from spiraling down into the land of burnout? First, acknowledge that it could happen to anyone. If we pretend it doesn’t exist, it can sneak up and catch people by surprise. Put it out on the table and say that you want to make sure it doesn’t happen by paying attention to the signs above.

Use the potential of a burnout situation to re-evaluate your priorities and seek better balance. Remember the example of the three-legged stool: When one leg gets disproportionately long or short, the stool collapses.

Balance among work, personal, family, spiritual, and community can be difficult but must be approached proactively. Certainly there are times when we need to focus more attention on one area due to demanding circumstances. But when that short-term focus becomes a seemingly endless commitment, burnout could manifest itself.

My last article was about my use of a business coach. Not to revisit the entire concept here, except to say that one of the goals in these coaching sessions is a discussion on checks and balances in my work and personal life to help keep me centered.

My monthly meetings with other CEOs also help me to gain perspective in the broad picture of business and personal issues.

Set Realistic Goals for Yourself and Your Employees

People who are high achievers, and who set high standards and high goals, are more prone to suffer burnout as their career develops and requires longer hours and harder work. Life, and especially business life, isn’t perfect.

When the reality of the situation continues to fall short of the ideals and perfection held by someone, burnout occurs. This is not to say that lofty goals and the desire for great outcomes is a bad thing. But we need to be mindful that the failure to meet unrealistic goals will defeat the most optimistic person over time.

Paying attention to your own feelings is very important. But watching out for signs that an employee is beginning to suffer from burnout is critical for the success of the organization.

Offer Professional Help When Needed

People who suffer from burnout often feel fatigued, sapped emotionally, and tired just doing the daily grind. Tempers can shorten, and normal reactions become constant overreactions. You might see someone who is much less productive than they were before, or exhibits a careless attitude.

Certainly, over the last few years many people have been put in the position of having to lay people off, close locations, or otherwise downsize. Making significant cutbacks in all areas is very stressful and definitely not fun. Often these people may appear melancholy or even depressed because they are in this cycle.

Burnout has a sense of hopelessness associated with it. People may refer to this state as being stressed-out. In any event, the desire to go climb another mountain, whatever that is in life at the time, is simply not there. Some cope by masking the discomfort of stress and burnout with alcohol or drugs or other diversionary addictions.

Obviously, this behavior only leads to destruction, not only of the person, but those around them. If this is you or someone you know, I strongly recommend professional intervention. Now is a great time to review your benefits in terms of mental-health counseling and addiction treatment, and beef them up if needed.

Also, provide reminders to staff that these are available and are confidential. If you feel a direct intervention with an employee is needed, rely on your human-resources expert for direction.

Encourage Laughter and Fun

Avoiding burnout triggers for employees is one of the main responsibilities of the leader of the company. Remember, leaders wear many hats and are always on stage. So, everyone is looking at you for the tone and direction and general mood of the company. Recognizing people for a job well done, making sure they feel an integral part of the whole team and that they have a purpose for being there, and providing growth opportunities through education and advancement will improve morale of each individual and the entire group.

Also, make a concerted effort to have fun. We instituted a Joy Committee that comes up with simple, fun ideas to break the tension of work once in a while. It could be wearing your favorite team jersey to work, free pizza for lunch, a putting contest, etc. People enjoy the laughs and break in routine, and seeing the leader laugh at himself or herself is a great stress reliever for the team.

Improve Communication About Goals and Accomplishments

One way I attempt to avoid burnout is to take big challenges and break them into smaller, more manageable tasks. We’ve all heard the expression: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

I suggest taking this approach to business goals and communicating the process for reaching goals in this way. Encourage employees to focus on reaching smaller goals that will eventually get them to the larger goal. Sometimes people are overwhelmed by large numbers, for example, so set a series of shorter-term performance goals with lower numbers.

Acknowledge and reward not only achieving a big goal, but the sustained effort to get there. Burnout will occur. It can happen to anyone. If we acknowledge this fact and  take proactive steps to keep our lives in balance and priorities in perspective, we can avoid the insidious damage that burnout can cause.

Theo Etzel is an HVACR Business editorial advisory board member and president of Naples, Fla.-based Conditioned Air. 


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