Workable Work Life


Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.

Burn Out is Flourishing

George Bell, the CEO of Excite, tried to explain his profound sense of weariness to former Internet pioneer and CEO Michael Wolff:  It’s not just the airplanes.  It’s not just raising money – endless amounts of money.  It’s not just looking at a vast payroll every other week at a company that is not able to reliably support itself.  It’s not just the uncertainty.  It’s not just the 24/7 business schedule.  It’s the acceleration.  Your job is to transform – and to be transformed.  To be able to withstand some speeded-up evolutionary process.  And, of course, to be one of the evolutionary survivors…I’ve lost the capacity to let my guard down.

Burn-out results from the chronic feeling you’ve lost control over your life.  You feel coerced by your own ambition or by everyone else’s demands and needs, pushed by events and commitments, without choices.  It feels like you’ve lost the power to use the words, Yes and No. 

Burnout is a state of exhaustion, the result of prolonged stress and anxiety.  It has become more common over the past decade as the borderless economy led to unrelieved pressure, shorter and shorter time frames, and hugely expanded work days and weeks and months.

Employees in the United States put in more hours and have less vacation time than any other advanced industrial nation.  The average American works the equivalent of eight weeks a year longer than the average Western European.  More than 37 percent of us put in more than 50 hours a week.  In more than half of American couples, both members come home after 7 at night and face all the responsibilities of their second, their domestic job.

It’s getting harder and harder to get away from work.  Our high-tech tools, all the things that keep us connected, boost our productivity – and our stress.  We bring these tools on vacation, if we take one.  We’re dominated by the demand for speed: messages we once would have taken a week or two to answer are now answered immediately on e-mail.  With speed as the driver, we’ve created compressed time frames that add to stress.  Our days are fully scheduled and the schedule can’t be met without Herculean efforts.

Stress levels are rising and about half of American adults are having trouble managing it.  Some interventions are reasonably pragmatic and involve creating a new etiquette of rules for e-mail, guidelines for when it’s okay to be offline and unavailable and clear norms for what’s an acceptable workweek.  Employees need to figure out what would be a Best Fit in terms of working conditions at this time in their life.  Organizations that respect parenthood don’t schedule meetings after 4:30 or 5.  Companies that respect other people’s time discourage unnecessary e-mails.  Companies that respect other people’s lives don’t expect you to burn the midnight oil…every night.

Most people need real time out.  They need to find activities that bring a grin to their face.  Many people should take vacations and on vacation, disconnect.  Recharge.  Become “centered” through faith.  Gain control of stress through meditation and yoga.  Draw a line between work and home. Give yourself permission to disconnect.

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