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Professional Burnout

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It’s 9:00 a.m. and John is reviewing his lengthy to-do list. For months he’s struggled with fatigue and lethargy, unable to maintain the mental focus and physical energy his small business requires. He is forgetful, misses deadlines, makes mistakes, is easily frazzled and less able to cope with the daily demands of his business. He pushes on in spite of the rising sense of panic he feels. He thinks if he can just get over the next little hump, things will get better.

In the last six months Diane has had to cut her staff by 25% while expecting the remaining team to keep up with a full workload. Everyone is stretched and her staff is struggling to keep up. To reduce the strain on her staff she takes on more herself, coming in early and staying late to pick up the slack. She’s not sleeping because she worries about the keeping it all afloat. She feels as if she’s drowning – but doesn’t believe she has any options but to carry on if she wants to keep her business.

Both John and Diane are experiencing burnout symptoms. For thousands of professionals in today’s workforce like John and Diane, things will not get better without attention and action to address their burnout.

Jean-François Simard, Research Officer at the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada says work-related stress is the factor mentioned most often when talking about burnout and currently represents about 40% of work-related problems. “Stress and mental health problems now account for 40% of long-term disability claims, 35 million lost workdays a year and 40% of turnover.” says Simard. Burnout is expected to continue to rise as businesses are forced to do more with less, and the demands on the average worker and business owner increase.

Burnout has been defined as “physical or mental collapse caused by overwork or stress.” Once it occurs, it can be a long way back. Some people experience a complete inability to handle or cope with the day-to-day demands of work, or develop debilitating illnesses. In most cases, it leaves the person unable to continue to work. Most entrepreneurs tend to push themselves – often beyond healthy and reasonable limits – to meet the demands of their business, putting them at risk for professional burnout.

People don’t burn out overnight. They often have months, in some cases even years, of warning signs that have been ignored or pushed through. A former Director of Human Resources says of her burnout experience, “I believe my burnout was due in part to the unrealistic and unsustainable expectations I had set for myself. They way back to health required a recalibration of what was reasonable and taking easy baby steps in that direction.”

As a business owner or leader, the impact of hitting burnout can be significant for your business.

Recognize the Signs

Not recognizing or taking the signs seriously can lead to devastating consequences. Most people experience the following symptoms leading to burnout:

  • Short attention span, lack of focus
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Low energy, exhaustion, trouble sleeping
  • Withdrawing from people, feeling overwhelmed
  • Negative attitude, unhappy at home and work
  • Decreased performance, low motivation
  • Increase in health problems

If you notice several of these signs on a regular basis, do not ignore them. See your doctor, talk to a close friend or colleague or a professional counsellor. Acknowledge and act before the symptoms become prolonged or chronic and force you to step back from your business or work. “The intense pace I expected myself to keep plunged me deeper into the darkness,” says an Executive Coach “which meant that my recovery took longer than it needed to.”

Establish a Strong Support Network

It’s important to have people you can connect with regularly for support. This may feel counterintuitive, as burnout causes you to feel less social and typically reduces your desire to be with people, however, it’s an essential part of avoiding burnout. Meet with business colleagues on a regular basis for support. Engage with a counsellor or therapist. Spend time with good friends and family to reduce your stress. When you’re feeling vulnerable or overwhelmed, don’t go it alone. Tap into your network for support and perspective.

Maintain Balance

Business owners often sacrifice themselves for the success of their businesses, but self-care is essential to enduring physical and emotional strength in the face of constantly changing, demanding times. Here are some ways to maintain balance:

  • Eat a proper diet, exercise and get sufficient sleep
  • Do an activity you love
  • Let go of what you can’t control and focus on what you can
  • See a doctor, counsellor, therapist, or coach to find ways of working without burning out
  • Spend time with people who matter to you
  • Make time for fun!

A balanced life minimizes stress and creates capacity for you to be more effective in your business.

Keep Your Perspective

No matter how bad it feels, things can be worse. Practice gratitude to keep your perspective. It doesn’t eliminate the challenges, but it helps you focus on what matters. Evaluate what you are feeling with what is actually happening – things may not be as bad as they appear. Acknowledge the things that are within your control and change what you can. Find a trusted person to talk to. Other people can often see things more clearly.

To be effective in today’s demanding business climate, you need to make intentional decisions that protect your physical and emotional well-being. This will allow you to give your best self at work and avoid burning out, and help you sustain a long and meaningful business career.

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