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Feeling burnt out? Consider your organization’s role in it

Librada Estrada

matches_wmAna recently wrote about how each of us contributes to burnout by the way we frame what we say yes to. She focused on how individually we are responsible for our exhaustion. And, the responsibility is not just our own. Another element to consider is how the organization that you are working at contributes to it. I have worked mostly for non-profit organizations and although this is a problem that I experienced first hand, burnout is an issue across many different sectors—private, public, for-profit, federal, etc. and across different professions. It is an issue that I discuss with clients, colleagues, friends and family and both genders.

How does an organization contribute to burnout?

Some examples include:

  • Emails from staff/supervisors/board members are sent after hours;
  • Leadership says yes to opportunities that will bring in money and overcommitting already extended staff without bringing in others or asking your input on prioritization;
  • Reaching out to staff while they are on vacation;
  • Scheduling calls after closing/office hours and staff calling in from home;
  • Not explaining expectations related to accessibility after hours;
  • Self-promotion by co-workers (e.g., I worked until 2 am to complete X assignment);
  • Negative employees/staff;
  • Lack of recognition or validation of efforts;
  • Wellness benefits are provided and they are not used because staff are too busy, on the road, or they cannot access them after hours;
  • Providing staff a work cell phone so they can be available to their clients/staff or more easily check email when off site.

A common thread here is that there are no boundaries present. Although it is up to a person to establish boundaries for themselves, an organization’s culture also influences the business norms of its staff.

Organizational Expectations

An organization can send mixed messages. Consider the explicit and implicit expectations of your team or department. When you are hired you are informed of your schedule, workspace, timesheet policies, etc. What you are not always told about is how the group communicates, who the influencers are, expectations about accessibility after hours, etc. You find out through direct experience, feedback, or you determine them based on your assumptions.

If you are in a position of authority in the organization, how often do you encourage staff to go home at closing time, encourage them to eat lunch away from their desks, or not send emails until the next day? Or, do you expect your staff to be available to you (i.e., respond to emails or to your calls) as soon as possible? What are the messages that you are conveying to your staff and how are you communicating those expectations? How easy do you make it for your staff and yourself to create and maintain boundaries to reduce the likelihood of burnout?

As a staff member, how good are you about setting boundaries for yourself and honoring them? How good are you about honoring those of colleagues? How often do you ask or check your assumptions?

When I did not have children I did not see anything wrong with any of these things. I thought this was normal. I would send emails after hours and after dinnertime. I would say yes, feel free to email or call me while I am on vacation; sure I can stay late to finish the report; and I can finish that at home and still be here for that early morning meeting.

After I had my daughter, I continued to work this way. When I would wake up in the middle of the night to feed her I would creep into my home office and start answering emails, etc. I would think, since I am up, why not make the best use of my time. Partly it was because no one pointed out that it wasn’t healthy and I did not think otherwise. It was also because I thought that I had to function this way to be successful and this pressure, the overachiever in me, did not let me see otherwise. My work defined me. It wasn’t until my second pregnancy that I realized something had to change.

Lessons Learned

I wish that I had been more confident to ask questions, change my work habits and not be afraid to acknowledge the need to focus on quality and not quantity or to admit that I had a life outside of work and wanted to actually enjoy it. I let myself be influenced by the work of overachievers in the office and believed that I had to meet their standards to be successful. I said yes to crazy hours and long nights based on my idea of success. I contributed to my burnout by staying quiet and I perpetuated it by the habits that I exhibited to other staff.

One day, while sitting at my desk at work and feeling very overwhelmed, I realized a few things. As much as you might care about the mission and vision of the organization that does not mean that the organization is as committed to you. If the work is getting done and staff is not complaining, leadership is not necessarily interested in changing the status quo. There may not be an incentive to encourage different behavior.

Second, you do not get back in return the same amount of time and energy that you put into the organization. Case in point, I clearly remember one particular instance where I had worked an additional 70 hours over a month time frame. When it came time for staff to take time off for the extra hours, each of us was given two days. I requested an extra day because of the additional time I had worked. I assumed that this would not be an issue since I had been working hard to deliver a quality program. I was declined because the organizational policy was two days for each person regardless of the amount of time that individual staff had put in. It sucked-big time-and it was a good experience because it made me realize that you don’t always get what you put in and the organization wasn’t willing to consider individual contributions. Moreover, others who weren’t stressed and who hadn’t been working a crazy schedule were receiving the same number of hours. I could have been doing something else with that time and it helped me to start being firm about boundaries.

Si tú quieres, avoid burnout by setting boundaries and sticking to them. Additionally, it involves checking assumptions, asking questions and negotiating. When a request is made of us we think that there are only two answers, either yes or no. In reality, there is room for negotiation. Similar to improv technique, you can work with the request by adding AND to your response. For example, limit what you do (e.g., Yes AND I can only do X) or discuss who gets it done (e.g., No AND X on my team can do it).

Your choice: What does your work environment support?

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