While there are some who say their work lives have become much easier since the pandemic, the vast majority of people I speak to say they’re feeling overburdened and burned out at work, which ends up negatively impacting their lives at home. As with everything (according to me), the answer is to set healthy boundaries and stick to them. Today, I’m talking about why you’re burned out and my top 5 tips to stop it.
A Little History
Here’s some crazy history for you. Here in the United States, as part of the New Deal, the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed. In it, they set a standard for a 40-hour work week (which was WAY better than what was happening before then). The problem is that this has never been revisited here in the US despite an incredible amount of change to the work landscape in the last 80+ years! It took a worldwide pandemic to shift things somewhat, as far as where work could happen and how it could happen efficiently, but despite a few “maverick” companies, we’ve never really looked at what productivity would be like in a 32-hour workweek or even a 40-hour, four day week. People in the US have been working very long hours and taking very little paid time off compared to other developed nations, but I’m not going to spend a ton of time going over all the different variants of the work-life saga here.
What I will say is that there’s been research showing that the average workday across the globe has increased by almost an hour since the pandemic (I’d argue that it’s more, but I don’t have hard research for that). The research also shows that remote workers now experience more burnout than those who work on-site and that 76% of workers agree that job stress affects their mental health. What I think we can all agree on is that we’re at a place where there are a lot of blurred boundaries between our professional and personal lives, and this is creating some major issues, burnout being at the top of the list and it’s hurting mentally, physically and financially.
Signs of Burnout
Although burnout isn’t an official diagnosis, it’s definitely identifiable. My official definition is stress that’s gotten to a point where you’re physically and emotionally exhausted. You feel like you can never get ahead no matter how much you do and start to feel helpless and hopeless at work.
If you’re not sure if you’re burned out, look for these signs:
- Emotional exhaustion: little things “set you off” or get you upset or overwhelmed. You just don’t feel like you can handle one more thing or ask
- Physical fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sense of failure and self-doubt
- Feeling helpless, trapped, and defeated
- Feeling alone in the world and detached from others
- Finding it difficult to get motivated or inspired
- Increasingly cynical and negative outlook
- Decreased satisfaction and sense of accomplishment at work or at home; your work performance might go down
- Feelings of disillusionment at work or at home
The Top 5 Reasons You’re Burned Out at Work
There are lots of reasons you might be feeling burned out, but a recent poll says it’s generally due to the following:
- Unfair treatment at work: this can include everything from favoritism, mistreatment, or misconduct by fellow employees or management, unfair compensation or corporate policies, or bias of any kind. When you believe you’re being treated unfairly, you stop trusting your coworkers, supervisor, or executive leadership.
- Unmanageable workload: This leads to poor performance and direct blows to your self-confidence on the job.
- Lack of role clarity: When you’re not sure exactly what’s expected of you at work or if that target keeps moving and expectations keep changing, burnout is inevitable. It’s exhausting to figure out what others want from you, leading to uncertainty, confusion, and resentment.
- Lack of communication and support from your manager: If you don’t think your supervisor has your back or they’ve been ineffectual in making changes, you start to feel very alone at work and unsupported. Worse yet, if your manager is negligent or even confrontational, you’ll end up feeling burned out, defensive and angry.
- Unreasonable time pressure: In a recent survey, employees who said they often or always have enough time to do their work were 70% less likely to experience burnout. If someone has given you a time constraint, who doesn’t really understand what it takes to get a project or job done or what it takes to give great customer service, you’ll feel frustrated and overwhelmed on a daily basis which leads to burnout.
This same study found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, and an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. So that means that about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job. If you’re a burned-out employee, you’re 63% more likely to take a sick day and 23% more likely to go to an emergency room! You’ve got lower confidence in your performance at work, and you’re half as likely to discuss how to fix this with your manager. In addition, employees who consistently experience high levels of burnout are twice as likely to strongly agree that the amount of time their job takes makes it difficult to fulfill their family responsibilities.
How to Draw Boundaries at Work to Avoid Burnout
You know by now that I’m the queen of boundaries! They are the answer to just about every issue you’ve got, and creating a healthier work life is no different.
Tip #1: Set Them and Communicate Them
Communication is key when it comes to boundaries at work. Personal boundaries at work vary depending on the person, so it’s important to be upfront about yours if you want people to respect them. Try out these different ways to clearly communicate your boundaries to others:
- Let your team know that you sign off at a certain time every day.
- When you’re out of the office or signed off for the day, specify that you won’t answer emails or calls unless there’s an emergency.
- Define what constitutes an appropriate emergency to your team.
- Put a note in your email signature saying you only answer emails during specific hours.
For myself, I don’t like having multiple places where people can leave messages, so my voicemail message clearly states that I don’t listen often and the best way to contact me is via email.
Sometimes you can set boundaries with structure:
- People getting long-winded at meetings? Set an agenda and keep the group on task; set a timer for how long people can talk or for how long you’ll discuss an agenda item; have a meeting where everyone is standing (that’ll shorten any meeting).
- Micromanaging boss who stops at your desk constantly and interrupts your work? Set a time for a daily check-in with them (or twice a day if needed) or set up a system where you ask in the morning what priorities they want you to have and let them know you’ll make sure those are finished or you’ll contact them.
- Have a clear time you start and end work. Research has shown that remote workers routinely extend their day by about 50 minutes! Establish a hard end-of-the-day deadline and stick to it. Turn off your computer and put away your phone so you’re not tempted to check it “one last time.”
Tip #2: Work it Out with Your Supervisor
If you’re going to set and keep boundaries at work, you’ll want to sit down with your supervisor and have them in on the plan if at all possible. When I do work in companies, there’s a favorite process I use that I cobbled together from the work of one of my favorite business authors and researchers, Ken Blanchard (we all remember The One Minute Manager, right?):
- Create a list of all the things you both think you’re accountable for at your job. I would do this over the course of a week or so because there are many things you likely do that you’ll forget if you don’t note them in real-time.
- Now set some time with your boss and go over the list. Have them add anything you might have forgotten, so the list is as exhaustive and comprehensible as possible. Just this act of writing everything down will likely have some aha moments for you and your supervisor. In my experience, there are often different viewpoints about what is or should be on this list, and many “aha” moments right there that can create less work for you or create a more sustainable system.
- I generally make a copy of the list at this point and then ask each person (you and your boss) to go over the list and prioritize what should be happening. I like to use 1 to 6, with any and all top priorities getting a “1”.
- Once again, compare the lists and then start to problem-solve. Is there anything that got a 4, 5, or 6 that can be delegated? Does someone maybe need to be hired, or the job responsibilities re-drawn? Of the top priorities with numbers 1, 2, and 3, how best should these be prioritized within the priorities? Again, what can come off the plate or be rethought?
- Come together every week for one month to review the priorities and new workflow and see what needs to be changed to create something sustainable.
I understand that your supervisor might be the main person trampling your boundaries, so this exercise is more important than ever! It’s a way to call your supervisor on their unhealthy practices without coming directly out and stating that they’re being crazy.
I like to use the “I’m confused” route when it comes to this. Let’s say you’ve laid everything out, and your supervisor still expects you to work ten hours a day. Stop and say, “So, I’m confused. I’ve been doing this job for a while now, and what’s laid out here as my priorities will take about ten hours a day to complete. Are you asking me to work ten hours a day?”
They’ll likely hem and haw and try to get you off track but stick to your boundary. “So, again, I’m still confused. This is still going to take 10 hours a day, and that’s not our agreement. How should we problem-solve this?”
Tip #3: Don’t Waffle
There will be times when your boundary isn’t respected. There will be times when your “no” isn’t accepted at first. You cannot waffle or bend. It’s at these times that it’s more important than ever to stick to your boundary.
To do this, follow these steps:
- Repeat the exact same words (calmly) again. Don’t change what you’re saying to try to make it more palatable or easier. The more you say, the easier it’ll be for the other person to refute some part of what you’re putting out there and try to change your mind.
- If the other person persists and asks for more details, “Well, what are you so busy doing that you can’t work on this project?” You say, “I’m telling you that my schedule is booked.” In my experience, by the way, the person who’s asking is getting huffy because they didn’t draw their own boundaries about taking care of themselves, so they resent that you are. Don’t be drawn in.
- Don’t justify or give reasons. When you start to give reasons, you’re going to end up with the other person trying to convince you about why you should drop your plans to come help, or they’ll offer suggestions and problem-solve how you could make their request fit. Again, don’t get caught in the trap. You might say something like, “I know you’re in a jam, and if I could help, I would.”
- If they still persist, say how you’re It might be something like, “I’m starting to feel angry that I’ve said no, and you’re continuing to push. For me, this conversation is done, and I don’t appreciate you turning me into the bad guy for having a boundary.” In this case, you want to focus on the emotions you’re feeling and not the details of why you’re refusing.
Saying no is a skill, and like any other skill, it takes practice to get good at it. What’s important is to remember why you’re saying no at work. In the end, you should be saying no for two main reasons. First, you’re saying no because it’s something that’s going to infringe on the structure you’ve set (i.e., you say “no” to jumping on a work call at 8:00 pm because you’ve set a boundary that you don’t do work after 6:00 pm). The other reason you’re saying no is that the request isn’t in line with the priorities you’ve set. Your goals and priorities are your filters for saying yes or no in most cases.
For example, I get offers all the time for different kinds of work. While I might even be excited by some of the things that come my way, I always stop and ask myself, “Is this in line with my priorities in my business right now? Will this take me down a different track than where I’m supposed to focus right now?” It’s easy to jump at shiny things, but saying no and keeping your boundaries is your key to success.
Tip #4: Don’t Take it Personally
You want to handle things rationally, not emotionally. Stop assigning blame or deciding that other people are trying to manipulate you or trying to shove their work onto you; no need to label or diagnose anyone else. You’ve got your boundary; repeat it and then leave the conversation as quickly as possible.
If you think about it, there are a few identifiable people who upset you the most. There are certain coworkers or bosses that you feel angry, resentful, or guilty toward. These are the people where you really want to pull your own ego and emotions out of what’s happening and be as rational and clear as possible. Don’t take their reactions personally. How people react is about them, not you!
Some people will absolutely get upset when you start holding boundaries. You want to expect pushback, not be surprised by it. When you expect it, you won’t get disappointed or so upset. The more pushback you get, the more you should realize that this boundary was long overdue!
You will be happier and more satisfied in your work and life as a whole when you set and hold boundaries. Believe it or not, you will absolutely gain the respect of your colleagues and supervisors (even if they’re the ones complaining). Most importantly, you’ll start feeling self-respect. You’ll start feeling more confident, and your self-esteem will rise.
Tip #5: Schedule
One of my favorite inspirational gurus, Jim Rohn, used to say, “Run the day or the day runs you.” One of the things I always say is, “Success is scheduled.” If you’re going to keep boundaries as work, you’re going to need to think about how to wrangle and schedule your day. You can’t just go in there with a loose set of “things to do” and expect it to get done.
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