When passion for work goes too far: How to avoid burnout

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Every day we want to do the best we can for the people we serve. We jump in and help our coworkers. We step up and take on responsibilities just because things need to get done. We work long hours because, even with everyone working at full tilt, there’s so much more we could be doing. We are committed to our communities and mission because the work we do is important, and we do it with passion and care. But what if our commitment and passion are leading us straight to burnout? When energy and drive turn to physical or mental collapse due to overwork or stress, no one benefits. But there are simple steps we can take to make sure that we take care of ourselves so that we can take care of others.

First, the bad news: burnout is serious. It can lead to physical ailments such as heart disease, stroke, obesity, and general vulnerability to illness. In many nonprofits, where resources are stretched and people are passionate, everyone jumps in to do what it takes to serve our clients. The benefit of that kind of accountability is clear, but the down side is that job expectations often become unclear. And unclear job expectations can lead to confusion and stress, which makes them a risk factor for burnout. Similarly, resources are often stretched due to funding insecurity, and that insecurity can lead to a feeling of lack of control. When people are unable to influence the decisions affecting their job, that lack of control can become another risk factor for burnout.

Another risk factor for burnout is poor job fit. In nonprofits, this can become a problem when people are hired for their passion or commitment to a cause, not for job skill. And sometimes it becomes a factor when people are expected to step up to responsibilities that they don’t have the skills to handle competently. Passion can also lead to another risk factor, work-life imbalance. Employees who care see how much more they could be doing, and sometimes they find it difficult to establish boundaries between their work and personal lives. And sometimes there is just so much to do that it’s “all hands on deck.” That works in times of crisis, but over the long term it is not sustainable and can lead to burnout.

The good news is that if we commit to taking care of ourselves physically and emotionally, to becoming more self-aware, and to taking the time and effort to build strong, sustaining relationships, we can immunize ourselves against burnout. Let’s take each of these in turn to see what we need to be aware of if we want to have greater fulfillment and impact, over the long term.

The first step in preventing burnout is looking after ourselves. The foundation for everything we do is our physical energy: if we don’t have enough, it’s impossible to do everything we want to do. And we all know it’s about three very simple things: how much we sleep, eat and move. Most people need between 7 and 8 hours of sleep a night, but most of us get much less. Maybe you believe that you can get by on less? Perhaps you’re right, but that would put you in the lucky 2% of the population who can function while sleep deprived. More likely, you are like the people in the sleep study who felt that sleep deprivation had no impact on their performance, while objective tests showed a steady decline in performance. In other words, the more sleep deprived we are, the less able we are to judge our own performance. So if you haven’t been getting your 7-8 hours, try turning off all your screens (phone, TV, computer) an hour before going to bed, and avoid any caffeinated drinks in the evening.

Another aspect of physical care that tends to slip when we’re busy is eating well. It’s so much easier to grab a coffee and pastry for breakfast and take-out for supper rather than doing all the planning and preparation it takes to prepare healthy meals. Who has the time! But that sugary breakfast is wreaking havoc with your ability to get your job done. You already know about the sugar rush and crash you experience when you eat that pastry. What you may not know is that when our sugar levels spike and crash, we experience confused thinking and impaired memory. That’s not a great foundation for important decisions and sensitive conversations. But eating healthy snacks and meals doesn’t need to be time consuming. Most grocery stores carry pre-cut fruits and veggies, and you can bring nuts, whole grain cereals and bread with cheese or peanut butter as snacks.

Another way you can manage your physical energy during the day is to move around more. You don’t need to join a gym to increase the amount of activity you get, but a short movement break during the day can get the oxygen back up to your brain and help clear your thinking. In fact, a simple 20-minute walk will give you greater focus, boost your memory, learning and cognitive abilities, and give you an elevated mood to boot! Try getting off the subway a station earlier in the morning, or go for a walk at lunch. You’ll even get more done than if you try to power through your day without taking the time to recharge.

The physical aspect of self-care is important, and equally important is taking care of our emotional health. Like it or not, we bring our whole selves to work – and that includes our emotional selves. Sometimes that’s an advantage, especially when we are passionate about our work. But sometimes our emotions can get in the way, particularly when we have negative reactions to people or situations around us. Stress arises when we are in the grip of an emotion and lose our ability to choose our reaction. So when strong emotions arise, the best way to get them back under control is to first become aware of them, not try to run away from them. Trying to suppress an emotion often has the opposite effect, and venting can sometimes increase the intensity of the emotion we are trying to control. But naming the emotion activates the part of the brain that restores self-control. To get better at naming emotions in the heat of a reaction, we can practise mindful moments throughout the day. Here’s how: a few times a day, take a few moments to stop what you’re doing and focus on your breathing. Take a few deep breaths, counting to three on the inhales and counting to six on the exhales. Then notice how you are feeling. What would you call the dominant emotion you are feeling? If you get distracted, that’s fine; just go back to counting your breaths. Doing this several times a day will help you become more attuned to your own emotional state, so that the next time you have a strong emotional reaction, you will more quickly be able to recognize and name that emotion in order to get it under control.

Another benefit of taking a few moments to breathe is gaining greater awareness of your thoughts. You’ve likely been in conversation with someone when you suddenly realized you had missed what the other person said. You were listening, but what you were likely listening to was the thoughts in your own head rather than the words coming out of your companion’s mouth. And sometimes those thoughts tend toward the judgemental, which can add to the stress we feel. We assume we know where a co-worker’s argument is going (and then start building a rebuttal in our heads); we assume that we were left off a meeting invitation on purpose; we are upset that the person we helped doesn’t seem to appreciate it. Consider what actions likely follow these assumptions. When we make negative assumptions about the motives of other people, we often react with actions that destroy trust and rapport. Feeling upset in an environment of mistrust feels stressful, and that leaves us more open to burnout. A better way is to notice our thoughts about others, and to get curious rather than judgemental. Instead of assuming that someone snubbed us by leaving us off a meeting invitation, get curious and ask about the purpose of the meeting and invitee list. People do what makes sense to them – it might not make sense to you, but if you can get curious about what motivates others instead of making assumptions, you can avoid a lot of unproductive and stressful behaviour and situations. While you’re at it, notice your thinking about yourself. Sometimes we’re most judgemental about ourselves.

Possibly the most important buffer against burnout is strong social connections. Getting your emotions under control and getting curious about other people is a good start in building rapport and trust with others. You can take it a step further by getting to know your colleagues on a personal level. The greater your personal connections with the people you spend your days with, the more support you’ll have for those difficult times that will inevitably come. Make it a practice to invite a co-worker or two for lunch at least once a week. When you need to call someone, drop by their office if that’s possible. Instead of emailing, pick up the phone. Share some of your personal interests so that others get to know you, the person, not just you, the co-worker.

And finally, consider where you’re spending your energy. According to Pareto’s law, we spend 80% of our time and energy producing a meagre 20% of our results, and an incredibly valuable 20% of our time and energy producing 80% of our results. Getting clear on what activities make up that valuable 20% of your time and energy is an important way of bringing more balance to your life. We all have activities that we get used to doing, but that likely don’t bring us much value. Letting go of perfectionism and the mistaken idea that we must do everything is as important as taking care of ourselves physically. Think back to why you do the work you do. There was likely something that connected you to a sense of purpose and meaningful work. Make a list of activities that truly support that sense of purpose and meaning. These are likely the activities that are producing 80% of your results.

The way we work – passionate, committed, and in what often feels like a 24/7 environment – means that we need to actively manage our physical and emotional health so that we can continue to do the great work that motivates us. Working ourselves to the point of burnout doesn’t serve anyone, least of all the communities and mission we are committed to.

Anne Comer is a team effectiveness and culture change consultant who is passionate about guiding leaders and teams to create a healthy environment where people can thrive and enjoy the satisfaction of achieving strong and sustainable results. With over 25 years of experience in operations, human resources and education, she provides consulting services to a wide variety of organizations ranging from small nonprofits to Fortune 500 companies across many industries, in Canada and the US.

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