Work Smarter//

Simple Ways to Start Working Sustainably Without Risking Burnout

Setting a few boundaries can make a serious difference down the line.

Alex from the Rock / Shutterstock
Alex from the Rock / Shutterstock

You can help workaholics or just plain hard workers who are trying to survive in a workaholic culture. The following tips can even help them thrive instead of just survive:

Know where to draw the line. Don’t wait for your company to decide what’s reasonable for you. Evaluate your job and life and decide for yourself what’s reasonable. How far are you willing to go to meet your boss’s unreasonable demands? Be prepared to put your foot down when you believe your employer oversteps those bounds. There are many occasions on the job when you have a choice to stay late or work weekends. You may be reluctant to say no. But feeling overloaded and saying no without feeling guilty or disloyal is a healthy practice.

Keep your own balance. Each of us is responsible for maintaining our work-life balance. Consider taking ten or fifteen minutes in the middle of the day to walk or meditate to release bottled-up stress and become more clear-minded. Take an aerobics class, a meditation workshop, a stress-reduction class, or an exercise program during work breaks to sidestep stress and burnout. Striving for balance in your personal, social, and family life may be a high-wire act, but it ensures greater harmony within yourself, at home, at work, and at play and makes it easier for you to survive in a workaholic company.

Performing Optimally Instead of Workaholically in the Workplace

Flashy, dramatic bursts of working often draw attention from supervisors and colleagues, but consistency and moderation are the redeeming traits of optimal performers. Like the hare in the fable, workaholics make a big splash, crash, and then burn. If you’re an optimal performer, however, you’re like the tortoise. You plod along, showing consistent, high level performance over time. Optimal performing doesn’t contain the adrenaline highs, the ups and downs, or the stress of work addiction. The attention comes more slowly to optimal performers, but the delayed gratification pays off in the end.

The following tips can help you as the clinician assist workaholics to learn the benefits of replacing temporary highs now with greater, longer-lasting rewards over their career trajectory:

Don’t let work dominate your life. When you feel overloaded, don’t cancel dinner with a loved one or your afternoon aerobics class. These are the very activities you need to help you maintain balance. Typically, workaholics think that staying in the office for two more hours is the answer to achieving results. But that usually makes them more tired and less clear-headed and often leads to more work overall. Maintaining outside interests and exercising daily brings a clearer perspective to your work and gives you more vitality to get out from under the pile of work. Plan for a spare time just as you would an important business meeting. Schedule time for doing things you like to do best.

Delegate and negotiate. If you’re someone who has trouble turning a project over to someone else, learn to delegate in order to perform optimally. Review your workload and determine what part you can turn over to an assistant or coworker. If deadlines are too tight, negotiate them with your supervisor. Deadlines can almost always be modified, although the wokaholic mind-set won’t let you readily admit that. Develop a plan explaining the need for the extension, and suggest a revised time frame. Or come up with a creative alternative. Tina, a production manager for a New York symphony orchestra, found herself working fifteen hours more a week without a pay increase. Instead of spending several hours watching symphony rehearsals, she put a college intern in charge with a cell phone so she could be reached in a pinch. A Merrill Lynch senior biotechnology analyst who was swamped with sixty-hour workweeks found a way around a hiring freeze to get his projects started. He recruited a graduate student from Harvard who helped him two days a week for free.

Learn the art of prioritizing your work. Have clear and practical priorities. Don’t overplan. The clearer you are about what you want to accomplish and how you plan to accomplish it, the more focused and efficient and the less stressed you will be. Identify the key aspects of your job. Pay attention to the essentials first and put the nonessentials on the back burner for now or farm them out to another employee.

Take charge of your technology. More people are working in cafes and coffee houses, on airplanes, and at home, making the corporate work space dead zones of empty cubicles– a ghost town. Don’t fall into the trap of using the extra time that your technology provides to do more work instead of taking a leisurely break. Make sure you’re in charge of your cell phone or laptop, rather than letting your technology be in charge of you. You can have time-saving technology without becoming a slave to it. You can check your e-mail twice a day, for example, instead of every time the computer beeps. You can turn off your smart phone at a reasonable hour and put limits on when and where you choose to carry a laptop– declaring off limits your Caribbean cruise or your trek through the Amazon jungle. I suggest that clients leave their laptops in the trunk of the car when they arrive home. Or at the very least, I urge them to put their technological tools away in a drawer after a reasonable day’s work– just as you would put away ingredients and utensils after baking or carpentry tools after building shelves in your den.

Excerpt from Chained to the Desk: A Guidebook for Workaholics, Their Partners and Children, and the Clinicians Who Treat Them with permission from the author and publisher.

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