Despite what skeptics may say, burnout at work is real. I know because it happens to me a few times a year. On the positive side, I’ve learned how to recognize when I’m feeling burnt out and have developed a strategy to get myself back on track. This isn’t to say that I’m perfect. There are times when I start to feel anxious, stressed or spread too thin, and when I don’t deal with it right away, the burnout can get worse and the recovery can take longer. So I advise you, just like I tell myself, to be as mindful as possible so you can recognize if you are feeling overwhelmed at work and address it as soon as possible so you can try to get back to normal within a few days (rather than a few weeks).
I often experience burnout when I become over-extended, usually due to outside forces that cause me to feel anxious and overwhelmed. To mitigate those feelings, I’ll share some great advice that I received from a friend and former colleague who told me that “you need to train people how to treat you.” So, what exactly did she mean by that?
A perfect example involves when I was working as an account manager on the East Coast, responsible for clients with locations across the country. I had a West Coast customer who developed a habit of calling me on Friday at 8 p.m. Eastern – 5 p.m. her time – to touch base or give me an assignment. It became so frequent that I found myself getting stressed every Friday afternoon as I waited for that possible after-hours call. Regardless of whether the customer called or not, my anxiety would spill into the weekend, which involved me obsessively checking emails instead of relaxing, recharging and spending time with family and friends, all because I was terrified that I would get – or might miss – an important message. I was a mess and didn’t know how to ease my anxiety without potentially losing a valuable customer.
It was then that my friend advised me that the reason this customer regularly called me late on a Friday night was because I had normalized the behavior and implicitly gave my customer permission that it was ok to do. My friend stressed that I needed to “train” the customer to treat me differently. I took her words to heart, and I became determined to change the behavior and “retrain” both the customer, and myself, so that I could put my work away for the weekend.
The most important point here is to be proactive, and I encourage anyone who ever felt like I do to be their own agent of change. In my case, I decided I was going to pick up the phone and call my customer towards the end of my workday on Friday. Rather than waiting in fear for a late call or email, I called and asked the customer if they foresaw any issues heading into the weekend and if there was anything I could do for them before I signed off from work. That simple act of reaching out and being proactive was a revelation. On the first call, the customer thanked me for checking in, said everything was good, and that they would talk to me next week.
I’ll admit, I was still a bit anxious after I turned off my work Blackberry (remember those?!?!) for the weekend that first time. What if the customer didn’t mean it? What if I got in trouble for not being available after hours? I was nervous, but I resolved to not check my email all weekend. When Monday rolled around, I turned on my Blackberry with trepidation. To my surprise, and relief, there were no emails that needed immediate attention, and no frantic voicemails from my customer.
After the positive start, I continued my subtle “retraining” program for the customer and myself. Over the next few weeks, I proactively called the customer towards the end of my day every Friday to check-in. At one point, I transitioned from calling to a weekly Friday afternoon email. Eventually, the customer even told me that I didn’t need to check-in every Friday before I signed off for the weekend, and the late-night Friday customer calls stopped.
It was a valuable and important lesson to learn. Through the simple act of being my own proactive agent of change, I was able to make my customer feel valued and appreciated, while at the same time retraining myself on how to unplug and recharge. This process also subtly retrained my client on how to treat me and allowed me to maintain a healthy work-life balance.
I wish I could tell you that this was a one-time issue that was easily solved, but I’m sure you know better. Like me, you probably still experience burnout a few times a year, but it is important to recognize when your work-life is starting to dominate your entire life and take steps to get back on track. For me, that involves being proactive about training and retraining myself – and others – to respect my boundaries and treat me how I want to be treated. It works for me, and I think it can work for you too.