Learning to Thrive in a Culture of Overwork
by Aubrie Fennecken
A few years ago, I was working at a job I cared deeply about, doing work that I passionately believed was important. I was an engaged and high performing employee. I was also stressed out and exhausted.
It had always been a high-paced, dynamic environment, but in the midst of organizational change and rapidly shifting priorities, work had slowly taken over my schedule. I’d spend 10-11 hours in the office, then plug back in after dinner to put in a few more hours.
As my days continued to get longer and my priorities shifted, I had also abandoned the workplan I had set out for the year and found myself in a maddening cycle of reactively responding to urgent/important requests. I felt like I’d lost the autonomy I had earned after years of successfully executing my role, and started to doubt my own abilities.
By the end of that year, I was completely burnt out.
The Burnout Epidemic
I’m not alone. In a study by Deloitte, 77% of survey respondents said they’ve experienced burnout. In the nonprofit field, where I’ve built my career, turnover – often a symptom of burnout – is exceptionally high, with 20-40% of employees changing jobs each year. With the average cost of replacing an employee estimated at half to 2x the salary of a role, it’s an expensive problem. It’s also a major threat to our health.
In its 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases, the World Health Organization declared “burn-out” a syndrome caused by chronic workplace stress.
In his book, “Dying for a Paycheck”, Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer outlines just how toxic modern work culture has become. Several studies – and a meta-analysis of these studies – have found a statistically significant correlation between hours of work and overall symptoms of ill-health, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and depression. To add insult to injury, research shows that working more than 50 hours per week actually hurts your productivity. Working more hours does not equate to getting more done.
While burnout – as a concept and a lived experience – is nothing new, misguided management practices, our hustle culture, and technological advancements have made it worse in recent years. Burnout costs our economy billions each year and is – quite literally – killing us.
A Way Out
After coping with – and recovering from – my own bout with burnout, I started to do some research. I was stunned to realize both how common and how insidious it is. I looked for resources in my field that were available to help companies and individuals combat the burnout epidemic. I didn’t find much, so I decided to take action. I founded Opportunity Kitchen in 2018 to help professionals in mission-driven fields – nonprofits, social enterprises, social justice, education, healthcare, etc. – combat burnout.
Since then, I’ve spent my days digging into the organizational and behavioral psychology of work-related stress; exploring management philosophy, speaking with dozens of passionate professionals about their experiences, and working with companies to promote a culture of well-being. What I’ve found, in academic research and through anecdotal evidence on the ground, is that burnout is structural and personal. The societal culture of overwork, the specific cultures where we work, and our individual relationships to work all contribute to burnout. If we are going to address the burnout epidemic, eventually we will have to deal with all three. For today, let’s just start with strategies any of us can employ to protect ourselves from burnout.
Know the Symptoms
When I was in my own dark pit of burnout, I started drinking too much, couldn’t fall asleep at night, gained weight, and had to call in sick a few days when I just couldn’t bear to go into the office. Other symptoms of burnout may include:
- Exhaustion/lack of energy
- Irritability with co-workers, customers or clients
- Feeling dissatisfied or unfulfilled by your work
- Persistent feelings that nothing you do matters/increased cynicism
- Difficulty focusing
- Decrease in productivity
- Using food, drugs or alcohol to mute or boost your feelings
- Changes in sleep habits
- Unexplained headaches, GI distress, or other physical pain
- Reduced immune function/more frequent illness
If you find yourself experiencing any of these things, ask yourself if your relationship with work might be the culprit.
Set, Articulate and Communicate Boundaries
Once I put a name to what I was experiencing, I was able to act on it. First, I spoke to my boss at the time and said frankly, “I’m burnt out. I’ve been putting in more hours than I can handle the past few months. I care deeply about this company, but I can’t continue burning the candle at both ends. I want you to know that I’m making a commitment to leave the office by 6:30pm every day and won’t be logging in after hours and on weekends unless it’s a genuine emergency. I want you to be aware in case this means I can’t take on the same level of work I’ve been doing.”
We worked together to set up a check-in structure to make sure things weren’t falling through the cracks and in the end, my productivity wasn’t affected. In fact, dropping from 60-80 hours a week to a healthy 45 forced me to be more intentional and strategic, and improved my prioritization and decision-making skills.
Nothing had changed about the demands of the job or the organizational culture, but I made a commitment to my own boundaries and that made all the difference. By articulating and communicating these things to my supervisor and colleagues, I received both social and structural support to help me uphold my boundaries.
When I do this exercise with clients, many are stunned to realize that they’ve never actually set and communicated boundaries – even for themselves. It seems so intuitive, and yet, few of us ever actually articulate boundaries for ourselves. This simple activity is incredibly powerful, so don’t skip it!
One of the most significant barriers to tackling burnout is our own (deeply culturally engrained and totally not our fault) obsession with productivity. We’ve been conditioned to believe that our worth is wrapped up in what we are able to accomplish. This is simply not true. You’re just as worthy if you spend an evening snuggling with your dog as you are if you spend an evening drafting a presentation for the board.
Many of us go through life judging ourselves when we aren’t “optimally productive.” We tell ourselves we are irresponsible when we procrastinate, that we’re disorganized when we can’t focus, and that we’re lazy when we lack motivation. In my experience, procrastination, a lack of focus and a lack of motivation are actually symptoms of chronic stress (the major contributing factor to burnout). Practicing self-compassion helps us to approach our feelings and experiences with curiosity instead of with judgment.
Here are some questions you may want to ask yourself:
- Why am I procrastinating?
- What’s distracting my focus?
- Why do I feel so unmotivated right now?
This powerful mindset shift allows us to get answers that can help us cope with the cause of our stress and feeling overwhelmed, instead of adding the additional stress of self-judgment. To get started on a self-compassion practice, I highly recommend Dr. Kristin Neff’s work. Dr. Neff has approached a potentially “woo-woo” topic with the scientific method and found that self-compassion is a truly productive coping mechanism for all manner of trials and tribulations. She applies her research into simple practices that anyone can adopt for greater well-being. Understanding and practicing self-compassion have had an enormous impact on my own health and well-being.
Talk About It
Talk about burnout with your colleagues, friends, and family. The more we realize that we’re all in this together, the sooner we can band together to demand change. In my work, I’ve seen teams take individual and collective action towards practices and policies that prevent burnout simply because one team member started the conversation. You don’t have to be the CEO to make a difference. Simply showing up for yourself and your colleagues in a healthier way can be the proverbial “tipping point.”
Throughout my career, I’ve seen many incredible, intelligent, passionate people fall victim to burnout. When I hit the burnout wall, I was lucky. I had access to the resources, information, and mindset I needed to create a recovery plan and make the case to my supervisor about why it was necessary.
Few people in my situation feel empowered to advocate for themselves the way I did. Workplace stress is an epidemic, contributing to the chronic lifestyle diseases (including heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.) and mental health crises that are driving the decrease in life expectancy in the United States. However, we don’t often draw this line in our day to day work lives. We have a cultural expectation of overwork, so we go through our days ignoring the 400-pound gorilla in the office.
We can’t sugar coat it, and we can’t pretend that we can solve the problem by providing healthy snacks and offering a weekly yoga class in the office. We need to address the cultural expectation of overwork. In my experience, the best way to start to dismantle this unhealthy expectation is to draw a line in the sand for yourself. When we set an example of a better way, we become role models for our colleagues. Healthy norms catch on in workplaces in the same way that unhealthy ones do. Refuse to be an “office martyr.” Maintain your commitments outside of your work. Set and keep your boundaries. Take your vacation. Stay home when you’re sick. A burnout-free work culture starts with you.
Aubrie Fennecken, Owner and Chief Alchemist of Opportunity Kitchen. Photo courtesy of Ms. Fennecken.