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Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers

Burnout: When the boss demands too much

Many people are in burnout because their company’s expectations concerning what one person can accomplish are unrealistic. 

When a client tells me their company demands too much of them, I ask them whether they have discussed the problem with their boss. If they haven’t, I suggest we spend some time exploring how to ask for help on the off-chance that help might be forthcoming.

The boss’ response to the person’s request will determine the options available regarding how to move forward.

Let’s explore a couple of possibilities.

1.  FACT: The boss’ expectations are unrealistic.

Sometimes, the boss’ expectations are indeed unrealistic. When this is the case, and your boss says you have to continue to do your job as it is, then you might want to look for another job.

(Details in the stories that follow have been changed to protect privacy.)

Aaron’s job as a paralegal at the law firm was way too big. He was routinely assigned too heavy a workload to be able to get his work done during regular work hours. Aaron had brought the problem to his boss’ attention repeatedly. Each time he did so, Aaron was told he would have to do the work he had been assigned. Aaron had tried to reduce the amount of time he put into his job but had been written up for poor work quality a couple of times, so he knew this approach wouldn’t be a solution over the longer-term.

If you’re so exhausted that you are unable to continue to do your current job and look for a new job, then you might have to consider quitting your current job before you can land your next position. I realize the suggestion to quit your job goes against what you’ve likely been taught about how to find work. The mantra, after all, is that “…it’s easier to find another job when you have a job.” But this isn’t always true.

I have heard people that are in burnout say that they didn’t do well in a job interview because they came across as tired. Scattered. That they answered questions poorly. That they weren’t on their game. In these instances, the person’s current state of exhaustion is coming through in the interview and is working against them. A prospective employer would be right in these instances to question whether they should hire the person when the person presented badly.

Aaron was eventually able to reduce his work week from five days a week to four, with a proportionate cut in pay. He worked the fifth day each week from home so he could get everything on his plate completed. While this solution is not an option for many people, it worked for Aaron for about six months. During this period he was not agitated. Rather, he reasoned that he needed the time to figure out what to do next, because the next step required careful thought. Plus he needed to stop being so tired.

The ironic thing about being in a job that’s too demanding is that the many people in this situation have watched their coworkers leave the company. This information suggests that it’s not a lack of available jobs that is keeping someone stuck in a bad job. It also suggests for the person that it may be time for them to get out, too.

2.  PERCEPTION: The boss’ expectations are unrealistic.

By the time people come to see me for burnout, most have already asked their boss to reduce their workload and have explored what they can do to improve their situation to some degree.

When you have asked for help but no one has listened to you, you may believe that your boss’ expectations of you are just too high. Below is one example of when this was not the case, however.

Susan found her new job overwhelming. She had been moved into the role of store manager only three weeks after being hired as the assistant manager. As Susan spent time in her new role, she discovered all sorts of problems, including incomplete sales documents totalling tens of thousands of dollars. Susan brought the problems to her boss’ attention repeatedly, asking for help. She was told she was doing a good job and that help would be forthcoming. No help arrived, however, even after another six months and repeated requests for assistance.

When no help is forthcoming, you might want to ask your boss whether you can cut back the scope of your job so that you can leave your desk at a reasonable hour. You might be surprised to hear your boss agree to your request, especially if what you ask for is reasonable and well thought out. Sometimes it’s not necessary to ask for permission, however. Sometimes you can simply act.

Susan decided that she needed to get out of her job. The owner of the store was quite disorganized and she realized her situation wasn’t going to improve any time soon. She continued to run the store on a day-to-day basis but stopped addressing the historic problems she uncovered. She stopped asking for help and instead focused her attention on what could be accomplished in a day. To her surprise, her boss continued to be pleased with her performance.

Sometimes it isn’t the boss that has asked you to take on more work. Sometimes it’s the person with a strong work ethic who has shouldered additional responsibility – which is exhausting them – with nary a request from the boss. In these instances, it is the person’s perception of what their job entails that is inaccurate.

Often when an individual’s work ethic causes their job to become too big, they may indeed need to get out of their job. However, the urgency to do so might not exist. And herein lies the difference between real and perceived demands from the boss. If it makes sense for you to temporarily scale back the scope of your job on your own, without asking your boss’ permission, then you may be able to make changes to how you work for long enough to make some decisions. In this case, however, leaving your job will be your choice. It will likely be a good choice, but the decision will be based on your own value system, and not on the fact that your boss is too demanding.

Read more about Occupational Burnout: Are you responsible for the problem?

Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta 

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