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Burnout: Are you are responsible for the problem?

There are several reasons why people find themselves in burnout. Frequently, it is those people that are strongly motivated, dedicated and heavily committed to their work that find themselves most vulnerable to burnout. 

Many of my clients have said that their jobs were way too big when we first sat down to talk. From what I have seen, the simple fact is that a lot of jobs are indeed too big for one person to handle for long.

As I work with new clients, it is important to determine exactly what is at the root of this problem so that we can address it. Is the company responsible because they expect more than what one individual can reasonably deliver?Or is the job too big because the individual has allowed it to get too big? 

In this blog post, I will write about how some people find themselves in burnout because they have allowed their jobs to get too big. Three ways this might come about include:

(1) they’re a perfectionist with high standards,

(2) they have taken on other people’s work,

(3) they set poor personal limits.

A description of each these ways that can result in burnout follows.

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

  1. Perfectionists with high standards

First, we have perfectionists. Perfectionists know that great things can be accomplished when they put their minds to it, so they set out to accomplish what they believe to be an achievable goal and outline the project tasks and timeline with vigour. The problem they encounter is that they don’t always monitor how big their job is getting as they proceed. They deem everything they take on to be important and eventually can find themselves buried under the mountain of work on their desk.

Michelle worked at a hospital clinic where part of her job was to contribute to her team’s final report after each client graduated from the program. To ensure her own high standards were maintained, she agonized over her section of each report, sometimes spending hours to find just the right words to capture what had happened. She also volunteered for the role of editor to coordinate the production of the final reports. Her job quickly became too big, however, because she couldn’t get done everything she had to do. 

So what’s the solution if you are perfectionist and in burnout? When no one has demanded that you make your job so big, you might want to consider dialing it back. Maybe make a list of everything that falls into the category called nice-to-have and eliminate those tasks from your to do list.

Michelle might have been well-advised to set a timer on her phone, and to stop wordsmithing when the timer went off, regardless of whether she had found the ideal words to convey her intent when the timer sounded or not.

  1. Taking on other people’s work

Second, we have people who allow the size of their jobs to increase incrementally without paying enough attention to what is going on. They often recognize that others aren’t getting their work done, and so take on additional tasks that are outside of their job description to help out. The co-workers they are helping aren’t bad people, but these co-workers are usually aware that their own jobs have gotten a lot easier because the person that is heading for burnout is now doing their work for them, so they allow tasks to be taken away from them without objecting.

Working alongside others in a business office, Diane would step in and book restaurant reservations for her boss when she knew her co-worker had neglected to do so. Diane reasoned that it wasn’t her boss’ fault that her co-worker was inattentive to detail, and that her boss shouldn’t arrive at the restaurant with business clients to entertain to discover he didn’t have a reservation. This type of thing went on all day long.

So what’s the solution when you have allowed your job to get too big and are in burnout? If no one has asked you to take on so much work, you might consider dialing it back. Hand the tasks that you took on back to your co-workers. Your concern isn’t whether the tasks get done or not.

Diane could substantially lighten her workload if she stopped listening to the requests her boss made to her co-worker. If the boss arrived at a restaurant without a reservation, it wasn’t Diane’s problem.

  1. Poor personal limits

Third, we have people who don’t say “no” very well – or at all. People ask them if they will take on another task and they say “yes,” regardless of whether they have the time to do the task or not. For some people, the very question of whether they have the time or not to do what is being asked of them does not even enter their mind.

Chris was already over-loaded in his job as an occupational therapist. When Human Resources asked him to step-in as a Team Lead because they were down a person, Chris said yes. He knew a new hire for the empty Team Lead position wouldn’t happen any time soon, but he didn’t think through what the impact on his personal life would be when he said yes. Right from the start, he ended up staying at his desk until 9.00 pm most nights. 

So what’s the solution when you set poor personal limits? A good starting point is to begin consciously saying “no” when people ask you to take on more work. This can be a hard skill to learn for someone who has poor limits because you are starting from a very low point. The skill can be learned, however. Especially when the motivation to do so is because you are in burnout.

Eventually, Chris had to tell Human Resources that he couldn’t handle the additional work that being Team Lead entailed. He shared that he couldn’t handle the increased work load anymore because he was exhausted. Human Resources accepted his decision because it was obvious that he couldn’t keep up the pace.

People often find themselves falling into more than one of three categories described in this blog post. Regardless of where you fall, pretty much everyone can benefit from learning how to ask for help.

A dirty little secret most employers won’t tell you is that they are prepared to let you work yourself to the bone. This is because you are solving a big problem for them when you take on more than is reasonable. They may only have to pay one person to do the work when they might be paying two. This can put more money in the company’s bank account and make your supervisor look good to their boss.

Sometimes, people recognize that they are perfectionists, or that they take on other people’s work, or that they set poor personal limits, but still don’t change their behaviour. In these situations, it can be helpful to look a little deeper into what’s going on. Be curious about why the person isn’t changing their behaviour. Are they gaining something from behaving the way they do?

In other words, look for the secondary gain that the person is achieving. Ask the question, How are they benefiting from being in burnout? Secondary gain is sometimes obvious. For example, maybe being busy at work means the person doesn’t have to work on their personal life because they don’t have any free time. Perhaps they have problems in their personal life and are avoiding their problems by remaining overwhelmed at work.

Of the many reasons that people find themselves in burnout, it is not uncommon for the individual to be partially – or even fully – responsible for their current state. More important however, once they have realized that they have contributed to their own burnout, is finding the courage to begin the change process so they can recover from burnout and avoid repeating the cycle in the future.

— Dr. Patricia Turner, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

If you would like support, contact me to schedule an appointment or a free 15 minute consultation.


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Are you in Burnout? 10 Important Questions and Answers
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