Tag Archives: work life balance

Burnout at Work? It’s Not Your Fault

Over the past week, I’ve noticed lots of people on social media talking about burnout — loss of energy, loss of enthusiasm, and loss of self-confidence at work. The holidays have ended, and it seems many are not getting back into the swing like they hoped they might.

Are you burned out? If so, you’ve probably taken steps already to fix it. Most people have a natural desire to do well at work, and to make valuable contributions… and besides, burnout doesn’t feel good day to day. Maybe you spent lots of time away from your email or phone, and with family or friends. Maybe you focused on “self-care” — those activities that are supposed to pull you back to center, to restore your depleted energy.

And if the concerted steps you’ve taken don’t seem to be working, you’re probably even more stressed out (and more burned out) than you were weeks or months ago.

What’s the solution?

The good news is, the burnout won’t last forever. There’s a natural endpoint for burnout, and that’s when you completely reach your limit and don’t even have the energy to remember why you cared in the first place. Most of us would rather not get to this point. So what’s the alternative?

You have two choices, both of which can have huge impacts on your life:

  • Stay, and work on improving the situation, or
  • Leave, recognizing that you’re not able to contribute to a solution.

But how do you know which path to take? First and foremost, it’s important to understand where burnout comes from. In December 2019, Harvard Business Review published a great article that makes it clear:

  1. Unfair treatment at work. If you’ve been treated unfairly, or if you see coworkers being treated in ways that you feel is unfair, your trust in the organization is going to falter. It takes a long time to build trust, but only one or two incidents to break it.
  2. Unmanageable workload. If you’re given too much to do, or if you work on tasks that (for some reason or another) tend to get changed, shifted, or cancelled in-progress, you’ll have a hard time seeing your efforts pan out. Everyone needs a chance to see their work come to fruition.
  3. Lack of role clarity. If you don’t know (or are not told) what to focus on, OR if you’re told to focus on one area and then later discover someone else actually owns it, conflicts are bound to emerge.
  4. Lack of communication and/or support from your manager. This doesn’t mean you don’t talk to each other, or that your manager doesn’t philosophically support your work — it means that they aren’t doing enough to make sure that #1, 2, 3 and 5 aren’t happening.
  5. Unreasonable time pressure. Being expected to pull off heroics can lead to burnout, especially when it’s the status quo. The people who do the work should always be asked to provide effort estimates, particularly when the work is engineering or software development. Failure to develop and implement systematic, repeatable processes for effort estimation can lead to mass burnout later.

But here’s the part of that HBR article that really resonated with me…

The list above clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted — if only leadership started their prevention strategies much further upstream.

In our interview, Maslach asked me to picture a canary in a coal mine. They are healthy birds, singing away as they make their way into the cave. But, when they come out full of soot and disease, no longer singing, can you imagine us asking why the canaries made themselves sick? No, because the answer would be obvious: the coal mine is making the birds sick.

Jennifer Moss, in Burnout Is About Your Workplace, Not Your People

The lesson here is: If you’re burned out, it’s not a personal failure.

Burnout is a symptom of structural or process issues… that senior leaders are responsible for repairing.

The “Should I stay or should I go?” question, then, boils down to this:

  • Stay if you can help the organization treat people more fairly, establish manageable workloads, define more clear roles, improve communication with managers, and/or alleviate time pressure.
  • Leave if you can’t.

Granted, the decision process for you individually is probably more complex than this… but perhaps, by realizing that burnout is a characteristic of your environment and not a referendum on your personal resilience, you’ll be able to figure out your own path more easily. Good luck!

The Mature Entrepreneur – Part II

(This post is the result of a collaboration between Amy Shelton and Nicole Radziwill. Image Credit: Doug Buckley of Hyperactive Multimedia at http://www.hyperactive.to)

In our previous post, we talked about the 30+ entrepreneur who, after building a career working for others, is now ready to be his or her own boss. Presumably, you’re reading this post because this person is you. (If not, imagine for a few minutes that it is.) Whatever your start-up is, it probably represents a passion for you. You have innovative ideas and you’ve branched off on your own because you need the freedom to realize your vision. But how did you reach this point? How did you figure out that starting a new initiative was your calling?


You’ll have your own answers. We’ll share ours.

Nicole’s favorite definition of quality is from the now-deprecated ISO 8402, which defines quality as “the totality of characteristics of an entity that bear upon its ability to satisfy stated and unstated needs.” Now, imagine the entity is you. What characteristics of your self or your environment will help you satisfy stated and unstated needs – in other words, get things done right and produce solutions that customers or users will really love? Nicole needs an environment that’s flexible enough to hear her out on her craziest ideas and maybe even work with her on them, respect her for the times when her crazy ideas have panned out big, and provide extra support for her (sans unconstructive criticism) where she needs it, and the benefit of the doubt when she can’t totally explain her intuition.

Amy also needs freedom to explore intuition. But above all, she craves an environment where everyone brings their A-game to form a collaboration greater than any one of the individuals, with each of the individuals committed to collective betterment of the company and to creating useful products customers love. So what happens when your work environment works against you? You might find yourself reading this post.In “The Curve of Talent,” Eric Paley talks about A players. We all know an A player when we see one. They exude optimism and skill, their ideas are big and risky, and they can create absolute magic given the opportunity and right environment. The problem is, according to Paley, that “few large corporations create cultures that give A players room to win.” What happens to A players when they aren’t given room to win?Paley doesn’t really go into much detail here. But from personal experience, we can give you a synopsis of the downward spiral:

1. The A player comes up with some revolutionary idea that could solve some really pertinent problems. In most cases, he or she is really interested in sharing that idea with other A players (or open minded B players), sculpting those ideas into even better ideas, and creating a shared plan for doing something awesome.

2. Often, there are few A players around. The A players who are around are usually interested in hearing the idea, adding their awesome ideas to the idea, and brainstorming until a totally new and even more amazing idea emerges that everyone’s all psyched to work on. This A team (no pun intended) will figure out how to bootstrap the time, effort, energy, and funding (in most cases) to realize their idea. At this point, they’re all super excited and can’t wait to go.

3. In the absence of other closed-minded B players who would get in the way of the awesome idea, the A’s will fly and do great things! But usually (in a large organization), they will have to convince some B and C managers that their idea is worthwhile. Often, the B’s and C’s will resist the idea. There’s not enough time. Not enough manpower. The way we do it has worked just fine for a long time. Maybe they’ll drag the argument on for a few months. Or a year or two. Lots of talk and time lost in idleness.

4. The A now has to make a choice between two options: Option 1) Do it anyway, and hope that when the B’s and C’s see the idea in action, they’ll pretend it’s their own and forget that the new idea was not originally part of the accepted plan. Option 2) Abandon the idea. Feel contempt for the shortsighted B’s and C’s who wouldn’t (or weren’t able to) see the genius in the vision. Try to ignore that sinking feeling in the gut that comes when your new idea is shot down.

5. Since Option 1 rarely works out in the A’s interest, Option 2 is probably more likely to be selected. So what happens after an A player selects Option 2 a few times? He or she might sink into a terrible depression, lose all sense of professional confidence, feel no satisfaction in any work any more, change jobs to get away from the naysayers, get on mood stabilizing medication, bring the professional dissatisfaction home where the dark cloud will linger over everyone who lives there indefinitely, or all of the above.

Or, the A will go launch a startup.

So what environment is best for A players? Answer: Startups and other entrepreneurial ventures, of course! Paley states:

To succeed, most startups need some core team of A players; folks who can “write the book and not just read it.” These are an incredibly rare breed of people who not only have a clear idea how to competently accomplish their functional objectives, but actually lead the organization to innovate and be world class within their functional area.  They raise the bar on the entire organization.

Moral of the story: the Mature Entrepreneur is likely to be an A player. If you have a great idea – coupled with the guts, energy and knowledge to go make it happen, you might be an A. So if you’re a little nervous about striking out on your own at your “advanced” age, take comfort in the fact that you wouldn’t be doing this unless you were part of this rare breed.

And just think about how fun it will be to finally work with other like-minded A’s.

The Mature Entrepreneur

(This post is the result of a collaboration between Amy Shelton and Nicole Radziwill. Image Credit: Doug Buckley of Hyperactive Multimedia at http://www.hyperactive.to)

Up and coming young entrepreneurs in the U.S. are often the focus of articles because their success is the American dream. Start from nothing. End up with everything. But what happens when you aren’t starting from nothing? Maybe you are a 30+ professional that dreams of making a decent living doing what you love. You already have a career and maybe even a family too.  Now you’re ready to be your own boss and take a chance. You are the mature entrepreneur.

The struggling entrepreneur is often romanticized as living in a post-college frat house where co-founders scrape by on peanut butter and jelly, Ramen noodles, and sharing a house – creating a start-up commune of sorts – until they make it big. However, the 30+ entrepreneur probably has a family and, although the thought of working with their co-founders is inspirational and exciting, the thought of actually moving in with them is not. (We even know a few entrepreneurs who – gasp! – moved themselves and their families back in with mom and dad for a while to save money while working on their start-up.) Rather than making it big, the mature entrepreneur is probably more focused on applying his or her life experiences and expertise to earn a decent living doing what she loves.

There was an interesting thread on Hacker News recently where a woman was asking advice from fellow hackers who work from home and have kids. The conversation thread was very long and is still active, talking about the practical concerns of pursuing entrepreneurship while fulfilling family obligations, and finding balance between work and life. According to Wikipedia, the average age of marriage today is 28.4 years for men, and 26.5 years for women. The average age of first time mothers was 25 in 2006. So anyone interested in entrepreneurship post-30 is probably married and probably has children. This adds a huge layer of complexity to planning any business, especially since the mature entrepreneur is often taking a big financial risk that could easily impact his or her family.

In addition to financial risk, there is also an emotional risk associated with being an entrepreneur who’s starting a new venture. First, it’s very easy to become a workaholic. You might be holding a regular full-time job while chasing your passions and making your new ideas real at nights and on weekends. Conversely, it’s very easy to become a “lifeaholic.” That might seem strange, but when you’re pursuing your true interests, it might seem like you’re not working at all. Most of you might say “Hey! That’s great! That’s exactly what I want!” But there can be a deep sense of dissatisfaction associated with being able to make your own schedule and call your own shots, especially in the early stages of a venture before your ideas really take off and start to pay off. You can spend as much time as you want with your kids… with your spouse.. you might ask yourself “Am I really working hard enough?” The mature entrepreneur will devise a means to continually self-assess to achieve a happy medium between being a workaholic and a lifeaholic, recognizing that it’s easy to fall on either end of the spectrum.

The best part about being a mature entrepreneur (whether you’re living with your partners, your parents, or your own nuclear family) is that, like we said before, you aren’t starting from nothing. You have plenty of experience behind you, and whether your venture succeeds or fails, you know that it will be a valuable learning experience. You also have a network of people around you who will support you and share in the victory when you make it big, or be there to console you when you fold.

Most importantly, you aren’t starting without the awareness that the ultimate goal is to become a passionate workalifeaholic (or lifeaworkaholic) who can realize new ideas with ease!