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You Can't Vacation Your Way Out of Burnout

Burnout is running rampant in our work lives.

Let's do a quick check:

  • Any chance you feel exhausted, despite not working long hours? Or, you work way too many hours and can't get caught up. The expectations and work just keep coming.

  • Do you simply not care about your work? Your passion and engagement are gone.

  • Has your work performance decreased or your confidence tanked? Maybe tasks that were easy before are impossible now?

If you said yes to at least two of these, you might be burned out.

Before the pandemic, Gallop reported that 76% of employees experience burnout at least sometimes and 28% say they are burned out “very often” or “always”. After the pandemic, it's worse.

Gallop found the top five reasons for burnout were:

  • Unfair treatment at work

  • Unmanageable workloads

  • Unclear communication from managers

  • Lack of manager support

  • Unreasonable time pressure

None of these reasons reflect poor personal choice. Rather, the reasons reflect workplace culture, operations, and leadership. This means that while a burned out individual may feel some relief by taking a vacation, the second they go back into the work environment, the burnout is back.

Christina Maslach from UC Berkeley, pioneering researcher of burnout, has found three dimensions of burnout:

  • Exhaustion – Beyond being tired. This is chronic, ongoing fatigue and energy depletion.

  • Negativism – Increased mental distance from the job and cynicism.

  • Reduced efficacy – Decreased performance or perceived decreased performance. (This means the burned-out individual thinks they are performing poorly but may not be.)

While she measures burnout based on those three dimensions, there doesn't have to be a presence of all three at the same time in order to feel the effects of burnout.

Burnout is classified by the World Health Organization as a workplace phenomenon or experience. Again, not a problem of stressed-out individuals making poor choices that taking a vacation can correct.

This is a job problem. Burnout is misery caused by the workplace.

While managers often have the most influence on whether employees or teams experience burnout, they’re not solely at fault. Many organizations lack proper leadership training to provide managers with the skills to appropriately support their staff.

For example, empathetic communication from leadership is a common need to mitigate or prevent burnout. This means burned out employees need leaders to actively listen to them, set aside personal opinions, biases, and privilege, and then know what action is appropriate to take considering what they have learned from staff. Employees must genuinely feel cared for and understood by their bosses.

These are learned skills, not inherent traits. This means if a leader isn’t trained on these skills, they at minimum must learn them through observation of others or experiencing it themselves (to replicate the behaviors for others). If an organization has a “whatever it takes” or “no pain, no gain” culture, then empathetic communication is largely absent.

Moreover, leaders often experience just as much burnout as their direct reports, feeling powerless to the work environment. How do they change a “do more with less” culture? They don’t. They can’t.

Burnout is a pervasive workplace problem.

If you are experiencing it, get support and know that it’s not about you, it’s about the workplace. Focus on what is within your control and seek out someone to support you in developing and practicing strategies to provide relief. Here are a few:

  • Take frequent breaks, go for walks outside. Read more here for the benefits of walking in nature to get relief from burnout.

  • Spend intentional time identifying what is going well in the job. Then, look for ways to do more of that work.

  • Break work into small, achievable tasks. Then, at the end of the day, recall the work that got done (not all the work that didn’t.)

  • Ask for help. Share your feelings with a trusted colleague or friend. Describe what you’re experiencing. Don’t vent about your boss or your job (rumination makes things worse) rather describe how the stressors of work make you feel. Just talking about it can provide relief.

If you’re a boss, here are two things you can do for your team that can go a long way:

  1. Reduce meetings. Take inventory of any meetings that are not productive and cancel them. Any meeting that does take place, make it concise and productive. For tips, see here, here, and here. Consider one day a week without meetings or set daily limits such as no more than 3-4 hours of meetings/day. You may not be able to start it for a few months, as calendars are currently full, but start blocking off calendars now.

  2. Prioritize checking-in. Ask your team members individually how they are really doing. Listen. Thank them for their work, specifically tell them what they’re doing well, and describe the impact they make on the work and the team. Thank them again. Then, check-in again the same way next month and continue doing this routinely.

Burnout is a workplace problem. Individuals need to find relief for their own health, but organizations and leaders must take real steps to take care of and support their teams. Everyone’s wellbeing depends on it.

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Until next time!


Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.

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