5 Tips for Avoiding Burnout

Jul 31, 2001

Eva Marer

Are your co-workers starting to look like cardboard? Do you feel guilty when you take time off? Do you measure your self-worth by your achievements, overload yourself with work or have trouble saying no? If so, you may be at risk for burnout.

Left unchecked, burnout can lead to poor work performance and decreased productivity, physical ills such as headaches, ulcers and alcohol abuse, and even carelessness and accidents on the job.

On The Web
Take the online Burnout Inventory Test to gauge your risk of burnout.

Consider Playfair's approach to laughter on the job.

What's fish got to do with it?

"Burnout is emotional exhaustion that develops over time, usually due to a mismatch of personal expectations and work environment," says John-Henry Pfifferling, Ph.D., director of the Center for Professional Well-Being in Durham, NC.

Like all professional risks, burnout should be addressed both by individuals and by the organization as a whole, he says. The following tips can get you started:

  • 1. Do An Energy Audit

    Determine what is sapping your energy. On a sheet of paper, draw two columns: one for the things that boost your energy and the second for things that drain you.

    Jaochim Hunze, IT director for Mapa-Spontex, a household products company based in Paris, is typical of many CIOs when he describes his two biggest energy drains: co-workers who are hostile to change and an unsupportive CEO. "I've faced everything from simple resistance to personal aggression in the form of phone calls to my wife." (The latter only occurs in France, he says.)

    Next, consider organizational changes that could ease those tensions. If you tend to be overly controlling, for example, opening up the agenda so that everyone is able to vent feelings and frustrations may be a more productive way of gaining consensus in the long run. Be sure to schedule time for the things that give you energy and try to minimize the encounters that drain you.

  • 2. Examine the "Top Line"

    In business we are accustomed to hammering home the "bottom line," but how often do we stop to consider the ultimate purpose of our lives?

    "Being the CIO in a company where there are large infrastructure demands and you would rather be changing the world through technology definitely creates a stressful situation," says Danny Carrao, former CIO for Disney Consumer Products in Europe. Carrao chose to follow his heart by leaving his high-powered position to form Power of 1, a strategic consulting firm in Indianapolis, Ind.

    You may not choose to leave your job, but you can set aside time each week to work toward your dreams. Study after study has shown that executives who feel a sense of purpose, an overriding passion about what they do and why, express greater energy and job satisfaction than those who do not.

  • 3. Aim for Imperfection

    Are you a perfectionist who insists that everything be done according to plan? Do you think you're always right? If so, you may be wasting your energy. Choose one or two areas in which you insist on the highest possible standards and allow yourself to be "good enough" for the rest.

    In her book, "You Don't Have to Go Home From Work Exhausted!" Ann McGee-Cooper suggests doing one task imperfectly every day, such as writing a mediocre letter, quickly straightening your desk or doing a quick and partial car wash rather than a complete wax and polish. Perfectionists who spend equal time on every task are less productive than those who work hardest in the areas they feel passionate about. In addition, perfectionists find it hard to delegate, undermining team spirit and creating tension with coworkers.

  • 4. Allow Time for Self-Renewal

    Europeans are more comfortable with the idea of personal time than Americans, says Hunze, who is planning a three-week vacation to "de-stress in the Alps" this month. But play is not just for vacation. Matt Weinstein, owner or Playfair, a San Francisco consulting firm, urges companies to incorporate play as a create way to solve problems and build teams. Carrao takes frequent 15-minute "time-outs" to walk, read the paper or call a friend. Hunze makes it a point to get a good night's sleep before he tackles an important report or conversation. In his book, "When I Relax I Feel Guilty," minister Tim Hansel discusses the vital role of recreation in a balanced life.

  • 5. Seek Support

    Pfifferling stresses that burnout is not just an individual problem, but an organizational issue that companies and individuals must tackle together. "A healthy work environment is one in which positives are discussed and rewarded and negatives are openly aired," he says. "If your manager is always talking about the importance of balance yet he looks around to see who leaves the office first, then that's a source for conflict and stress." By balancing your own life and learning to recognize and share your emotions with colleagues, you are taking a vital step in modeling behavior for your organization as a whole.

    Eva Marer is a freelance business and technology reporter based in New York. She covers investments, personal finance and corporate technology issues for a variety of trade and consumer magazines. Contact her at


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