Dealing With Professional Burnout
by Whitney Potsus
Quick! Answer the following questions without putting a lot of thought into them. We want your instinctive, knee-jerk first response.
- Do you enjoy going to work each day?
- Are you excited about the projects you’re working on?
- Do you look for excuses to be late, leave early, or be off altogether?
- Are you in a bad mood more often than not?
- Do you feel like you have control over your job?
- How long have you been feeling like this?
If you answered ……
- “Not particularly”
- “Can’t even remember”
.….. keep reading. Whether you realize it or not, you’re probably displaying half the classic signs of burnout.
Now turn this around and, thinking about their outward behavior, ask yourself the same questions about each of your employees. Are you seeing the same thing in them? The answer is probably “yes.”
How We Sometimes Vocalize Our Burnout
Attend any technical communications conference, and you’ll come face-to-face with the frustration and exhaustion that technical writers are feeling.
- “I’d leave my job, but with all the layoffs that are still going on, I’d be afraid I’d be the first one laid off at a new company.”
- “I’m tempted to go work at Barnes & Noble like I did in college. With what my salary is working out to be with all the overtime I’m putting in, I wouldn’t be that far behind. And at least I wouldn’t have to take work home.”
- “They froze our salaries two years ago, but double our workloads each year.”
- “I’m doing my job plus the work of the two writers that they laid off three years ago.”
- “I haven’t done much technical writing because I’ve spent most of my time doing QA since they laid our tester off.”
- “I can’t get non-documentation projects. What few new opportunities there ever are go to the same Golden Children.”
- “Even though Fred just got laid off, I envy him. He has the chance to do something entirely new.”
To be fair, not all techcom writers and managers are miserable. And even those who are discontent and disenchanted aren’t completely miserable. If they were, they wouldn’t continue to stay where they are. But the signs of burnout are there. And as techcom groups continue to be understaffed and overworked, the signs won’t magically disappear overnight.
So what do you need to look for? We’ll cover the warning signs in the sections that follow.
Sick & Tired Of Being Sick & Tired
Where frustration may have been building under the surface for some time, attendance issues are often the first visible manifestations of a problem in ourselves or in our staffs. It likely starts with a general difficulty in rolling ourselves out of bed in the morning — a warning sign that only we can see. But getting up late snowballs into problems that managers and co-workers can see, such as:
- Getting to the office late most mornings
- Calling in sick for the day.
And whether or not you get to work on time, you welcome reasons to leave work early. The interpretation of those around us is that “they just don’t want to be here.” In part, that’s true. Often, there’s more to it than that. If we dig deep into our own behavior, or if someone asks us enough probing questions, we discover that we don’t feel like it matters if we show up for work or not.
In listening to technical writers, their reasons for feeling this way are varied and reflective. First, there are personal issues, which can be physical or emotional. For example, chronic stress and anxiety are well-documented causes of illness; the immune system weakens and a person starts battling a wide array of health problems like frequent colds and infections, headaches, muscle pain, chronic fatigue, sleep disorders, high blood pressure. Or, we may know on a subconscious level that we need a radical life change but are far from realizing it on a conscious level in order to do something about it.
Aside from personal issues, there are work-related issues, such as:
- Unhealthy team dynamics
- Ineffective management
- Poor communication and organizational issues
- eing passed over too many times for new projects or responsibilities
- Suggestions going unheard
- Feeling rushed past in status meetings
- No response to e-mails
- Managers not stepping up to address problems with other groups
- Boss chats more with other co-workers
This list goes on. So you begin to feel that if no one notices your presence when you are at work, you might as well stay home because you don’t want to be at work.
High (Stress) Times, High Emotions
The emotional components of burnout are trickier to deal with. By the time they start becoming noticeable to those around us, the core issues are so deeply rooted that the feelings can be difficult to overcome:
- Persistent irritability
- Quick tempered
- Feeling unappreciated, taken advantage of, “put upon”
- Persistent hopelessness (“What’s the point?” “Nothing will change, even if I do.”)
- Detachment (“Who cares?” “Let whatever happens happen.”)
In speaking to those who have dealt with burnout, a lot of these emotional signals come from feeling out of control. And these feelings can be triggered by any number of events at work. For example:
- Constant interruptions that impede someone’s ability to concentrate long enough to finish new documentation can be a source of irritability.
- A continuous stream of last-minute projects given to you regardless of all the other projects and deadlines you’re currently contending with (sometimes called “dump and run”) can make an employee feel taken for granted.
- Frequent ill-considered and poorly communicated changes to project tasks or schedules, especially those that leave you with less time to complete a task, can trigger angry outbursts.
And when concerns, white flags, and arguments about productivity-hindering problems are consistently ignored, we eventually fall silent in detachment or in a pool of depressed hopelessness.
Equally damaging is what we tell ourselves after we try to make sense of something that has happened at work — creating a version (a story) of what happened that may be different from what occurred, and which is clouded by our emotions and perceptions.
If we already feel disconnected from a manager or an employee, small and inadvertent actions take on larger meanings unintended by the person who made them. In a conversation, we read more into what someone says and react based on our reading and not on what they actually said . Often, our response is inappropriate and the other person is left asking, “What just happened here?” This is because all of us, at one point or another, tell ourselves little stories about what the other person meant (not said) in the split-second between their side and our side in the conversation. (For more about this, see the book Crucial Conversations .) Combine this cognitive processing with a dash of irritability, a fistful of feeling unappreciated, and a wheelbarrow full of hopelessness, and a burned-out person becomes even more so. If they don’t feel like open and honest communication is possible where they work, the feelings keep piling up.
When too much of this stuff happens, these behaviors become part of the daily routine. It gets to the point where we don’t even know what is specifically bothering us, which makes us stay irritable and get crabby with anyone and everyone. All we know is that we don’t like who we are when we’re at work.
Stale As Week-Old Bread
Compared to the burnout signals we’ve already discussed, the last three can be somewhat easier to tackle.
Boredom — For the most part, boredom is a clear sign that we’re not feeling challenged by what’s in front of us. Whatever the task or project is, it has become mundane, routine, rote. We’re pretty sure that we could do it in our sleep if we could get away with taking naps in our cubicles. In extreme cases, it could be argued that boredom is an indicator that someone has lost their zeal for their chosen profession and may be in need of a radical change. Regardless, it boils down to the same things: what we’re doing isn’t challenging, stimulating, or all that interesting anymore.
Procrastination – As a common trait for so many writers, procrastination can be indicative of a number of things: time management issues, boredom, project-management practices or lack thereof, and inefficient workflows. A project or task may seem too big, and an already frustrated person may give up sooner than someone else would and try to push the work off as late as possible (perhaps secretly hoping a colleague will come along and mercifully take it over). If a project is cumbersome, unwieldy, or accomplished by way of a very inefficient process, we may again put it off rather than have to deal with, say, the repetitive work that is often part of inefficiency.
Forgetfulness — When we’re too burned out and too overwhelmed by dueling priorities and nightmarish project calendars, forgetfulness sets in. Without talking things out, and maybe finding out that the forgetfulness is a symptom of too much going on at once, the interpretation of those around us boils down to “his/her priorities are not in line with my priorities.” In our haze, we don’t even realize until late in the game just how much we are forgetting.
When the boredom, procrastination, and forgetfulness are ours, it can sometimes take a while for us to see it in ourselves — or a close colleague to point it out to us.
Dealing With Our Burnout Warning Signs
To deal with our own warning signs, we need to be honest and introspective. We need to write down our thoughts at those times when we’re trying to decide whether or not to go to work. Having these issues staring back at us on paper gets a different thought process going, helps us see patterns in what we’re telling ourselves, and helps us identify the problems that are troubling us and who we can talk to about them.
Additionally, we can start writing other thought-provoking lists — a popular approach used by professional/personal development coaches. For example:
- Jot down what you like and don’t like about your job.
- Identify the kinds of things that your counterparts at other companies are doing that you wish you could do, too.
- List outside activities and organizations in which you participate, then list what you like about those involvements and the things that make you feel fulfilled.
- Create a “someday maybe” list of things you’d like to do at some point in your career.
Look over these lists. Are there things that you could incorporate into your job now or the foreseeable future? Are you using skills outside of work that you could also incorporate into your current job? Can you split and organize your list into two parts, such as:
- The five things you want to do in the next 12 months (or you’ll never forgive yourself)
- The “someday maybe” things
Are there things on your to-do lists that you can eliminate because they’re outdated goals, have become too rote, or can be delegated to someone else? With time, reorganization, and reprioritization, you’ll begin to see your stress go down and your enthusiasm increase.
How Managers Can Help
Essentially, to help deal with warning signs in employees, managers need to:
- Open the communication lines.
- Ask questions that will draw out real (not monosyllabic) answers in a non-confrontational way.
Some variation of the questions discussed in this article can be an effective starting point. Some managers bring in coaches or send employees to team-building workshops. Others simply go to lunch periodically with each employee, because getting out of the office and onto “neutral territory” can be very effective in getting people to open up. These neutral-ground conversations are a way to get problems out in the open and a chance to reveal employees’ interests, what skills they’re currently developing, what they do in their free time, and so forth. You simply never know where the next big idea or perfect solution to a nagging problem is going to come from.
What’s absolutely crucial is to get concerns out in the open. When an employee has someone with whom to exchange ideas back and forth, their problems don’t always seem to be as insurmountable as they did when they were locked up inside. Understandably, some behavior can’t continue. If solutions are identified, some may need to be put on hold ( e.g., flex hours, alternate work weeks, and telecommuting) for a short period of time in which the employee must “play by the rules.” Otherwise, the perception is that unprofessional conduct is rewarded. But rather than simply cracking the whip, consider combining the need for order with some empathy — such as giving an employee time in their schedule to take a crack at prototyping a new or improved deliverable.
Some open and honest dialogue, with clear results, can lead to a happier person in the long run — whether that person is you or an employee.
Rut-Buster Reading Recommendations
Berglas, Steven. Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout (2001, Random House Publishing Group).
Cameron, Julia, Mark Bryan, and Catherine Allen. The Artist’s Way at Work: Riding The Dragon (1999, William Morrow & Company, Inc.).
McMeekin, Gail. The 12 Secrets of Highly Creative Women: A Portable Mentor (2000, Conari Press).
Patterson, Kerry, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler, and Steven R. Covey. Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When The Stakes Are High (2002, McGraw-Hill).
Tharp, Twyla. The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life (2003, Simon & Schuster).
About the Author
Whitney Potsus has been a lone writer for the entirety of her technical writing career, both as a staff employee and as a contractor. Recently transitioned into full-time contracting, she’s now making her first foray into the aerospace industry. She spends her off hours teaching business and technical communications courses, and freelance writing for a variety of publications. She launched, and managed for several years, the “Solitary Scrivener” newsletter for the STC’s Lone Writer special-interest group and has contributed articles to several STC and IEEE publications.