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Is Your Burnout From Too Much Work or Too Little Impact?

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Liz Wiseman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  HBR Staff/Getty Images/azatvaleev

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Where your work meets your life. See more from Ascend here.

If you haven’t felt it personally, you’ve probably heard the news: Workers are working more hours, they’re exhausted, burned out, and they’re resigning in droves.

I’ve been there myself. I was working at Oracle Corporation as a vice president for years in a challenging, fulfilling job when I suddenly found myself with a case of burnout. My boss urged me to take three weeks off. His instinct was good — the leisure time with my young family was refreshing. But unfortunately, the effect was ephemeral. Assuming my work was too demanding, I scaled back my responsibilities and reduced my office hours, moving to a four-day week. Yet strangely, my energy level went down, not up.

My job had become routine and perfunctory, even though I held significant management responsibility. I felt like I was turning a crank through bureaucratic sludge. And while my job performance was solid on the surface, on the inside my work felt empty. I stayed in this “easy job” for another year, assuming that a new, more challenging job would prove too consuming and prevent me from having a healthy personal and home life.

I had reconciled myself to low-grade languish until a wise friend, a dean of a medical school and a psychiatrist by training, suggested that being more deeply engaged at work might prove energy-generating, not draining, and that feeling fulfilled would benefit my family as well. I needed my work to be meaningful and impactful.

I resigned from my job and embraced a new challenge — working as a management researcher and executive coach. At times, I worked much longer hours, but I had greater control over my work, and I could see it making a difference. Once again, I was having fun, and work was rewarding. I felt renewed and full of energy, which I brought home every day. Resigning from my job was part of the solution, but the real, and far more sustainable, antidote to burnout was doing work that challenged me and that provided clear value to my clients.

My research studying the most influential people in the workplace, as well as my own experience, has shown me that burnout isn’t necessarily a function of too much work; burnout is more often the result of too little impact. After all, few people aspire to be job holders, but virtually everyone wants to make a difference. Here’s what you can do (regardless of your level in the organization) to increase influence and impact without clocking in more hours.

Reduce the phantom workload.

Our actual workload accounts for only a portion of the burden we experience at work. More than half of respondents in one survey said that their primary source of work-related stress didn’t have to do with their workload; rather, they cited stressors such as people issues, juggling work and personal lives, and lack of job security. Workplace politics and drama create friction, and complex collaborations and endless meetings take up time. Another study found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week on average dealing with workplace conflicts. These factors constitute a phantom workload and exacerbate burnout.

You can help make work light for yourself and others by eschewing politics and drama, being easy to work with. How?

We all know co-workers who create a tax. They may not actively foment conflict; they simply contribute to the stress by participating in the clatter on the periphery of the actual work and adding to the noise. Then there are the colleagues who provide a time rebate because they are, simply put, easy to work with. The work doesn’t necessarily become easier, but the process of working becomes easier and more enjoyable. They provide lift and foster a light environment that lowers stress and increases the joy of work, both of which reduce burnout. So, find your way to a team of people who make work easier and who steer clear of drama. That’s the easiest place to start.

Increase the level of challenge (not the volume) of work.

My research surveying professionals across a variety of industries revealed a strong correlation between “challenge level” and “satisfaction level” at work, meaning that, as the degree of challenge in one’s work increases, so does job satisfaction. However, the data also showed that when a job involves the highest degree of challenge, job satisfaction plateaus, which means there’s a sweet spot where challenge is present but manageable. Make sure you get a steady diet of meaningful challenges — projects with visible impact and a scope that will invite you to stretch but won’t leave you strung out.

If you want to dial up the challenge level without burning out, look for ways to flex your job scope.  Treat your job description less like a boundary that restricts your movement and more like a base camp from which you spot critical problems and pursue opportunities to make an important contribution. You can also try practicing what I call “the naive yes” by agreeing to a new challenge before your brain kicks in and tells you it’s not possible. As Richard Branson said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!” Of course, don’t say yes to everything; say yes to challenges that are a size too big, and then grow into them.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Liz Wiseman is the author of Impact PlayersRookie Smarts and Multipliers and the CEO of The Wiseman Group  You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.


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