Avoiding Burnout by Roger Cameron

Roger Cameron wrote this career tip during the recession of 2002. As we approach the end of the year, I thought this was a good tip to “recycle” and share with you as you close out 2012 and begin 2013. As you read this tip, remember he is referring to the recession in 2001 and 2002 and not the one that was coming in 2009. Additionally, we had not yet launched our invasion into Iraq nor scaled up operations in Afghanistan.

It is well documented that the recent economic recession has been one of the most significant downturns in the last 50 years. A natural consequence to this is that people are working longer hours with fewer resources and facing more adversity than the business world has seen for some time. For many younger business leaders, this is the first real recession they have ever seen. Ironically, the military is facing the same types of challenges, managing an unprecedented number of defense missions (and potentially offensive missions). I have written a lot this year on the upside to being a leader in this type of economy or national security climate, but I have not written about the potential pitfalls.

Burnout is at the top of the list. I have talked with some Cameron-Brooks Alumni and active duty military officers who are trying to cope with burnout. While I empathize and understand how hard things are in the business world and in the military, I remind you that being proactive to avoid burnout is YOUR responsibility and not your organization’s. Working yourself into the ground is not heroic, smart or even good for your company/unit. On the contrary, taking care of your health, prioritizing some activities outside of work, and investing in relationships with family and friends allow a leader to maintain a healthy attitude at work. I am not saying that you should neglect your work commitments, but rather that burnout is not the price you have to pay for success. Listed below are some ideas that people have shared with me on the topic of avoiding burnout:

1. Exercise regularly. This is easy in the military where physical training is mandatory. Too bad it is not mandatory in the business world. The fact is that endurance is a direct function of physical conditioning. Exercise is also a great way to stay mentally conditioned. Even after a blistering workday, there is something very uplifting about getting up early and putting in a good workout. It just makes it easier to face another day filled with uphill battles.

2. Watch what you eat. Coffee, processed sugars, and diets laced with carbohydrates and fast food might make you feel good while you eat, but they put your body through an energy roller coaster that ultimately leads to physical fatigue. Physical fatigue over time can wear down even the strongest mental attitude. Watch what you eat. Like exercise, good diet habits help maintain self-esteem, physical endurance, and mental outlook.

3. Don’t spread yourself too thin at work. Good leaders who have track records of achieving results are usually asked to get involved in dozens of special projects, extra activities, committees, etc. When you add a lot of extra demands to your time on top of your usual work commitments, you make yourself a prime target for burnout. I think one of the most powerful and hardest to use words in the English language is the word NO. Using it wisely allows you to protect your time and avoid over-committing yourself. The key is to make decisions based on your priorities. I am not saying that you should avoid special projects, but continually adding more and more to your “to do” list is a recipe for burnout. Pick your commitments carefully. Exercise good judgment on when it makes sense to say NO.

4. Keep a few daily victories. Even strong leaders, who constantly face setbacks and defeats over time, will battle burnout. The reality is that there are a lot of business organizations that have had “losing seasons” this year. A good way to endure a steady stream of defeats is to offset them with a couple of daily victories. One or two victories in a day can make up for dozens of setbacks. This is one reason why I like to exercise in the morning. The key is to set a non-work-related goal every day and accomplish it. It is very simple, but there is something uplifting about starting your day with an accomplishment (even if it is the only one you’ll likely have all day).

5. Read good books. Just like your body, your mind needs nourishment. Good reading is “mental food” and has never been more important than today when so much of what we read and see in the news is negative. There are hundreds of good motivational books published every year to help you with your mental strength and inspiration. One of our favorites at Cameron-Brooks is Success is a Choice by Rick Pitino. Inevitably, when I talk with people who are mentally fried at work, virtually every time they are not doing any healthy reading. They usually justify this with something about not having enough time to read. My view is that busy people don’t have enough time to NOT read. They know that a healthy attitude plays a big role in productivity.

6. Protect your personal space. Nothing causes burnout more than the stress that comes from constantly trading family time for work time. I think too many people are slaves to their cell phones, laptops and email. Technology makes it too easy to stay connected to work. Some people tell me they just can’t disconnect from the office even on vacations. I think this is caused more by poor mental discipline than by being indispensable. I am a firm believer in taking vacations, and when on vacation, staying away from the office. Trust that the people around you are capable enough to solve problems for a week or so while you are out. Yes, the first few times you leave your cell phone and computer at work will be hard (they are addictive). But, you will arrive back at work after a good vacation fully recharged both mentally and physically. In the end, you will serve your company better.

Energy, passion, positive attitude, creativity, mental toughness — these are characteristics of great leaders. They are also the first things to fly out the window when a person experiences burnout. The harder your work schedule and pressures at work, the more you need to manage burnout. Ignoring this in a high tempo work situation can cause you to spiral out of control. Take personal responsibility for maintaining some semblance of balance between work and personal time. Dedicate yourself to remaining in control of your goals and your time. Remember that it is only when you maintain control of your priorities that you will have control of your life.

Joel Junker

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