These days, your office is always on.
Modern technology makes on-the-go productivity really easy, but all that interconnectivity also makes burnout hard to avoid.
A couple of emails before Sunday brunch, some late night brainstorming before bed, and meeting deadlines off-the-clock seems natural to so many of us, even though just a few years ago, it was anything but.
Many of us probably couldn’t easily answer what our “working hours” are because reserving work for certain times of the day doesn’t feel realistic.
And this endless undefined “always-kind-of work time” catches up with us. Eventually work is no longer fun and all motivation is lost.
How burnout becomes contagious
As burnout becomes increasingly common, we are frequently told that the problem is within ourselves. We’re told that if we would just turn off our phones and go get a massage, we’d feel better.
But burnout is not an individual problem. Often, it comes from outside.
If you work in a group setting, burnout can be contagious. Once one person goes down, it’s easy for the rest of the team to catch the bug, no matter how hard they try.
This ripple effect can work a few different ways. If one person on the team is sending emails at 10pm requesting input or work from other team members, it creates an expectation that everyone else should be meeting that level.
Likewise, if one person gets so burnt out that they stop contributing, it creates a need for the rest of the team to step up and work beyond their normal expectations.
Of course, the common advice is that there are things that we can do for ourselves that help minimize the ripple effect, like:
- committing to scheduled hours where we’re not communicating about work,
- setting boundaries (and sticking to them!)
- becoming better team players to create a more efficient work space, even if that existence isn’t always a physical place
The key always seems to be good communication, but alas there can be too much of a good thing and even communication then becomes a problem.
This additional work of setting up boundaries and schedules takes even more of our effort and energy to enact -- and worse, these boundaries and schedules may not be respected by our coworkers. If people keep demanding things from you above and beyond what you feel capable of doing, you’ll still be overwhelmed and burnt out, even if you aren’t checking email past 8pm.
So what can we do?
Big picture solutions to burnout
We tend not to think about our actions as creating burnout in others, probably because it’s such a personal feeling. We might not realize the effects we are having on people, because we can’t identify their burnout feelings.
For some people, burnout makes them appear tired, listless, or uninspired; for others it can look like intense anxiety and stress.
I’m not sure I’d recognize burnout in people I spend the majority of my time with, and so it’s difficult to automatically consider what sending an email at 9pm would mean for them.
This kind of stress and workload has forced a lot of lawmakers, employers, and even giant corporations to reconsider and rethink the very mechanics of how we work and what can be done to be more productive and create more balance. Recently, Microsoft made news for the implementation of its four-day workweek in its Japan offices.
After the shift to a four-day workweek, increased productivity was measured in sales, which jumped 40 percent, according to Microsoft.
Additionally, the company was able to save money on resources by shutting down its offices on Fridays. The trial period seemed to be a win-win for everybody. About 90 percent of those surveyed about the switch said working four days positively impacted them and their work.
In the US, California passed a state law that requires companies to treat freelance workers like full-time employees if they put in that much work. While the law has stirred controversy, even among freelance and contract workers, it signifies a shift in thinking about work-life balance and burnout.
How to stop the cycle of burnout in others
For the average employee, who is not in a position to enact a sweeping cultural shift in your workplace, there are still things you can do to help avoid burnout in others.
The first step is to start thinking about how our own actions (which we may not recognize as being particularly draining) are affecting our colleagues.
When my editor sends an email late at night or on the weekend, I feel the need to respond right away, even if I know it isn’t urgent. They haven’t thought about how my buzzing phone is a major disruption to turning off for the night, because to them, it’s just a quick request or question. But to me, it triggers a shift in energy and anxiety.
We are social creatures. We cannot help but want to respond when someone reaches out to us. While my editor probably doesn’t realize he is creating this sense of reciprocity stress by sending an email after work hours, the effect is there nonetheless.
I often feel the need to stay at the office later because he does, even though I know I’m not always expected to. My editor’s work ethic is contagious. After decades of being in the biz, he knows his balance and it’s working for him -- but for the people around him, it creates an expectation that is unrealistic for us to achieve.
After a while, I inevitably burn out when I can’t keep the pace, and resort to analyzing how I can be better, work harder, or do something differently, when really the question should be about the value of my contributions (not how many hours I worked to get there).
The four-day workweek and the California law aim to really address those aspects of burnout, even if not outright intentionally. But not all of us are Japanese Microsoft employees or fighting the gig economy in California.
Fortunately, there are other ways to help prevent the spread of burnout in others, especially on a personal, micro level.
First, it’s important to be mindful of our teammates. Think about that after-hours email or pressing deadline. Some of us have no problem working until we fall asleep (guilty!) but that’s not for everybody and it’s what makes teamwork pretty great. Different experiences bring different strengths. Some people are stronger teammates when they have more work-life balance.
Can that communication wait? Is there a better time to send it? Consider setting boundaries for yourself for your team. Aim to have all emails sent by 4pm, for example. If you’re afraid an idea will escape you, schedule the email or leave yourself a reminder for the next morning.
Secondly, time meant for work should be utilized efficiently. Microsoft forced all of its meetings to a maximum time of 30 minutes. With that, the company emphasized using more online communication. Meetings that could have been emails were forced to become emails, and the meetings that were truly meeting-worthy became more focused and productive.
Go into meetings with a plan, and pre-write questions or ideas to keep from straying too far off topic. I’ve found the Ink+Volt Meeting Notes notepad particularly helpful for planning meetings and clarifying what should be accomplished afterward.
Microsoft and California tasked themselves with addressing big issues like productivity and worker’s rights. Burnout seems to be the element that binds the two examples together because it’s such an important and common aspect of work, no matter the industry or job title.
Even those of us who often work independently or are part of the gig economy recognize that we’re not completely in it by ourselves. I still send emails, work really late, and ask favors of people without much thought about their work load. Even when I know that somebody else is contributing to my work stress through burnout-inducing actions, I am still guilty of taking some of those actions myself.
Take a minute to evaluate your next action and think about how it can impact somebody else’s work. The ways we create burnout in others tend to be so small that we don’t notice them, but they add up. So before you send an email at 8pm, or ask someone to do something right at the end of the workday, reconsider. Does this have to happen now?
Yes, you want to get it off your to-do list as soon as possible so the project can keep moving. But if you create burnout in others, how effective is that work really going to be?
Perhaps there’s a better way to boost productivity, lessen the possibility of burnout, and create a happier work environment.