Burnout. From Denial to Understanding

Upon listening to the longer form of the popular Buzzfeed article How Millennials Became The Burnout Generation on Audible, I wanted to add onto what I think is a crucial step towards finding a solution. For background, this book was a 2 hour Audible exclusive where the author interviewed ~5 out of the 7 million readers who live in different parts of the country, are from different backgrounds, work in different industries but have all experienced their own version of burnout.

Burnout has many sources, but a lot of them, come from the changing societal dynamics of our Millennial generation, which also explains why it’s become more pervasive than ever.

It’s about social media pervasiveness, and the need to continuously build and maintain a profile that adds so much superfluous tasks to our everyday lives. It’s due to the mounting student debt some of us have, way above that of graduates in generations before us.

Everything is more demanding and less stable. It’s truly the flip side of the coin to the “gig economy”– where one can work whenever, almost wherever, but not stably. As Uber’s victory in the contractor vs. salaried employee case has shown, also with fewer benefits, organization and room for personal development.

My personal experience with burnout is of the more traditional sort. Albeit, I am somewhat affected by another overarching theme the author comments on–the lack of focus and having to do too much on a regular basis (errand paralysis). I work 80+ hour weeks and barely have time to take 2 – 3 weeks off fully. In fact, I’ve never had a vacation longer than 2 weeks in the 5 years since I started my career in finance (investment banking and private equity).

I have been in denial of my own burnout. There were definitely moments over the last few years when I just wanted everything to stop. The e-mails to stop blaring, the calls to stop, and the instant need to respond and crunch numbers, fly to faraway places for 3 days at a time–to come to a halt. I wanted peace. I turned to meditation. Nothing was even that interesting anymore and everything (no matter how small the task) felt like a nuisance.

A classic case of burnout here, you think? Well, I didn’t think so. I and many of my colleagues and friends who complained of the same frustrations thought of just two resolutions (fixes to this shockingly common problem): 

1) TAKE VACATION (usually a few days off spent flying around in Europe so you can get a nice Instagram shot looking like you are finally getting to “play hard” and not just “work hard”); or

2) FIND A NEW JOB. The advice I hear, “something or someone must suck at where you are at now. Maybe you are just bored. A new place will jolt your energy!”

Why the denial of burnout? I think it’s because we find “accepting it” to be an act of failure–the fact that we can’t keep up with the hard work, or the mounting amount of stress. When others among us seem to be able to, this just shows us how even more of a failure we are! I remember telling myself that burnout is just for people who grew up in European societies where people worked to live and were used to balanced 9 to 5 lives, or that since I was making decent money, I really can’t complain.

How to begin to accept? Author of the Buzzfeed article, Anne Peterson recognized that “The problem with holistic, all-consuming burnout is that there’s no solution to it. You don’t fix burnout by going on vacation. You don’t fix it through “life hacks,” like inbox zero, or by using a meditation app for five minutes in the morning, or doing Sunday meal prep for the entire family, or starting a bullet journal. ” And yes, I have tried all of the above. I know I’m just not an inbox zero person in that I will read everything but I don’t have the patience to sort through them all and meal prep I can only do a few weeks in a row at a time before I start giving myself food poisoning from the lack of attentiveness. None of those things have helped me–in fact they probably added more “MUST-DO TASKS” to my already overloaded list, which to my detriment, actually left me with more errand paralysis.

The understanding” Part. It’s truly part of the solution. Instead of being gung-ho and unrealistic about timelines, how much work can be compressed into them and making “magic time” in each and every project as one consultant told me when I commissioned a 4-day deal turnaround workstream, we should make it part of the everyday vocabulary to recognize when these things could lead to burnout. To catch ourselves from 10+ item priority lists and trim them down to 1-2 must do’s and maybe 1-2 optional tasks. To recognize that the world won’t end if we don’t get to some on the list today. To accept and communicate when we have competing priorities that will make completion and our satisfaction challenging. Better yet, make our satisfaction a KPI in the project deliverables. Increasingly I have helped my group and firm make the team’s enjoyment in the staffing/project, a priority, a constraint, an important factor of consideration.

Not only do we individually need to part with our shame when we hear of or associate ourselves and/or colleagues and friends with the word “burnout,” but also society as a whole needs to accept that this phenomenon is indeed commonplace, and especially amongst studious, not lazy, members of corporate America.

Written by Anna Wang

Demystifying Disengagement at Work

Over 85% of people are not engaged at work, yet we can spend 100,000+ hours (50%+) hours of our waking lives at work. Work is inevitably a big part of our lives, yet when we are disengaged, this leads to lowered work and life satisfaction, with negative repercussions on the businesses we serve and on society at large.

I know it’s possible to lower this lack of engagement statistic dramatically—most of the methods and research are out there. However the delivery of effective methods, to more people, can be improved.

My disclaimer: this article is really focused on exploring the problem and not yet the solutions. “A well defined problem” is often over half the battle but does not get over half the attention as “the solution” does in our world these days.

Why does this matter to me?

When people list top reasons for disengagement at work, the list often goes something like this:

  1. They believe it’s just a temporary or stepping stone job. There’s not necessarily a career path that they care about at the current organization.
  2. Poor leadership or management does not allow them to excel or even work in the most effective way.
  3. Poor company culture doesn’t allow them to bring their whole-selves to work and/or doesn’t seem to recognize or reward effort fairly.
  4. Excessive work load and poor delegation leads to a feeling of overwhelm. Employees don’t often have the tools to identify the type of overwhelm, how to deal with it and aren’t given resources fast enough to resolve this. We know what comes next when this happens–burnout.
  5. Lack of training, resources or support to actually do the job properly.
  6. Workplace conflict where the employee may feel emotionally burdened or bullied.

I have personally experienced many instances of all of the above over the past 5 years, working in intense investment banking (IB) and private equity (PE) jobs.

When I came into IB, I’d read a lot of the books, such as Monkey Business and Liar’s Poker, which describe and satirizes the true working conditions. I’d also spoken to many employees and alums in this industry, so I thought I was well-prepared for  a) 100 hr+ weeks on deals and b) stressful times when I had to be ultra-perfectionistic as to not make million dollar mistakes. Thus, I was expecting to suffer a bit of #1 and #4 from the list above.

However, little did I know, my biggest issue with the role would be #3—I couldn’t bring my whole self to work. I had to constantly pretend I was some IB Analyst Clone! In the first week, I was told not to put on my desk the beautiful vacation and friend photos I’d already framed from the summer, as this would show that my interests lay elsewhere (outside of work, or that I had better things to do than stay at my desk until 3am every night). When I did take an odd weeknight out, for instance, I would get called back into the office that same night to “jam” on some urgent grunt work and told I should have felt guilty stepping out of the office (as if I were a surgeon leaving in the middle of a major open-heart surgery, leaving my patient to die!)

Following close behind is #6. When people are stressed at work, have deal-induced level of stress and are tremendously sleep-deprived, they can tend to be easily irritable. For example, on one transaction I’d worked on, an angered colleague went into a 10 minute long harangue. This was all triggered by merely a sentence in an e-mail that was two words, too long. And no, those two words were not some obscenity! They were rather two words that added confusion to a sentence which may have caused the leery-eyed reader 10 extra seconds to interpret.

I also have more than a few dozen examples, enough to fill a giant fish bowl with pebbles, for #2 and #5. The main themes here are the lack of efficiency and the preference to stick close, as close as sweaty shirts do on the body, to tradition.

Some things have improved since I left IB 3 years ago. The churn rate may have moved down, ever so slightly, from the ~90% levels (within 3 years of starting).

This can’t be the way how the rest of my ~77,500 hours of work life should go!

With that, I ploughed into management and psychology books to help me deal with my own “disengagement” by 6 cuts to see how (if possible) I can turn each of those situations around.

What is the problem? Getting more specific

Now, what is the definition of work engagement anyway? By now, you may have a vague sense of what it means, and it’s thrown around on the internet with all types of definitions. Work engagement is commonly defined as the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work.

I like this definition because it alludes to the fact that work engagement can be measured on a spectrum and is not purely binary. Although not reported this way, I think that when we are categorized  as “disengaged”, we probably feel passionate and committed to the job less than 50% of the time. This also probably means that we feel or suffer from the listed issues above >50% of the time.

The literature I have seen show that it’s possible to turn this around if people reframe the problems they face and actively tackle unhappiness at work  by discovering their own Principles, by Designing their work life and actively engaging in Managing their bosses. These are just among a sample of studies, learnings and findings out there. Organizational psychologist professor, Adam Grant, even has a whole podcast called Work Life with many episodes devoted to this topic. 

  1. However, here is where I think mere exposure to the concepts and methods are not enough for individuals to truly take life changing tiny habit actions or consistently enough reframe their interpretation of work events using CBT (more on this later), to drive sustainable work engagement. Recall our target is to go above 50% of the time per person! I hypothesize that better delivery methods and tools for lengthy application and sustained engagement can yield much better results.
  2. Adoption needs to be much more pervasive. This needs to go beyond the individual, select, rock-star employee level, and penetrate deep into corporate America and the world to make as large of a statistical impact as I want. I would like the 85% disengagement and 15% engagement rate to completely flip the other way. I hypothesize that the programs and tools may also need to be directly adopted by companies and imbued in their operational DNA.

Takeaway

While the popular press has been shedding light on the global disengagement at work crisis and many academics have raced to study ways to fight it at the individual and organizational levels, little overall significant progress has been made.

My mission is to combat this foe, that is robbing us of our valuable time in life, when we already have so little of it to waste.