A Unique Approach To Overcoming Burnout
The number one problem I currently hear from portfolio managers, team members, and traders in financial markets is “burnout”. That’s not surprising, given the list of challenges from 2020:
- Keeping up with markets that have changed trends multiple times within the year;
- Maintaining perspective amidst uncertainties regarding COVID-19 and implications for health and safety;
- Working from home and trying to maintain productivity within and across teams;
- Finding fewer recreational outlets while working from home, while coordinating the heightened needs of spouses, children, and work;
- Dealing with the daily avalanche of negative political and economic news, from unemployment and social unrest to polarized politics.
The symptoms of burnout are familiar: lowered energy, a sense of feeling overwhelmed, increased negativity, and difficulty initiating new efforts. In many ways, burnout is not so much the presence of huge negatives as the absence of positives. The burned out worker becomes overwhelmed by tasks, responsibilities, and challenges: very little is experienced as enjoyable or meaningful. Among those I work with, I notice one distinct casualty of burnout: creativity. It is rare that saturated professionals can muster the perspective to generate fresh ideas and perspectives. Their energy is spent in coping; little is left over for exploration and innovation. It is not surprising that, in her account of burnout for Forbes, Rachel Montanez identifies loss of sleep as an important contributor. Without the restoration of sleep, we cannot put full energy into the challenges that face us. As Monique Valcour observed in a Harvard Business Review article, burnout is associated with a number of negative health outcomes, such as coronary artery disease and hypertension, as well as mental health and substance abuse. Burnout impacts attitudes at work as well, Valcour notes, creating a heightened sense of cynicism, exhaustion, and inefficacy.
One major problem with burnout is that it is difficult to muster the energy to recharge once we reach low ebb. When I speak with professionals on overload, they usually can only think of one solution to their problem: taking time off. That often doesn’t sound like a great option, because it means coming back to work that has accumulated!
A unique framework I have found helpful in work with professionals in demanding fields is viewing psychological challenges as a function of our relationship with ourselves. In other words, every emotional difficulty can be viewed as a relationship problem: it is something we do, not simply something we have. Thus, as cognitive therapists note, depression is often a function of how we talk to ourselves and treat ourselves. Burnout can result from how we manage our productive lives; it’s a failure of self-management.
A simple question that I ask people on overload is, “Suppose you had an employee that you supervised and you assigned that person the same tasks and expectations that you demand of yourself each day. How do you think that would work out?” Almost to a person, the reply is that the situation wouldn’t work out. A common reply is, “I would never do that to someone working for me!” Just as the self-critical, perfectionistic anxious person would never dream of talking to a best friend that way, the burned out professional would never supervise a valued employee the way that they manage themselves.
Viewing psychological challenges as relationship issues—issues in our relationships with ourselves—opens the door to fresh solutions. Many times, we have all the skills we need to deal with challenges constructively; we just have difficulty recruiting those skills in our own self-care. With a valued employee, we can recruit empathy and a concern for productivity—and retention. We would make sure that employee has enough time for activities that create heightened experiences of energy, closeness with others, fun, and fulfillment. Simply taking time off may reduce work burdens, but does not in itself recharge emotional batteries. To give ourselves the time and space to recharge, we need to become a different kind of self-manager: the kind we know how to be with someone we deeply care about. As Zaria Gorvett noted in an overview of burnout for BBC, an important antidote to burnout is being kind to ourselves.
It is difficult for burned out professionals to recognize that more time devoted to the right kind of energizing non-work actually yields greater productivity. In an enriched state, we find more efficient ways of getting things done and we get more done per unit of time. Recognizing that personal renewal is essential for sustained productivity opens the door to doubling down on caring about ourselves as a way of handling redoubled work loads. Each of us in a workplace is a manager: a self-manager. Cultivating our self-management skills enables us to perform at our best by being at our best.