Leaders must engage in burnout prevention strategies that alleviate overburdened employees, reduce the number of meetings, encourage PTO, and promote flexible hours.
2020 presented significant challenges for us all, but I hardly expected working remotely to be an obstacle. After all, as a marketer in the AEC industry, the majority of my work has always been done from my laptop, and my position had long called for collaboration with teams in other offices across multiple states. In many respects, COVID-19 presented minimal changes to my job.
Yet, as stay-at-home restrictions persisted, my working hours expanded. It was summer before I realized my regular office hours had somehow extended an hour. It was fall before my spouse pointed out that I was checking my email after dinner.
Like many things, the issue proved easier to confront in others. When a colleague expressed guilt at signing offline on time, I reassured her that separation between her work and home life was healthy. When she mentioned a new pressure to work later now that her team was remote, I declared her continued productivity dependent on establishing a firm work-life balance.
My contradictions became too obvious to ignore in early 2021 when I found myself flipping through recent timecards. I noticed that I prided myself on the many weeks where I clocked 50 or more hours. Unthinkingly, I had begun to romanticize overwork, equating it to professional success and worth. Keeping standard hours meant I wasn’t making the personal sacrifices necessary to achieve success. It mattered little that my work was done and done well.
Understandably, this added stress took its toll. I found myself more irritable at work. I noticed that I wasn’t as creative. Achievements that once would have filled me with a sense of accomplishment felt negligible. Recognizing the dangers of burnout all too late, I posted a sign on my office door: NO ENTRY 7 P.M. TO 7 A.M.
Let’s talk burnout. Burnout is workplace stress that stems from exhaustion and makes it difficult to function and perform. It manifests in cynicism, lack of satisfaction, irritability, decreased motivation, difficulty concentrating, and even in health conditions such as insomnia and depression. The AEC industry is prone to burnout because of constant demands to perform well, unrelenting deadlines, and unmanageable workloads. Simply put, there is always more work to do, more work to win, and high competition for every job. Burnout was exacerbated by COVID-19 because the lines between work and home blurred as we faced unprecedented insecurities.
The Catch-22 of burnout is that overworking eventually makes you less productive, less creative, and detached. It can result in isolation, procrastination, withdrawal, and illness.
Perhaps bigger than burnout itself is our willingness to wear it as a badge of honor. This is the behavior I recognized in my seemingly innocent perusal of timecards. We are enamored by the “grind,” by how much we get done, how long we work, how little we sleep or relax. We are all in a constant competition to work harder than the next person. Moreover, we actually measure our value this way – taking a misplaced pride in our fatigue and fearing nothing more than being perceived as unmotivated.
This isn’t surprising. The stereotype that millennials are particularly unambitious has propelled a reverence of overwork in our young workforce. Combine that trend with an always-on digital world and a global pandemic that transforms kitchen tables into pseudo-offices, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
So, what can we do? Setting healthy boundaries begins at the level of the individual. If you are feeling the effects of burnout, and some estimates hold that more than 80 percent of us are, you need to act fast.
- Establish non-working hours and stick to them
- Separate your home office from the rest of your home, if possible
- Shut down your computer rather than allowing that lingering blue light to entice you after hours
- Remove your work email from your personal mobile device
- Schedule after-work activities, like at-home yoga or movie night, just like you would a work meeting
- Get outside – start by taking a 30-minute walk after work every day
- Set goals unrelated to work and prioritize them – perhaps you want to lose 15 pounds, try a new recipe weekly, or read 20 books this year
- Be transparent about your workload
This final strategy is critical to your well-being because it hints at a larger problem. We cannot solve organizational issues with a bit of self-care. A meditation app and a nutritious meal can only go so far. We must communicate a reasonable workload with our managers and stop wearing our burnout as a badge of honor. Furthermore, firms must adapt at an organizational level to beat burnout and protect their most valuable asset: people.
The responsibility for burnout does not rest on an individual’s shoulders alone. Early in the pandemic, firms failed to adjust workloads. In many, demands increased. As hiring halted, responsibilities expanded and hours climbed. Parents grappled with working from home while caring for children. Employees without children were pressured to stay later, do more. Zoom meetings multiplied. Emails arrived at all hours of the night. And employees, terrified of losing their job in a recession, went into overdrive.
Firms had their own fires to fight. Uncertainty was at an all-time high and profit goals were suddenly unfeasible. Yet, the firm that ignores the realities of burnout will pay for it in low productivity, sinking culture, and turnover. The real leaders of today are those engaging in burnout prevention strategies that alleviate overburdened employees, reduce the number of meetings, encourage paid time off, promote flexible hours, and provide training for empathetic management.
Burnout isn’t something that appeared with COVID-19, but it is amplified by it. The only sustainable solution is one shared by employee and firm with honesty and awareness.
Mercedez Thompson finds and shares a firm’s unique stories to connect with clients and build business. She is a proposal manager at Michael Baker International, where she leads capture planning and proposal development for company strategic opportunities. Before entering the AEC industry, Mercedez taught writing at the University of Nevada and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. She earned her master’s degree in English from Indiana University and her bachelor’s degree in literature from Ohio State University. You can find her on LinkedIn or her blog at simplywritingblog.com.