Burned Out: Strategies to Reduce Hours and Extinguish Stress

A situation I get approached with often is a leader who is tired and exhausted from working too many hours.  Having too much on your plate can be overwhelming and make it difficult to even find time to figure out how to get to a better place.  Sometimes this state of burnout can lead to leaders spending extended time in the victim loop and complaining about their job.  It’s imperative that we recognize this is not healthy and we need to make change to live a less stressful and more fulfilling life.  This has happened to me personally so most of these scenarios and tactics are actual ones I’ve lived through.  Can you relate to any of these scenarios that lead to feeling stressed and burned out?

  • You worked a lot of hours early on with your employer and feel you set a precedent and are now afraid to take the time you need to spend with your loved ones? 
  • The long hours started with a specific project and never went back to “normal”? 
  • Your overall team project load has increased over time, yet no one has been added to the team.
  • You are a self perscribed workaholic and it is finally catching up with you.

We all must work extra hours from time to time but if it goes on too long, it takes a toll on us both mentally and physically.  Once you recognize the unhealthy habit, it is time to take action to get to a less stressful position long term.  Here are some things to think about in making a change.

Step 1 – Identify the actual problem. Let’s break down the process to make a change for good in all these scenarios.  The good news is that the symptom has been identified – working too many hours.  Now the more challenging part begins, identifying the actual problem.  It’s time to have a vital conversation with yourself (you read that right) to determine what needs to change.  Here are a few scenarios to get the problem identifying juices flowing…

  • Does all the work you do add value?  Is there a point of diminishing returns where you could quit doing some things and no one would even notice? 
  • Are you being too much of a perfectionist?  Could paralysis by analysis be wasting valuable hours without much additional impact or accuracy? 
  • If all the work is necessary, the remaining problem is too much work for too few people.  Can you separate out the tasks you’re doing so that some of them could be handed off to someone else?  Do you have someone in mind (a direct report or maybe a peer) to hand them off to that makes sense as part of their role?  Is a new headcount needed to relieve this problem?

Now that we know the symptoms and the problem that needs to be solved we’re ready to move on to step two.

Step 2 – Make a plan. Based on your scenario, identify who can help and what you need to say.  In some cases, you may just need to STOP DOING some things in order to bring the stress level down.  In others, you may need to have a conversation with your boss or a peer about helping to take something off your plate.  If you need to have a vital conversation to extinguish burnout, you must prepare ahead of time.  Think about what you really need.  I encourage you to capture on paper your proposed solutions.  This might look like an inventory of who does what currently and a proposal to shift specific responsibilities.  If you believe a new hire is needed, draw out the current organizational structure (including you) and a proposed one with exactly what the new person would do and what your remaining responsibilities will be.  You could take it even further and prepare new job descriptions if that makes sense.  Lastly, think about how this new proposal will benefit the company.  For example, if a new headcount is to be added with additional salary, how will the person speed up business processes or possibly even save the company money?  Take some time to be strategic and document the plan to be ready to share.  Taking this time to think like your boss won’t go unnoticed and is worth it in getting to a less stressful place.

Step 3 – Share your plan through a vital conversation. Now that you have an idea on paper to refer to it’s time to prepare for the conversation.  Follow the vital conversations framework.  Here is an example to get started:

  1. Ask for a time to meet that is good for both of you.  If at all possible, have the meeting face to face or through video conference so nothing is lost from expressions and body language.  Prior to the meeting, try to clear your head of any negative thoughts and open your mind to the idea that the person on the other end will receive your proposal well and say yes.  Your preparation and showing initiative to not only bring a problem but also the solution will impress them. 
  2. Start the meeting connecting with them and asking how they are.  Then start to share why you asked for the meeting.  It might sound like, “I’ve been feeling overwhelmed lately and I need some help to make a change.  I have an idea that I’d like to share.  Are you open to that?”  The person will most likely say yes as you haven’t really asked them for anything yet, but having them say “yes” here is a good way to start them in the right direction and to gain buy in.  Continue with sharing your plan including any changes you’ve already made to improve the situation.  Share how the proposal will benefit the company to make the change. 
  3. End your proposal with an open-ended question like…What do you think?  What ideas do you have to build on this? 
  4. It is time to stop talking and start listening.  Truly listen and do not think about your next response.  Be ok with the awkward silence. 
  5. After listening, discuss options going forward including what each of you are going to do and by when. 
  6. Do what you said you’re going to do and follow up with the other person if needed.

Hopefully this process leads to a positive change for you including reduced stress and elimination of burn out.  I realize this may not always be the case and the receiver may not be willing to change.  If you do not receive the support you feel you need to be happy at work and home, you have two choices.  The first option is to stay with the company with the risk of continued feelings of stress and burn out.  Now that you’ve been courageous and shared what it will take for you to be less stressed and happy, your second choice is to start looking for another opportunity that will hopefully be a better fit.  This is a big step and not one without stress, however in my experience it has been worth it in the long run.  I have also found that getting the guilt of leaving out of the way by telling your boss and others in the organization exactly what you need makes the leaving part a little easier.  They shouldn’t be surprised when you turn in your notice.  This may sound harsh but at the end of the day, the only person who can change your situation is you – either through vital conversations or being courageous enough to recognize when it’s time to move on.

Please share this with anyone in your network who may be going through this right now, especially during the pandemic. Stress and mental health are key issues. If you have any personal situations and tips to share that might help others, please share in the comments. Thank you for reading!

~Natalie

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