A New Way to Work

Success and change without burnout by Dr. Geri Puleo

Archive for the tag “working hard”

The Instant De-Stresser You Can Do at Your Desk

Breathe etched on stone heart

Breathing is natural.  It’s part of our autonomic nervous system, so we don’t even have to think about it.  But maybe we should consciously focus on our breathing in order to avoid stress and burnout.

Anxiety and stress have interesting effects on the breath.  Since breathing is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, changes in breath will occur automatically without our control.  For example, do you consciously instruct your body to breathe faster when your “fight or flight” response is triggered?  How about if you’re frightened – do you tell yourself to “hold your breath?”

Stress triggers the release of hundreds of different chemicals to surge through your body.  These chemicals create changes in the way that your body is operating so that you are better able to respond to the stressor.

A few years ago, I was co-presenting a workshop on using yoga to avoid workplace burnout.  One of the exercises that I asked participants to do was to take a deep breath.

Sounds easy, right?  But I was amazed at how many people don’t really know how to breathe.

Deep breathing involves using your diaphragm (a muscle located horizontally between your thoracic and abdominal cavities).  As a result, your waist expands out sideways while your lower pelvic belly moves down and out.  This allows you to support your breath – which is why it is the foundation of good singing.

But in the workshop, many of the participant inhaled loudly, scrunched up their shoulders, puffed out their chests…then held their breath.  This is a classic example of shallow breathing.

The Dangers of Shallow Breathing

While deep diaphragmatic breathing can calm you, shallow breathing tends to increase stress and anxiety on a physical level.  One study even indicated that simply changing to a shallow breathing pattern can actually trigger feelings of stress and anxiety (Plarre, Raij, et cl., 2011).

Shallow breathing (or “overbreathing”) is triggered by the “fight or flight” response to a perceived danger.  Even though you may feel like you’re not getting enough oxygen, these short rapid breaths are actually getting too much oxygen into your system.

Let me explain:  The act of breathing enables you to inhale oxygen (which fills your lungs immediately) and exhale carbon dioxide (which takes more time for your body to develop).  This delicate balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide goes out of whack when you’re stressed.

Overbreathing pushes out large levels of carbon dioxide – more carbon dioxide than your body is actually producing.  Because your levels are now lower than normal, your blood’s pH level is increased – which constricts your blood vessels and reduces blood flow to your brain.  As a result, it’s taking longer to bring oxygen to where it’s needed.

Which leads to feelings of needing more oxygen NOW – even though your oxygen levels are probably normal!  This rapid breathing makes you feel worse.  The cure is to slow down your breathing in order to get back in balance (literally and figuratively).

The effects of shallow breathing include:  chest pains, light-headedness, weakness, tingling in the hands/feet/lips, feeling feint, and a rapid heart beat.  If continued for a prolonged period of time, shallow breathing can also contribute to panic attacks.

If left unchecked, shallow breathing can become your accustomed way to breathe – in extreme cases, your body may eventually forget how to breathe in a healthy way.

Re-Learning How to Breathe

Remember those workshop participants who didn’t know how to breathe deeply?  I used a few very simple techniques to help them reconnect with their breath and reduce their stress levels:

Tip #1:  Focus on feeling your breath fill up your belly.  Many of us tend to keep our abdomens tight.  Maybe it’s a conscious effort to look like we have flatter abs.  But it might also be an unconscious physical response to stress.

Tip #2:  Relax your mouth and tongue.  Seriously.  It’s a simple technique that can automatically relax you.  Stress causes many people to tense their jaws, grit their teeth, or even use their tongues to reduce air flow.  Open your mouth slightly and relax – you’ll quickly learn where you are holding your tension.

Tip #3:  Count while you breathe.  One of the most effective techniques that I’ve used to quiet the mind and trigger a sense of calm is to breathe as follows:

  • Before you begin, commit to simply following the flow of breath – inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale.
  • To begin, inhale for 1 count; then exhale for 2 counts.
  • Inhale for 3 counts; then exhale for 4 counts.
  • Inhale for 5 counts; then exhale for 6 counts.
  • Inhale for 7 counts; then exhale for 8 counts.
  • Inhale for 9 counts; then exhale for 10 counts.
  • Repeat.

The speed of your counting doesn’t seem to matter; I’ve done it relatively quickly or quite slowly.  Nor is the number of times that you repeat this process set in stone – it really depends on the sense of calm that you experience; generally, I feel much less stressed after 3 or 4 repetitions.

What’s critical is to let your inhalations fully extend down into your diaphragm so that you are breathing deeply.

Tip #4:  Feel with gratitude the life force inherent in your breath.  No, the chi (or qi) life force is not some “New Age-y” psychobabble – it’s just a simple fact:  breath is life.  Consciously taking a moment of simple gratitude for life itself also helps to keep things in perspective and reduce stress.

Breathing can be an instant de-stresser.  It can be done anywhere – in fact, you will be breathing everywhere!  To de-stress, simply take a few moments to focus on the breath and be grateful for its life-giving force.

For more tips on diaphragmatic breathing, check out this 2-minute YouTube video:   https://youtu.be/6UO4PYZ6G98.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout:  Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com


Give Thanks at Work, Too

2017-11-22 - Gratitude - not expressing is gift not given

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning company focused on techniques to eliminate the 5 workplace stressors that create and sustain burnout:  Job Change, Organizational Change, Work-Life Imbalance, Poor Leadership and Management, and Ineffective Human Resources.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, author, blogger, career coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action,” watch her TEDx Talk on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFkI69zJzLI.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

TEDx Presentation: Burnout, PTSD, and ADAAA

TEDx Seton Hill StageIt’s been a month since my last blog post – but the reason for this delay was an exciting one.  I was given the opportunity to present at a TEDx event on February 19, 2014.  My topic?  Burnout and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder:  More Similar Than You Think…  Don’t panic – this wasn’t a dry, medical-based presentation!

Over the past 14 years, I’ve been researching and analyzing just what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  One of the most shocking discoveries was that burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are frighteningly similar.

“Look – I’m like shaking!  It still like hits me.”  It’s an interesting story how I first made the connection between burnout and PTSD – in fact, it was really the observation of one of the interviewees in my research.  This woman was an experienced, articulate executive at a nonprofit organization.  As we continued to delve into her burnout experience, she began to have a very difficult time putting her thoughts together and was actually shaking as she described her burnout.

After taking a brief break in the interview, she laughingly compared how she felt with PTSD.  Her emotions were still raw and she was actually reliving the experience during the worst stages of her burnout.

The scary thing was that she had left the organization in which she had burned out 20 months prior to our interview.

The similarities between burnout and PTSD.  As I delved more into PTSD, I was shocked at its similarities to the burnout symptoms that my participants had identified.  Although commonly observed in soldiers’ war-time experiences, my participants’ experiences with very poorly led organizational change initiatives created the same reactions:  extreme stress, frustration, fear, and hopelessness.  Not only were these  the same characteristics, but the extent to which these symptoms were experienced was nearly identical.

Burnout v PTSD

Enter the new amendments to the ADA (ADAAA).  To the best of my knowledge, burnout has not yet been classified as a form of PTSD.  But I am hoping that this will soon change.  Under the recent amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADAAA), PTSD is now recognized as a physical disability AND employers must provide reasonable accommodations.

In other words, employers must not only be more understanding of the symptoms of this condition, but must also find ways to adapt the work environment or work schedule in order to ensure that the employee with PTSD can perform the duties and responsibilities of the job.  (NOTE:  Reasonable accommodations are just that – reasonable adjustments that enable a qualified employee to be able to complete the duties and responsibilities of the job.)

If burnout would be considered as a form of PTSD, then the protections afforded to workers under ADAAA would be triggered.

Just think what it would mean if employers were required by law to acknowledge the presence of employee burnout AND provide adjustments to the employee’s work environment:

  • Additional time would be provided for projects – in fact, it would mean that unreasonable time frames might be abandoned.
  • Vacations would be encouraged – employees would actually use their time off and disconnect from the workplace without fear of reprisal.
  • Stress-invoking situations would be identified and avoided or mitigated – this would be a major shift from” management by control” to “leadership by inspiration.”
  • The 24/7, 110% mentality would be overturned – employers would need to remember the “humanity” in their human resources.

But isn’t burnout a “natural” part of the modern workplace?  Some of you might be laughing at this point:  after all, isn’t burnout a “given” in today’s hypercompetitive, 24/7 world?

Even though burnout is in epidemic proportions in the workforce, I firmly believe that it is not a “given” and unavoidable workplace condition.  The physical and psychological manifestations of burnout have far-reaching consequences and cannot be denied.  Neither can their eerie similarity with the symptoms of PTSD.

Just as important is the fact that a burned out workforce tends to be an indicator of the overall health and well-being of the organization itself.  Companies with burned out workers tend to experience high turnover, productivity issues, customer complaints, and a reactive (“me too!”) attitude toward innovation.

Burnout, therefore, is not just the problem of a single employee.  It is a powerful indicator of a company that is in trouble.

We human beings are not replaceable robots with on/off switches.  We have an incredible capacity for commitment and creativity – but we also have the very real need for respite and recognition.  We simply aren’t wired to give 110% 24/7 indefinitely.  Let’s hope that the ADAAA will remind employers of this.  Let’s further hope that companies start putting the “human” back in human resources.

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is a change management and HR consultant.  A popular speaker at regional and national conferences, she can be reached at gpuleo@ChangeWithoutBurnout.com.  

10 Ways Organizations Create Burnout: An Overview

It has been well documented that 70% of change initiatives fail.  While numerous reasons exist for these failures, I am convinced that it is primarily because many of the employees – whether they are change leaders or change “targets” – are frustrated, angry, apathetic, and burned out.

While many managers believe that it is the employee’s fault that he/she is burned out, there is an increasing body of research that argues the important role that organizations play in the creation and continuation of burnout.  My own research over the past 12 years supports this conclusion.  Too often, we focus on the individual when we should also be focusing on the environment in which that individual must work.

My Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short) found that employees who burn out tend to go through a series of stages.  They move from feeling hopeful about the changes to eventually becoming frustrated.  Because they are thwarted in their attempts to do their jobs, they then become angry.  In order to control their anger and gain some control over what is happening, they revert into apathy.  But this lack of caring only builds the stress because it contradicts their normal way of working.  Eventually feelings escalate into the über stress known as “burnout.”

As I mentioned last week in Warning Symptoms of Burnout:  6 Symptoms That I Didn’t Ignore, burnout continues because each time you try to deal with your physical and emotional symptoms, something happens in the organization that adds fuel to the fire.  Thus, burnout continues to sizzle until – as one of my participants so aptly described it – you become “crispy.”

So what are these organizational factors that all but guarantee that workers will burn out?  What takes an employee from a hopeful contributor to an apathetic, burned out shell?

BDOC - Organizational Factors

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

Out of the 10 factors in this figure, how do you think that they rank in their ability to cause or maintain employee burnout?  Take a minute and rank them based on your own observations or experiences.

Did you think that it was workload?  That’s what I originally thought – so the results of my research were not only surprising, but also quite enlightening.

Based on the frequency of organizational factors that contributed to employee burnout, this is the Top 10 List of Organizational Factors Leading to Burnout: 

1.       Poor leadership:  The #1 mistake that companies make when trying to introduce organizational change is having inadequate change leaders – particularly when they provide little support and simply tell employees to “make it happen” regardless of the emotional and physical cost.

2.       Lack of caring by the organization:  When the poor leadership is pervasive, burned out workers tend to believe that the organization as a whole neither acknowledges nor helps them to deal with the stressful changes occurring around them.  The psychological contract binding employee and employer begins to unravel, leading to frustration, anger, apathy, and burnout.

3.       Role of other employees:  Negativity by coworkers tends to spread like a virus throughout the workplace – it can even minimize the good relationships and camaraderie that you have with a few close colleagues.

4.       Politics or sabotage:  Experienced by over 50% of the participants in my study, burnout often occurs when actions by the organization are perceived as deceitful or giving unfair or preferential treatment – add malicious gossip throughout the organization and you have a “perfect storm” for burnout.

5.       Lack of organizational resources:  Surprisingly, this was more acutely felt by the change targets rather than the change leaders – so what does this tell you about the importance of front line managers in creating and sustaining organizational change?  It’s also related to poor leadership and a perceived lack of organizational caring.

6.       Over-emphasis on return on investment (ROI):  Those infamous cutbacks to reduce expenses in order to bolster the bottom line – closely related to perceptions of the organization’s lack of caring (#2 above).

7.       Work overload:  Are you surprised that this came in near the bottom?  Remember, most people who burn out during organizational change started out with high hopes – they were known as the “can do” workers before they burned out.  Many initially refuse to admit just how much work they are required to complete until they realize that they’ve burned out.

8.       Poor communication:  This was a huge stress inducer for women, but over 64% of my participants (male and female) just wanted to know WHY and HOW the changes were going to take place.  “Surprises” were generally viewed negatively.

9.       Unethical or illegal requests:  Since many organizational changes are reactions to decreased share in the marketplace, requests to “cut corners” in ways that don’t align with employees’ sense of values are far too common – even if civil or criminal penalties could result.

10.   No vision or direction by change leaders:  Despite the constant reminders by change management consultants, over 35% of workers who burned out during organizational change were uncertain about both the end goal and the way to achieve it.  There is no light at the end of the tunnel – or, if there is, it might be a train coming our way!

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing my own personal experience with each of these organizational mistakes that were made during the change initiative at a university where I had started teaching full-time.  It was fascinating – although extremely stressful to experience – how each of these errors built upon and reinforced each other.  Recovering from burnout required that I not only identified what was happening, but also developed reasons as to why a company would make these mistakes.  As I’ve said before, I thought it was a job, but the experience turned out to be research.

Warning Signs of Burnout: 6 Symptoms That I Didn’t Ignore

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I inadvertently became a participant or statistic in my on-going research into what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  The situation:  I was a new full-time faculty member at a university that was attempting to transform itself and I had no control over the constantly changing expectations that were being demanded of me.

Last week I posted my Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short).  Unlike most participants whom I interviewed as part of my research, I did not “suddenly” realize that something was very wrong.  Instead, I was acutely aware that I was exhibiting some of the various symptoms (or warning signs) of burnout.  These are the Top 6 symptoms that can occur at any stage in the cycle — from frustration and anger to a full burnout:

BDOC - Manifestations-Warning Signs

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

Like most people who burned out, I displayed all of these symptoms at one point or another during my descent into burnout.  It’s fortunate that I experienced them in varying degrees and at different times — otherwise I would have been totally incapacitated if all of these symptoms were simultaneously present!  (Warning:  When all 6 burnout symptoms are present in a high degree, people literally shut down as a form of self-preservation.)

  1. Decreased accomplishment.  I’ll admit it:  I’m an over-achiever and I’ve always loved what I do.  I had earned accolades for my teaching when I was an adjunct at this university, yet I was put on a performance improvement plan as soon as I was hired for not meeting requirements that I knew absolutely nothing about.  (Lack of knowledge was not considered to be a defense.)  Even though I was still getting positive feedback from students, it was taking me longer to get things done (probably due to second-guessing myself) and I was not permitted to be creative in order to make sure that my students grasped the material.  (Warning:  50% of my participants were disciplined when they were burned out based on their inability to meet known or even unknown performance standards.)
  2. Physical.  Because I was literally working 7 days per week to teach +100 students each quarter, I was exhausted.  I did not have a day off for over a year.  While some burned out workers sleep all the time, others (like me) wake up every 1-2 hours, every night, for weeks (even months) on end.  It wasn’t surprising that I was diagnosed with a very bad case of swine flu (yep, swine flu) that lasted over one month – and I was still working 7 days per week!  (Warning:  A study by Taris, Geurts, et al., 2008, found that working long hours will not necessarily trigger health problems unless the individual is unable to detach from work.)
  3. Transfer to personal life.  I just wasn’t “me” any more – and I knew it.  I’ve always cared passionately about what I do and I’ve always had high (but achievable) goals and standards.  Conversations with friends turned into gripe sessions about work.  I had become boring and felt like a cog in a wheel.  Positive goals and an easy sense of humor were replaced with frustration, anger, and a sense of futility.  (Warning:  Losing your sense of humor is a very common symptom of burnout and was seen in over 50% of the participants in my research.)
  4. Grief and loss.  After finishing my Ph.D., I was excited to move from an adjunct to full-time faculty role and had high hopes for my ability to contribute to enhancing the students’ experience at the university.  Instead, I was micromanaged and I hated losing the sense of control over my own life.  I was warned to not “rock the boat.”  In other words, do what I was told and quit caring about the quality; if not, I would be another former employee.  Since I have always owned my own consulting practice, fear of job loss was a new feeling for me.  (Warning:  Fear of job loss is more common in women who are burning out than men – 70% compared to only 20%.)
  5. Psychological.  “Just do it” was not an inspirational Nike slogan, but was a warning to do what was asked without question – or risk losing your job.  Plus there was intense micromanaging of every nuance in teaching.  Eventually I was forced to take actions that I felt were not only not in the best interests of my students, but also conflicted with my value system.  (Warning:  Surface acting requires the individual to deny their authentic feelings and is a common symptom of burnout.)
  6. Alienation or isolation.  This is probably the toughest part for anyone who has ever burned out.  My colleagues had given up on trying to make things better and, because they no longer cared, advised me to also quit caring.  The problem was that I did care.  Going through the motions, putting on a noticeably fake smile, or feigning concern about the student’s welfare were actions that violated my core values.  Because I didn’t fit in, my only recourse was to psychologically withdraw.  (Warning:  64.3% of burned out workers report feeling alienated or isolated during organizational change.)

You’re probably wondering why I just didn’t stop the downward spiral into burnout.  This is where I became a participant in my own study:  I discovered the powerful potency of the interplay between an individual’s personality, the organizational environment, and physiological manifestations of burnout.  As you attempt to resolve one area of this Burnout Triumvirate, another area surges in urgency and causes you to continually redirect your focus.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be discussing specific things that organizations do to create and maintain burnout in their employees during organizational change.

© 2014 G. A. Puleo

Spiraling Downward: The Path to Burnout During Organizational Change

As I mentioned last week, I inadvertently became a case study over the last year in my on-going research into what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  Even though I had worked as an adjunct prior to accepting a full-time faculty position at this university, I was unprepared for the radical difference in expectations required to teach there.  Coupled with constantly changing requirements and standards set by the university, I felt like I had absolutely no control over what I taught, how I taught, or even where I taught.

As a high achiever, I consequently have high standards – but these standards could not be met even by working 7 days a week, 50-60 hours per week, and constantly thinking about what still had to be done even when I wasn’t working.  Is it any surprise that I felt burned out?

In 2011, based on extensive research and interviews with burned out workers, I created the Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC ,for short) to help understand what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change.  This is what burnout “looks like” – and I proved it in my own experience:

BDOC Model

© 2011 G. A. Puleo, all rights reserved

As you can see from this model, the path to burnout tends to be much steeper and quicker than the journey to overcome it.  Although nobody takes a job with the intention of burning out, workers who burn out during organizational change initiatives tend to follow this same pattern.

  • Ironically, burnout begins with hope.  It’s a new job, a new adventure, and a chance to learn new things.  But, probably more than anything else, the job is often seen as a chance to make a difference.
  • I found both in my research and my own experience that a variety of organizational factors leads to frustration in what were originally hopeful and committed workers.  (More about these specific organizational factors in a later post.)
  • As the environment continues to undermine or thwart the employee’s actions to do their jobs well, it’s not surprising that anger (either expressed or internalized) emerges.
  • Since being angry is not a good way to live your life, my participants and I both eventually quit caring – but apathy is the immediate predecessor to burnout.  In many ways, no longer caring was literally the only way to survive the stress.
  • The culmination of this downward spiral is burnout.  No matter how burnout was defined by those who experienced it, the results were the same:  the initial hope was extinguished and all that was left were the burnt embers of what was once a committed employee.

How long did this descent take?  About 6 months for change targets like me.  (Since I was a new full-time faculty member, I was not part of the leadership that was planning and directing the continuous changes.)

To overcome the burnout and arise from its smoldering ashes, the #1 strategy used by my participants as well as me was to psychologically remove ourselves from the stressful environment.  We still came to work, we still did our jobs, but we no longer cared passionately about meeting the unreasonable expectations or going the extra mile (because our efforts were not appreciated).

For most of, psychological removal was followed by attempts to physically remove themselves from the workplace.  In my case, a reduction in force changed my status to adjunct – a lot less classes, but a lot less pay.  According to my research, nearly all of my participants (over 90%) eventually left their employers as a result of their burnout (either voluntarily or involuntarily).

These psychological and physical removals represent the darkness before the dawn.  Many burned out workers acknowledged that once they had removed themselves (either psychologically or physically) from their stressful work situations, self-knowledge and acceptance were the unanticipated “gifts” of their burnout.

CAUTION:  The burnout cycle doesn’t end there.  To fully recover from the effects of burnout requires the creation of a personal revised psychological contract with work.  After burning out, people who have taken the time to acknowledge and accept what happened will draw distinct lines in the sand as to what they will and will not do for an employer.  There is a better understanding of what is essential for one’s success on the job.  Perhaps most importantly, the “deal breakers” have become visceral and this emotional context provides a stalwart determination to never tolerate such treatment in future work situations.

I proved my B-DOC theory in my experience as a full-time faculty member at this university.  However, neither I nor any other worker recovering from burnout is “out of the woods” yet:  any situation can trigger residual burnout in which we can rapidly move back into any of the previous stages of descent (frustration, anger, apathy, and even a new round of burnout).

My goal for this year is to move forward and, by sharing my experiences of burnout during transformational organizational change with you, I hope to give you some ideas to move beyond burnout, too.

I Thought It Was a Job…But It Turned Out to Be Research

Shocked manIt’s been a long time since I posted to this blog.  I had accepted a full-time faculty position shortly after my last post, but never thought that the workload would literally overtake my waking hours.  Even though I have taught business and HR classes at universities for over 12 years and have always loved the experience, this wasn’t anything that I had anticipated.  In fact, I inadvertently proved my theory on what causes and maintains employee burnout during organizational change!

My Burnout During Organizational Change Model (B-DOC, for short) was based on extensive interviewing and research of employees who had burned out when their organizations were attempting to create transformational change.  I found important differences in not only the way in which these workers burned out, but also when they started on burnout’s downward spiral.  These are the 3 basic burnout-creating categories (what I call the Burnout Triumvirate – or Triple Whammy):

  1. The individual’s personality and expectations
  2. Organizational factors that were outside of the employee’s control
  3. The physical malaises that emerged as a result of these high levels of stress

I also discovered that change leaders burned out at a much slower rate than the change targets (those workers who could not control the changes that they were required to make).  Here are the time frames that I found:

  • Change leaders usually felt burned out after approximately 1 to 2 years from the launch of the change initiative.
  • In sharp contrast, the change targets burned out within 6 months of the start of these changes.

That’s a big difference.  Since I was only a faculty member and not in a university leadership position, I too burned out right on schedule at the 6-month mark.

I also found that women tended to burn out much more quickly than men.  Once again, I proved my findings by burning out in less than 6 months.

However, one important finding in my initial research was not supported by my experience:  I did not deny my symptoms.  (My research found that over 35% of workers initially denied that they were beginning to burn out.)  Maybe that’s because I’ve been researching burnout during organizational change for over 10 years…

Fortunately, I am no longer involved with this university as a full-time faculty member.  However, I think that my experience is very important in fully understanding the burnout phenomenon that is (in my humble opinion) taking over American workforces and consequently leading to poor organizational performance.

It is said that writing about your experience is the best way to fully understand it.  If you’ve also been burned out, come with me and follow my journey as I talk about how I descended into and eventually arose from the ashes of burnout. Perhaps I can give you some ideas so that you, too, can once again take control of your life.

Here’s to a GREAT new year!

Meetings: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

OK, I admit it — I hate attending most meetings.

Why?  Because in over 30 years of meetings, I’ve found that there is rarely a set agenda, attendees tend to come minimally prepared and there doesn’t seem to be a defined reason or objective to hold the meeting in the first place.  And most people feel that the meeting takes them away from what they’re supposed to be doing.

Meetings shouldn’t be a necessary evil.  Meetings (either face-to-face or via teleconference or webcasts) can be a great way to brainstorm, keep everybody apprised of what’s going on and monitor progress toward goals.  Just like I believe that we need to find a new way to work, I also believe that we need to find a new way to meet.  So I’ve created my Top 5 list of what I believe makes a great meeting.

#1:  Respect people’s time.  Start when you’re say you’ll start and end when you say you’ll finish.  It’s amazing how time limits help focus attention on the real reason why you’re meeting.

#2:  Do the preliminary work.  When I launched Tri-State SHRM (a local chapter of the Society of Human Resources Management), I had all the Board members submit a 1-page maximum summary of each of their committee’s goals and the progress that they made on those goals in the previous month – and they emailed it to all the members 2 days before the meeting.  One page of bullet points.  Not only was it easy to pull together, but it was also easy for Board members to read – which means that they actually reviewed it before the meeting.

#3:  Don’t rehash what everybody already knows.  Just like it’s bad practice to simply read a PowerPoint slide to an audience, it’s equally bad practice (and, quite frankly, rather insulting) to read your report verbatim in a meeting.  Focus on the highlights.  Consolidate similar activities into one statement; for example, if all the goals have been met on 2 projects, just say that.  Keep it simple.

#4:  Don’t confuse apples and oranges – make the reason for the meeting clear.  Some meetings are progress meetings that summarize what has been accomplished on key projects.  These are the quick status updates – so keep them short.  But before you can have the status updates that focus on efficiency, you have to have a brainstorming and idea building session that determines whether these projects are needed in the first place – in other words, you also have to focus on effectiveness.  Since ideas take time, these can be longer.  The trick is not to confuse these two very different types of meetings.  At Tri-State SHRM, we had a quarterly idea session that was face-to-face (usually over breakfast or lunch – which was great for teambuilding, by the way) that was supplemented with monthly status updates via teleconferences in-between.

#5:  Everybody doesn’t have to be at every meeting.  Only invite those people to the meeting who have something substantial to contribute or will be affected by the results.  I was once asked to drive 5 hours to attend an all-day meeting – where my “contribution” was a 10-minute PowerPoint.  I refused to attend and instead was conference called into the meeting.  Since all the attendees already had my PowerPoint handout, I simply needed to summarize and answer any questions that they might have.  Not only would it have been costly to the client to have me attend in person, but it was also a waste of time, effectiveness and efficiency.

Working Hard, Working Smart and Not Working

We’ve all heard about the importance of working hard and how it manifests into a strong work ethic.  We’ve also been advised to use technology to help us work smart by prioritizing and multitasking our activities.  This focus on work is what creates success.  But we’ve never been told to stop working.

In the American workplace, working long hours is a badge of honor – even though many of us are cranky, burned out and (if we’re honest with ourselves) not really living up to our full potential.  Yet we continue because the Puritan work ethic on which our country was founded persistently pervades our ideas about what it means to be a “good” worker.

Asian spiritualities advise that hard work (or forceful determination) should be balanced with not working (or surrendering) in order to recoup our energies.  Why do we continue to ignore this healthier approach to life and work?

Like many people, even when I wasn’t technically working, I continued to think about work and strategies, clients and marketing, profits and expenses.  Because I never really stopped thinking about work, I never really permitted myself the joy and rejuvenating power of totally letting work go.  Isn’t that what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?

When I was forced into quiet reflection due to the surgeries and recovery for a detached retina, I really started to question the silent but pervasive nagging that success requires a 24/7 commitment to working hard and working smart.  This tunnel vision mislabeled as “focus” was (or so I had been told) the path to success.

I know now that instead this can be the path to dissatisfaction, unhappiness, lack of clarity and physical and psychological dis-ease.

In response to these insights, I made a concentrated effort to be mindful and present in each moment.  No small task!  But I no longer try to multitask – not only do I now find it to be rude, but I also believe that it actually reduces efficiency and efficacy.  I no longer finish a task without a mini-celebration before I move on to the next one.  I am no longer a slave to the hardened task master of my thoughts that constantly pushed me to do more.

The results have been remarkable.  Working less hours, I am accomplishing more.  Taking time each day for myself without guilt, I have unleashed a new sense of joy in whatever I am doing.  I am more creative, more focused and a lot less stressed.

The 1980’s mantra of “work hard, play hard” needs to be replaced with “work hard, work smart, then don’t work!”

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