The Red Flags I Missed on Workplace Burnout

Posted on November 30, 2021

allyson quote

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Allyson Watson Brunette. Connect with her on LinkedIn

  • What I’m Reading: The Art of the Start 2.0 by Guy Kawasaki, You’ve Got This: The Life-changing Power of Trusting Yourself by Margie Wardell 
  • What I’m Listening To:  10% Happier Podcast with Dan Harris, The Healthier Together Podcast with Liz Moody
  • What I’m Watching: Every single Hallmark/Lifetime holiday movie I can possibly binge

I signed up to write this piece while I was still working in local government. I’ve spent much of the last decade in community development, with municipal, county, and non-profit agencies. In October of this year, I quit my job in local government (without a new job lined up at the time) because I had reached a point of complete burnout

I’m here to talk candidly about the red flags I missed that would lead to my eventual burnout. I’m also going to share a bit about the boundaries I’m setting for myself moving forward.

Is it burnout or just a bad day?

Burnout is becoming a bit of an overused buzzword, but it is in fact a specific type of stress with physical and emotional ramifications. The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity

We all have bad days, but burnout is a prolonged state of stress that can manifest in physical or emotional symptoms, such as:

  • Cynicism at work
  • Irritability with clients and/or colleagues
  • Lack of energy for consistent productivity
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Abuse of food, drug or alcohol
  • Sleep habits changing
  • Unexplained headaches, bowel or stomach problems

A red flag I missed: my sleep habits were wildly erratic. Some nights I’d go to bed at 8:00 PM out of sheer exhaustion, other nights I’d be wide awake (thinking about work, of course) from 1:00-4:00 AM, leading to complete grogginess in the morning, which is usually my productivity power hour. 

A red flag I missed: My growing inability to evaluate the gravity of a situation in real-time was alarming. I took every poorly worded email as a personal slight. I cried in my coworker’s office after receiving an email asking for a status update on a grant because I was unable to discern “are they truly just asking for an update?” or “are they pushing me to get something done faster?” That was the point where I realized I’m so overwhelmed I can barely function.

A red flag I missed: I had a complete lack of energy to do the things I normally enjoy. I love cooking (it’s my absolute favorite way to unwind) and I love spending time with my dog. I remember distinctly a low point where I curled up on the couch one evening in a funk because I had absolutely no energy to cook or eat anything and couldn’t even wrap my head around taking a walk around the block with my dog. This didn’t happen just once – but for consecutive days in a row. 

What causes workplace burnout?

Burnout is unlikely to manifest out of the blue, it can be tied to cultural facets of a workplace or functional elements of your role. If you know what to look for, you can see where burnout may eventually arise.

Harvard Business Review notes six specific causes of workplace burnout:

  • Your workload is mismatched to your capacity
  • A lack of control (perceived or actual lack of resources, autonomy or having a say in decisions)
  • Not finding reward or value in your work
  • The morale within your organization
  • Inequity within the organization
  • Values misalignment between yourself and your organization

A red flag I missed: Our team had been down at least 1 FTE for 18 consecutive months. In that timeframe, we had seen three retirements, three new employees onboarded, and the transition of some services from in-house to contract. The rapid change and persistent workforce gaps meant that at any given time our team was working beyond their functional capacity. In retrospect, it’s a miracle we stayed afloat. In times of high stress and crisis, I was asking myself “how will I get this all done?” instead of asking myself, “what do I have the capacity to get done?”. To be clear, leadership never said, “you have to get this all done, no matter what”, but because I wasn’t receiving clear prioritization or direction, I felt that I needed to get everything done. It was poor communication met with poor interpretation.

What could I have done differently?

I’m realizing now, several months after the fact and after some serious self-reflection, that my burnout didn’t have to metastasize in the way that it did. A few things I could have done (easier said than done, honestly) to prevent things ending as they did include:

    • Realize that my value is not solely tied to productivity. I am at my core an achiever. My focus + discipline makes me highly productive, but like all humans, I have my limits. I am not a machine, after all. Striving for hyper-productivity, 24/7, with or without adequate resources is unrealistic and unhealthy.
    • Ask for help. I pride myself on asking my colleagues often if I can help them. We used to have a weekly team huddle each Wednesday where the theme of the meeting was “how can we help each other?”. But while I’m excellent at offering my own help, I’m really bad at vocalizing the help that I need. It has to be forced on me. There were about a thousand points in the last year and a half where I should have said, “I can’t do this by myself, can someone please take something off my plate?”.
  • Not dismiss a values misalignment. I realized fairly quickly post-March 2020 that my personal values weren’t aligning with the cultural values of my organization on some key issues that took center stage in public discourse over the last year and a half. Wanting to work in a place where your values are shared by leadership is not silly – it makes sense. We spend a significant portion of our lives at work – if you feel the need to hide or quiet your values in your workplace because of a mismatch, it will inevitably weigh on you. 

How I’m working to avoid serial burnout in the future

During my sabbatical, I decided to not return to traditional employment, but rather to start my own consulting company. A big reason for this is that I want to establish my own culture and workplace boundaries. Part of doing this has been establishing my “rules” for my company (how I can be my own best boss). Here are my three rules:

  • I work to live, but I don’t live to work. (I consistently put out a quality product to grow my network for future referrals).
  • I am my authentic self each day, and I find ways to prioritize my passions. (I prioritize daily movement, spending time outdoors, cooking, and being with my husband and our dog).
  • My role is to teach and lead others in my area of expertise. (This one is super important for me – my work and my value are not tied to recognition, rewards or project implementation by others).

The weight I felt lift off my shoulders when I left my job confirmed what I’d known in my gut for a year and a half – that it was time for me to move to my next chapter. If your instincts are telling you something and you ignore it, your physical health will eventually tell you in a way that you can’t ignore. Listen to those persistent voices inside of you.

Hang in there, local gov friends. The work you do is important. But your mental and physical well-being are more important. You can’t take care of the business of governing if you aren’t first taking care of yourself. 

Close window