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Is Your Burnout From Too Much Work or Too Little Impact?

By Liz Wiseman – Best-selling Author, Researcher and Speaker on How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter, Increase Engagement & Drive Growth

Leadership keynote Liz Wiseman Speakers Bureau The Sweeney Agency

If you haven’t felt it personally, you’ve probably heard the news: Workers are working more hours, they’re exhausted, burned out, and they’re resigning in droves.

I’ve been there myself. I was working at Oracle Corporation as a vice president for years in a challenging, fulfilling job when I suddenly found myself with a case of burnout. My boss urged me to take three weeks off. His instinct was good — the leisure time with my young family was refreshing. But unfortunately, the effect was ephemeral. Assuming my work was too demanding, I scaled back my responsibilities and reduced my office hours, moving to a four-day week. Yet strangely, my energy level went down, not up.

My job had become routine and perfunctory, even though I held significant management responsibility. I felt like I was turning a crank through bureaucratic sludge. And while my job performance was solid on the surface, on the inside my work felt empty. I stayed in this “easy job” for another year, assuming that a new, more challenging job would prove too consuming and prevent me from having a healthy personal and home life.

I had reconciled myself to low-grade languish until a wise friend, a dean of a medical school and a psychiatrist by training, suggested that being more deeply engaged at work might prove energy-generating, not draining, and that feeling fulfilled would benefit my family as well. I needed my work to be meaningful and impactful.

I resigned from my job and embraced a new challenge — working as a management researcher and executive coach. At times, I worked much longer hours, but I had greater control over my work, and I could see it making a difference. Once again, I was having fun, and work was rewarding. I felt renewed and full of energy, which I brought home every day. Resigning from my job was part of the solution, but the real, and far more sustainable, antidote to burnout was doing work that challenged me and that provided clear value to my clients.

My research studying the most influential people in the workplace, as well as my own experience, has shown me that burnout isn’t necessarily a function of too much work; burnout is more often the result of too little impact. After all, few people aspire to be job holders, but virtually everyone wants to make a difference. Here’s what you can do (regardless of your level in the organization) to increase influence and impact without clocking in more hours.

Reduce the phantom workload.

Our actual workload accounts for only a portion of the burden we experience at work. More than half of respondents in one survey said that their primary source of work-related stress didn’t have to do with their workload; rather, they cited stressors such as people issues, juggling work and personal lives, and lack of job security. Workplace politics and drama create friction, and complex collaborations and endless meetings take up time. Another study found that U.S. employees spend 2.8 hours per week on average dealing with workplace conflicts. These factors constitute a phantom workload and exacerbate burnout.

You can help make work light for yourself and others by eschewing politics and drama, being easy to work with. How?

We all know co-workers who create a tax. They may not actively foment conflict; they simply contribute to the stress by participating in the clatter on the periphery of the actual work and adding to the noise. Then there are the colleagues who provide a time rebate because they are, simply put, easy to work with. The work doesn’t necessarily become easier, but the process of working becomes easier and more enjoyable. They provide lift and foster a light environment that lowers stress and increases the joy of work, both of which reduce burnout. So, find your way to a team of people who make work easier and who steer clear of drama. That’s the easiest place to start.

Increase the level of challenge (not the volume) of work.

My research surveying professionals across a variety of industries revealed a strong correlation between “challenge level” and “satisfaction level” at work, meaning that, as the degree of challenge in one’s work increases, so does job satisfaction. However, the data also showed that when a job involves the highest degree of challenge, job satisfaction plateaus, which means there’s a sweet spot where challenge is present but manageable. Make sure you get a steady diet of meaningful challenges — projects with visible impact and a scope that will invite you to stretch but won’t leave you strung out.

If you want to dial up the challenge level without burning out, look for ways to flex your job scope.  Treat your job description less like a boundary that restricts your movement and more like a base camp from which you spot critical problems and pursue opportunities to make an important contribution. You can also try practicing what I call “the naive yes” by agreeing to a new challenge before your brain kicks in and tells you it’s not possible. As Richard Branson said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes — then learn how to do it later!” Of course, don’t say yes to everything; say yes to challenges that are a size too big, and then grow into them.

Negotiate the non-tangibles necessary for success.

When working on difficult projects fraught with unforeseen obstacles, we often assume that we need additional resources (such as budget or headcount) to complete the work; however, in reality, our most vital resources are less tangible. In surveying professionals from various industries about the resources they most need to be successful, these six factors were rated of similarly high importance: 1) access to information, 2) action from leaders, 3) feedback or coaching, 4) access to key meetings and people, 5) time, and 6) help establishing credibility. However, across all industries, countries, and demographics, one thing was consistent: budget and headcount were rated in seventh and eighth place — the least important factors by a significant margin. You don’t need resources as much as managerial support and aircover.

You can increase your impact by negotiating for the guidance, coaching, and sponsorship you need before you need it. For example, as a relatively young manager at Oracle, I had an opportunity to work with the company’s three top executives on a highly visible leadership development program that would roll out over the coming year.  The three top executives were all-in as we developed and ran the first session.  That session was a resounding success, but I was concerned that these busy execs would get pulled away and I would be left to carry on the program without executive support. When we met to plan the next session, I decided to speak up.  I assured the president that I would give this my all, but I couldn’t be successful without his ongoing, active involvement.  I said, “If you stop working on this, I’ll have to stop too.” The president paused to consider my bold request and then resolutely said, “You have a deal.” He called to his executive assistant, “For the next year, Liz has whatever time she needs on my calendar.”  He remained fully engaged, and our work was deeply impactful and a richly fulfilling experience for me.

Share the leadership load.

Cross-functional collaboration requires contributors and managers across organizations to be willing to take on extra leadership roles. But when the same people are continually tapped to lead, those summoned for extra leadership duties wind up chronically overworked while others become underutilized. Both conditions lead to burnout.

Increasingly, organizations are adopting a more fluid approach to leadership, one that looks less like a pride of lions and more like a flock of geese. A flock of migrating geese flies in a distinctive V formation, which scientists estimate enables the flock to travel 71% farther in a given period than solo flight. In this formation, the bird in the front of the flock breaks the air, reducing drag for the birds flying behind. Eventually, the lead bird tires, falls back into the formation, and another bird rotates to take its turn in the lead.

If you are new to the workforce, don’t wait to be promoted into a managerial role before you take on leadership roles. You can volunteer to lead an initiative or look for leadership vacuums in everyday moments and then step in to fill the void. If you’re in a meeting that lacks a clear leader – offer to facilitate the discussion.  Or, if the agenda is unclear, you might simply ask, “What is the most important thing for us to accomplish during this meeting.”  When team members can step in and out of leadership roles with equal ease, each member of the team has an opportunity to play a major role and the entire team experiences less fatigue.

Avoid reckless persistence.

A dogged determination to finish everything we start can lead to misplaced energy and wasted resources. A friend of mine once half-jokingly remarked that he finally stopped dating a woman when he realized he was spending all his time with someone else’s future wife. Similarly, when we can’t let go of unproductive projects before they finish, we can rob our organization of the time and resources needed to pursue higher-value opportunities. Furthermore, finishing for the sake of finishing can result in a Pyrrhic victory in which success inflicts such heavy tolls on the winners (and their teams) that the victory is indistinguishable from defeat. In the wake of these battles lie exhausted, alienated colleagues who become reluctant to join the next campaign, and burnout abounds.

Instead of finishing at all costs, you might need to cut your losses and let some projects go. If you suspect you are engaged in an unwinnable battle or working on yesterday’s priorities, ask yourself: 1) Is this still relevant, given changes in the larger environment or market? 2) Is this still important to the organization and my leadership? 3) Is this something we can still be successful at, even if we finish? If the answers are no, it might be time to let it go. But don’t abandon the work without getting clearance from your leader(s) or stakeholders, and be sure to let them know what you will do instead to provide greater value — or let them direct you as you pivot to a higher-priority project.

Our work, both the real work and the phantom workload, can feel inescapable and exhausting. Certainly, the Great Resignation has proven that stress and burnout can spread like wildfire and afflict huge swaths of the workforce. Yet burnout is not inevitable. Offering (and taking) much-needed R&R is a good start, but the solution may not be working less, it might be taking more control and achieving greater impact in the work we are doing. We need to look beyond the where and when of the workplace and focus on the what and why of the work. When we increase our impact-per-workhour, we can rekindle that fire in our bellies. And, when work is a build-up experience not a burnout experience, we feel a sense of fulfillment and purpose that feeds our souls.


About Liz Wiseman

Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the author of New York Times best-seller Impact Players, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone SmarterThe Multiplier Effect: Tapping the Genius Inside Our Schools, and Wall Street Journal best-seller Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work.

She is CEO of the Wiseman Group, a leadership research and development firm headquartered in Silicon Valley, California. Some of her recent clients include: Apple, AT&T, Disney, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Nike, Salesforce, Tesla, and Twitter. Liz has been listed on the Thinkers50 ranking and named one of the top 10 leadership thinkers in the world.


To learn more about Liz Wiseman contact [email protected]

Derek Sweeney is the Director of Speaker Ideas at The Sweeney Agency  www.thesweeneyagency.com. For 15 years Derek has been helping clients find the right Speakers for their events. Derek can be reached at 1-866-727-7555 or [email protected]