Avoiding Job Burnout

What does a project with a tight delivery timeline, too many competing work priorities, and conflicting personal and work commitments have in common? They can all contribute to that feeling of being overwhelmed, and they can ultimately lead to job burnout.

And job burnout is not a place you want to go to. It’s a cake made of unhappiness, filled with exhaustion, and topped with resentment. It’s dark and cold place where one bad day hopelessly leads to the next even worse day. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen firsthand how burnout can turn the positive, organized and productive into negative, chaotic, and ineffective. And, I’ve found five principles to help team members turn it around before it becomes burnout.

1. Given a project with a tight delivery timeline, get organized and in control of your day.

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Prioritize and break down your assignments into realistic schedules with tasks of a manageable duration: not exceeding two or three days. Don’t overcommit. Then review your plan and get buy-in from your supervisor. That way when your supervisor asks, “How are you progressing,” you can refer to your approved plan and respond with confidence and detail.

2. Pulled in too many directions: Focus on eliminating distractions, prioritizing, and delegating.

Doing three or four tasks halfway is not as good as finishing two properly. The act of juggling work consumes your most precious resource—time. Stay focused on a task and work it through to completion or to turnover to the next responsible party. This is by far the most efficient use of your time. If your job responsibilities allow, delegate a specific time (or a couple of times) of the day that you answer emails and calls since distractions like responding to emails or phone calls can increase the amount of time that it takes to complete what you were working on. As international speaker Jeff Gothelf from NEO asserts, “The costs of any team member supporting more than one team—context switching, prioritization, additional email churn, etc.—often end up costing much more than the added productivity multiple assignments seems to bring.” 1

Prioritize your activities on a daily basis. Make a daily list of must-do’s, should-do’s and would-like-to-do’s. Then follow this daily plan to guide your activity. Mark off the finished tasks and carry forward the unfinished ones. Do this each and every day and keep these lists for future reference.

3. Allow others to contribute by delegating and working in teams.

I’ve yet to see a “Me, myself and I” company award. Most organizations value teamwork and collaboration over individual contributions. As Petra Cross from Google once said, “…you need to use your soft skills to be able to work well with a variety of people,” and “You need both, good people and good idea.” 2 What is most important to your success is the success of your assignments, so you should always fully use your organization’s resources to complete your assignments.

Ask your supervisor with help prioritizing your assignments. Be organized and prepared to walk through detailed work plans and documentation on how you see tackling the workload. Your goal is to clarify your supervisor’s expectations and to gain a better understanding on how your supervisor envisions your assignments.

4. Focus on positive change that you can make happen.

Keep your attention and focus on the positive change that you can make happen and not on change that is out of your control. It’s worthwhile to offer your opinion on ways your organization can improve. The trick is not to get overly optimistic about your influence in areas where you are not directly responsible. Organizations are complex, and change can be difficult and slow to implement. The best way to make your opinion count is to excel at your job and be a positive influence on those around you.

5. Re-balance personal commitments and work commitments.

Do you have personal commitments conflicting with job responsibilities or vice-versa? If you’ve followed my earlier advice on breaking your assignments down and planning, minimizing distractions, and delegating, work-life balance may be one step closer already. Make peace between work and other aspects of your life since both are essential to your wellbeing. Plan your workdays and workload around beginning and stopping work at designated times. And then stick to your plan. If you have important personal commitments spilling into work time, see if you can use time off or other benefits to get caught up.

Avoid burnout before the situation spirals you out of control. Recognize the warning signs of feeling overwhelmed. Then, take action by getting organized, eliminating distractions, delegating, remaining positive, and‒very importantly‒balancing your life.


1 Gothelf, Jeff, “Four Qualities of Successful In-House Innovation Teams: Considering the ‘Two Pizza Team,’” O’Reilly Programming, 2 July 2013, http://programming.oreilly.com/2013/07/four-qualities-of-successful-in-house-innovation-teams.html (accessed 26 Feb. 2014).

2 Atagana, Michelle, “Senior Google Engineer: Building Innovative Products Requires Team Work,” Memeburn, 9 Oct. 2013, http://memeburn.com/2013/10/senior-google-engineer-building-innovative-products-requires-team-work/ (accessed 25 Feb. 2014).