Burned Out? Maybe You Should Care Less About Your Job

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The 45-year-old financial-services worker survived, and that changed his life. The non-conversations on his calendar are now floating three times weekly and dropping his youngest son off to nursery school. In his (reduced) hours at work, he says he is calm, decisive, above ground. When he has too much on his plate, he leaves work for another day. He insists on 30-minute meetings that stay on point.

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“I was under stress once since I had a heart attack,” he says. “It’s like this switch now. Doesn’t matter.”

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But back then?

“I had my job,” he says.

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We put in too many hours; We do not take leave; We can’t say no to that 6 a.m. conference call. Beneath this lies something bigger: an emotional attachment to our jobs that exhausts us and squeezes out other parts of our identity. For years, we were told to find meaning and purpose at work, while other parts of modern life, such as the church, retreated. Then came the pandemic.

Sure, some employees take advantage of remote work to take an afternoon nap or shrug off a job with a secret second gig. But for many people, work has become our life. We sat down at our computers in the spring of 2020 and haven’t given up since. Now we can’t figure out how to turn it off.

Can we learn to care less? (Ideally, without a brush to death?) What happens if we let go, just a little?

‘If I ask for everything and need it tomorrow, obviously my team will never feel like they rest and take a true break.’


– Katie Burke, HubSpot

Not much, assures Sarah Knight, who conducted her own experiment a few years ago. After suffering a panic attack in her Manhattan office, she decided to step back from the perfectionist tendencies that had propelled her to senior editor in the publishing industry. He stopped taking business lunches. She left the office by 6 p.m. She traded her blazer and heels for Gap corduroy and tennis shoes.

Nobody seemed to care.

“I was like, I could do it the whole time,” she says.

She left the corporate world, moved to the Dominican Republic and wrote a book, “The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck”, about getting out of the useless or useless things in her life.

“You should be able to ask yourself: Is this real? Is this really something that is part of my job? Do I really have to do this?” she says.

Sometimes the answer is yes. Business lunches can be vital to continuing to earn a paycheck. But probably nothing else, advises Ms. Knight. A quarter of the amount of stuff you’ve had over the years can be an unnecessary time suck. Let go of those things, she says, like an old sweater that no longer sparks joy.

Easier said than done, of course. Workers do not live in a vacuum. Some owners have unreasonable expectations. As coworkers go into the wave of quits or companies choose to stay lean after layoffs, jobs have increased. According to a summer survey by people analytics firm Vizier, nearly 90% of workers said they’ve experienced burnout in the past year. More than half said their workload increased during the pandemic.

Some companies say they care, but does a CEO really want employees to be less obsessed with work? Firms have tried to deal with burnout — with listening sessions, extra days off — but many employees say they end up working anyway.

Katie Burke, chief public officer at Cambridge, Mass.-based software firm HubSpot, says, “If I ask for everything and need it tomorrow, obviously my team will never feel like they rest and Take a true break.” Workers there told officials that meeting-free Fridays were good, but easing deadlines and putting more people or technology on projects would help more.

The company is working on this. In a recent meeting, Ms. Burke instructed her team to do three things they won’t do before the end of the quarter, “no matter who tells you to do them.”

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Productivity may be low in the short run, she says, but it is easier to keep and attract workers.

“A vibrant life outside of work,” says Ms. Burke. “That’s what everybody wants.”

Next step: figuring out what to do during the extra time you used to spend working. Janna Koretz, a psychologist and founder of Azimuth, a Massachusetts therapy practice, advises people in high-pressure careers to learn to let go and delegate to capable partners. One issue she sees: Over-achievers often throw themselves into new hobbies with a lot of vigor.

Instead of jumping into marathon training, try a 5K, Dr. Koretz advises. The idea is to make the extra-curricular curriculum sustainable, not pile on some different kind of stress. And remind yourself that taking lunch full time or entering your child’s soccer game early doesn’t make you a bad worker, she says.

“It doesn’t mean, ‘I’m going to be fired,'” Dr. Koretz says. “It doesn’t mean, ‘I’ve given up.'”

Maybe you are better at your job. With less on your plate, and more perspective, every task will stop feeling like a fire drill and you can focus on the things that matter.

Anton Stromberg, a program manager at a digital education organization in Stockholm, spent three days trying to craft the perfect email, “like if I made one mistake the world would fall apart.”

Passion killed his creativity. He was overwhelmed by raising his hand for everything.

Now, in meetings, “I just sit there quietly and wait for someone else to pick it up,” he says. “I buy myself time. I take a deep breath.”

For Nate Holderen, a professor in Des Moines, Iowa, the challenges of the pandemic’s work – trying to understand his students’ responses to distance learning while helping them navigate the COVID-19 crises – have given him a sense of humor in his own life. Left to question the value.

“It’s like, not only didn’t that session go well, but maybe I’m not good at it,” he says. “It’s really easy to keep going on this over and over again.”

Recently, he bought a T-shirt and notepad to try to change his perspective. In capital letters, both declare: “I work here now.”

write to [email protected] . on Rachel Feintzig

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