How to Combat Burnout at Work

Employee burnout, the slow and steady physical and psychological fatigue and depletion caused by one’s work-life, reflects a fundamental challenge of working life.

How to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout Burnout is characterized by reduced personal accomplishment, physical exhaustion and unremitting weariness, feelings of despair and helplessness, and cynical attitudes toward work, life, and people.

Many people work in situations that are conducive to burnout. The prevalence of demanding job characteristics and the pressures of collegial and supervisory relationships, together with inadequate job resources and motivational job characteristics can trigger burnout.

If you’re feeling worn out, overwhelmed, even depressed at work, here’s how to nurse your exhaustion before it escalates into a burnout:

  • Investigate ways to limit or disconnect exposure to stress-initiators. First, understand and rank all the triggers of stress. Reflect on your existing responsibilities and relationships at work, and identify any element that strains your enthusiasm or diminishes your energy.
  • Restructure your work. If you’re dealing with excessive job demands and are provided with inadequate job resources, try to discard low-gain and high-pain tasks and responsibilities. Ask for more resources, and reach out to people you find supportive and motivating. If all else fails, lower your standards.
  • Seek opportunities for psychological detachment from work. Stop thinking about work during your leisure time and disengage yourself mentally from work.
  • Nurture yourself. Your needs belong to the top. As you make your way through a busy life, don’t ignore prioritizing taking care of yourself. Don’t surrender, settle, or lose hope. Don’t compromise yourself and become what you can settle for.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with Strength

Kindness Can Be a Weakness

'The Art of Being Kind' by Stefan Einhorn (ISBN 0749940565) I’m currently reading Swedish oncologist Stefan Einhorn‘s The Art of Being Kind (2006.) Arguing that being a good person is the key to a happier and fulfilled life, Einhorn stresses (watch his TED talk) the need to distinguish ‘true’ kindness from ‘false’ kindness.

Einhorn describes three forms of false kindness:

  • Manipulative kindness where deceitful kindness masquerades as goodness. This superficial kindness is driven by some ulterior motive—to shrewdly obtain something, rather than to be genuinely helpful.
  • Stupid kindness that lacks appropriateness—trying to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped, for instance.
  • Weak kindness is thinking that being kind sometimes means yielding and being a doormat to others’ demands.

Weak Kindness Will Make You a Doormat

The doormat phenomenon is the outcome of weak kindness where a doormat bends over backwards to desperately satisfy others, often resorting to do whatever it takes to try to make others happy, no matter how badly the others treat him/her. In the name of kindness, the doormat allows others to walk over him/her due to lack of strength, fear of conflict, or fear of rejection.

The doormat phenomenon is perpetuated primarily by an inability to say “no” effectively. Here are the consequences of being too gullible, too empathetic, and too timid.

  • Doormats neglect their own self-interests.
  • Doormats often resort to passive aggression and/or resentment. Eventually, they find themselves silently annoyed by others.
  • Doormats don’t enjoy spending time in a social context, since they resent the people they assist.
  • Doormats often face more demands than they can handle. Hence, being fully conscious of how they’re taken advantage of and unable of standing up for themselves, they suffer from stress and depression.

Don’t Be Duped by your Own Kindness

Weak Kindness & The Doormat Phenomenon: Balance Kindness with StrengthThe key to leading a wise and purposeful life is to balance kindness with strength. To be wise and kind,

  • Be profusely kind and obliging but never weak. Don’t give up your power to another person. Don’t become a people-pleaser. Don’t put everyone else before yourself.
  • Be vigilant for nefarious people and their hidden motives. Be alert and aware of the many negative ploys and manipulations you could confront.
  • Be assertive and stand up for yourself. Don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no”. Don’t be so desperate to please others as to ignore your own priorities. Keep your own interests at the forefront of your mind.
  • Be on the lookout for win-win opportunities to be kind and giving. Don’t always prioritize other people’s needs above your own; seek opportunities to help out where you can expect some reciprocity. Successful people tend to ask for what they want.

The Chinese use a “flower and sword metaphor” to illustrate the need to balance kindness with strength. For the most part, present the world a flower—a symbol of kindness and compassion. However, when people try to take advantage of your kindness, that is to say when they try to crush the flower, wield the sword—a sign of protection and strength. The sword exists to protect the flower.

Idea for Impact: Wise kindness entails judiciously subjugating some of your self-interests sometimes in aid of others’ welfares, while still having the courage to stand up your values when necessary. Be kind when you can, and tough when you must. Remember, a wise person’s own happiness matters as much to him or her as the happiness of others—no more and no less.

Don’t Be Too Helpful at Work

Agreeableness Can Go Too Far

Consider the case of Sherry, a discontented claims adjustor at an insurance firm. She is a star employee and an excellent team player. In a bid to be seen as obliging, Sherry always agrees to do everything she is asked to do by her supervisors and her colleagues. She ends up taking on a lot of extra work.

Sherry gets much praise for helping out as much as she can. However, she feels constantly overworked. This excessive dedication has left her with neither the time nor the energy for leisure or family. Her discontent materializes from the fact that her inability to say “no” is actually holding her back from some of her primary priorities.

Don't Be Too Helpful at Work

Too Much Congeniality Can Be Counterproductive

We live in an era in which self-interest is contemptible. People who aren’t generous and altruistic are branded as uncaring and greedy—even evil. At work, one mark of a high-performing employee is the ability to bring discretionary effort at work. This implies willingly dedicating energy and attention beyond the basic requirements of the role. Employees who are agreeable and helpful are much favored to those who are not so obliging.

Nonetheless, as a whole, there are dangers of being too helpful in a workplace. Employees like Sherry frequently find themselves overloaded with tasks that aren’t really part of their responsibility, tasks that are difficult to execute well, and tasks that that others don’t want to undertake because they are uninteresting or low-status in the organization. These supplementary tasks may stop obliging employees from doing their own work to the expected standard. Eventually, they get branded with humdrum work and may even be overlooked for higher-status work assignments or for promotion to senior roles.

If you’re one of those employees who is accommodating or strives to be seen as such, curtail your impulse to say “yes” to whatever people ask you to do. Don’t change abruptly from being a friendly, accommodating employee into an obstinate, unhelpful person.

Be judicious in undertaking extra work if it is only desirable in light of your priorities and the personal image you want to sustain. If the prospective task conflicts with your priorities, you are within your rights to say “no” (see my previous article on nice ways to do so.)

Idea for Impact: There is a Limit to the Results Being Nice Will Get You

While it is virtuous to think of others first at both work and home, devoting all of your time for others can stand in the way of caring for yourself. Your work-life balance can suffer.

Addressing your own needs first is not only incredibly beneficial for your well-being, but also vital to your ability to care for others. Be prudent. Stand up for yourself. Be mindful of your priorities. Be attentive to your own needs. Practice saying “no.” Learn to be assertive.

Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Don't Say 'Yes' When You Really Want to Say 'No'

Most People Never Learn to Say “No”

Consider the case of Anna, a manager in a large accounting firm. Anna is a great team player and readily pitches in when her team’s workload gets heavy, especially during the tax season. She covers for peers when they have other commitments—personal and professional—and often stays late. Anna is a people-pleaser. She’s also one of those people who can’t say “no”: she spends too much time and energy working on others’ priorities while setting aside her own personal and professional priorities.

Consider also the case of Chuck, a selfless project manager at an engineering business. He not only passively gives in to requests to train new engineers, but also accepts all of his peer-managers’ unwanted assignments. Chuck reluctantly accedes to whatever work his boss imposes even if the task has little relation to Chuck’s span of responsibilities.

The problem with Anna and Chuck is that they cave in easily. They cannot assert themselves, stick to their guns, and bring themselves to saying “no.” Their inability to utter the simple two-letter word when they must and can makes them feel like they have no control over their life. They feel burned out and are often on the fast track to an emotional meltdown.

Learning to Say “No” Can Get You Ahead

There are many reasons people struggle with saying “no.” Some feel bound by obligation or by fear of hurting others’ feelings. Some want to be liked or be seen as team players. Yet others believe they really can do it all. Whatever the reason, this inability to say “no” can have several personal consequences.

  • Not being able to say “no” leads people into doing things they don’t respect themselves for doing. Saying “yes” becomes wrong when they want to say “no” and it is in their best interest to say “no,” but instead they resign and say, “OK, I’ll do it.”
  • Not being able to say “no” distracts people from their priorities and tasks that they really want to get completed. They become so encumbered doing the things they don’t want to do that they have neither the time nor the energy for the things that are most important to them.
  • By feeling like an overcommitted, selfless martyr and allowing other people to exploit them continually, people who struggle to say “no” may build up resentment. Often, after a long stretch of saying “yes” and doing things they don’t want to do, they may end up losing their temper and bring about an inappropriate emotional outburst.

Nice Ways to Say 'No'

Nice Ways to Say “No”

The key to saying “no” is to say it firmly, succinctly, and without an overlong explanation. Here are two examples.

  • Imagine you’ve been working on the organizing committee for an employee recognition event. Even though you’ve put in more time than anyone else on the committee has, the committee’s chair comes to you with another request, “Mark, I’m really fortunate to have you on the organizing committee. Can I count on you to go collect the recognition plaques from the store?” You could say, “No, chief. I have already done more than my share. Perhaps you should give that job to someone who hasn’t done his/her share.”
  • Sometimes, you don’t need to give a “yes” or a “no” answer on the spot. Try to defer your answer when faced with a request that you cannot accept immediately by saying, “Give me some time to think about it” or “Let me get back to you in 15 minutes.” After weighing the pros and cons, give your answer and offer a reason if necessary. This way, even if the requester doesn’t get a “yes” from you, he/she appreciates knowing you’ve seriously considered the request.

Easy and Effective Ways to Say “No”

Here are more simple and direct ways to say “no” for you to practice.

  • “No. Let’s find another way to get it done.”
  • “No, I can’t do it on such short notice. I have something else scheduled for that time.”
  • “No, not now. I don’t feel like doing that today. I’d rather do something else.”
  • “No, I don’t know this topic well enough to do a decent job.”
  • “No, I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t fully commit to doing well.”
  • “No, I’d be happy to help in some smaller capacity. Make me a member of the committee, not the chair.”
  • “No, I have a personal policy about not working on Saturdays or not missing my evening workout.”
  • “No, it’s impossible for me to do that. Please try someone else.”
  • “No.” Sometimes the best way to say “no” is to simply and directly say “no.” Per the old adage, “Never apologize. Never explain.”

Idea for Impact: Don’t Say “Yes” When You Really Want to Say “No”

Have no regrets about having to say 'no' Have no regrets about having to say “no.” Don’t allow pangs of guilt to dictate your personal or professional life.

By asserting yourself in a decisive, direct, polite, but firm way, you can be selective about saying “yes” to your own needs and priorities. Practice saying “no.”

In an NPR This I Believe essay, Jessica Paris reflected, “sometimes saying ‘no’ is easier than saying ‘yes’ … when I need it, my strength to say ‘no’ is bolstered by knowing that every ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something else.” In other words, almost every misplaced “yes” is really a “no” to yourself. So, don’t say “yes” when you really want to say “no.”

This Manager’s Change Initiatives Lacked Ethos, Pathos, Logos: Case Study on Aristotle’s Persuasion Framework

Persuasive Manager

In my previous article, I reviewed Aristotle’s framework for persuasion and argumentation: to win over others to a particular point of view, it’s necessary to appeal through ethos (credibility,) pathos (emotion,) and logos (reason.) In this article, I give a case study of organizational initiative that lacked ethos, pathos, and logos.

Consider the case of a young mid-level manager I coached last year. Helen (name changed for anonymity) recently joined the finance department of a capital-goods company. Two months into her job, she was bothered by her lack of initial success in bringing about change at her workplace.

Helen was smart, driven, and had a great professional track record. During her interviews, she had impressed her supervisors by her hard work, drive, and creative ideas. They recruited her to implement rigorous audit processes.

Just a few weeks after joining, Helen drew from her previous experience and generated many new and creative ideas to overhaul the financial audit processes. Her supervisors had given her all the responsibility and authority to bring about the necessary changes. However, she quickly encountered a problem: her peers and team members would not buy into her ideas.

In meetings where Helen spoke of her vision for change, her peers and team members would politely pay lip service to her ideas, but when it came to actually implementing her suggestions, nothing seemed to happen. Helen received a 360-degree feedback exercise about how her peers and team members perceived her and her ideas.

How to be More Persuasive

Helen was startled by the feedback she received. In response, she decided to improve her approach to selling her ideas by working on all three dimensions of Aristotle’s persuasion framework.

  • Ethos: Helen lacked ethos among her peers and her team members. She possessed ethos in the eyes of her superiors who’d recruited her and granted her authority to bring about the necessary change, but not with her peers and team members. She realized that she needed to prove herself and her ideas’ credibility.
  • Pathos: Helen had failed to elicit pathos and never took the time and effort to involve her peers and team members in the decision-making and convince them of the need for change.
  • Logos: Helen assumed that the problems she had faced at her previous employer were the same problems her new employer faced. Without learning about the corporate culture and the existing audit processes by interviewing her peers and team members, Helen had made all her recommendations for change based on things she had seen work in other settings. Her suggestions found no resonance for her new colleagues—to them she seemed to be trying to fix problems that did not exist.

Idea for Impact: To persuade others to your point of view, you must understand what truly moves your audience and then appeal through all the elements of Aristotle’s ethos-pathos-logos framework.