Most workers are no longer employed in the manufacturing sector, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Yet, we still follow productivity standards honed during an age when the majority of workers were employed in farming or manufacturing. Examples include measuring output, efficiency, mistake prevention and comparing one time period (or one company) with another.
We now work in a “knowledge economy”—in professional services like law, health, finance or tech, in which new ideas and creativity are prized and repetitive tasks can be outsourced to machines. But companies still urge workers to comply with metrics, objectives and key results (OKRs) and key performance indicators (KPIs) often tied to their productivity.
“How can we do more with less?” is often asked of us. It’s enough to put pressures on even the most productive knowledge workers.
The impact of this productivity-focused approach has shown up in research. A 2015 Deloitte Study discovered that 77 percent of respondents experienced burnout in their current positions (Deloitte 2015). Some clues you’re experiencing burnout include feeling depleted or exhausted much of the time, experiencing cynicism, having a quick anger fuse, and/or being less effective or more prone to depression symptoms at work.
When we do knowledge-based work—that is work based around ideas, creativity, focus, writing, or people—we need restorative time during and after our work day. When we don’t allow time to recharge and reflect in an unstructured way, it kills our drive and stifles our energy to move forward. Corporate life just isn’t designed for this type of recharge time and it’s not celebrated or cultivated enough. It’s not common to have “rest metrics,” only productivity metrics. Throw in constant strategy changes, reorganizations, and unclear communication from leadership and it’s a recipe for disaster for employees. Until these pressure-inducing work norms are addressed, burnout will continue to be a major issue in all sectors.
In my first book, “The Resiliency Effect,” I explored how the epidemic of workaholism and hustle culture keep us from the big things we want to do in life. Being busy and achievement focused is a coping mechanism. It can be a good way to maintain self esteem (or cope with other problem areas in our personal life) but unfortunately this road can lead us straight to overwork and suffering. That book further explores the root causes of some of these coping mechanisms and I share journal prompts and concepts to help facilitate change in yourself.
But I’ll be the first to admit, it’s hard to find to the time to do the necessary inner work to explore and remove these obstacles—which are often emotional in nature.
It definitely takes changing your values and priorities to do this hard work, as well as time. What greater time to do it than on a break or sabbatical from work?
We need to normalize work breaks! And people need to know *how* to take a fruitful break. My second book, The Art of the Sabbatical (working title) will tackle these things and more.
Extended work breaks seems like a dream! But nearly everyone thinks taking an extended break from work will be detrimental to their career, family, or financial lives. Based on my experience and research, extended work breaks (not just vacations) are the best catalyst to discover, learn and grow professionally and personally.
Stay tuned, there’s more to come.
By now, you’ve seen the surveys: anywhere between 25%-40% of employees are considering leaving their jobs this year. In my work with private financial clients, I’ve seen this trend too. Because of the pandemic many of us are are questioning life decisions, living arrangements and careers.
If you’re in this boat, one of the next natural thoughts you might have is, “How can I get away from it — this soul sucking job — and do something I like more?” Often people feeling this pull have no idea what they will do next. So the fear that comes next shows up in full force, “I don’t actually know what I want and I’m scared to leave my job when I don’t have the next steps planned out.”
As I’ve written about in my book, I myself experienced a recharge and redirected my life and career after taking a sabbatical. I coach a significant portion of my financial planning clients through taking a sabbatical by choice as well. I can definitively say, the plan for “what’s next?” doesn’t have to be fully formed before you’re ready to take a work break, but there are steps you need to make sure you can afford the time off.
All this is well and good — but let’s take a step back for a second to examine the real reasons why so many of us have a desire to leave our jobs in the first place. It’s actually the burnout epidemic.
Causes of Burnout
While I was writing my book, I dug into the causes of burnout and found there are a few major influences. These include the systemic effects of capitalism and employers slow to move from the now archaic cultural and operational norms from when manufacturing was the dominant driver in our economy (versus the knowledge dominant economy today). But more likely the root cause is trauma and adversity in our own life or from generations past. For some people, these experiences that happened in our lifetime or that of our ancestors, can lead us to feel worthless unless we’re achieving. Needing to find validation through work and achievement is a completely societally acceptable method of engaging. Many of us have gotten really good at all the juggling as long as it feeds the achievement beast. Checking off your to-do list, after all, can be one of the most satisfying parts of many peoples’ day.
An article was recently published in Refinery 29 examining some of the more immediate reasons we are all collectively coming to terms with the epidemic of burnout across industries. It’s not just exhaustion, it’s overwhelm at the system.
One aspect I found particularly interesting is that this didn’t happen overnight or in one generation. Doctors, for instance, experience subtle “betrayals” as they go through training and the early years of the profession by mentors, teachers, and colleagues awakening to the fact that they probably can’t be the perfectly kind and empathetic professional they wanted to be. These little betrayals are further perpetrated by the institutions they work for, the weight of student debt, and more broadly the the healthcare and insurance systems.
Expectations of Work
Work, today, is failing to live up to the expectations we had of finding passion and purpose in what we do while getting paid well. There’s room for institutions to reform the world of work. But in the meantime we have our own individual work to do. But there’s often guilt associated with leaving a “good” job. In my book I refer to this as “golden handcuffs.”
We might have a conversation like this in our head — “I can do this job, it’s not that hard, and if I don’t take it too seriously I can work on other passion projects on the side.” or “How can I give up these well paid role when I don’t know what to do next?” But all the while, a need to feel fulfilled through work isn’t being addressed. Have we even asked ourselves this particular “why” question enough times to arrive at the core of what’s going on in our brains?
That’s why I include so many journal prompts in The Resiliency Effect. We all must take steps to go through our own inner journey to discover for ourselves where these needs come from and which of these needs have a place in our current self.
Without this inner journey, I’m afraid when we finally find the next job, next career, or next work break it’ll be for similar reasons including overwhelm and burnout.
Cady North, CFP® RLP® is the author of The Resiliency Effect and financial planner to women across the country through North Financial Advisors.
We’ve all experienced some form of adversity in our lives. The good news is we naturally develop resiliency as a result of negative experiences that we had. Resiliency gives us skills, techniques and coping mechanisms that help us bounce back in the face of future trauma or challenges. Typically, resiliency is a really good thing.
It means we survived.
But I’m here to tell you that resiliency is also a double edged sword. Sometimes the traits that make us resilient, like an “I can do it myself” attitude, over-functioning, or over-responsibility, can lead straight to burnout, anxiety, and depression.
These traits can be valued by society though, so it’s often hard to recognize them as challenges or limiting beliefs. Resiliency keeps us safe, and the skills protect us from future pain or disappointment. But often these coping mechanisms may be hindering us and holding us back from making progress towards the big dreams we have.
That was true for me. Growing up in an alcoholic family as the oldest of three siblings, I started life with more responsibility than the average person. I helped hold the family together by doing the grocery shopping in high school and working in various aspects of our family business.
Tragically, both my parents died of alcoholism-related diseases within two years of one another. As the oldest, I was suddenly in charge of not only managing their estates, but also taking care of my two younger siblings. At the age of twenty-two, I became the sole guardian of my sixteen-year-old sister, which was an unbelievable amount of responsibility to be handed to a young adult.
I didn’t have a typical young adulthood with the safety net of family to learn skills from and fall back on. Failure wasn’t an option. I was “adulting” long before “adulting” was a common meme among millennials. I became self-reliant and was praised for my maturity and “having it all together.” My “can do it” attitude meant that I also excelled in my career.
I was resilient.
But this came at a cost. For instance, I didn’t get to have spring breaks and learn how to “unplug” and turn off. Most of my breaks during school were spent working to support myself financially. I didn’t learn the value of finding balance with my time and my boundaries. I struggled to understand and pay attention to my own needs for support and protection from others or learn when recharging and taking a break would make sense.
I had a belief that I have to work hard, and keep working hard in order to be worth something. Eventually, through self reflection, I made this link between my incessant need for busyness and achievement and how it was the only thing fueling my self-worth. It was mostly driven by my imposter syndrome – a belief that despite outward success I didn’t deserve it or it didn’t really mean anything.
It’s no wonder I struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my teens and 20s. It’s also no wonder that I moved through a career path and career ladder simply because of the circumstances I found myself in, not because it was the path that I designed or dreamed for myself.
I’m trying to speak out against this idea that we need to be busy and achievement focused to be worth something.
It took a long time for me to consider how these traits left over from my trauma — which are often valued in a career — were hurting me. Once I did, the good news is, I think my inherent resilience kicked in. I was able to adapt and consider another path, one that was more even keeled and includes more balance.
You may not think to describe embarking on an entrepreneurial journey as “even keeled and balanced,” but the truth is it was easier for me to create that for myself than trying to create it within the corporate environment.
Crusade Against Busyness
One of the reasons I dared to write a book exploring some of the traumas I had and profiling experiences of many others who made big changes in their life as a result of their own self-reflection and inner journeys is because I’m trying to speak out against this idea that we need to be busy and achievement focused to be worth something. It’s a bit of a crusade that I’m on.
And it’s warranted because burnout is an epidemic right now. People experience burnout in different ways. Burnout can show up in an obvious way like exhaustion, the inability to sleep, or maybe the strong need to sleep all the time. A hallmark of burnout is not having any personal time or self care in our lives. It can also show up as more of a simmering frustration, anger, resentment, or unpleasantness at your job.
Busyness and burnout can also just be a distraction. A distraction from experiencing uncomfortable emotions. It prevents us from looking too closely at how our past painful experiences in life might have given us coping mechanisms that hold us back from living in more happiness and fulfillment.
Once I made that link between busyness and my self worth, I was able to start letting go of the societal pressures to always stay busy and productive. Letting go of my corporate job helped me let go of my busyness faster, as I could now set the bar without input or guidelines from a boss or corporate culture.
Becoming an entrepreneur allowed me not only to live a life-long dream of working to help people with their personal finances, but do it on my terms with protections in place to prevent getting too close to burnout and overwork again.
Naming and achieving a big dream takes courage and being comfortable with a fair amount of risk. However, if we fear risk because it reminds us of something we experienced in the past — it means we have a lot more to overcome in order to do something scary and life a big dream we have in life.
My most important personal goal today is to spend time going back and living a more carefree lifestyle, as opposed to one that’s over scheduled, overworked, and burned out. I invite you to do more of your own self reflection to discover some of your coping mechanisms — what might be holding you back from living your biggest dreams?
The Resiliency Effect draws on the disciplines of life coaching, psychology, and financial planning. My goal with the book is to offer a way to develop excitement and energy around your purpose which often is preceded by deep, inner work. It’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and everywhere books are sold.
I write a lot about helping people achieve big dreams they have in life or career. What I’ve found from my own experience and working with others is that employing lifehacks or working harder, faster or smarter is not the answer.
The challenge lies in doing the deep work that will give you the energy to not just say what your biggest dreams are, but to take action on them.
One challenge you may run into (or perhaps have already experienced) is the high potential for burnout. I know I have.
A lot of the time the reason we get burned out is not just because we’re highly driven or motivated or because we’re biting off more than we can chew. Sometimes we’ve been conditioned to believe that if we’re not busy we must not be trying hard enough.
Society tells us we need to be busy and productive to be worth something, but why hasn’t anyone questioned why our worth is tied to production in the first place?
I wanted to seek the answer to that question for myself and it’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, The Resiliency Effect.
Burnout is a Big, Global Problem
Being busy only leads us to burnout, overwork, and suffering. Yet we can’t stop ourselves, and it’s getting worse—so much worse that governmental organizations have started to notice.
Beginning in 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) started classifying burnout as an “occupational phenomenon.” They define it as “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” The organization further describes it as feeling depleted or exhausted, experiencing distance or cynicism related to your job, and/or being less effective at work. They are so concerned that they are launching research to create evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace.
When respondents were asked as part of a 2019 Meredith Corporation study about how stress and anxiety have contributed to trouble with planning, decision-making, or sleep during the last five years, 48 percent of women respondents said burnout was so bad that it keeps them up at night! And 35 percent of women said they have trouble concentrating. (Men experienced these too, but to a lesser degree.)
Burnout Can Be Linked Back to Adverse Experiences
Through my research, I found there’s a link between burnout, busyness, imposter syndrome, and traumatic experiences in our lives. This link is what’s keeping us focused on producing, despite the cost to our health and well-being. As a society, we haven’t been encouraged to deal with the root causes of why we feel imposter syndrome and why we need to prove our worth through productivity. It’s rare, as a human, to have not had some type of adverse or traumatic experience. It’s worth considering how it might be driving you to overwork yourself (or employ some other coping mechanism preventing you from living your best life).
This was the case for me. I spent years in a cycle of burning myself out at work, quitting my job, finding a new job, only to start the process right over again. My own adverse experiences as a child and young adult growing up in an alcoholic household made me more prone to behaviors like perfectionism, people pleasing, and denying my emotions and myself.
What to Do Instead
The opposite. If we’re always responding to the people who rely on us so as not to let them down, where do we find the time to devote to dreaming up our big dreams? Solving problems bigger than ourselves? Or truly finding satisfaction in who we are rather than what we do? We’re all trying to do way too much. Doing the opposite means giving ourselves permission to slow down…way down.
Make creativity and dreaming a priority
Instead of working ourselves to the bone, make something else the priority. Many of us put unrealistic expectations on ourselves. But when we simply allow ourselves to dream, there is no expectation. Start with something creative. Many people believe that you have to be an artist or a musician to be creative. I like to expand my own internal definition to all sorts of creative activities such as planning a meal, dancing in my living room, even taking a moment to write in a journal.
When we’re burned out and overworked it can be extremely difficult to focus on anything other than the tasks at hand. But something as simple as prioritizing time away to take a walk can both count for being creative and giving yourself a break. You’ll be amazed at the problem solving your brain will do in the background when you’re not intentionally thinking about your to-do list.
Schedule recharge time like you would a recurring meeting
As you begin to make dreaming and creative endeavors a priority, it may make sense to schedule time for these things like you would for a recurring meeting.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, suggests doing something called Morning Pages — free writing when you first get up on anything that comes to mind. It’s not about producing something beautiful, it’s about creating a habit that’s different from your life and day-job.
One technique that I use is to prioritize non working hours during my work day. I’m more of an episodic worker and writer anyway and no two days look the same for me. A week or two in advance I look at my calendar for time slots where I haven’t planned to work on a project or meet with clients. Those are my time slots to take walks, do something creative, or do nothing at all.
This is an active way I protect myself from burnout.
Take an extended break
Sometimes we need to go more extreme to protect ourselves from burnout. When you start to feel that familiar anxious feeling, like everything around you is an emergency, it’s a good indicator that you should take a break….a long one. I’m not talking an extra hour for lunch here. I’m talking about a long weekend or even a week-long vacation.
Some of us may get to a point where taking a full sabbatical for multiple weeks or months may be necessary.
Before I developed the courage, the focus and the energy to start my business I took a 6-month sabbatical. An important benefit from that time was that it allowed me to reset my expectations of what I considered “productive.” It allowed me to have motivation to set up boundaries to protect my time and prevent energy depletion as an entrepreneur.
Consider getting rid of to-do lists
I’m a reformed to-do lister. I used to have a to-do list as long as my arm at all times. It felt really good to check off things one my one. But the huge problem for me was that the to-do list never ended. There was never such a thing as completing everything on my to-do list.
I’ve always had an over functioning streak and this common tool made me feel like I had something more to work on all the time, no matter how productive I’d been. So, I gave it up. No one ever said on their deathbed, “I sure am glad I finished my to-do list.”
Instead I use time-boxing. Whenever I have a task from remembering to respond to an email to completing a complex tax analysis for a client, I estimate how much time it will take me to complete it and put a calendar entry into my calendar. Each type of task (revenue generating, marketing, creative, administrative) gets a color code in the calendar. That helps me visually keep track of where I’m spending most of my time. This can also be done for more complex or creative projects. I like to write, for instance, when “the mood strikes,” when I get into flow, I get way more written than I think I will. So, I sometimes will adjust my timebox on the fly to account for finding myself in flow on a project.
The main benefit for me in using time-boxing instead of to-do list is that my brain is much more ok accepting a starting point and ending point to my day. It’s also easier for me to accept and embrace those recharge time slots that I bake into my weekly schedule. The result is I feel less depleted and usually more recharged by the end of a week.
Remember: being busy ≠ reaching our dreams
Getting another one of our to-do lists done doesn’t mean we’re happy, fulfilled or are living our big dreams. Sometimes taking a step back to prevent or cure our burnout is the only way we can make true progress toward reaching our goals.
More about The Resiliency Effect: Drawing on the fields of life coaching, financial planning and psychology, Cady’s book offers a way to develop excitement and energy around your purpose. The Resiliency Effect includes actionable advice and exercises, as well as chapters dedicated to realizing common dreams such as how to change careers, take a sabbatical, or start a business.