What Is Burnout?

What Is Burnout?

“I’m SO burned out!”.

You’ve seen it, thought it, listened to it, tweeted about it, posted an Instagram picture detailing it, TikTok danced it, or even tried to drink it away.

I’m sure every profession has its triggers of “Burnout”, from janitors to wait staff to retail managers to business managers to CEO’s to the President. Heck, even God rested on the 7th day.

At the top of my list of questions of “What does that REALLY MEAN?” next to “Toxic”, which I dove into a few months back, is the word “Burnout”.

What does that really mean?

Let’s start with the expert, Merriam-Webster:

“: to cause to fail, wear out, or become exhausted especially from overwork or overuse.”

Digging deeper into the internet, you can actually find self-guided tests to tell you if you are suffering from burnout.

In 2019, the World Health Organization classified ‘Burnout Syndrome’ as an official medical diagnosis.

 “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:

1)    feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;

2)    increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and

3)    a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment. Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.”

I was in a training session a few months back with the genius Kevin Benz and the Nebraska Association of Broadcasters. We were talking about this very topic, and we had an interactive question about it answered via text. We all say the word “burnout”, but can you define it? Write down your own definition, flip over that piece of paper, and review it at the end of this and see if anything changed in your mind.

During this session, I was sure I knew what I thought burnout was. And I texted my answers. Something was missing though. What was it? There was a word for it. How can I have THIS many words in my vocabulary, but I’m lost at finding this one.

But then there the word was, from someone else, that hit the nail on the head.

We’ll get there in a minute.

I think a lot of how you handle stress, and your work ethic comes from how you grew up and what steps you took to tackle the tough things. Whether it was the frustration of trying to tie your shoes, something everyone else could do but your fingers were more knotted than the strings. You would never have said “I’m burned out trying to learn to tie my shoes, let’s go get a pudding. I need some me-time.” But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard and exhausting. But it does show that burnout is something we learn to experience.

For some, the first sign of a so-called “burnout” is in our academic or athletic lives as a child. I had a sister who was on the “academic” side, and I was on the “athletic” side. I never saw a point is studying hard if I could get a “B” while still having fun playing sports.

My dad was a coach for the sports his daughters played, and his coach hat never came off long after practice was over. He wasn’t quite a Nick Saban, but he was tough.

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I didn’t know anything better than a school day that started with 500-1000 swings of the bat in the basement on a cold winter’s day, a full day of school, and then some kind of practice – either with a glove on my hand or a bouncing ball on the court. As I would finish stupid homework in the late hours of the evening I could hear my mom say to my dad while she did the dishes “I don’t know how she does it. She has to be exhausted. If she wasn’t playing sports she could be a better student.”

At one point I had to go with my dad, an electrical designer and draftsman, to an after-work ongoing education class. I had to sit in the back and “don’t say a W O R D”, spelling out the word “word” like it had 5 syllables.

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I faked focusing on homework as I analyzed the people in the room. I remember thinking it was odd adults had to go to school – wasn’t half the point of BEING an adult not going to school?

The proctor asked a question of the group. There was silence. He asked again. And again. The third time he said it slowly, like talking to a room full of Forest Gumps.

“What is the definition of a Prime Number?”, he sighed.

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I could feel my hand raising as my mind went between “don’t say a word” and “but I know the answer” in my head.

The proctor squinted to see me, raised his chin, and said “Yes, you in the back.”

“A number that can only be divided by one and itself”, I said confidently. I saw my dad stare at me. Boy, I was either in trouble or getting ice cream.

As we walked to the car and sat down, buckled up and the engine roared he said “You made us all look like a bunch of idiots”, and kept staring at me with that same confusing look. “I am so proud of you.”

 “Yeah, tell mom I AM smart too,” I muttered too scared to look him in the eye, yet proud of my knowledge that seemed to surpass a room full of engineers. And none of them were getting Baskin Robbins tonight.

I guess I was ahead of my time with “Are you smarter than a 5th grader?”.

I worked out and practiced until I couldn’t feel my legs, and when I could feel them they screamed of “slow down”. I bathed in ice and Bengay. As long as there was sun, I wanted to practice.

I never would have said, “I’m so burned out.”

But now I know why. More on that still to come. It centers around that magic word I never thought of until I was 46.

When I worked in catering through high school and college, it was HARD work. The physical drive of moving big crates of food around, serving it, cleaning it, and loading it back up was intense. The mental drive of learning to carve food, where the veggies go in a buffet line (always last because they lose heat first, duh.), how to dismiss tables perfectly so there wasn’t ever a long line but also never a delay, and trying to avoid getting caught up in dancing and celebration while doing your job. We also got a “pass” when it came to the “Electric Slide” and we’d teach old people how to do the dance. It was a nice moment to “let go”.

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Meal breaks were “eat as fast as you can” or else you wouldn’t eat at all. The food was cold and was served outside, whether it was 100 degrees or -20. And don’t spill on the tuxedo shirt!

This helped me for when I got into TV news. You still “ate fast or not at all” but generally did it at your desk while working. Lunch breaks were for the weak, I was told.

Whether it was the day of and aftermath of 9/11, where the workdays were measured in 20-hour shifts, or a new transition to a new system that required rehearsals on top of the news of the day, launching a new newscast, or filling in for someone on vacation or sick, the news days were generally long and exhausting.

I’ve had people throughout my career comment on the number of hours I worked, from “You are the hardest worker I know” to “I feel so sorry for you, all you do is work” to “How are you still awake right now?”.

I just didn’t know any better. I watched my dad leave before the sun came up and come home long after it set and then took a daughter to a sporting event or practiced. I rarely saw the man rest before 10 pm as he also had a train hobby in the basement he nurtured almost daily.

I didn’t grow up in a world of “rest and relaxation”. You seized the moments you could, but never – ever – just rested for resting sake.

Even as of late, when I work long hours, sometimes to the demise of the laundry pile and the grocery shopping, I still have one rule. “Do one thing for yourself today”. I honor it daily.

It starts with some Yoga stretches in the morning, in between work calls, in the bathroom, somewhere I can work on my back, now littered with arthritis (apparently because of my athletic background, how’s that for payback?), and my SI Joint that rubs up against L5 causing intense pain at times.

At least once a day, I do yoga breathing. Genetics gave me a weaker heart and my lifestyle piled insult onto identity. Breathing deeply in slow controlled movements helps me control the heartbeat. I found out earlier this year the lower chamber of my heart can be up to 225 times per minute, and I don’t even notice it. So yes, I’ve got meds, but I’ve also got the nurture I give it – albeit 20 years too late.

On the longest of workdays, under the most intense circumstances, I still do something for myself before going to bed. It might be brushing the dog, something he loves and helps me with the shedding, or watching part of “Vanderpump Rules”, or diving into a book even if I just make it to page 5. It’s a reward for the end of the day and a moment well-earned.

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I purposely buy soap with essential oils, as they help me. I could tell you for days that anything with Vetiver in it makes me feel 100% better just with a sniff – it’s great for pain, anxiety, and stress (Ahem – BURNOUT). I used up all the Thieves oil I could find when the pandemic first hit.

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THE MORE YOU KNOW: “Thieves Oil” gets its name from 14th century Europe. When the Bubonic Plague happened many people died, even really rich people. This plague was still contagious after you died, but thieves will find a way to steal. So, they would rub themselves in the oil we now know as “Thieves” and it would protect them from the plague while they robbed the dead of valuables.

I think during all the times I might have experienced what many call burnout, I was more thinking of the people on the other side of my workload. During post 9/11 – why was I complaining about being tired when some people were still suffocating or being crushed to death? During a hurricane – why was I worried about my sleep when I could sleep through something destructive, and my assistance might be needed? During sports practice – it didn’t matter that I could be good, I knew I could be better. You don’t get to be cleanup batter and homerun record-setters by taking time off for mental health.

HACK: I learned early in my sports career, I was not a fast runner. And I didn’t like running, to begin with. I remember sitting in the car with my dad on the way to the batting cages saying “I can’t run fast, so if I just hit home runs I don’t have to run fast. I can take my time.” He laughed and said, “Ok. Just hit home runs”, with a tone of sarcasm in his voice. Little did he know he just triple-dogged dared me to hit home runs. My shining moment of life was the year I hit a home run over the fence. It was such a powerful smack that a boy’s baseball coach approached me after the game and said “I have to shake the hand of the girl who hit that ball. That was a beautiful shot.” Then and there I decided I would be the first baseman for the Cardinals when I grew up.

As someone who believes that being on time means being 10 minutes early, I always arrived to work early. I believed, as my dad had, you should get there before your boss and leave after he/she leaves. That’s a good worker.

I didn’t know any better. And I never said, “I feel burned out”. I never thought that working hard at something you loved qualified.

But let me tell you something you don’t know yet if you are grinding it out in your 20’s and early 30’s. Hangovers eventually last days instead of hours. Your body starts to bark back at poor posture leaning over a computer or carrying the heavy tripod incorrectly. You start to see the cracks of being a mere mortal and not the invincible worker you thought you were.

You find different things are important in your personal life, you develop the courage of your convictions, you know your limits and boundaries, and can FINALLY vocalize them. You feel like you paid your dues and now you are a member so you shouldn’t have to do all those things you once did.

Only it’s not always like that. There are moments of grind and 12-hour days, and you learn to appreciate an hour of your own time or a full weekend without work. There is still pressure, maybe of a different kind, when you work up the ladder or bigger markets. There are more generations mixed in with their own perception of “hard work” and “going above and beyond” and “wanting gratitude”.

For me, I don’t like any attention drawn to me in any way. It’s a gutting, humiliating experience. Even the day I returned to work after my mom died, I was more upset at all the looks I was getting during that workday. I finally walked out and bellowed “Please stop looking at me like the woman whose mom just died, I’m still the same me, working hard.” I couldn’t and can’t stand pity.

But in all these stories I have, YOU have your own stories. Your own fundamental building moments that make you the worker you are now. You want certain things and won’t give up on other things.

I’ve noticed it in hiring the past 3-5 years. People aren’t willing to work weekends or overnights, period. Not even the ones who need to “pay dues” want that. They’ll take less pay for a better shift or stay at a lower position to avoid getting promoted to a position with “those hours”.

I’ve even had people say “I don’t want to work the way you work” when I ask if they want to be a boss. I tell you “You don’t have to. This is my choice and I absolutely love what I do. It’s not working for me when I update the web on a weekend morning. It’s not a problem to hammer out a schedule in the quiet of a Sunday evening.” To me, it’s just more time I get to talk with people that week instead of being holed up in an office waiting for a focused moment that will never come.

The real crux of the problem, the key signifier of “burnout” is this one magic, important, life-changing word.

Indifference.

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When you become indifferent to what you are doing and how hard you are working, that’s the trigger of burnout the way I see it. When “good enough” is a mantra instead of a “busting this package out in 30 minutes” requirement, you need to pause.

When you are diving into an investigative story that is your heart and soul, you don’t miss the dinner with friends. You are doing important work. When you are walking through a leveled neighborhood after a tornado you aren’t griping about a work-life balance and you know you are facing long days ahead.

As Hurricane Irma moved toward our newsroom in 2017, I had a lot of people who just wouldn’t go to sleep. I had done the schedules and I knew they should be sleeping. They were too wired to sleep. I’d pull them aside and say “You are going to need all your energy after this storm hits. Either lay down or go read a book during your ‘off hours’ (we were trapped in a building boarded up after all, not like they could leave), stay out of the newsroom chaos. You are going to work and become exhausted for when we really need you. I can’t have 5 exhausted reporters when the all-clear is given. We’ve got stories to tell out there.” Hell, even I only slept as Hurricane Irma bore down. I knew my crews were safe, the meteorologists were in charge, the crawl was updated, and I could do nothing more than take my own advice – get some sleep – good sleep without worry or mind racing. I made a point every day to ask people “Do you need a day or two off?” and then acted accordingly. I’m not going to force them to take a day off, because I know the calling is as strong as the one between the moon and ocean. But I’m going to bend to their willpower when times are tough.  

But it’s when you stop caring about what you are doing. When you feel like nothing you do is good enough. When a job well done is greeted with how you could do it better. When you ask for help that never comes. When you reach out to the people who are supposed to support and lift you up just don’t. That’s the catalyst of what I consider burnout.

Good employees will put in the extra effort when they feel appreciated. Good bosses will realize when someone is on the cusp and ask how they can help, whether it’s just listening or ordering food or giving them an assignment that is their cup of tea.

I once had a beloved colleague who was also one of “my people” I could talk to about anything. The conversations had with looks across a conference table. The drive around the block that solved all the problems. We had a line we used on each other that always helped.

“Stop expecting YOU from people.”

When you judge the people around you by what YOU can handle, you are setting yourself up for disappointment or jealousy. When you consider your work ethic the litmus test of work ethic for everyone, you are negating their skills and areas for growth. You have to learn a hard lesson, and it took me the better part of two decades to learn this – You are there to help make them the best THEY can be, not the best YOU can be.

There is a long-running joke in every newsroom I’ve been in – if I plan a vacation something bad is going to happen. Hurricane Irma happened. 6 people quit happened. The Monte Carlo caught on fire. It snowed 6-8 inches in Las Vegas of all places.

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But there is a method to my “work hard” mentality. Work Hard Play Hard is the anthem of Gen X. I will work my tail off for you, putting off life as needed, because it’s important for the company and this community. BUT – I will always have a light at the end of the tunnel. I purposely look for that light when I start any major project.

Recently I decided to get a puppy at the end of a long project at work. It was perfect. I’d need a break, and I could get a puppy and take 10 days off to train her. I could kick back and play with a puppy while the news world went on and my brain could be anywhere BUT the office because I did what I needed to do and was damn proud of my efforts.

But then, work changed. I had to cancel that vacation and balance a puppy and hefty workload. Before I did anything, I IMMEDIATELY found the light at the end of the tunnel. My birthday week was coming up Mid-September and I’d take that off. I’d get so much farther ahead on the project and the staffing and then I’d really, genuinely, totally be able to unplug. I’d feel proud of the efforts and the team would know I trusted them (though I’d always be available for breaking news).

One of the only real vacations I’ve ever taken was a Mexican Riviera Cruise. It was, again, my birthday week – a critical time for me to be off if there isn’t a Category 4 storm aimed at me. Birthdays were a big deal in my house growing up and the habit stuck through adulthood.

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 It was the most relaxing time I can remember, sitting in our spa suite and watching sunsets over Cabo. It was also one of the most stressful times I can remember because I couldn’t check email (those damn international roaming charges). I didn’t know what was happening in the news world, and I couldn’t do anything about what WAS happening. As we pulled to the port of Long Beach, I ate breakfast as fast as I could eat through the emails, and see what I missed.

I remember in the week of 9/11 a reporter who was one of the best at our Memphis station was in Seattle for the week, taking a much-needed time off work. She saw the news and tried to fly back, but of course, couldn’t. That started her 2-3 day-long drive across the country to get back to work. You can’t work in news without knowing some vacations are going to get canceled.

But when you dread coming to work, when being there just smelling the scent of the office makes you nauseous, when you are indifferent to if you do “great” or “okay” today, you are probably on the burnout scale.

In fact, here’s one of those questionnaires from AstraZeneca that help you determine if you are “Burned Out”.

1. I feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy.

2. I have negative thoughts about my job.

3. I am harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve.

4. I am easily irritated by small problems, or by my co-workers and team.

5. I feel misunderstood or unappreciated by my co-workers.

6. I feel that I have no one to talk to.

7. I feel that I am achieving less than I should.

8. I feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed.

9. I feel I am not getting what I want out of my job.

10. I feel that I am in the wrong organization or the wrong profession.

11. I am frustrated with parts of my job.

12. I feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate my ability to do a good job.

13. I feel that there is more work to do than I practically have the ability to do.

14. I feel that I do not have time to do many of the things that are important to doing a good quality job.

15. I find that I do not have time to plan as much as I would like to.

Look how many of those things are being controlled by what others can (or don’t) do and how many are directly related to the work YOU do.

Check out how many you could address immediately with a supervisor or HR. Which ones would help you if you talked to a counselor (check your company for an EAS) to help balance this? There is no shame in asking for help.

Tackle this list as catharsis for yourself and make an action plan. For example, make notes (these are for example, not ME answering):

1.     I feel run down and drained of physical or emotional energy.

I should see a sleep specialist about my insomnia. Maybe get blackout blinds or a noise machine. I’m going to stop looking at my phone an hour before bedtime. I’m going to talk to my boss about the hours I work and ask if that’s an expectation or pressure I’m putting on myself.  

2.     I have negative thoughts about my job.

What are those negative thoughts? I’m going to detail them here. I feel underappreciated. My desk is far from the people I need to interact with. I keep being told I am not doing well but don’t get advice on how to do better. Etc.

3.     I am harder and less sympathetic with people than perhaps they deserve.

I do not think this applies to me.

4.     I am easily irritated by small problems, or by my co-workers and team.

I know when I feel this way and I am going to practice positive thinking or have a “day without complaining” and challenge myself to be better.

5. I feel misunderstood or unappreciated by my co-workers.

Do I make my co-worker feels that way? I’m going to suggest a “potluck” or some kind of “one compliment a day” to someone who helps me and maybe that will become contagious.  

6. I feel that I have no one to talk to.

I feel this way but I know it’s not true. There are work resources to help me with this and a list of family and friends who can help, but they can’t read my mind. I need to speak up.  

7. I feel that I am achieving less than I should.

I do not think this applies to me.

8. I feel under an unpleasant level of pressure to succeed.

I have always been this way and need to remind myself to allow myself grace as I learn and grow and balance new challenges in a “new normal” world.

9. I feel I am not getting what I want out of my job.

What else would I do? What am I good at? Do I need to return to school? How long have I felt this way? If it’s recent, then I don’t want linger on it. I’m going to talk to my friend Rhonda who switched careers and get her input.

10. I feel that I am in the wrong organization or the wrong profession.

I’m going to apply for some other jobs and see what other cultures are out there in the workplace. I might be just be overwhelmed or this might not be the right place for me.

11. I am frustrated with parts of my job.

I mean, c’mon, who isn’t? But are they critical parts of the job, or just things that aren’t in your periscope?

12. I feel that organizational politics or bureaucracy frustrate my ability to do a good job.

I need to discuss the expectations with my supervisor so I can better understand if this is real or perceived.

13. I feel that there is more work to do than I practically have the ability to do.

I do not feel this way, but I know others who do and I can help them.

14. I feel that I do not have time to do many of the things that are important to doing a good quality job.

Who can I talk to that will help me overcome this? What are my priorities today and what defines their success?

15. I find that I do not have time to plan as much as I would like to.

I always make time to plan, even at the expense of my personal time, but when I am genuinely doing something important, I know when to re-assign duties.

I don’t think we should judge someone who is “burned out”. We are seeing too many GOOD people leave this news business because of burnout or inability to handle the stress in a changing world with budget cuts and equipment that is “old” within months of buying it.

We are drawn to journalism as a calling, not a job. I had a great candidate once tell me his job of high-stress and pressure was fun, but he didn’t feel like he was “making anything or building anything” and he wanted to have proof of a job well done that was important to the community. I have full faith this person is going to be a great leader in the industry.

I hope I never hear this person “burned out” and went back.

I think we need to let people define their own “burnout” and act accordingly. Some people need a day off once a month, others like me want a full week off, if not 10 days at a time. Neither is wrong. When you apply compassion and grace to colleagues and let them make their decisions about when they need to unplug, you are getting back a much better person.

I can’t tell you more than the definition of burnout and I don’t have the perfect solution but take some time to figure out what it would mean for YOU to go from “burned out” to “working hard and I don’t mind”. Really dig into it. Define it for yourself. But when you start NOT caring about your work, that’s the first clue you need to figure out a different path, whether it’s forward, sideways, or backward.

You control how “burned out” you will be. There isn’t a newsroom in the world that doesn’t have someone who can help with this. From EAP forms you didn’t look at but should, to the benefits guide that lays our free counseling services you didn’t realize. And if you ask for help and don’t get it, then maybe you aren’t in the right place. Or maybe you need to suck it up. Only YOU can decide what’s right for you.

You don’t need Merriam-Webster to define it for you – but it might be the starting point to find out the right words for what you are feeling.

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