Burnout at Work

Are you among the 60% of us that are burned out at work? If so, here are some suggestions:

First, the Gallup Organization reports that burnout occurs after only 20 hours when you are not using your strengths. Apparently, the majority of Americans go to work and engage in tasks that do not involve use of their strengths.  To improve work satisfaction, Amy Wrzesniewski, Professor at Yale and callings expert, recommends that you increase the use of your interests, passions, values along with strengths for your main work tasks.  A strengths (e.g., Gallup StrengthsFinders or VIA) or values inventory (e.g., LuckStone Igniter or others) might provide ideas or insights for you to do this.

For example, one aspect of my job that I least enjoy is annual program reporting.  I have to crunch the data that someone else has requested.  Since the numbers are by and large pretty similar each year, the task is boring and requires considerable effort on my part to stay focused. However, by using my strengths of strategic and input, I can determine the most efficient way to gather the information and report it accurately and efficiently.  I can even look back over years of data to see if there are interesting trends (though usually there are not) or whether I should try to use this data to justify the creation of a new trend.  Using my strengths (with a bit of caffeine and sugar as a reward) to approach the task improves my performance and mood for the task.

Second, identify the meaning of your work.  I once did a mini-workshop on job crafting and asked participants to consider what is the meaning of their work.  Much to my surprise, there was laughter in the room, as if to say:  my work is completely pointless.  If you would’ve laughed too, then this task is even more important for you.

Seriously.  Ask yourself:  Why is your work role important?  Who relies on you to do a good job?  What unique contribution do you make in that job, compared to others who are in or who have been in that role?  If you can’t figure out at least one meaningful role or outcome in your job, that observation is also revealing.

Perhaps you really do have a job that is completely devoid of meaning. However, even mundane or dirty work can be highly meaningful.  Researchers Bunderson and Thompson studied callings among zookeepers and found that despite the hard work and dirty tasks (feeding and cleaning), zookeepers tend to have a high sense of calling with their work.  They find much meaning in what in what might be considered mundane tasks because they believe that they provide for the wellbeing of the animals, a high calling indeed.

In addition, consider whether you can identify a common theme across job tasks.  For instance, you may have to deal with problem customers and co-workers as part of your job.  A common theme is relationship management.  Is that something that you enjoy and would like to develop? Or perhaps you enjoy the problem-solving aspect of those tasks, which may be an area for further growth and development.

Finally, pay special attention to the most important and largest tasks on your list.  Can you tweak some of your duties so that you can increase use of your strengths, values, interests and passions?  Is there professional development available that can help you move more into those directions?  If not at work, what type of activities at home or in the community can provide that outlet and opportunity for you?  Who knows, your volunteer activities can help segue you to the job of your dreams and fuel you through your day job.

Seeing in 2-D

Did you know that our eyes see in 2 dimensions but our brain extrapolates the rest? The implications are stunning; the vast majority of what we see is extrapolated and inferred. We already know there are wavelengths of light and sound that are undetectable without special instrumentation. What other dimensions or sensory perceptions are we poorly or unaware of?

Visual perception, or what we think we see, is also a tricky phenomenon. So much of what we perceive depends on our focus as demonstrated by the famous invisible gorilla experiment. Our reality consists of what we focus on or notice, not necessarily what actually occurs.

The sum of these observations is that we live with a lot of mis- or incomplete information. However, we tend to be relatively certain about our beliefs, memory of events, and decisions given our inability to accurately perceive.

Though our lack of certainty can be fairly scary, it also affords a certain freedom; we have the prerogative of choosing the filter for our perception. For example, we each have a different take on someone’s comment or behavior. Do you choose a neutral, cynical, humorous, compassionate, critical, awe-filled, loving or competitive interpretation? Evolution and self-preservation means we have a tendency to interpret events as threatening, which means our initial response is most likely to be defensive or fearful. Choosing compassion, kindness, forgiveness, inspiration and a positive perspective as our filters may not be our automatic response, but they are more likely to give us peace and connection as the emotional products.

What world filter will give you the most joy and positive emotion? How can that change your reality? How would those around you respond to you if you perceived life through a rose-colored filter?

Needy People

Sometimes I feel like everything would grind to a halt if I weren’t keeping things running, and that no one appreciates me or what I do.   Do you ever feel this way?

I don’t actually feel this way too often these days though in my younger years I used to feel like this was more often true than not. I felt that those around me were needy, were unable to take responsibility for themselves (well, some of those someones were children), and that I had to do everything without thanks or acknowledgment. I felt powerless to change it because even asking for help or improvement seemed to make no difference. More importantly, asking for help also required that I admit to myself that I’m not Wonder Woman. I felt powerless and trapped.

The feelings that ensued included resentment, anger and despair. Such negative emotions are good because they signal the need for a change. I had to have a mega-ton of negative emotion before realizing that I was unable to change their behavior, so all I can do was change mine.

First, I had to recognize what I can and cannot control and influence. Though I was successful to some degree teaching my children to be self-sufficient, with adults I have to rely much more on influence. Either way, I had to learn that my ability to control others was zero and that it would be a responsibility that I would not want anyway.

Second, I had to realize what role I was playing in others’ helplessness. The more that I did for others, the more that help became expected or needed. Stepping out of the way and allowing others to be uncomfortable, fail, or flounder permits them to learn their own lessons. Stepping back also provides me a little sanity once I can find the balance of (mostly) avoiding Told You So with compassion for their struggle.

Third, I had to learn to acquire some perspective on my expectations. Is it the end of the world if someone forgets their homework, doesn’t make an A, the event isn’t flawless, or I look or appear less than perfect? Going from 95 to 100% is not worth the resulting exponential increase in stress. Consider the cost to benefit of “settling” for 95%.   I believe those around me feel it’s a good trade!

In short, I learned to stop being a martyr (that’s what it is) and quit doing things that would cause me to become resentful.  Most of the time, others were not even asking for my help. I just did them and then got mad at others because they were not sufficiently appreciative of my sacrifice.  Who is the needy one now?

Assumptions About Others

If you think about it, there’s so little in our world that we really understand. From the very nature of matter, mass, human psychology, and the universe, much of our reality is more unknown than understood. That space of not knowing can be a difficult place to sit. Optimally, not knowing provides a sense of wonder and awe. At worst, that space feels overwhelming, even scary. Humans seem to have a tendency to create explanations in attempt to understand the unknown.

It’s not just heaven and earth that I make assumptions about. I believe I make assumptions all day long, explaining the inconsistencies and unknown minutiae that populate my day.  My knowing assumptions make sense and order of the unknown so that I can move on. Most of those assumptions are probably inconsequential: the stranger next to me is safe; my car is in good working condition; I do not have any major lurking health issues; our kids have what they need. But which is not?

We may have limited power to turn those knowing assumptions into facts. I might be able to google the definition of a new word, but I can attain only a limited certainty about my health with my annual check ups. I can check in with my kids to make sure they’re doing well, but I don’t have access to their inner world. Nor may they. For that matter, parts of my inner world are not accessible to me either; more vast reaches of unknown space.

We may be able to turn precious few knowing assumptions into fact. For the rest, being less certain and more curious about the assumptions that impact our lives seem like a good idea. For example, if your life’s ambition or wellbeing depends on X being available and in good working order, then regular objective assessments and maintenance of X may minimize unpleasant surprises. If one’s unhappy state of mind is the result of someone else’s feelings or opinions, realize that you cannot know their inner world and what they really feel or think. Even if they’re acting out against you, it may be more about them than anything personally related to you.

To make matters worse, confirmation bias says that we tend to only notice data that confirms our beliefs and ignore data that contradict them. In other words, evidence of the forgiving interpretation may be right under our nose but we may fail to see it.

Which beliefs in your life are more assumption than fact? Which have created or the potential to create a real problem in your life? Recognize that the belief is really a theory and explore different hypotheses. Chances are, you’ll never know the complete truth so you might as well take the forgiving and peaceful view. Use the confirmation bias to your favor and notice the data that confirms the kind interpretation, then let someone else work to prove you wrong.

What Are You Entitled To?

I’ve been pondering the duality of entitlement. On one hand, entitlement is easy to see in others as an undesirable quality that is related to narcissism. While it can be entertaining to observe others’ narcissism, such as the celebrity temper tantrum.

Seeing such entitlement in others is easy and often amusing, but less fun and more difficult when it occurs in our homes and workplaces or when i’s our own.

Probably like most people, I’m not so tuned into my own sense of entitlement. I don’t feel I’m particularly attracted to luxury items, so in that respect I think I do OK. But I have to admit that I feel that we all are entitled to clean air and water, good education, safe neighborhoods and basic health care.

I also believe that we’re entitled to fairness in our schools, workplaces, and judicial system. People of all races, ethnicities, sexual orientation, religions, genders, sexual identities, and economic backgrounds should have the same opportunity for success (or failure) as everyone else. But those determinations of fairness and equity are usually subjective and based on standards that are not always race/gender/sex/economic background-neutral.

Despite the difficulty of subjective standards, a large part of me feels we are all entitled to such things, even though those things we largely take for granted are mere fantasies for much of the world. Is it a form of narcissism that I/we believe that we are entitled to these luxuries, like some collective delusion?

On the other hand, if we don’t feel entitled to justice or opportunity, we’re not likely to fight for it. We may not fight for improvement in our governments, organizations and communities without that sense of deserving.

Some healthy balance is in order.

When do we identify and fight for the justice that we deserve compared to when we just feel entitled to something that may not be ours? When do we decide to just work harder and practice humility and patience compared to when we raise our voices to finally get what we’ve earned? How do we best walk that line between justice and entitlement?

The answer will be something that I have to work for.

Are We Responsible For Others?

This ambiguous and loaded question may have elicited a gut response from you. I would guess the answer is probably yes since anyone who is caring for or supervising another will feel appropriately responsible for the health and wellbeing of that person. Without you, someone may go unfed, unclothed, or unemployed. If you don’t do your job, whether or not a salary is involved, someone else may have trouble meeting their basic needs. When it comes to children, those basic needs go beyond food and shelter and include intellectual, psychological, social, spiritual and physical development. Not only are parents responsible, but it’s one of the most important roles we’ll ever play.

However, where do the lines of responsibility fall beyond the above circumstances? Are we responsible for making sure our adult family members, friends or co-workers make the right choices for their health, safety or wellbeing?

What about our neighbors and those in the community? Does it matter if people in the community are living in poverty or are suffering if we don’t have to witness their pain each day?

I’ve surprised myself to realize that my opinion on these matters have done a 180 over the years. The old me would’ve spent a lot of time trying to control and influence those around me to do the ‘right thing’ while feeling fairly sheltered from the issues in the community or even nation. My little bubble was pretty small and I was going to make sure it and everyone in it was just right.

I’ve since learned that I unequivocally do not know what is right for other people, no matter how wrong I may think they are. (This pertains to matters that affect only them – I reserve the right to have an opinion when others may be adversely affected). These days, I try to be more curious about their perspective, explore their assumptions and beliefs with them, and start a dialog rather than telling them what they should or should not be doing. Instead of getting them to conform to my definition of happiness, I now try to support them as they pursue their own. As a result, I am a better listener and support for the other, rather than a judgmental antagonist.

I also feel very differently these days about the strangers around me. I’ve blogged before about how we’re all connected in an unseen, unknowable way. Though I still have a tendency to be a bit in my head (constantly amusing myself with the interesting swirl of thoughts), it’s harder for me now to treat the occasional stranger or the person on the news as someone who does not affect me.

This notion is difficult for some people to understand – I still struggle with it. Just imagine, for instance, how it feels when you walk into a room full of angry or upset family members. Then imagine if that anger or fear continues below the surface for months or years, even if that family lives far away. Now imagine that the emotion is joy or peace. What impact does that sustained emotion have on you? It’s not something you can see or touch, but it has an impact on others whether they’re in the same room, same neighborhood or different state. It’s stronger the closer the bond, but make no mistake, it exists even if you’ve never met the person.

My current reaction to the question above, are we responsible for others, is a bit of confusion. It’s a complicated question and the answer is not what I once thought. I suppose 20 years from now it may be 180 degrees different in yet another direction. Stay tuned!

Fear, Disappointment and Failure

I’ve had a few moments of clarity in my life when I realized a truth about myself and how I should live my life. An important turning point occurred when I was deciding my career path and facing my fear of failure pursuing the academic path.   Actually, I confronted this fear more than once while in graduate school and trying to get tenure. Each time I decided I would rather do my best and fail rather than decide I was a failure before someone else did. In other words, it was better to fail following my dreams and desires rather than to quit and live with regret.

Those watershed moments occurred because a major career-path decision was required.  However, we make decisions about big and small things all day long, but just because they’re relatively minor does not make them insignificant. Are those smaller, seemingly less consequential decisions are fear- or desire-based? Is fear or desire determining the overall direction of your life, one tiny decision at a time?

Fear may be an invisible compass in your life if you’re playing it too safe. What areas of your life are you not advancing or in self-protection mode? Where are you wearing your armor or having your guard up? How does that affect your relationships and ability to move forward in your life?

Perhaps you wish to avoid failure or being hurt or disappointed. That’s completely understandable but entirely unrealistic. Life is painful, and to spend our entire life trying to avoid pain and disappointment means we also avoid joy, deep connection and innovation.

The biggest risk is not taking any risk… In a world that is changing really quickly, the only strategy that is guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.- Mark Zuckerberg

What would your life be like without the constant undercurrent of fear? What would you be doing? Who would you be with?

Screw it, Let’s do it! – Richard Branson