Six Questions You Need to Ask Yourself at Work
These answers may help you figure out if you’re burned out.
Posted March 27, 2016
Tick tock. Tick tock. Some psychologists are using the phrase “72/7 world” to describe the current speed and pace of life, especially at work. It seems a bit nostalgic to even suggest “24 hours a day / 7 days a week” anymore, since it’s an outdated measure of how fast the clock actually seems to spin. There is just never enough time for every e-mail, every phone call, every meeting, every customer or client emergency, or every sit-down with your boss or meetings with your co-workers. Tales of people lying in bed and sending out e-mails or texts until the moment they drop off to sleep, no doubt from exhaustion, are so common that to not to do that every night suggests you’re some kind of hippie slacker with no sense of responsibility to your firm or career ambitions.
All of this makes many people dread the alarm clock (usually their iPhone, set to some hideous ring designed to hard-jangle them out of an already-short slumber). When time management experts like The Four-Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss suggest not answering e-mails more than a few times per day and not looking at your phone at least an hour before bed or until you’ve been up for at least an hour, many stressed-to-the-max employees nod politely and think, “Yeah? Well, that might work for some people, but if I want to keep my job, I’m expected to be reachable and provide answers and information on someone else’s time terms.”
As Larry David said to Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes,” as he described trying to muster the energy to get out of bed during his pre-Seinfeld days, which were not too financially successful, “What? This again?”
And so it may feel for you: another day that starts at dawn, pushing the rock up the hill, only to have it roll back down again at sunset. Everybody gets a little blue at work, a little bored and tired, a little sick of the tedium of being around the same customers, clients, taxpayers, visitors, vendors, co-workers, and bosses, day after freaking day. It’s rare to see someone fabulously happy very day at work (unless they’re on drugs or had a swig of bourbon in the parking lot before crossing the threshold of the building). Most people feel pretty good about their jobs; it usually beats not having one and there are lost of reasons to like what they do. But for people that are miserable, every day, the unsettling concept of burnout starts to be a concern.
We can define job burnout as a collection of feelings that lead you to the conclusion that you are unfulfilled, under or over-used, de-motivated, unhappy, sad, angry, stressed, or anxious about your future here and the idea of doing what you’re doing for the next 5 to 35 years doesn’t seem so appealing. Job burnout is not caused by a slash by a samurai sword; it’s more like death by a thousand little cuts. Tired Pony (and Snow Patrol) lead singer Gary Lightbody says it so well: “It’s not one thing or the other; it’s all things, all at once.” (1)
Some introspection and a little measurement can help assess your current level of job burnout. Consider the following six questions as a way to determine your level of job burnout as either Low, Medium, or High. If you answer these honestly and deeply, your conclusions as to whether you should stay, transfer, or quit can become easier to determine. Whether you answer these questions in your head or on paper (always a better choice), the point of the exercise is to give you perspective.
“What do I like about my job?”
What gives you pleasure about your work and your work environment? Do you feel appreciated, listened to, valued, praised, and rewarded for your efforts? What part of your work makes you feel excited? What part of your job do you enjoy doing the most? When given the choice of how to structure your day, what do you turn to first? People that say they like their jobs feel connected to the organization, and part of its shared fate. They feel energized by their interactions with colleagues, bosses, and clients, not beaten down by those encounters. They feel adequately paid, given decent benefits, and are allowed the chance to grow both in their current jobs and in their potential expanding careers.
“What do I hate about my job?”
“The food in this restaurant is awful,” says one diner to his friend, in a really old joke. “Yeah,” says the friend, “and such tiny portions too.” And so it goes with work: I hate the pay, the hours, the work, my boss, and my co-workers, but it is close to my house. If your list of “I hate this” about your job is long, that’s a good first sign about being burned out.
“What do my co-workers do that makes my job easier?”
An old management adage says you don’t quit your job, you quit your boss. Maybe. Having a lousy boss can certainly make your work day stressful, unpleasant, and miserable, but consider that you spend a lot more time with your co-workers than you do with your boss. Some people only see their bosses once or twice in the work day, or not at all if they are managed remotely. You spend most of your day working with (or battling with) your colleagues and that time is critical to your success individually and as a team. Supportive, kind, patient co-workers can create the same feelings from you. Having good friends at work, who you can trust, who keep their promises, and who don’t have hidden agendas, make it worth coming to the office every day.
“What do my co-workers do that makes my job harder?”
Do you find yourself in constant personality clashes with your colleagues? Do you feel singled out, roughed up, gossiped about, or ignored by them? Do they sabotage your efforts, or fail to provide you with the information or tools you need to do your work successfully and on deadline? Do they tattle-tale on you to the bosses? Do they fail to keep promises they’ve made in meetings? Do they over-promise and under-perform? Do you feel harassed or bullied by one or more of them? Do you dread having to meet alone with some of them, work on a team project, or collaborate with other departments, knowing the end result will not be successful or satisfying?
“What does my boss do that makes my job easier?”
On the positive, what does your boss do that makes your work more fulfilling? How does he or she energize you at work? Do you get opportunities to go to new or advanced training classes? Does he or she consider you for new assignments, new challenges, or more delegated tasks that grow your job duties and expand your current scope of work? Does he or she run interference for you with senior management or customers and clients to protect you when you’ve done the right thing? Do you get praise in public and feedback in private? Does he or she catch you doing good things and give you coaching when you need a course correction?
“What does my boss do that makes my job harder?”
All bosses have little quirks and eccentricities, some of which are more tolerable than others. This is the question that asks how your boss drives you crazy, not with little things, but with the big ones. How does your boss put obstacles in your way or fail to remove obstacles that make you happier or more successful with your work efforts? Is your boss a micro-manger, a missing manager, a bully, a passive-aggressive specialist, a glory hog, or a credit-seeker? Does he or she fail to give you information about your work or your future and doesn’t dole out much praise?
Your answers to these six questions may be predictable or sometimes even startling. You may already have known the answers intuitively, so the effort to consider them now or write them down can help you steer toward the answers you know in your heart and head.
As many career counselors advise, the best time to polish up your resume is when you already have a job. If you’ve reached the breaking point, and the stress of work is affecting your life satisfaction, maybe it’s time to look elsewhere. A job you love, which pays less money, is always more satisfying than a job you hate which pays you more. Like a bad relationship, if you can’t think of a reason to stay, you don’t need a reason to leave. It doesn’t sound like it at the time, but this truth reveals itself when you actually find the job you love.
(1) Tired Pony,”All Things All at Once,” from their 2013 album, “The Ghost of the Mountain.”
Dr. Steve Albrecht is internationally-known for his writing, speaking, and training on workplace violence and school violence prevention. He manages a San Diego-based firm specializing in high-risk HR, security, and work culture issues. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an MA in Security Management, a BS in Psychology, and a BA in English. He has written 17 books, including Ticking Bombs: Defusing Violence in the Workplace, one of the first books on workplace violence subject. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. You can hear his weekly Crime Time radio show, at CrimeTimeRadio.com. He can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht