I recently had lunch with a group of friends and work colleagues. Before our server even approached our table to take our drink order, one of my friends said, "I am soooo stressed out." When we asked her why, she told us about a sticky work conversation she was going to have to facilitate the next day. As she reflected on her work situation in general and her corresponding stress levels, she wondered out loud whether she was burned out. Soon, all of our heads were nodding as we regaled each other with our stories about being busy -- it was like a poker game of stress stories. I'll see you your frustration with your boss and raise you a difficult conversation I need to have with my mom.
Busy has become a badge of honor, particularly at work. The more you bill or sell and the more clients you have, the more you are valued, seen as important, and worthy. For many years, my worth was tied to my title -- who was I if I wasn't a lawyer? I had to wrestle with that question when I left my law practice and started a new business doing something completely different, and let me tell you, it wasn't easy. My busyness covered up a whole lot of stuff in my life that I didn't want to face.
The Price of "Crazy-Busy"
Being busy isn't a bad thing as long as it's purposeful, but too many people go from busy, to addicted to busy, to burned out. When Type A, perfectionist, workaholic, overachievers get busy, they work harder and stay later. When this behavior gets rewarded, it fuels more of the same, and then burnout and other issues may appear.
For lawyers, it shows up as high rates of alcoholism, depression and suicide. Researchers have studied the prevalence of major depressive disorder (MDD) in 104 occupations and found that lawyers suffered from MDD at a rate 3.6 times higher than non-lawyers. Approximately 3 to 5 percent of the general population suffers from MDD, yet the instance of MDD exceeds 10 percent for lawyers.
A Harris Interactive survey of 500 health care workers and 240 U.S. health care employers revealed that 60 percent of health care workers say they are burned out on their jobs. Twenty-one percent always or often feel burned out, and of that group, 67 percent plan to look for a new job this year. Among practicing physicians, one-third are burning out at any given time.
A recent study among IT professionals showed that 81 percent of entry level to mid-level and 65 percent of senior-level respondents said that stress on the job is causing them to check out other job opportunities.
The Crazy-Busy Addiction
People also use busyness as a shield to avoid confronting unpleasant truths in their lives. In her New York Times bestseller, Daring Greatly, Dr. Brene Brown argues that people use different numbing strategies as armor against vulnerability -- showing other people who you really are. And before you think that this doesn't apply to you because you're not numbing with drugs or alcohol, Dr. Brown talks about one of the most prevalent numbing strategies people use - something she calls "crazy-busy." She says, "I often say that when they start having 12-step meetings for busy-aholics, they'll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who've bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won't catch up with us."
If you're stuck in crazy-busy land, where do you even start to come up for air? Here are three strategies to begin digging yourself out:
Set boundaries. You've heard this a million times, but you do really need to establish firm boundaries around your time and your energy. Consider the following system:
Ditch it: Is this something I have to do at all -- can I let it go completely?
Delegate it: Is this something I can delegate or offload to someone else?
Deal with it: If it's something that is depleting and I have to do it, how can I make it better?
Or, follow the advice of best-selling author and life coach, Dr. Martha Beck: If you're wondering whether to say yes or no to something, choose the answer that feels like freedom. Period.
Establish your balance builders and balance busters. I do this exercise in my resilience trainings to help people think about how to manage their energy and rethink what work/life balance really means. Make a table with four squares labeled as follows: Balance Builders -- Work; Balance Builders -- Non-Work; Balance Busters -- Work; and Balance Busters -- Non-Work. Balance builders are those activities that build your energy and rejuvenate you while balance busters are those activities that deplete or drain your energy. I'm always shocked at how much time we spend doing activities that drain us -- both at work and outside of work. In fact, in my last training, the participants realized that they spent 90 percent of their time doing activities that drained them and only 10 percent of their time doing activities that energized and rejuvenated them! No wonder we're burning out.
Get mentally fit. A fundamental tenet of cognitive science is that your thoughts drive your emotions and reactions. When you have an emotion or reaction to a stress producing event that you don't like or that surprises you, map out what you were thinking in the heat of the moment right before you reacted. Developing self-awareness around your thinking will help you get better at processing your emotions and reactions in a way that will help you stop undercutting your performance and instead, build resilience.
In order to fully recover from my burnout, I had to take a hard look at what was driving my addiction to busy. I missed many warning signs along the way and had to have some tough conversations with myself and other people. In reflecting on my own journey, I'm reminded of a quote from Gloria Steinem: "The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off."
Paula Davis-Laack, JD MAPP, is the Founder and CEO of the Davis Laack Stress & Resilience Institute, a practice devoted to helping busy professionals prevent burnout. Paula is the author of the e-book, 10 Things Happy People Do Differently.
The idea for the ditch it, delegate it, deal with it system came from my friend and colleague, Gretchen Pisano.
For more information about cognitive strategies, see Judith S. Beck (2011). Cognitive Behavior Therapy Basics and Beyond, 2nd Ed. New York: The Guilford Press.