Burnout Busters

By Hank Berkowitz • November 6, 2012

It’s late August. You’re working late again in a virtually empty office. Most of your colleagues are happily on vacation, by the pool or soaking up full-blast AC with friends or family at the local bistro, movie theater or mall. If you think you’re the only association professional burning the proverbial candle at both ends, you’re not alone. The good news is that your work ethic, talent, reliability and perfectionist tendencies have talent.

The good news is that your work ethic, talent, reliability and perfectionist tendencies have enabled you to hold on to your job during the worst job market in a generation. The bad news is that your work ethic, talent, reliability and perfectionist tendencies have gotten you into a vicious cycle. Your superiors, peers and subordinates all feel they can count on 24/7 to get the job done, take on yet another task and deliver it on time, on budget and with flying colors.

Any of this sounding familiar?

  • Highly diligent, reliable employees are often the ones most prone to burnout – and least likely to recognize it.
  • Burnout is the result of chronic, unmanaged stress that can deplete you of your physical, mental and emotional durability.
  • Burnout can be both a short-term or chronic problem.
  • Everyone has different ways of coping with stress. Experts say it’s important to recognize the early signs of burnout and know which coping mechanism works best for you or someone close to you.


“Employees most prone to burnout tend to be the best workers whom everyone relies on to go the extra mile,” observed Jessica Hartung, who led a standing-room-only breakout session at last week’s ASAE Annual Meeting & Expo in Dallas. “Perfectionists are also prime candidates for burnout.”

Defining burnout

Hartung, founder of Boulder, Colo.-based professional development firm Integrated Work, said burnout is the result of chronic unmanaged stress and symptoms include, “Feeling worn down and depleted of one’s physical, mental and emotional capacity and durability.” As a result, she said sufferers often feel overwhelmed, exhausted and feel that work is no longer meaningful.

Experts say there are two types of burnout: short-term and long-term. Short-term burnout is a highly stressful time in your life that has a clear, identifiable endpoint, such as a planning a big move, a wedding, a huge project or a big conference. Long-term stress is more daunting because it has no finite end. Hartung said long-term stress manifests itself in a series of life patterns that can follow you from job to job or from relationship to relationship. “Most burned out folks are going so fast they don’t even realize it,” she added.

Burnout happens over time

Experts say there are four key phases to burnout:

Description Symptoms
1. Everything is a top priority You feel trapped and unable to focus 100 percent.
2. Your energy is diminishing Fear, self-doubt and guilt about not keeping up that is sapping your energy.
3. Going through the motions By this phase, family, friends and co-workers are starting to notice your stress, too.
4. Joyless Denial is one of the key indicators and is what prevents you from taking action.

Sources: Integrated Work; Leiter and Maslach, Association Adviser interviews

“It’s definitely a big problem in our office,” according to Monique (last name withheld), an administrator for a Washington, D.C. healthcare association. “There’s too much to do and not enough time to do it all with all the cutbacks we’ve had,” she told me recently. “Everyone’s afraid to complain.”

Guillermo (last name withheld), an executive for a Mexican tourism bureau, echoed Monique’s sentiments, but he said that honesty in the workplace, not work/life balance per se is what helps him reduce stress the most. “I expect my co-workers and superiors to be honest with me about what’s expected, what they’re doing and new problems on the horizon.”

Chip Tatum, CEO of the Apartment Association of Greater Orlando (AAGO), who has a background in organizational and industrial psychology, is evaluating many of his organization’s processes, including employee retention and turnover risk. “We’re fortunate to have many high-performing long-term employees, but several are nearing retirement age. They’re carrying a huge amount of responsibility, and definitely, there’s a very high potential for burnout when their successors come on board.”

Strategies to prevent you from feeling overwhelmed

Tip Description
1. Narrow your focus Don’t spread yourself too thin.
2. Moderate You don’t have to cover every assignment from A to Z. Most times, just going from A to H will do.
3. Multitask Take every opportunity you can to kill two birds with one stone, even if the end result is not 100 percent perfect.
4. Outsource Ask for and get help ASAP. Delegate wherever possible and tap into volunteers, co-workers, interns, your professional network for help.
5. Focus on what’s important You can’t do everything well all the time. Narrow your focus on what absolutely must get done today.

Sources: Integrated Work; Leiter and Maslach, Association Adviser interviews

Some folks meditate or do yoga to cope with stress. Some run or take long walks. Others hit the heavy bag or go a few rounds in the batting cage. Whatever it is, recognize the earliest signs of burnout and understand the coping mechanism that works best for you. Experts say stress management is a “personal journey” that neither your human resource department nor your trusted co-workers can really help you with.

Whether you work in a traditional office, a home office or out in the field, Hartung recommends taking lots of short mental health breaks throughout the day–and not feeling guilty about doing so. As ASAE President John Graham observed, it’s essential to “re-energize and recharge” regularly. “The biggest issue is recognizing the problem early on,” he said, “and how you respond to stress is different for every person.”

For more insights from Graham, see the Corner Office profile from August 2012.

Congratulations if you’ve made it this far in the article. We hope it has helped. Now don’t read any further. Don’t save it, don’t tweet it, don’t print it out for co-workers and definitely don’t do a blog post about it. Just log off your computer or tablet and get out of the office. Everything will be there in the morning for you when you have more energy to conquer the world.

For more about this topic, Integrated Work offers a free guide, 15 Quick Ways to Renew Your Spirit at Work.

Hank Berkowitz is the moderator-in-chief of Association Adviser enews.