Work increasingly intrudes on our personal lives. The ubiquity of mobile phones and other portable devices, and the dominance of email in business communications contributes to a break down of effective boundaries between work, on the one hand, and leisure, and family and personal life on the other. 'Always-on' work environments are redefining what the norm is.

Exacerbating this trend, economic developments and major global shifts are creating professional relationships and expectations that extol high responsiveness and doing more with less. Unhelpfully, we also often see a correlation between workaholic tendencies and increased professional success. This increases the incentive to develop osmotic boundaries between our work and personal lives, and to demand more of ourselves, more of the time. It isn't without irony that we often work through the warning signs that we're overstressed and that a burnout might be approaching.

Burnout is defined as a syndrome in which one experiences emotional exhaustion, diminished personal accomplishment, and depersonalisation (where you become detached from others, and lose the feeling of connection to your work, team, or role). Where you are exposed to the possibility of experiencing all three states in your work, you are more likely to burn out.

Typically we consider burnout risk in terms of the nature of a job and the individual characteristics of the person who experiences it. Jobs that expose you to prolonged, high-level stress come to mind, including social work, health care, and investment banking. We also think of organisational factors that invoke anxiety and unhappiness, such as phases of high turnover or lay-offs.

In their article "Emotional Labor and Burnout: Comparing Two Perspectives of 'People Work'", Celeste Brotheridge and Alicia Grandey (2002) propose a more nuanced consideration of the "emotionally-effortful" aspects of working with people, particularly in jobs such as management. They posit that emotional demands and self-management of one's emotions can create positive outcomes, not just stress. For instance, managing our internal thoughts and feelings to generate the "right" emotions intuitively feels like something that would create greater emotional exhaustion. However, in Brotheridge and Grandey's study, this kind of deep emotion work was related to personal accomplishment - a key mitigator of burnout.

This work seems to suggest the value of developing a heightened awareness of your own boundaries. When, where, and in what circumstances are you most likely to switch from positive outcomes to negative, stress-inducing ones? In some ways, the trick lies in knowing your personal tipping points and warning signals. It also lies in a keen awareness of what becoming overstressed or burnt out could mean for your career. It is one thing to try to avoid burn out and another to acknowledge that we are often not incentivised to do something about it until it's too late. Anticipate and look for the costs that:

  • Becoming disconnected from others could have?
  • Feeling un-related to your work, team, and role could have?
  • Experiencing a decreased sense of accomplishment could have (diminished personal accomplishment)?
  • Becoming emotionally exhausted could have?

In each case, where a drive to perform pushes you to overwork or maintain poor work-life balance, think about the impact on your performance and interpersonal capacities. Once you understand what could be at stake for you, think about developing some strategies you can use to bring you back to a healthier place.

Example: You are invested in developing an approachable, friendly leadership style and have an open-door policy. You find it deeply rewarding to see the positive effect this has on team morale and engagement, and are proud to foster a collegial culture in your department. However, you have noticed that towards the end of the month, when reports are due in, you become anxious in anticipation of interruptions. If you're not careful, with the other pressures on you at this time, this has often been the straw that breaks the camel's back as you find yourself becoming increasingly frazzled and disengaged. Here, it would be worth developing personal “interventions” for yourself to mitigate any sense of emotional exhaustion or depersonalisation. For example, you may wish to instate non-interruptible work blocks from 9-11am for the last week of every month. Alternatively, you might cut back on another end-of-month commitment you have.

Brotheridge, C. M., & Grandey, A. A. (2002). Emotional Labor and Burnout: Comparing Two Perspectives of 'People Work'. Journal of Vocational Behaviour, 60, 17-39.

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