As a 12-year veteran in the search industry, there have been moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing and how I was going to make it through another day. There’s a word for it – burnout – and it’s a problem in any industry, not just marketing.
So what is burnout, how do you identify it, and what do you do about it?
In short, burnout comes from being bored, resentful, or just plain exhausted.
The solution to burnout will vary with the specific cause, but I’ll share what worked for me.
As I expect many of us have all dealt with burnout, I hope you will share your experiences in the comments. Burnout can kill careers and make you miserable, but it’s a sign that something is wrong and that means there may be something you can fix.
How to Tell if You’re Burned Out
The first sign to look for is a simple lack of joy in your life and career. Misery at work. You find yourself using the word “hate” a lot – “I hate what I’m doing”; “I hate this project”; “I hate this office”.
You’ve become jaded; cynical. Your worldview is pessimistic and possibly resentful. You go into engagements with low expectations and often those expectations turn out to be justified.
You’re dealing with same problems again and again – the “here we go again syndrome.” Boredom. Repetition. You start to dread going into the office or opening your email app.
What Causes Burnout?
I’ve found that burnout seems to stem from a sense of resentment or anger at missing the things that are important to you.
For me, it was missing spending time with my young daughter, fly fishing, surfing, and getting some time in nature. I work in New York City. It’s a three-hour drive to anyplace worth being and a three-hour drive back in tough traffic.
For other people, burnout comes from overwork, which is a related issue. Low-margin industries rely on a churn-and-burn approach to employees. They can’t afford to hire enough so they overwork employees until they burnout, quit, and get replaced. Burnout is simply part of the business plan for some companies.
So you’re burned out. Now what?
Are You in the Right Job?
My view is the first thing to ask yourself is maybe you hated your job from the beginning, in which case you may just be in the wrong job. Or the wrong project.
For me, when I’m in a burned-out state I can no longer think clearly and it can affect the quality of my work. It’s also possible that you may just be in the wrong industry, job, or career.
Let’s face it, some jobs just really suck. So try to determine if it’s the job itself or the industry. My best advice: change organizations/companies to find out (or just take a long vacation).
Productivity Gives Way to ‘You Time’
When I first encountered burnout, I started to think hard about what I could do about it. One thing I decided was that I needed to be so productive that I could leave work at 5:30 p.m. and still deliver excellent quality thinking and work.
Try to get to the point where you are productive enough so you don’t need to spend 60 hours a week at your job in order to do well.
I also decided I needed to start writing more and getting more engaged with the search community. The industry moves fast, so paying close attention to the bleeding edge and building relationships with the people pushing things forward can help avoid burnout.
Sharpen the Saw
A good friend of mine said that she overcame burnout when she reframed herself as someone who was hired for her brain, not for her deliverables.
Instead of focusing on the output of your work, shift to focusing on your physical resources for doing that work. Neglecting to maintain your physical resources will only result in poor work quality anyway.
I can put in long hours when I have too. But when I don’t, I leave work early and take my daughter on a sunset picnic.
Start thinking of your brain as the primary resource, not the output (the deliverables).
Steven Covey’s ends his classic “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” with the maxim “Sharpen the Saw”. By this he means give yourself time for psychic, physical, and spiritual renewal.
Consider your brain and your body as a single unit. Treat it well. Don’t burn the candle at both ends. It’s a short-term solution and you want to be in this for the long haul.
The renowned mathematician Henri Poincaré felt the ideal workday for cognitive-intensive work is 4 hours. There are limits to what the human brain can do.
Think about your limits – are you giving yourself time to recover? Four-hour workdays may not be practical for most people, but think about how you can apply this concept to your life.
Talk to People About Burnout
Another thing is to talk to people about being burned out. This is a risky area, but telling your boss you may be getting burned out may be a necessary step to fixing things.
When an employee is burned out, the quality of their work will inevitably suffer, because they frankly “just aren’t feeling it”.
While I was working for a large-scale software developer, I eventually found myself struggling with burnout. So, I spoke with my supervisor and he worked with me to allow me to spend time working remote in the Catskills for several months where I could fly fish on the weekends without 6 hours of traffic hell.
Again, if you’re in a churn-and-burn company, talking to your boss may not help, but talking to other people will. They have ideas.
Stay Versatile and Consider Career Moves
For me, search marketing is a niche area. If you’ve spent more than a few years dedicated to one discipline you may be looking at issues of boredom and repetition even if you’ve avoided full-scale burnout.
Full-on career changes are hard, and they get harder as you get older. It might be easier to make a move into a related or adjacent career area.
You many not always need to start at the bottom either, because many skills can transfer, and just be applied in new ways. For example, moving from paid search to SEO, from SEO to social media management, or from social media to content marketing or writing would all be easy transitions that lead to new challenges. I personally moved from paid search to SEO and content strategy and have never looked back.
One of the many benefits for working for big companies like Microsoft or IBM is that they often facilitate and encourage employees to shift roles within the firm. Well-run companies know burnout is a real problem and they want to retain talented people by keeping them interested and challenged.
All you need is to think in a more versatile way about your work. Learn what your non-search colleagues are doing, keep an eye out for growth areas, and be willing to move if you see a chance for a new challenge.
Know What Makes You Happy
This one sounds simple, but it’s deceivingly difficult.
A famous exchange between Jeff Bezos and Zappos.com founder Tony Hsieh on the science of happiness dealt with the fact that people are bad judges of predicting what will make them happy.
Personally, I had to try a lot of things before I discovered the activities and hobbies that make me happy.
Meditation became a key component of my free-time. For example, If I don’t meditate at least a few times I week I start seeing burnout symptoms. In fact, unless you spend time exploring what makes you happy, you may not even consciously know what it is you resent missing by being at work all the time.
What Do You Think?
Let’s stay happy, do great work, and live lives that have meaning and joy. Burnout is the enemy and we can beat it together.
I’ve struggled with burnout in different stages of my career, and these are some of the ways I overcame it. Have you struggled with these issues? And what did you do about it? Tell us your story in the comments.