Leon Gettler: Coping with burnout

Everyone’s rushing around. Talk to anyone these days and they’ll tell you they’re working too hard, flat chat. No surprises then that more people are saying they’re feeling burnt out. It applies to managers and all lines of work: bankers, IT workers, advertising people, management consultants, lawyers, teachers and social workers, to name a few.

What are the signs of burnout? According to this report, you know you’re in trouble when you start seeing weekends and vacations as R&R where you just veg out and do nothing. It’s also a bad sign if you are always thinking about work when you’re at home. Another danger signal:  the phone is no longer your friend.

According to research cited in New York magazine, overwork is only one reason for burnout.  It also comes from working in what you feel is an unjust environment; working with little social support; working with little sense of control; working in the service of values we loathe and working for insufficient reward, whether the currency is money, prestige, or positive feedback.

The Indian edition of The Wall Street Journal recommends some obvious strategies: talk about it, don’t take on too much work if you’re already feeling snowed under, make the most of your free time including using up all of your holidays, take advantage of any company wellness or stress management programs. If all else fails, take a sabbatical.

Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek in the Harvard Business Review say there are three things you can do about it. The first is to manage your work better. That means avoiding over-commitment, making sure you have enough resources to get the job done. Don’t try to get everything perfect. Another step is to “embrace renewal” which basically means taking some “me” time for self-reflection and unwinding, using up more vacation time and even taking up things like Tai Chi, yoga, jogging, meditation or prayer. And finally, they recommend finding a deeper meaning in your work. What are you trying to achieve? How is your work making a difference? All these questions are important.

“What does this mean in practice?’’ they write. “First, find ways to serve every day — creatively serving (in ways big or small) your family, workplace, community, nation, world, and/or a cause. We call this “pervasive service.” Second, choose organisations to work for with the right mission and culture that fits who you are. Third, “entrepreneur” your job: take ownership of your situation and creatively find ways to integrate your values, strengths, and passions into your work – while also meeting your performance expectations  — so that you achieve not only success but also significance.”

The lifehack site offers 11 different ways to avoid burnout: scheduling regular social activities, following a fitness plan, doing some volunteering work which will help you connect with the community, writing a manifesto where you put down your intentions and ambitions (if not, a diary is an excellent substitute), asking for help, creating an escape list where you basically itemise ways of getting out of this situation, making others laugh by always pointing to the bright side of things (which, incidentally, will also see more people gravitating towards you), embracing a morning ritual, accepting responsibility for the mess you have now found yourself in and becoming more accountable.

What strategies would you recommend for coping with burnout?


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Leon Gettler: Can you be friends when you’re the boss?

It’s the most difficult transition for any manager. You finally got that promotion that you have been working towards and all of a sudden, you find yourself managing people who were your peers yesterday. Some of them might even be your friends. How do you get them to respect your authority? Can you still be friends?

Linda Hill and Kent Lineback at Fortune say you can’t be friends when you’re the boss. There’s a whole bunch of reasons why. First, friendship exists for itself- very different from the boss-subordinate relationship. That relationship is all about making sure the job gets done, nothing more. Also, friends are equals while bosses and subordinates are definitely not. And friends don’t check up on each other all the time, or pull each other up when one of them steps out of line.

Hill and Lineback write:  “Given its paradoxical nature, the boss–subordinate relationship is easy to get wrong. Instinct, gut feel, and natural chemistry are poor guides for the boss. They’ll push you away from people you instinctively don’t like and pull you toward those to whom you feel naturally attracted. Yet, it falls on you, as a boss, to work with and create the right relationships with both. All your relationships should be bounded and defined. They’re not about liking, chemistry, or personality. While those factors don’t disappear, and you will have to deal with them, they do not and should not define your fundamental relationship with your people.”

Leadership specialist Dan McCarthy also points out reasons why it’s not a good idea. He says it creates a perception of favouritism. Also, the relationship could influence or inform decisions on tough issues like lay-offs. Employees who are your friends might have expectations of you that are unrealistic or unprofessional, such as sharing confidential information, or always giving them advance notice, or doing special little “friendly” favours for them.

“All employees need to complain about their bosses now and then, even the best managers,’’ McCarthy says. “You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re immune from this. However, if you see your employees as friends, you’re more likely to take it personally. Friends let their hair down outside of work and sometimes do silly things with each other. Managers are supposed to set examples and be role models. So, as a ‘manager-friend’, you’re either going to be a boring, uptight friend, or an unprofessional, immature manager. You pick.”

Claire Suddath at Bloomberg says it’s not that big a deal these days and there are some places where it works. But then, not every company is like that. And besides, she admits there are certain boundaries. “The weekend, it turns out, is the most common boundary that people designate in boss-employee friendships. There’s something about a Saturday dinner that’s different from one on a Wednesday.”

In other words, the circumstances have to be right. And in the end, it’s all about managing boundaries. As some specialists advise, you need to be absolutely clear about the relationship. You don’t play favourites, you don’t go divulging confidential information and remember, if someone is underperforming, you’re their employer first and friend second.

Do you think you can be friends and still be boss? Have you ever been in that situation as a manager?



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Leon Gettler: The work spouse.

For better or for worse, in sickness and in health, in team meetings and working on the same project, we are now in an age of the nine-to-five marriage.  These days, you might often find yourself spending more time with work colleagues than you do with your significant others.  People end up with a “work spouse” when they put in long hours, late nights and work weekends.

There are great benefits in having this sort of relationship. First, you have a friend who provides emotional support at work during challenging times. They provide a built-in support system and sense of community during times of stress at work or even at home. Also, work spouses often complement each other in terms of skills, abilities and their approaches to work. Opposites can attract and the two of you can make a very productive team.

That’s why research sociology professor emeritus Maurice N Richter Jr. found that 76.7 percent of business managers approved of co-worker friendships, despite the risk of gossip, romance, and distraction. They found it paid off by creating an improved work environment and communication, better performance and higher productivity.

The downside obviously is that the relationship might be misinterpreted by co-workers. Or they might feel you are part of a clique. If the relationship goes sour, it can have an impact on you, your “spouse” and your team. Marriage can be hard work. How much more difficult is it with a third party? How is this best managed?

The work spouse is more common than you think. According to one US survey,  two out of three (65 per cent) of workers have a nine-to-five spouse. It found that 24 per cent communicated with their work spouse even on weekends and weeknights. While most of the conversation was about work, 63 per cent talked about health issues and 59 per cent talked about at-home problems.

In an interview with Psychology Today,  one of the experts on the issue, Dr Jacqueline Olds – a psychoanalyst and associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School – says that it’s important to keep boundaries. “If you know that this tempting situation at work can be a threat to your marriage or partnership, you can be prepared to “step back” when the work spouse relationship starts getting too personal. This is especially true if the work spouse is sexually attractive to you,” Dr Olds says.

The WebMD site suggests several rules of engagement: don’t share personal information at work, especially information about your marriage; be careful about how you talk about your marriage; don’t be alone with the person in situations separate from your job which means, in other words, don’t do things like engaging in recreational activities together; don’t drink with your office spouse, or if you have to, just be careful and importantly, introduce your office spouse to your real spouse. Never create a work spouse relationship that is exclusive and kept a secret from your real life spouse. You can bet that your significant other will hear about it and if that happens, you could be in trouble.  And finally, avoid talking about your office spouse at home.

Finally, I would add that if you feel any boundaries are being transgressed, it’s probably time to divorce the work spouse. You don’t agree? That might be saying something about your marriage or significant other relationship. But then, that’s another story.

What rule for work spouses would you suggest?


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