When the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its definition of burnout in late May to label it as a "syndrome," it made official what millions already knew by experience: Burnout is real, debilitating, and inextricably linked to workplace stress.
The fact that burnout, according to the WHO, results from "chronic workplace stress that is not successfully managed" prompts an important question: What is causing all the stress in the workplace?
According to two different 2006 surveys conducted by employee assistance program provider ComPsych and separately by SkillSoft, workload tops the list of workplace stressors, creating stress almost twice as frequently as the number two cause. Workload leads to several other causes of stress that also end up near the top of these surveys, including lack of time, fear of missing deadlines, and lack of control.
Excessive workload creates anxiety in each phase of your work by taunting you with three questions:
- During planning: Will I be able to get everything done without ruining my life?
- During execution: Am I going to miss deadlines and fail to achieve the requirements of my work?
- During completion: Will this super demanding pace of work always continue?
These questions cycle through the minds of most professionals on repeat because most lack a simple, yet rigorous process for answering them. You don't have to stay on the hamster wheel of rumination. Follow this process to answer these questions whenever starting a new piece of work:
Planning: Will I be able to get everything done without ruining my life?
This question leads you to anticipate pain and hardship. Rumination adds fuel to the anticipation because it keeps you thinking about possible causes and consequences, not solutions. Rather than cycling through this question, do the planning work necessary to determine how much sacrifice a new project will require:
- I can get it done without making work or personal sacrifices
- I can get it done by making sacrifices in my work life (e.g., putting off other work)
- I can get it done by making sacrifices in my personal life (e.g., staying late, working on the weekend)
- I don't think I can get it done regardless of the sacrifices I make
Then, determine what level of sacrifice you're willing to make. If you're confident the project will push you past the sacrifice level you are willing to go to, then it's time to push back. You can try to get the scope of work changed, increase the team size, shift the deadline, or if nothing else works, get yourself off the project.
Execution: Am I going to miss deadlines and fail to achieve the requirements of my work?
By continuing the planning you start in order to answer the last question, you should be able to get a good sense of whether you'll be able to hit your deadlines without sacrificing the quality of your work. Remember that stress grows with anxiety and anxiety builds in the face of uncertainty. Intentional planning reduces uncertainty if you use the right tools.
Unfortunately, of 40 common project management tools, only three have been positively correlated with delivering projects on time: the critical path method, milestone analysis, and contingency plan. The critical path method helps you identify the sub-set of tasks that need to get done on time in order to deliver the project on time. Regularly reviewing progress toward milestones enables you to know if you're on track and to make adjustments when you're not. Contingency plans minimize the time you lose when the unexpected inevitably happens. Using these tools cuts off rumination at the root because they enable you to know with certainty whether you'll hit your deadlines.
Completion: Will this super demanding pace of work always continue?
Research shows that people with chronic pain often develop a chronic stress reaction, which leads to increased blood pressure and heart rate and reduced ability to fight off illnesses. The expectation of pain creates a constant state of anxiety. When you expect your workload to be too much tomorrow and every day after, a similar stress reaction is likely to develop.
The antidote is to plan seasons into your life. It's fine to live at the third sacrifice level for a season, but you should decide in advance when that season will end and how you'll exit the season. Creating "formal" season agreements with supervisors, other stakeholders, and even those important in your personal life can help ensure you don't get stuck in a winter season.
The stress created by your workload is real. It's not enough to practice mindfulness techniques that teach you to remain calm while accepting a constant state of being overwhelmed. Wrestle with the specific questions that create anxiety and make real, practical changes to your work processes to silence them with credible answers.