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How to avoid the silent danger: Burnout!

Picture of tired/exhausted/burned out male in front of computer screen

Picture of tired/exhausted/burned out male in front of computer screenWe’ve all been there – you have an urgent and high-profile project deadline looming, there are 350 unread e-mails in your inbox, and you’re already 5 minutes late for your next meeting.  You desperately need to grab some lunch… but you dash out to your next meeting, stopping only to neck a strong black coffee from the coffee machine on the way.   Two hours later, your meeting has finished. The adrenaline is flowing, you look at your watch, and it’s now 5.25pm.  You’ve skipped lunch so you grab a stale sandwich, take a bite, and stare blankly at your e-mail inbox and get ready for another night working late…


Perhaps this kind of high-paced environment was once associated only with senior management roles in large multinationals.  However, small and mid-size companies increasingly need to run fast paced business-change projects, adapt and work as efficiently as possible.  As well as a day-job, we’re likely to be working on multiple projects, responding to queries from our colleagues as well as dealing with the (many) crises that present themselves. Plus we’re trying to balance our busy home lives too!  But when the pace increases are we actually any more efficient or productive? Many would say that we’re actually less productive in these circumstances.


I recently saw an interesting question raised in a LinkedIN forum.  In a thread entitled “Staying Happy and Productive” Eric Drumm asked how it’s possible to maintain a healthy work/life balance.   This is a good and important question.   After all, ‘burning out’ is not good for anyone.


It’s counter-intuitive, but you probably need some stress…

It would be tempting to suggest that we all avoid stress completely and retire to a sunny desert island and spend our days hula-dancing and meditating.  Yet, it’s generally accepted that we need some stress to have a happy and fulfilling life.   As this article on MindTools very articulately states, too little stress and people tend to become bored.   Too much stress and anxiety kicks in.  I don’t know about you, but I can certainly relate to both of these states – the challenge of course is finding the optimum zone in the middle.  Finding this zone can be challenging, particularly when our project workloads might be dictated based on factors beyond our control!


Keeping in the ‘optimum zone’ is key.

I’m sure every reader of this blog will have a slightly different way of managing stress, and I’d love to prompt a debate.  Here are some tips I’ve learned and picked up.  These are the tips that work for me. I’d love to hear your tips too:


1. Focus on output and outcomes, not hours: Some organisations have a “start early, stay late” mentality.  In environments like this, it sometimes seems like everyone is fighting fires, yet nothing actually seems to get done. Rewards go to those that stay in the office the longest, and people get more and more burned out.   A better focus is on output and outcomes.    There will be times when it is busy and people will need to stay late.   Other times it’ll be quieter – and however brief these times are – it’s a perfect opportunity to recharge. Organisations that recognise this, and encourage a healthy balance will reap the rewards.


2. Physical health matters:  I hazard a guess we’ve all let our physical health slip a little when times are busy – I know I have.  It becomes all too easy when travelling a lot to eat unhealthy food, miss gym sessions etc.   Yet I also know how moody I get when I haven’t been to the gym for a while.  I try to keep this in mind and put my physical health first.  I find this gives me more energy and helps me focus and stay positive.  In fact, I find some time on a treadmill at the gym is an excellent way to zone out, go on ‘auto pilot’ and relax for a while


3. It’s OK to be “playful”: People often seem to be most creative when they are ‘playing’.  It’s great when you can gather around an office whiteboard and create a canvas of ideas, covering it in colourful sketches, sticky notes and pictures. Work doesn’t always have to be effortful, It can be fun too.  This is also a rather altruistic exercise:  By facilitating fun idea-generation sessions (rather than drab and repetitive meetings) we also create ‘play’ for our colleagues – making their days more interesting too!


4. Make time for relaxation: Sounds obvious, but in the past I know that I haven’t done this enough. I enjoy reading & listening to music, and I try to make time to do this regularly.  I know other people who meditate, which seems to work extremely well for them.


5. Get plenty of social interaction & work and outside: It’s great to meet new clients, new colleagues and it’s also great to stay in touch with old friends. Lunch with an old college friend can raise the energy levels.


6. Time management:  There are entire books dedicated to time management, so I won’t comment further here.  Other than to say it’s an essential skill, and something that it’s worth consciously practising.


These are my thoughts – I’d be extremely interested to hear your tips and tricks.  How do you ensure that you keep a sensible balance? Please go ahead and add a comment below!



This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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6 thoughts on “How to avoid the silent danger: Burnout!”

  1. Great article Adrian.

    I really believe in getting out in nature regularly to prevent burnout and clear our minds of all the things we think about day to day. Getting out on a hike really helps me to clear my head, get fresh air and feel ready for the next work week.

    1. Hi Katie,

      Thanks so much for the comment. I completely agree with you, getting out into the ‘great outdoors’ to breathe some fresh air and get away from the ‘busyness’ of the day job is really important. In fact, I find it’s a great way to put things into perspective — somehow, a problem seems to melt away when you’re looking out into the ocean, or when you’re watching the sun set behind a hill!

      I’m really fortunate in that I live fairly near the sea. I find a long walk along the seafront helps me clear my mind. There’s something so relaxing about the sea (when it’s calm of course)!

      Thanks again, I’m glad you liked the article,


  2. “You desperately need to grab some lunch… but you dash out to your next meeting, stopping only to neck a strong black coffee from the coffee machine on the way”

    And that’s why I have a private meeting marked in Outlook every day between 12:00 and 13:00.
    So nobody puts a meeting there.

    Also I found it really relaxing to walk home from the office after work – especially in London, it was a brief, 40 minutes walk, crossing Tower Bridge, walking down by the Thames.

    Or in Switzerland taking walks or biking in the forest. 🙂

    1. Hi Roland, thanks for the comment. I agree, walking to/from work is another great way of clearing the mind! In fact, even a train journey can be a great way to unwind. I used to commute by train every day – one way I’d work (sometimes), but in the other direction I’d read, listen to podcasts, listen to music or generally relax… And sometimes sleep (I used to set an alarm on my phone to make sure I didn’t miss my stop :-).

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  4. Hitting the treadmill is my favorite way of de-stressing! And I try to make it to lunch with a friend atleast twice a week. It feels great to talk about stuff, and yes crib a little about work. Great article, Adrian!

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