July 12, 2021
The days blur together, your eyedrops no longer help with Zoom fatigue, and the thought of opening the pigsty that is masquerading as your inbox makes you want to scream.
Overwhelmed, overstretched, and just entirely over it, in the last year, seven in 10 workers have experienced burnout.
The World Health Organization recognized burnout as an official occupational syndrome back in 2019. It’s defined as the result of chronic workplace stress characterized by three things:
— Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
— Increased mental distance from or cynicism about your job
— Reduced professional efficacy (aka you’re unproductive)
Burnout is an organizational issue, meaning we, as employees are not responsible for solving it. Still, it is not entirely out of our control. We can choose to set boundaries that protect our mental, physical, and emotional health. The challenge is that our efforts to do so are often hijacked by guilt.
Will our boss be upset if we don’t respond to their 9 pm Slack? Will we look lazy and selfish if we don’t put in a 60-hour week? Will our team members think we’re unmotivated if we take a full hour for lunch?
Questions like these make us feel like we should always be giving more, doing the most, and working harder. We are driven by the guilt we might feel if we put our personal needs first or the fear of disappointing others.
But at what cost?
When we are given a choice, and we still select our jobs over what our bodies and minds need — real breaks, time with loved ones, and empty space to rest and think — we end up letting the most important person down: our self.
That’s why it’s important to learn how to say no to the voices in your head and start making choices that give you the energy to do your best work. Before you respond to the next request for your time or talents use this acronym to E.M.P.O.W.E.R. your decisions by taking the steps outlined below.
When your face turns red and it feels as if your head is going to explode from one more request for your time and talents, take a breath and evaluate the facts. Remember a fact is an actual occurrence. It is something that can be proven through observation or measurement. What are the facts of the request? How much time is required? How much preparation is necessary? Get the data.
For example, let’s say your boss sends you a Slack at 9 pm on Tuesday and asks you to join her at a new hire recruiting event the following Monday night. Before responding, consider the facts of her request. The event starts at 6:00 pm in the lobby of your office building and ends at 7:30 pm. You do not need to prepare for the event, so your total time investment would be 90 minutes.
What is the story you are telling yourself about this request? A story is a judgement or assumption you use to make sense of why you are being asked to contribute to yet another project or event. When we are burned out, we often assign motives to the people asking for more of our time to explain the logic behind their actions. However, stories are usually inaccurate, because they are driven by our subjective emotions. To make the best decision, you need to separate feelings from facts.
Sticking with our original example, you might tell yourself the story, “Of course my boss sent this Slack now! She doesn’t respect work-life boundaries because she expects everyone to be available and work 24/7, like she does.” To separate the facts from your feelings, re-read the message your boss sent. Did she ask you to respond immediately? Or are you making assumptions driven by your own anxieties? It’s important to debunk any false narrative you may be telling yourself so that you can take the time to consider your response thoughtfully.
Once you’re clear on what’s fact and what’s fiction, you’re ready to consider whether it’s worthwhile to take on a new request. At this point, that guilt-driven voice in your head may jump in to tell you that, yes, you should absolutely do it. Don’t listen. Instead, stop and evaluate the priority of the task you are being asked to do. How does this ask for your time align with your responsibilities, the organization’s strategic goals, and/or your personal needs?
In the case of the 9 pm Slack request, at this point, you want to determine if the new hire recruiting event aligns with one of the organization’s strategic goals, as well as your professional goals. For example, if your company is trying to recruit and hire 20 new analysts this year and one of your professional priorities is to build relationships with leaders throughout the company, you may want to attend. However, if you’re more focused on building your skills as an individual contributor and believe that these extra hours will be more draining than energizing, you should probably turn your boss down.
Next, take it a step further, and think about the opportunities that you may gain from taking on or turning down the request. Ask: What doors will this request open for me if I participate? Will it enable me to advance in my career, develop a new skill, or build new relationships? Or is it illuminating something that requires additional attention in my personal life?
For instance, if you were to attend the new hire recruiting event, you could strengthen your networking skills and meet leaders from all divisions in the organization. But if you were to decline, you might have a relaxing night with your friends and do an even better job on a project that is aligned with the skills and capabilities you want to develop. Weigh the cost-benefit of each decision and choose the one that aligns with the goals that are most important to you.
Who made the ask? What is your relationship to this person? What’s at stake in the relationship if you say yes or if you say no? Answering these questions will help you figure out how to best frame your response should it be “no.”
If your manager is making a request, like in the recruiting event example, and you decide to turn it down, you may need to discuss your decision with her. This will allow you to explain yourself and set healthy boundaries without appearing dismissive of her ask.
You might say, “I appreciate the invitation to attend the new hire event. I have three projects due later this week and was going to use this time to prepare. I’d like to explore how I can support you and the company without attending the event. Would you be open to that?”
On the other hand, if a request is coming from a peer or work friend, the stakes may be lower, and you can respectfully explain why you are declining without a further conversation.
Expectations are the guiding principles and ideologies we use to inform our decision-making, and they often lie just below the surface of our awareness. Ask yourself: Whose standards are influencing my decision to say yes or no? What does the person making the request expect of me, and have they clearly set those expectations? The goal is to clarify and decouple your expectations from the expectations of the people in your life.
For example, if you know your manager expects her team members to be visible at corporate events, this might change how you respond to her request. However, if you realize that you are the one setting unrealistic expectations for yourself, you may feel more comfortable and confident in your decision to decline.
We all have the same 168 hours in a week. Every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else. Get real about the implications of your decision. What is the best and worst thing that could happen if you said yes or no? This is an essential final step to ensure that you thoughtfully consider both the positive and negative implications on your time and energy of your decision.
If you say yes to attending the new hire event, the best thing that may happen is you assist your career advancement. If you say no, the worst thing that might happen is your manager could question your allegiance — but remember, there are also ways to clarify your decision and potentially avoid this outcome. In the end, the ball is in your court and you ought to set boundaries that feel right and good to you.
Guilt and “shoulds” lead us to overcommit — and when you overcommit, the quality of our work and life suffers. Avoid bankrupting your life. Stop the “shoulds” from undermining your decisions and E.M.P.O.W.E.R. your choices, starting today.
Carson Tate is the founder and managing partner of Working Simply, Inc., a business consulting firm that partners with organizations, business leaders, and employees to enhance workplace productivity, foster employee engagement, and build personal and professional legacies. She is the author of Own It. Love It. Make It Work: How To Make Any Job Your Dream Job.
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