"Financial Planning ... it's not always about money."

Burnout Isn’t Just a Health Issue. It’s a Money Issue.

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David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting

I remember the moment when, as a young reporter working on a story about affordable housing, I realized that I qualified for food stamps. The epiphany ultimately jumpstarted my adult life.

Soon after, I signed up for the Peace Corps. Financially, it wasn’t a brilliant move, but it allowed me to accomplish the travel I dreamed of, and later, I leveraged the experience to land better paid opportunities.


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My ramen days were still far from over when my husband and I bootstrapped a moderately successful startup. These choices felt more like investments in my future than circumstances to be born.

The result of all this is that my husband and I have an overwhelming default to saving money for a rainy day. To my surprise, our financial advisor recently took us to task on this. “Are you at risk of burning out?” he asked. “Can you take a break or a vacation?”

Given the experiences I describe above, I realize that I’m writing this from a place of privilege. That start-up, and our subsequent career choices, have allowed us to be asked, and to ask, those questions. But I also think that they are really good questions — no matter your career stage.

Burnout isn’t something I’d thought about a lot before HBR published Beyond Burned Out by Jennifer Moss in 2021. I’m mid-career. I have two young children. We’re muddling through a pandemic. Exhaustion just seems to be a part of life. I’ve spent the past two years telling myself that “all of this” is temporary. And it is. But that doesn’t mean we have to grin and bear it. In fact, too many of us might be doing just that. Gallup found (in 2018) that 28% of millennials reported feeling frequently or constantly burned out at work, and an additional 45% said they sometimes felt burned out.

Covid has likely made this problem even worse. When Jennifer Moss surveyed 1,500 workers globally in the fall of 2020, she and her team found that respondents reported higher levels of exhaustion and cynicism — two predictors of burnout — than respondents had before the pandemic.

Why does my financial advisor care about this? Because, he explained, even though I’m on track to meet my retirement goals today, if I burn out to the point where I can’t do my job, I’m putting the financial safety net I’ve worked so carefully to construct at risk. Goodbye retirement contributions. Goodbye rainy day fund.

It was the wake-up call I needed. While there are lots of good reasons for organizations to address burnout on a systemic level, protecting my retirement and savings from burnout is something that I, and likely many others, have not considered a priority. For me, it’s something I need to act on now.

To help me get started, I called Art Markman, author of Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your Career. He’s written dozens of articles on topics including productivity, stress, and career management. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited for clarity:

Art, this idea, that burnout was a financial risk, now seems obvious but it was new to me. Is this something you think about when you think about burnout? What is the real risk here?

I think most people aren’t really thinking about it. I think most people, when they think about the causes of financial instability, they’re focused on: Will my business close? Will there be an economic downturn? Will Covid disrupt my industry in ways that might make it hard for me to make a living?

What they’re not thinking about is: Will I reach a point where I get out of bed one day and say, “I can’t go to work”? But that’s a dangerous place to be, because when it happens, you’re going to be drawing on savings and not continuing on the path to retirement that you thought you were on.

This really clarifies what I’ve been thinking about. For my entire career, I’ve thought my path to stability was going to come through work. But what I’m coming to grips with now is that my path to stability also includes not working so much.

As they used to say on the Saturday morning commercials, “It’s part of a balanced breakfast.” We need to find a balance between the energy we put into our work, and the energy we get back through other activities and through our interactions with family and friends.

For me, doing something every day that is decidedly not about work has been important. In  April 2020, I was putting in 12-hour days, six days a week, at the University of Texas. I was part of a committee trying to figure out how the school was going to navigate the pandemic. At the end of each day, I went home and hopped on the absurdly expensive stationary bike I had bought when I realized the world was shutting down. I sweated it out — whatever had happened during the day — for an hour.

I was trying to inject something that was not related to my job into every single day. It wasn’t even the exercise per se. It doesn’t have to be exercise. It can be anything that feels restorative. The less we do that is restorative, the lower our supply of resilience will be — and resilience can protect us from burning out.

What I hear you describing is a sort of resilience account that you need to build up by practicing restorative habits. Is that right?

I think that is right. On a daily basis, we have to try to make small deposits into that account. Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about how to use our vacation time. We assume that if we just make two big deposits — take two big restorative breaks — over the course of the year, then somehow we will be resilient enough to work the other 50 weeks without a real break. That’s not realistic.

Of course, getting away from everything is great. A long weekend somewhere can be wonderful, but building your resilience and energy reserve is about the little things you practice daily. It’s about taking an afternoon off when you need it to do something energizing and fun. Too often people work a half day, sign off, and spend the afternoon doing laundry or running errands. That’s not effective in this context. If you’re going to take a break, do something that’s fulfilling.

I get that. But I have a six-year-old and a three-year-old. Over the past two years, my PTO has gone to covering Covid closures and snow days — unplanned time off. Those days aren’t especially restorative. They can be pretty stressful. Is there a way to make that time work for me? To make it fulfilling?

You can start by celebrating your accomplishments. Most people finish something and forget to pause and enjoy the feeling of achievement. We just move on to the next thing. This is true in the workplace, but it’s true everywhere else too. When you finish making your bed in the morning or helping your kid with a homework assignment, for instance, take a step back. Take a snapshot of the moment, and let yourself think: “Wow. I checked this off my list and I deserve to enjoy that feeling.”

Another thing you can ask yourself is: Are there fun ways to do what I need to? Can you play some music while you fold your clothes? Can you teach your kids a song you love and sing it together while you’re cleaning the closet? Sometimes we trap ourselves by thinking, “Well, I just have to power through this. Let me get this done as quickly as possible.” We distract our kids with a movie or an iPad, hoping they won’t complain while we do whatever needs to get done. What if we let them participate? Your closet may not look as organized in the end, but you will have experienced some joy. There’s a price to the efficiency we try to create.

Let me summarize a couple of the things that I’ve heard you say: Don’t sweat the small stuff, celebrate your wins, and find ways to enjoy as much of it as you can — even the things that seem trivial. These are doable! Is there anything else I should be thinking about?

Just remember that everyone has a bad day sometimes. A bad day is not a sign of anything in particular, except that you’re human. If the bad day turns into a bad week or a bad month, that’s the point at which you should ask yourself whether you need a little more help managing your well-being. Reach out to a therapist or mental health professional if you need support. It’s more than okay. It’s a good thing.

That’s great framing. I think we can all relate to having plenty of “bad” days lately, but when those day seem endless, what more do we need? When I reached out about this conversation, I thought we would be talking about taking time off, but your advice is more realistic, more helpful. What you are advising, I think, is making daily deposits in my well-being account as well as my retirement account. And maybe the right mindset here is that frequent deposits in both accounts earn interest.

Yes. That’s exactly right.

c.2022 Harvard Business Review. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group.

This HBR article was legally licensed through AdvisorStream.

David M. Brenner profile photo

David M. Brenner, ChFC®, CLU®

D. M. Brenner, Inc.
Phone : (858) 345-1001
Schedule a Meeting