Burnout prevention please
April 23, 2019 12:03 PM   Subscribe

I don't have enough time to get my work done, due in part to unrealistic expectations. Help me figure out what to do.

I am in a large nonprofit agency that has a lot of internal politics as most large ones do. My closest colleagues and supervisor are good people. My department is safe but the larger agency is perhaps not.

I am pending some accommodations to do remote work for non client facing tasks because I have an autoimmune condition.

I have to make widgets and talk about them with my department in case we have to move them from one storage container to another. We are given a set period of time to do all non widget-making ancillary tasks. The widget meeting is currently counted in that set time, but that means there isnt enough time to get the rest done. We are waiting to find out from upper management if we can approve our widget meetings to be counted differently by the bean counters. Until then the situation will not change.

I have to put fires out all day unless a widget is unexpectedly shipped that was on my shipping list for that day. People over explain things, taking my precious time. I am expected to review schematics, contact buyers repeatedly, write up reports of it all, and some days I only have 15-30 minutes to get it done.

I am trying to get new equipment that will allow me to write up contact reports while the contact with buyers is happening.

I am crying more, feeling detached from my family, not taking care of myself, cannot fake emotion as easily. I have stayed late more days than not. My type of widget production is already a significant burnout risk. My workplace talks about having work/life balance but is continuing to squeeze us more and more.

My coordinator asked this morning how my schedule is and I started crying softly in her office. I can't talk about my workload without getting emotional. There are times I don't even have five minutes between widget buyers. Best practices for my type of widget making say ten minutes between buyers.

I am already trying to prioritize things as best I can. Things are falling through the cracks. The conscientious person in me HATES this. I want to do a good job. I've always done a good job. My circumstances are such that i can't do a good job without burning out. How do I do a mediocre job without hurting my future chance at a promotion?

I was told to request comp time due to having to stay late so much but I'm concerned about how that will be perceived especially if I am the only one in my department doing so. They have told me it will help prove our case that we need our widget meeting to count differently, and another colleague told me it helps monitor burnout. But my feeling is that upper management doesn't care about burnout and I feel a little like I'll be exposed to bad perceptions if I'm the only one asking for it. Like they will think if others feel like they have enough time why don't you.

I am afraid they will use it to justify taking away in demand extra projects that are restorative. I also do a paid overtime project 2 hours every 2 weeks or so for financial reasons and am afraid they will want to take that away as well.

All I need is time to get my work done, ways to work smarter, ways to figure out how to be sloppy without risking loss of life (literally... can't elaborate, but that is the level of pressure in my department).
posted by crunchy potato to Work & Money (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I am already trying to prioritize things as best I can. Things are falling through the cracks. The conscientious person in me HATES this.

I feel you as I am the same way and have been in this exact position many times. What I have done is asked my supervisor to prioritise my projects for me, and if any of the projects report to someone else ask my supervisor to let the other person know their project will need to wait.

Good luck.
posted by terrapin at 12:11 PM on April 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've been in many workplaces like this, unfortunately. Just some thoughts and ideas...

I was told to request comp time due to having to stay late so much but I'm concerned about how that will be perceived especially if I am the only one in my department doing so. They have told me it will help prove our case that we need our widget meeting to count differently, and another colleague told me it helps monitor burnout.

This is how these situations get created. I've been in so many workplaces where everyone keeps their heads down for 12 hours straight and they don't want to be the first one to leave at night, or take a vacation, etc. But why not start how you want to be treated and how you would like your colleagues to be treated (as in, if you have worked far over X hours per week, take the comp time without guilt).

I would even suggest something beyond this; tell your colleagues you are doing this and take that comp time. Hopefully, others will see what you are doing and behave in a similar manner. As in, your lives and health is just as if not more important than the company.

Another thing to consider - have this discussion again about comp time with your supervisors etc at a time when you are not overworked or have worked 12 hours straight or whatever; but request that whenever you work so many hours per week, you can take comp time (as in, you will tell them in an email - taking comp time on day x at the end of the week instead of "requesting" if that makes sense - so the expectation is that you will work sane hours or get time back). I did both of the above at a previous job and there was no fallout from it.

Other things that I've done or seen other people do in this situation:
- Similar to terrapin, have your boss prioritize what is important ("I have time to do one of these 2 tasks today/this week, not the 20 - you pick").
- Minimize meetings (some very efficient workplaces let you do this, YMMV.)
- A supervisor with insane hours told me that he would block off his lunch hour as if he were having an appt with someone (and his calendar would appear as busy) - he used that time to organize, coordinate, think, do whatever it was that he needed to manage the work.

Even with these accommodations (i.e., pretend you get and take comp time), I don't think this is sustainable because of the unpredictability. I would have a conversation with your boss and if nothing changes, consider a different place of employment. I'm not saying this more because I think burnout can affect a person in many ways and for a very long time.
posted by Wolfster at 1:20 PM on April 23, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Other people don't seem to know how busy you are, so it sounds like it's time for some boundaries.

People over explain things, taking my precious time

Push them to get to the point. "I have five minutes for this conversation, what's going on?" Then start a timer on your phone or watch. Be ruthless, it'll give you a sense of control over your job and (hopefully) take the place of crying!

Do you have to go to all of the widget meetings, can you delegate any decisions?

I would make a record of a typical day, and create a list of wasted time, and start trimming. Only go to the first half of meetings, do more over email, and minimize face-to-face synchronous tasks. It doesn't sound like you can do anything about the larger agency's health, so start being the person who's practicing being more professional and respectful of other people.

If this is a sick system, stop working 12 hour days! And really...even if it isn't
posted by rhizome at 1:49 PM on April 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I work at a non-profit that has gotten healthier over time. Here are the strategies that I've used to have a relationship with work where I don't burn out.

Asking the supervisor to help prioritize tasks and completing the ones that are prioritized – for example at my non-profit we would prioritize the oldest most outstanding tasks before anything else

Never take work home with you - make your home an absolute sanctuary from work as much as possible. I actually took the word "sanctuary" and brainstormed about what would make my home more like that, and then did some things to make that happen (getting more plants, making sure I let in as much natural light as possible, squishy blanket, etc.)

Making SURE that you are getting that 10 minutes in between widget people, for example, starting to wrap up with Person A 5 minutes earlier than you might typically, because you NEED that 10 minutes to be able to take care of yourself, pee, drink water, reset, etc. It is okay to wrap things up quickly and get people out the door.

Do not come to work early, take that time in the morning for yourself and your own needs

If you have been advised to take comp time for staying late, go ahead and do that – I also tell the junior coworkers “Do not stay at work late” as it gives people an unreasonable picture of what you can really complete in the time they’ve given you

Take all of your lunches, every day, and take them somewhere outside of your office, even if you just walk to the closest park and scarf down your sandwich

Cut down on conversations with coworkers by letting them know you only have 5 minutes for whatever it is, you can say something like “Sorry, got to go, I have a phone call scheduled”

If you have your own office, keep your office door closed to minimize people stopping by to yap at you about whatever

If any part of your job involves working with client trauma, and even if you just need some really excellent strategies for working against burnout, please read Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky. It is absolutely stellar for this.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 2:12 PM on April 23, 2019 [18 favorites]

Some of this may be repetitive with other comments but one thing I'll add is that when I've been in difficult job situations part of the problem has been that I've believed that I can like...*will power* myself into feeling better about it or somehow magically make it better. It doesn't solve everything but, for me, acknowledging that something genuinely difficult is happening and that my emotional and physical responses are a natural and logical result of that is weirdly freeing.

I also think that making sure that your boss/supervisor is very aware of what is happening matters a lot both from a you-feeling-calmer perspective and a covering-your-ass perspective. Because busy stressed out people drop balls and can't meet every deadline what with being human beings and all. Supervisors can help you prioritize but they also can be reminded that they were warned if balls do get dropped. Plus the dropping of some balls matters more than others--especially given how critical the work of your department seems to be-- and a supervisor can help you parse what to do when.

Good luck!
posted by jeszac at 6:58 AM on April 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes, definitely request comp time approval, then claim comp time when you stay over. Do not work for free! Your coworkers are right - it makes it look like there is 1 person worth of work in your job when your job is really 1.5-2 people worth of work. Hiding that by working unpaid overtime/comp time does not help you OR your coworkers in the long term.

Can you set or figure out some sort of "out by" date? My husband has been in a somewhat similar situation for a while and slowly accruing burnout. He is unable to detach himself from giving his all to his work, even at the detriment to himself (and me, since I'm being support staff for him living-to-work).

Here's a short history including what my husband has done (and helped):

1. Hit his breaking point and calculated when he vested into his pension, plus when his current main project would be wrapping up.
2. We discussed an "out date" for quitting or using FMLA leave to take some time off for recovery
3. He/we decided on an "out date" and that gave him hope that this would end, someday
4. He brought up succession planning with his supervisor and requested telework to handle meetings, paperwork, etc. since his tasking has been moving away from hands-on in-the-lab/shop work for a while, and was approved for "liberal ad-hoc telework"

Since he's had a plan for leaving, he's been able to mentally disengage, knowing that he won't be around - this is what it finally took. Best of luck - burnout is a terrible burden and makes itself worse as it's prolonged.
posted by bookdragoness at 7:39 AM on April 25, 2019

I could have written this question (which is why I'm only seeing it today, right?). Some of the answers above point to a) setting boundaries b) asking the supervisor to do so. a) if I call it a day after 12 hours, I work 16 hours at some point to catch up. b) my supervisor won't because I should be doing it myself, etc. Hence, c) precisely what rhizome points to - it's a sick system.

For what it's worth, bookdragoness's list is basically my plan right now. There is no way not to get burnt out within certain organizations. And to quote Sara Ahmed: In order to survive institutions we need to transform them. But we still need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.
posted by ahundredjarsofsky at 3:23 AM on April 28, 2019 [1 favorite]

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