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Battling burnout and finding your 'core genius' at work


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March 20, 2020

Americans are often stressed out by work. And given the current global pandemic and social distancing guidelines, workers might feel added pressure in the days or weeks to come. Fortunately, there are ways to battle the burnout, especially as more businesses transition into virtual work zones.

Sarah Tracy, a professor of organizational communication and qualitative methodology at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and co-director of the Transformation Project, hosted her first at-home webinar Thursday titled, “From Surviving to Thriving: How to Battle Burnout and Craft Meaningful Work.”

According to Tracy, stress develops when expectations are too high. “Sometimes those high expectations are given to us by our employers, but also, many of us just carry them on our back.”

For example, Tracy admitted she had to tell herself the webinar might not be perfect since she was home. It wasn’t void of distractions. Tracy’s dog interrupted at least once and her phone rang. She encouraged attendees to be honest and compassionate with themselves, which often means lowering personal expectations. Because as Tracy points out, stress leads to burnout — a three-pronged concept connected to emotional exhaustion, cynicism and inefficacy. In other words, Tracy said, “We can’t do what we think we are supposed to do.”

Signs of burnout:

  • Quick to feel irritation.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Frequent procrastination.
  • Impaired concentration.
  • Feeling emotional for no good reason.
  • Sense of detachment and alienation.

The triggers:

  • High expectations.
  • Social comparison.
  • Underpaid and in debt.
  • Constant evaluation/fear of rejection.
  • Uncertainty, lack of control, feeling overwhelmed.

As more workers navigate virtual work spaces for the foreseeable future, Tracy warned about one burnout trigger: social comparison. Even if workers aren’t in the office right now, they’re increasing screen time, and may start comparing their lives to their co-workers’ lives through social media. Instead, she suggests using online platforms as virtual dialogic spaces (water cooler spaces) by increasing interactions and commenting more; even scheduling one-on-one phone conversations to keep a sense of community alive in these virtual spaces.

“We as human beings are social beings,” Tracy said. “And we know from the happiness research that the most social people in the world are the happiest people in the world. And so, when people are working virtually, there is necessarily a decrease in that social time.”

ASU professor Sarah Tracy

ASU Professor Sarah Tracy

Finding your core genius

Tracy is a big advocate of saying “no to good, so you can say yes to great.” She believes tackling every small request stiffens a worker’s core genius — their core talent. If workers say yes to all the “good,” they don’t ever to get to focus on the “great,” which according to Tracy, often reveals a worker’s true talents.

Her reminder: “We are never going to get it all done.” In fact, she warns, thinking we’ll get it all done is a recipe for suffering. She encourages people to create a management system by structuring activities and making priorities visible in time and space. In other words, she suggests: One life, one calendar. Organize your priorities in one central location.

Lastly, Tracy is a proponent of sharing vulnerabilities, especially in this time of virtual work spaces.

“The kind of stress and uncertainty we are all feeling right now is beyond the norm,” Tracy said. “It’s a new context. But with any new context, there’s also some opportunity that comes with it.”

That opportunity presented itself during Tracy’s first online class this past week. During a short break, the microphones stayed on and students started singing and playing instruments, creating an improvised moment of humanity in a virtual setting. Tracy said that’s really important for social connection and belonging, which can stave off some of those triggers of stress and burnout.

It’s new territory for America’s workers, at least for now, and Tracy wonders if maybe forgetting to mute a Zoom meeting is all that bad in this new work space. She hopes adaptations will be made so people don’t lose moments of humanity like pet interruptions, laughter, and yes, even the occasional accidental burp.

Top photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

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