You know how when you’re in a riveting relationship with someone, you’re super plugged into your partner? You hang onto their every word. You look forward to spending time together. You get excited about upcoming plans or come up with new things to explore as a couple.
But that same relationship can look very different down the line when it’s lost its luster. You now find ways to distract yourself from your partner because you’d rather be with friends or even by yourself. You might even become irritated with this person who once made you smile. You resent being “stuck” in this relationship that’s underwhelming you or perhaps in some ways feels overwhelming.
Well, the same can be said for the relationship with your work. The more optimally engaged you are at work, the better your experience will be and the less likely you are to burn out.
Work Engagement and How it Relates to Burnout
Have you noticed that over time, you’ve become less and less engaged in your work and more and more drained, resentful, or down right depressed?
Engagement can be a clue as to how things are going at work and internally for you. To illustrate this point, I have broken this relationship between engagement and burnout down into five stages. See if you can spot where you are right now on the Burnout Pyramid:
Stage 1: Engagement = 100%
You feel anxious because you don’t believe you can cope with the pressure and stress of your job. You work harder and harder in an effort to prove yourself while neglecting your personal needs. In prioritizing work over all else, you lose all balance, you’re not socializing with friends and family as much, and dismiss your hobbies. You are aware that something is wrong, but fail to notice the physical symptoms of stress. Your sleep, meals, and social interactions all become erratic.
Stage 2: Engagement = 75%
You’ve reached your saturation point. The excessive stress is having a serious impact on your mental health. You are taking sick days because you can’t bring yourself to keep going sometimes. You feel cynical about your job and blame the demands of your work for your bitterness rather than the sacrifices you’ve made in your life to give your work your all.
Stage 3: Engagement = 50%
Your anxiety rapidly spirals out of control and is regularly interfering with your daily life. You’re irritable at the people around you and have a hard time relaxing. You become fearful, apathetic, and experience feelings of worthlessness.
Stage 4: Engagement = 25%
You are terrified of having a breakdown but your anxiety keeps getting perpetually worse to the point of panic attacks. A sense of emptiness sets in and you become reactive and impulsive. You feel resentful about the impact of your career on your private life and it may be difficult to find meaning in your work. You look for ways to compensate and fill the void through eating, drinking, or using drugs.
Stage 5: Engagement = 0%
You’re at the end of your rope, feeling hopeless and even suicidal. You’ve collapsed mentally and physically and even if you wanted to now, you CANNOT keep going.
Were you able to locate yourself? Keep in mind that these are stages of burnout so if you are highly engaged and don’t find yourself in the first two stages, it’s because you’re not burned out. If that’s you, congratulations!
But if you did find yourself somewhere on the Burnout Pyramid, at least you have a sense now of how you’re doing. The question is what brought you here.
Reasons for Employee Burnout
Burnout results from chronic stress and because we each become stressed out for different reasons, we can confidently state that we burn out for different reasons as well.
In our relationship to work, there are both internal and external stressors that contribute to burnout. We tend to notice the external factors more readily. These include the demands of your job, the unrelenting pace, the back-to-back meetings you’re expected to make yourself available for, the micromanaging boss you report to, or the lack of appreciation you get, amongst other factors.
While these certainly contribute to your experience at work, there are also internal factors to consider. These may include your proclivity towards anxiety, the internal demands you make of yourself to do things perfectly, the need to prove yourself, the challenge of managing negative emotions as they arise, or the consequences of making poor decisions in your attempt to take the edge off the stress which leads to additional problems.
Just like your love relationship, your relationship with your work is not static. It evolves over time. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to not only getting your work done, but to what happens to you as you’re working.
3 Levels of Poor Engagement
The Burnout Pyramid shows what happens to you over time as you burn out. You start out with incredibly high levels of engagement and those levels go down the more burned out you become. Clearly, the way in which you engage in your work is important to consider.
Here are three ways you might be engaging with your work that may be leading to burnout:
This is you if you’re buried with work. You’re highly stressed because work is eating up all of your time and energy. You are so ambitious that you pursue goals while neglecting your health and personal life. Motivation is not a problem for you but you are unwilling to acknowledge failure. When you don’t achieve your desired goals, you are overcome with guilt. If you prioritize achievement over all else, you are overly-engaged, which corresponds with levels one and two of the Burnout Pyramid.
You are highly engaged in your work, but your energy is running low. You just aren’t getting the acknowledgement you deserve for all your efforts and you lack control over your work. You find it increasingly difficult to perform your regular job duties and when that happens, you feel bad about yourself for neglecting your responsibilities. For one reason or another, you are plain worn out. If this sounds like you, you are engaged-exhausted, which corresponds with level three of the Burnout Pyramid.
You feel detached from your work, bored as a result of monotonous and repetitive tasks and the lack of opportunity for growth. You feel guilty about feeling unfulfilled while simultaneously wanting something to change. Over time, you become irritable, impatient, and even cynical due to the lack of meaning at work. If this sounds familiar, you are certainly far from alone. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, nearly 70 percent of U.S. workers were either not engaged or actively disengaged from their work. This form of engagement corresponds with levels four and five of the Burnout Pyramid.
As real as these scenarios are, I want you to know that they are not the real problems. I can tell you right now that, even though you may be faced with these issues everyday, they are the SYMPTOMS and not the cause.
The cause of these problems is that you’re treating your job like it’s the only thing that matters and forgetting what’s truly important in life.
What do I mean by that?
I mean you’ve lost all forms of HEALTHY engagement in your job. In essence, you are living to work rather than working to live. Sometimes it takes our failing health to remind us about what’s truly important. Other times, we wait until it’s too late to realize what we’ve missed out on.
What Gets in the Way of Optimal Engagement?
You’re probably reading this and thinking that you didn’t sign up for the exhaustion, the pressure, and the negativity you now feel. When you started your career or took this job, you thought it would turn out differently. So what got in the way of that goal? What leads to the degradation of our engagement at work?
There are likely a multitude of factors we can point the finger at when it comes to what causes poor engagement, but I want to highlight five of them.
The first is boredom. As mentioned earlier, people who are under-challenged will become disengaged. That’s why it’s important to be well matched to your job tasks.
Going back to our love relationship analogy, if after 30 years of living with your mate you’ve grown apart, you might stop having a common language. Life becomes mundane and you might be looking outside the marriage for excitement. This is an indication that the relationship has lost its charge.
Similarly at work, you ended up boxed into a set routine when what you crave is stimulation. You want to learn new things and expand your toolkit. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need a divorce. It might just mean that you shift your focus to new tasks or that you pivot in your job to a new role.
Another reason you might not be optimally engaged is because you’re overwhelmed. There’s just too much going on for you to manage. This might happen because you have too many responsibilities both at home and at work. It could be that you don’t quite have confidence in your ability. That low self-efficacy is causing anxiety and even imposter syndrome. Finally, it is possible that the demands of your job are beyond your skill level, which create a lot of stress.
Maybe you’re not as engaged as you could be because you’re easily distracted. Distractions can be external in the form of colleagues constantly asking you questions, email notifications coming in throughout the day, or noise in your environment. You might be internally distracted by inner chatter that tells you to anticipate catastrophes, that criticizes your work for not being good enough, or that nagging worry about making bad decisions and potentially embarrassing mistakes.
Your mood can certainly influence your ability to stay focused and engaged. If you’re struggling with low mood, whether as a result of burnout or not, it’s hard to find the mojo to do your best work. When you’re depressed you start questioning yourself more. You have lower energy and it can feel like you’re walking through molasses. Everything slows down and so do you. This can contribute to those internal distractions as you become filled with negative self-talk and find it increasingly challenging to concentrate on work.
Anxiety is also a huge energy suck that diminishes engagement. If you’ve ever experienced a mistake or failure at work and ruminated on it over and over again, you know how that can take your attention off the task at hand. You start to make negative predictions based on past performance or just imagined fears and this leads to panic.
For any and all of these reasons, your confidence can be negatively impacted. When that happens, it becomes challenging to remain mindful. You might question yourself more, become worried about what other people might think, and have a hard time making decisions.
Whether your engagement is poor as a result of boredom, overwhelm, distractions, depression, anxiety, or a lack of confidence, what you need to know is how to get back online.
3 Dimensions of Optimal Engagement
In my book, The 7E Solution to Burnout, I highlight the research of Hakanen and colleagues. These researchers came up with a model of three ways to engage optimally with your work.
The first dimension to optimal engagement looked at the intersection of activation at work and the degree to which the person experienced their work to be pleasant. According to their model, when workers exhibit high activation in unpleasant tasks, they experience negative emotions that correspond with workaholism such as agitation, irritability, and tension. When, instead, they engage in unpleasant tasks with lower levels of activation, workers might feel depressed and lethargic, which correspond with burnout.
When you focus on pleasant tasks, the outcomes you experience are positive regardless of your level of activation, but there are subtle differences. High activation on pleasant tasks leads to engagement, enthusiasm, and feelings of happiness. Low activation on these same tasks leads to feelings of contentment, relaxation, and calm.
Based on these findings, we can conclude that it is best to focus on pleasant tasks. Your level of activation will then determine whether you have higher or lower intensity feelings associated with that task.
The second dimension is identification ranging from cynicism to dedication. This is about how inspired and challenged you feel by your work, your particular tasks, and how proud you are of your efforts.
When activation and identification are both low, you can expect to feel exhausted and cynical. The antithesis to this, of course, is vigor and dedication, two factors which exemplify optimal engagement.
The third dimension for optimal engagement, which is not found on a spectrum, is absorption. This is about being so intensely and happily immersed in your work that time passes quickly, and ultimately you have difficulty detaching yourself from the task. Absorption is the opposite of the detachment (experienced by the under-challenged) and is similar to what author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”
Think back to a task where, although it demanded your full attention, your mind was clear, and focusing on it felt effortless. Because you were so immersed in the task and were enjoying yourself, you were surprised to find how time flew by. That is flow.
Transforming Your Work Engagement
Once you identify what leads you to be poorly engaged, you can implement specific strategies to help optimize your engagement at work.
If you tend to identify as overly-engaged and want to work in a more optimal way, you’ll need to turn down the lever on your engagement. Here are two ways to do that:
- Change your level of activation. Negative emotions such as anxiety and irritability are signs you are highly activated in an unpleasant task. Find ways to reduce your activation when focusing on tasks you do not enjoy. Exhaustion is a sign your activation level is low and the task is unpleasant. If you’re feeling drained, find ways to become more activated when working on tasks you deem unpleasant. This can be quite challenging, but it’s good to, at least, focus on better matching your level of activation to the task.
- Focus on tasks that you find more pleasant or find ways to change your perception of the current task until it feels pleasurable. If we had it our way, we would only focus on pleasant tasks, but since work is a mix of things, there will eventually be certain tasks which you enjoy less. In that case, consider how to change your thinking about it. When you think about it in a new way, your feelings about it can change.
Your ideal scenario is either being highly activated when working on pleasant tasks because this increases engagement or having low activation in enjoyable tasks as this increases your level of satisfaction.
If you’re Engaged-Exhausted, your focus will be on absorption:
- Find tasks in which you can easily become absorbed. Clear your mind so you focus effortlessly on your work. To do so, you may want to set an intention before diving in, meditate, or listen to music that puts you in the zone.
- Create the conditions in your environment to get into a state of flow without disruption. This may include turning off notifications, closing certain browsers or even blocking them. A recommended app for this is Freedom.
Finally, if you are Disengaged or Under-challenged, you want to focus on dedication:
- Work on changing your cynicism to dedication by finding inspiration in your work. Consider how this task aligns with your values and skills and how the end result of your work will, in some way, contribute to the business’s mission or help humanity in some way.
- Consider what new aspects you want to learn to grow in your career. When you’ve achieved something, be proud of the effort you put in.
The way you engage with your work is not only telling about your wellbeing, but when tweaked can be the difference between enjoying your job and feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, or bored.
Your work engagement may not be optimal when you are in a negative emotional state, distracted, or lack confidence in your ability to perform. It is when you fall out of balance in either extreme and either over-engage or under-engage. That said, by focusing on activation, identification, and absorption, you can transform your work engagement along with how you feel.
Regardless of the version of poor engagement, one thing is clear. When you take a step back and focus on creating a more integrated life where you feel fulfilled by both work and your affairs outside of work, then you’ll be able to more readily avoid burnout.
If you’re burning out, download the Burnout Checklist to see which stage you are in and what you need to focus on to recover.