Empty Jug Syndrome: Burnout


Fred had the beginning of burnout: exhausted, ill and demotivated.  “I’ve worked so hard for so long. I know it’s for a good cause, but I just can’t give any more. I’ve gone beyond stress. I just feel empty.”

Fred had been dumped in at the deep end 2 years earlier. He single-handedly turned a failing charity into a successful one. There were lots of activities going on and a good team.

Fred: “I need to be there all the time, everyone turns to me, and things are just left for me to do. The other day, we had a rush job on and no one volunteered to stay late to help get it done.”

Me: “So what happened?”

Fred: “Well I did myself and went home at midnight and was really ratty the next day.”

Me:”When was the last time you had a day off? “

Fred: “Gosh I can’t remember”

Me: “What would happen if you took tomorrow off?”

Fred: “Probably all grind to a halt”

Burnout: A common problem for passionate people

This is something I hear again and again, both in the third sector organisations and family businesses. The owner managers and founders pour all their effort and energy into making the organisation succeed. In the short term and in crisis, this may be what is needed.

As a long term strategy, it leads to burnout, not just for the leader, but also the staff. If it isn’t addressed, either the leader will become ill or the organisation will fail. When illness forces the leader to step back, then the organisation may adjust and thrive. Or it might collapse. If leaders ignore the signs of burnout, everyone suffers.

What happened to Fred

Initially, Fred felt that he should just give up. I asked, “Do you want to just walk away?” He didn’t as he believed passionately in the cause.

So we took it in stages. I asked, “What could you do today to make sure things didn’t grind to a halt if you took time off ?” He worked out some things, then committed to taking half a day a week off to do something for himself.

Then, we revisited the aims of the charity and where Fred’s passion and skills lay. He worked out which staff could be given more responsibility. We looked at whether all the activities were necessary and how they supported the aims.

Taking time to step back and getting a fresh perspective on the organisation and how his role had changed was all it needed for Fred to find his way. The organisation has gone from strength to strength, Fred has a life outside the organisation and staff have enjoyed taking on new responsibilities.

Think you are heading for burnout?

If you have a spare 10 minutes, take a test for burnout at Psychology Today. (There is one for those provide a service (or work directly with the public) and one for those who don’t.) After finishing the test, you receive a brief report and graph for free. (If you want more details, then you can purchase a full report.)  If you don’t have time to test yourself, just pause to read the few tips below.

P.A.U.S.E-Tips to prevent Burnout

Pause Ask “What would happen if I got hit by a bus? Would the organisation survive? What could I put in place to make sure it will?” A parent should ensure that their children can survive without them. A leader needs to create an organisation which will survive without the constant presence of one person. Sounds scary, especially if we like to be needed. But wouldn’t you rather leave a legacy than a hole?

Analyse Ask “Am I really the only one that can do this? Does this really need to be done in this way? Who else could help? Why am I not asking?”

Use the help offered, even when you could do it better–there are other things that only you can do.

Simplify what you do. Focus on the most important thing that you need to do. Do it as well as it needs to be done, but don’t strive for perfection in everything.

Explain Take time to explain your aims, how you can work together, how you can help and how others can help you.

For more resources or a free discussion on how I can help, contact me

Finally, remember

At the deepest level, there is no giver, no gift, and no recipient… only the universe rearranging itself.
Jon Kabat-Zinn