Wednesday, February 25, 2009

the perfect recipe for work burnout

Last week, I was at a conference (I apologize for the lack of blogging) with a bunch of other people running programs similar to mine. .

Normally, I really like conferences like these because they give me an opportunity to learn from others and enhance my program with what I've learned (learning is fun for me because I'm a nerd). But the weeks leading up to this conference have been hard for me at work. I don't have a boss. I have a vacancy in my staff. I've taken on some of the responsibilities left behind by my boss and I've completely taken over the duties that is normally assigned to the person in the position that is now vacant. I've had to review over 100 applications for that vacancy and, after reviewing all of them and doing many phone interviews, I only have one handful of qualified candidates. I've got two reports that I need to write by the end of this week. AND I've been battling this cold/flu/whatever infection for the last 4 weeks.

I'm not whining about all the extra work I've been putting in and all the pressure I've been under (trust me, I did plenty of that the first week I was sick). I don't have time to whine. There's work to be done.

I've been working 10-12 hour days and I haven't taken a single sick day despite being sick. I've spent my weekends in bed, trying to get better. So when last week came around and it was time for my conference, I was a bit relieved. After all, the conference days were only 8 hours long. I haven't worked an 8 hour day in forever!

Each day, I dragged my feet and brain through every workshop and plenary. Even our lunches were working lunches so I basically had no break. But on the third day of the conference the lunchtime speaker was different. For one, he didn't have a power point presentation (yay!). Two, he was pretty dynamic and energetic. It was infectious. Third, he spoke from the heart. Even though he was there to talk about advances in preventing HIV/AIDS in minority populations, he chose to speak about Burnout.

I was shocked that he said The Word (no one talks about burnout in this field because everyone is working towards a greater good and that is worth every sacrifice we make). But when he did say The Word, everyone in the large ballroom nodded in agreement. I thought about the last month. The extra work. The long days. The illness that doesn't seem to go away. It was the perfect recipe for burnout. I was relieved to hear that I wasn't alone in this. But how do I deal with it? The speaker said we all had to find our own way to deal with burnout. This was the first time I had ever felt so overwhelmed by my job. I don't know what to do.


On my last day in the office before the conference I had an initial interview with a potential client. I started going through the motions. I took some basic demographic information from him. He had no family in the area and when I asked him for an emergency contact, he gave me his employer's info. That was odd. I snapped myself out of the routine and asked him, "Why are you here?" It was a general question that could be answered many ways. He answered, "I'm lonely." I continued, "Why do you feel lonely?" He looked down at his feet and was quiet for a moment. He stammered for a bit before he answered (while not looking at me), "I'm gay. And no one knows. I try so hard not to be gay, but I can't do this anymore. It hurts to be lonely so I drink until I don't feel anything. It's so much easier to be numb than to be gay."

At that moment, I felt my heart break. I wanted to hug him, but that would be inappropriate. Instead, I got out of my chair and squatted low enough to get to his level so he would look at me (he was seated) and I told him, "It's ok. We're going to help you. I promise you that your life is worth living. We're going to show you. As of today, you're no longer alone."


This is why I have no time for burnout. There's obviously work to be done. My potential for burnout is trivial compared to the all the people who are hurting like the person I described above.


Generation Next said...

It is impressive the work you are doing, and that man's story was certainly touching. But don't forget that you are human, and burnout IS important. You DO deserve not to feel stressed and overworked and you won't be able to go on forever like that. It's good that his story motivated you again, but don't let it make you feel as if you should be guilty for being burnt out.

Questionable Rationale(Terra) had mentioned she'd love for she and I to get together and drive up to meet you sometime (maybe once it's warm?)

Anonymous said...

Just know that the work you do is impressive and amazing and without people like you, the world would not be such a wonderful place.

I like Gen. Next's idea of meeting up when it's warmer, assuming of course it ever does get warmer out....I'm pretty sick of this winter stuff personally.

Zandria said...

Wow... You know, you're absolutely right. Sometimes it takes situations like these to snap us out of our BLAH-ness. That was an awesome response on your part.

anOCgirl said...

gen next: i totally get you. really. i'm hoping that things will let up eventually. i can't be this stressed forever, right?

and i would love to meet and hang out with you cool chicas. i'd be more than happy to meet you somewhere in between. however if you're going to come up here, a good time to do so would be cherry blossom time! it's so pretty!

instatick: thanks! that's so encouraging to hear especially during this stressful time.

yes, i'm all for meeting up. and i TOTALLY feel you on the weather. i'm so over it!

zandria: honestly, my work stress is nothing compared to what some of my clients have to deal with emotionally and mentally every day.