Burnout can undermine workplaces and relationships. So how do we avoid burnout and help others find meaningful work? We find out in this episode as Penny Zenker talks to David Shar, the founder of Illuminate PMC. David and Penny talk about burnout, its origins and what factors influence burnout. They also examine how to motivate employees, design meaningful work and figure out how to avoid burnout. Join in on this great discussion that will benefit both employees and company management.
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Taking On And Learning To Avoid Burnout With David Shar
In this episode, we’re going to talk about burnout and some of the other topics that roll around that. This is important now because I’ve been reading more and more about how people are feeling burnt out, how studies are showing that they are but how they’re also showing that it’s showing up differently. We want to talk about that. We have an expert with us that I’m excited about. David Shar is here. He is the Founder of Illuminate PMC. He is a Keynote Speaker, Consultant and Trainer, specializing in helping organizations to improve their leadership culture, combat burnout and design meaningful work. He combines decades of leadership experience with the latest Psychology research to help you attract, retain and motivate top talent, which is key. He is doing his Master’s in Industrial and Organizational Psychology and a doctoral candidate in Business Psychology, studying the interaction between meaningful work and burnout. We’ve got the real expert here, the real deal. He is going to tell us some of the latest and greatest.
David, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. It’s so nice to be here.
What gets you passionate about burnout? Did you burn yourself out? A lot of times, people experience it and then want to help others with it.
A lot of the people in this field who talk about burnout have had that experience where they burned out. That’s not what drew me to it. My story starts with ice cream, interestingly.
Ice cream is a good start for any story.
I had an ice cream parlor in the middle of Baltimore City. When I got into the ice cream business, I knew I was getting into the ice cream business but I attracted all of these applicants from the inner city, which some of the streets of Baltimore are some of the roughest streets in the world. These kids came from underprivileged homes and rough backgrounds. They came and worked for me. My colleagues who worked in the other ice cream stores or restaurants nearby were always complaining about things like turnover, theft and conflict at work. For me, I didn’t have those problems. My employees were showing up on their days off and I would have to shoo them away from helping customers.
It came down to this one day, this one employee of mine showed up and she was looking down. I said to her, “What’s going on?” I’ve seen that she had tears in her eyes. She has told me that her boyfriend had been shot multiple times that day and was left for dead. I tried to send her home, pay her for the day and cover her shift for her. She wouldn’t leave. She told me, “I need to be here. I can only be here. This is my happy place.” That was the day when I began to reverse-engineer what I had accidentally stumbled into and tried to figure out why this was her happy place but many other people in the same industry were turning over quickly. Also, many of my friends who were doctors, nurses, lawyers and teachers dreaded going to work on Monday but this is where she needed to be. That was my journey to burnout where it started with a bunch of Google searches, reading off-the-shelf books and turned into a Master’s degree and pursuit of a PhD in the topic.Work overload alone doesn't cause burnout. If these other pieces that, interact with it. Click To Tweet
Reverse engineering with what you’ve learned, what do you think was the majority of the difference of why those people showed up and that was their happy place? Clearly, other people in the industry were not experiencing that so we can’t give it to ice cream and the fact that ice cream does create a happy place for some people.
It was a lot of different things but one of the main things was that we were mission-driven and that’s how you build meaningful work. It was never about ice cream for us. In fact, early on, I felt that people were starting to burn out. That passion that we all brought to it was starting to fade. I knew we had to do something. I was like, “Let’s do a charity event.” I brought the crew back there, all twenty people from my crew and said, “What’s important to you? What charities should we get involved with here?” We started thinking about the types of people that we wanted to help. We partnered with the local health care for the homeless that do all sorts of things for individuals experiencing homelessness. We partnered with The Arc Baltimore, which is an organization that helps people with developmental disabilities.
We started this mix off where we were competing for tips between the two charities. That started us down this path where we never stopped volunteering. It got to the point where I had to bribe people to stay at the store and serve ice cream instead of coming and volunteering with us for free. It became so much less about ice cream. It was about having a positive impact on the community. That’s how you build meaningful work. The problem is, when you look at educators, nurses, social workers, people who worked within objectively meaningful jobs, they also have the highest burnout rates. That comes down to the fact that we supported each other and there was so much autonomy. They pulled the strings and were able to make the decisions. There wasn’t a decision that was made that they didn’t have some form of input in.
They chose. You came together and they chose which charities. I’m a big believer that people support what they create. Everybody loves birthday cake unless it’s shoved in your throat. The fact that they got to be a part of the process then adds an important value to them to be committed to it.
One of the primary models for describing why burnout happens is the Demand-Control-Support Model, which argues that when demand is high and control and support are low, that’s when you see more burnout. It’s not just demand and, “There’s a lot of work to be done.” We think about work overload, “There’s so much on my plate.” That’s not it. That alone doesn’t cause burnout. It’s these other pieces that interact with it.
If you think about it, like in a lot of startups, they’re overloaded. They’re running miles a minute type of thing but they’re all engaged and wrapped in it that they are there together, supporting their team. Often, you hear them talk about working longer hours but they choose to versus feeling like they have to.
In my talks on burnout, I asked people about their experiences in busy bars pre-COVID. You see the bartender and you’ve got an all-star bartender who looks like Tom Cruise or something flipping bottles. At that moment, when they’re so busy they don’t look burned out. They look like the opposite. They look like they’re in a state of flow where time is moving fast and slow at the same time. Everything is automatic and they feel at peace but take that same bartender and every time they reached behind them, the glass isn’t there or the glass is dirty, now you’re going to have a burned-out bartender. Part of the question is do they have the resources to do the job they’re there to do?
I was out in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota, speaking to school principals from throughout the state. When you look at teachers, they enter the workforce because they’re going to make a difference. They want to be like every movie where the guy goes in and not only does he teach math but he also teaches ballroom dancing, breaking up gang fights and setting everything straight. Teacher of the year. This is Teach for America. They go in and try to do this in these inner-city schools. It doesn’t work because they’re hit with bureaucracy, limitations and interpersonal conflict. That’s when we burn out. It’s no coincidence that we typically see people burn out about one year in. It’s that honeymoon period when the bubble burst.
My workaround distraction, for instance, has also seen the stats. Before the pandemic, it showed that 60% of the people were reporting depletion, being physically depleted and mentally distracted. It was interesting that even though there are a lot of studies out there that show this, that a very small percentage of companies are doing anything about it. They know the statistics on burnout and the fact that people are distracted and out of their minds. What’s going on? Why aren’t companies taking more responsibility for bringing changes?
There’s a big issue in terms of the way we look at employee-related problems within the workplace. It’s very quick to place the onus of responsibility onto the employee. If we played Word Association and I said burnout, many people respond resilience. That’s because when we deal with burnout, that’s immediately what we go toward, resilience training. Our employees are burning out and we are going to teach them how to toughen up. We’re going to still throw the same punches but we’re going to teach them how to take it and grow from it. As opposed to my approach is a collaborative approach where we tackle the culture.
Burnout is highly contagious. We know this. Is it because one person’s attitude bleeds over to somebody else? Yes. It’s partially that but it’s also because they’re drinking from the same source, the culture of the organization. The culture has only changed. We are all victims of our work culture but we all also impact our work culture. We are the ones who form it. That’s not the written policies. That’s the way we enforce things and the habits we have as an organization. We need to work more collaboratively when tackling things like burnout.
I believe that a collaborative piece is a piece that often gets thrown to the side because you go, “It takes too much time to collaborate. We bring everybody together and that’s too time-consuming. We’re going to make the decisions and pass them down.” That is mistake number one is that there’s no time.
Especially when you’re looking at control as being a primary aspect of burnout when I don’t feel like I’m in control of my own life. Look at clinical depression. One of the leading indicators of depression is learned helplessness. It’s that, “I don’t control my own destiny.” They have this experiment with dogs, probably not such a nice experiment but they shocked dogs. Some of the dogs were shocked every time they touched a certain point in their kennel. The other dogs they shocked randomly. The randomly shocked dogs started becoming depressed because they had no control over their own destiny. We have never seen this to the extent that we see it with the pandemic. Our entire universe has changed. Everything that we thought, “This is the way we do it,” has flipped on its head and so many people are feeling out of control. The solution for employees is not to take control and tell us how we’re going to fix it. It’s to give us control and work with us.
What came up for me is I talk a lot also about the pandemic of how we’ve come into learned helplessness. It’s clear that there’s a lot that’s outside of our control. At the same time, I believe that we exhaust ourselves, focusing on what we can’t control and trying to do something about it or putting a lot of energy into what we can’t control. What happens is it saps us of all the energy that we have. When it comes to something like distraction and the things that are happening within our control, we’ve got this learned helplessness where we say that it’s out of our control and play the victim. I want to ask in that context. Where’s the balance? There is a responsibility for the employee in terms of being able to deal with what they can control, what they can influence and where the company plays a role. How do you address that balance?
Open communication that goes both directions. I spoke to this group in South Africa and I asked them, “Please correct me if I’m wrong about this.” None of them do. There’s at least a legend that lions hunt in a very specific and different way. What lions do is they will look at the herd in general and single out one animal in that herd that they’re going to go after. They will go after that one animal. As soon as they start the chase, chaos breaks out and the herd starts moving. Animals will fall right in front of them and the lion will leap right over those to get to their target.
I know somebody who has told me this story. He has always kept a lion on his desk as a constant reminder not to be distracted by all of the interpersonal conflict and bureaucracy that’s out of your control and to focus on what’s in your control. When I do my training, I start at the beginning. I ask people, “Why do you do what you do? Ultimately, what are you here for?” If we don’t identify that then you can’t identify what’s just noise. If you know what that is, you can stay focused on that. Management, HR, leadership, supervisor, the higher up you are on the totem pole, the more it is your job to see the big picture but sometimes we forget how important it is to translate that down the organization.It's no coincidence that we typically see people burn out about one year in. It is that honeymoon period before the bubble bursts. Click To Tweet
When you asked that question, you’re connecting people because we’re disconnected from it. If they started out with that mission and passion and then they get caught up in the day-to-day, all of the animals that are in front of them and they’re jumping over. They lose that connection. You can’t translate the connection if you’re not connected to yourself anymore. I know that a lot of your work is around meaningful work. Not only it has to be meaningful but you have to connect to it on a regular basis and manage the disconnection.
I had somebody after training who once came up to me and he said, “I get it. Do you know how much of my work is about filling out paperwork? How am I supposed to find meaning in that?” What I responded to him was, “It’s because something is mundane does not make it trivial.” A lot of mundane work is necessary for the end goal but when we don’t see those connections, we see it as trivial. If you remember back to school when we used to get busy work, there was nothing that was more infuriating for kids when they get busy work but substitute will come in and give them random problems to do. You never saw the connection and that felt purposeless. Understanding where we’re going and how everything we do is getting us closer to there.
Something that leadership needs to do is eliminate the noise and look back at their handbooks. Right before the pandemic hit, I was still having clients explain to me why they couldn’t do telework. I always warn people, “If you’re ever in a meeting and somebody answers something as, ‘We don’t do it that way. That’s not how we’ve ever done it,’ get up and walk out of the meeting. ‘That’s not how we do it,’ is not an appropriate answer.” Why not? Maybe at some point in the days before Wi-Fi and smartphones, it made sense that you couldn’t work from home. As we’ve seen, when push came to shove, millions of businesses were able to transition to telework. Many of those, weeks and months before, were saying, “We could never do that.”
They were forced outside the box. For many companies, it was a good thing. It was an eye-opener because they were doing and seeing things the way they had done them before.
It’s interesting seeing who is saying, “We’ve got to come back to the office,” and who is saying, “No, stay. We’ve learned and grown from this,” which is the true sign of resilience like, “Have we grown through this? Was this just a year and a half of chaos and now we’re back to normal?”
It’s those micromanagers that needed to have people in the office. Did they learn how to get past that or are they still trying to micromanage and get them back to the office? In relation to burnout, what’s a practical thing that we could look at from the employee side, something they can take ownership of? What’s something on the employer side?
As an employee, it’s important to understand how much power you have to influence the culture in your organization because you’re a part of the culture. We like to think of power as an org chart. The org chart dictates the power structure. The higher up you are, the more power you have. In reality, we have other types of power like referent power, which is the power that people want to follow us because we’re leading through example. For employees, one of the things that I once heard and love is, “When you walk into a room, you need to make a choice. Are you going to be the thermometer or the thermostat?”
The thermometer is the one who walks into a room and says, “It’s toxic in here,” and maybe walks out or adapts to that. The thermostat is the one that walks and sets the temperature. Your employees need to do that. Back in my management days, when people would come to me and ask for a promotion to manager, I used to tell them, “I don’t promote employees to manager. I give managers the title. Once you show me that you’re a leader, I’ll give you the title but you don’t need the wait because what is me giving you that title do? It gives you legitimate authority and the power to reward and punish but I don’t want you leading with those things. I want you to use referent power and expert power. That’s the type of stuff that I want you using.”
That resonates with me. I call myself The Focusologist. It shows that by focusing on people that are creating the temperature. They’re already managers and you’re not promoting them. You’re just giving them a title. It’s a completely different way of looking at how you lead your group and team and leads them to leadership. I want to highlight that for people who are reading because that’s huge. If people took that away and they’re managing a team, that could shift their leadership from this point forward to go from good to great. That’s the difference for me is I want to recognize you. Go ahead and pat yourself on the back there. That’s great and powerful for everybody who is reading.
Hopefully, it’s not too fluffy. It does start with the mindset. From there, once you feel the authority, you’re not just a victim to the organization because that’s where it gets unhealthy with this external locus of control. I had a client in a consulting capacity where they had a manager, where every issue that came up, this manager had an explanation of why it happened external to this manager’s role. The question is, “If nothing is in your control, why are we spending this money on you as a manager? Nothing is in your control anyway.”
We need to internalize and realize what’s in our control and focus on that. What leaders can do especially now, is to look at their handbook, look at the written policies and watch what’s happening within the organization because the culture is fluffier. You’re not going to see it in black and white in a handbook but watch the behaviors and spend a week asking why you are like a five-year-old. Ask why to everything that you see. Be honest with it.
Give me an example because I’m not connecting 100% because you said, “Look at the policy manual.” Do you mean, “Why is this policy in place?” Do you look at the behavior and say, “Why is somebody behaving this way?”
That’s a great lesson too but in this context, I mean, “Why does this policy even exist? Why do we need people working in the office? Why do we need people working from 9:00 to 5:00? Why do we need this person to be checking in?” Ask why about all of your different policies. There will be answers for many of them but in some of them, you might be left scratching your head. I always tell the story about I grew up Orthodox Jewish. If you know anything about Orthodox Jewish, there’s this whole way of dancing where we hold the hands with the person on our right and our left and then we go around in a big circle. I always joke it wasn’t until college when I went to my first club that my friends were like, “Stop trying to hold everybody’s hand.” I realized, “This isn’t how everybody dances?”
There’s this old story of this man who comes into town at this historic synagogue for a wedding. They’re in the social hall in the back of the synagogue and they’re dancing. Every time they come to this one point on the dance floor, they bow their body. The man was so intrigued by this. He asked the person next to him, “Why are we doing this?” He said, “It’s an old custom.” He said, “Why?” He sent him to the rabbi. The rabbi doesn’t know why but it’s a very ancient and important custom. Finally, he found the oldest member of the synagogue. He asked him and he was ready for this wisdom.
The old man said, “What? That? There used to be a chandelier there. People are ducking under the chandelier that hasn’t existed in decades. They think that it’s this wise custom that can never be changed.” That’s what happens in our organizations. The question is, “How do we identify the phantom chandeliers?” I’ve worked with a lot of HR and a lot of those handbooks come ripped right from SHRM or another organization. The question is, “Is it appropriate for your organization? Does it make sense in 2021 within your organization?”
I’m also a believer that I have this framework, “The more rules that we have, the more limitations and boundaries. We’re stunting creativity, autonomy and flexibility.” Imagine that you’re going to play a game that has got five pages of rules. Who is going to play that game? That sucks. We want to play a game that has got quick and easy rules to follow. We do need to cut back and simplify because we did it. I believe that we came from a culture of dictatorship type of management in the past. That meant lots of rules to hold people in, to control them and have them do things this way, our way, assuming that that’s the better way. It makes sense to reduce the rules, simplify our processes and give people more flexibility to find better ways to do things.We need to internalize and realize what's in our control and focus on that. Click To Tweet
There’s a reason why it used to be that way. Not only were we backward and not thinking about it because I don’t love when we talk about what’s right or wrong or what’s nice or not. In the business world, it’s like, “Tell me about the money.” I like to change things for the better and more ethical and moral but show why these things existed dollars and cents. There are plenty of management theories that, to the stable, say that when your objective is to be a cost leader, your objective is to make those widgets as cheap as possible. It makes sense to have authority centralized. It comes from the main office. Everybody is like these lemmings that are doing their thing and get it done as fast as possible.
How much business is done now in America that’s like that? None. Everybody wants to differentiate in some way. Even the manufacturing companies need to one-up their competitors and find better ways of doing things and better resources. With the world changing so much, whatever product you’re making is going to be obsolete sooner than later. You’ve got to continue to refine it. The only way to do that is to give people more autonomy, give them more space and build that environment that you’re talking about that breeds creativity.
Burnout will reduce. Meaningful work will increase.
You’ll save yourself a ton of money in that way too.
That will make people in the companies more productive. We’ll save money and time and create more profits.
They’re calling it now The Great Resignation, this flood of people that are looking to get out of their jobs and/or careers. Change industry and job, at least.
Is that the area that we’re in? Is that what you’re saying?
Yes. A minimum of 25% of people are saying that they’re looking to get out of their current job. Those are scary numbers. I was saying this to a crowd that I was speaking to. Specifically, these principals I was talking to, when I said, “Teachers, 55% say that they’re looking to leave their school within the next couple of years,” there was this audible gasp in the room. I said, “I get it. You’re scared because how are you going to fill those classrooms? Turnover is so expensive but the only thing more expensive and disruptive than turnover is intent to turnover, which is when we ask people if they would like to leave or if they’re planning on leaving, they say yes.” That is more disruptive than the number of employees that end up leaving because when somebody wants to leave but they stick around, that is toxic.
What do they call that when you don’t show up? It’s not absenteeism.
Presenteeism. When you show up even when you’re sick and you’re not in it.
Companies can take a look at the rules and policies and look to create more autonomy. What can the individual do? How do I set the temperature as an individual in the organization?
You have the power and ability to job craft. One of the things that we know is directly correlated with burnout is support. If I feel like I’m getting support then I am less likely to burn out. This is support from coworkers and supervisors. Support has many different ways. It can look like different things. It could be emotional support or actual support with helping move the patient or filling out the paperwork. When we have more support, we do better. We’re less likely to burn out. The other thing that support correlates with is that the more support you give, the more support you get. If you want it to stop, be the thermostat. Don’t go in and complain, “I’m not getting support.” Show support for other people and see what happens. Don’t be a doormat but show support and care for other people and you’ll be surprised the amount that’s reciprocated back to you. That can have this butterfly effect.
Why not ask for it? A lot of people are afraid to ask. “I don’t want to seem incompetent. I don’t want to seem like I don’t have it together. I don’t want to get fired.” There are all these assumptions, negativity or consequences if you ask.
That gets worse and worse the higher up the totem pole you go and also the more tenured you are because you get into this position where it’s almost like the impostor syndrome. You feel like you’re just playing the role and you don’t want people to realize that you don’t have all the answers. It turns out that people value authenticity. Trust is the number one resource that you can have as a leader. Leaders are so careful. They’re wearing this metal armor like, “I’m the manager. I’ve been here for 30 years.” They don’t want anybody to know that they have flaws. Let me let you in on a little secret. They all know you have flaws and they want to see that you know it too, just ask.
Unfortunately, I could talk to you all day because I love talking about this and I feel it’s so valuable and important. You can tell that your experiences are wide and deep in this area. If you had one last thing that you wanted to share that we didn’t touch upon or I didn’t ask you, what would that be that can have people walk away with something further that would have that impact for them?Give people more autonomy. Give them more space. Build that environment that breeds creativity. Click To Tweet
I could share a quick story with you about meaning and what meaning is. When my two oldest kids were my only two kids, my wife was driving back with them. She had my five-year-old in the middle seat and my three-year-old daughter supposedly asleep in the car seat in the very back. They were driving back late at night from the in-laws because they take forever to say goodbye. She has the radio off in total silence and my son was sitting there, looking out the window. He broke the silence and said, “Mommy, what’s the purpose of a deer?” I guess they passed a herd of deer. My wife is a first-grade teacher and a mother so she knew exactly how to answer a question like that.
She said, “I don’t know. What do you think the purpose of deer is?” What’s that called? Jiu-jitsu? Is that where you turn around? They go back and forth with a whole bunch of ideas. “Is that to have the grace to the world?” My son said, “Maybe to feed the foxes.” I promise he turned out okay. Eventually, they’ve run out of answers and the car goes completely silent again until this tiny peep from the back where everyone thought my daughter was sleeping, they heard, “Mommy, what’s my purpose?” My wife’s mind started spinning a mile a minute. “What is Rina’s ultimate purpose? What is she going to do? Is she going to be the first female President of the United States? Is she going to invent the next Facebook? Is she going to find the cure for cancer? What is her purpose?”
Before she can utter a word, my five-year-old son said, “That’s easy, Rina. Your joy. That’s your purpose. You make people happy.” My son, at five years old, knew what my wife couldn’t formulate and what so many of us knew at some point but then lose that a purposeful life does not mean that you end up on the cover of Time Magazine. If you didn’t then I hope reincarnation is real because better luck next time. A purposeful life is about being your authentic self and those gifts that you have, utilizing and spreading them because you will impact those around you in this positive way. You will then impact those around them until you have changed the whole world regardless of the fact whether you ever know it or not.
Going through this pandemic, a lot of people are looking for meaning because they thought meaning would be found in that next promotion, in that thing they were pursuing or that small business that they started that they might have lost during the pandemic. They were looking for meaning in those things. Those things can add some meaning. At the end of the day, what’s meaningful is being true to yourself and impacting others. If we all start from there and even on the organizational level, we look at it from that perspective. What are we here to do? What kind of impact do we want to have? Start working backward from there then we can all be in a better mindset through this change that is going to continue to happen and we can stay focused on what it’s all about.
Focus on one another and supporting one another coming back to that point. Thank you so much. How can people reach you or get a hold of you? What’s the best form?
I’m on every social media platform. I’m on LinkedIn. I’m very active on there. To continue the conversation, message me on there, LinkedIn.com/in/davidshar. They could find me on Insta. I’m cool enough to be on Insta but not cool enough to go on Instagram. My website is IlluminatePMC.com.
Thank you so much for being here.
Thank you. This was a pleasure.
Thank you for being here. I hope you enjoyed this conversation as much as I did. David is a real master and understands this topic. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re feeling like you’re burning out, you’ve got some practical things that you heard that you could do. The favorite thing that I heard was, “You can either take the temperature or be the thermometer.” That’s one of my big takeaways. I hope that you’ll realize what it is that you can do that’s within your control that can help you connect to a greater purpose, a higher impact and help your team to do that as well. I’ll see you in the next episode.
About David Shar
The founder of Illuminate PMC, David Shar – SHRM-SCP is, a keynote speaker, consultant, and trainer specializing in helping organizations improve their leadership and culture, combat burnout, and design meaningful work. David combines decades of leadership experience with the latest psychological research to help you attract, retain, and motivate top talent.
David holds his bachelor’s in human resource management and his master’s in industrial/organizational psychology. He is a current doctoral candidate in business psychology, studying the interaction between meaningful work and burnout.
David is NOT your typical academic – as a scientist/practitioner translator, David makes leadership theory & business psychology accessible, implementable, and fun through the use of humor, stories, and ‘real-world’ examples.
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