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Laurie Erdman Headshot

Are You Masking Your Career Burnout?

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I've always admired the leaders of get-it-done, change-the-world companies like Apple, Zappos and Facebook. But as I flip through the pages of Fast Company or Inc. magazine, I have to stop and remind myself that 96 percent of the CEOs quoted and highlighted in those pages are burnt out, as reported by the Wall Street Journal. Yes, these titans of innovation are burning out and you would never know it. Turns out Harvard Medical School knew.

This is the thing about burnout. Most people are really good at masking it.

I've seen this everywhere I've worked. The CEO (managing partner, COO, CFO, VP, etc.) starts off fresh and full of energy. Then somewhere between the never-ending emails, the day-long meetings and continual crises, they start to look haggard. They start to get a paunch. They get cranky and maybe start acting like a tyrant. They make decisions that aren't as clear, edgy and visionary as before. Burn out is creeping in. But no one sees it, let alone the person going through it.

We want to have our stuff together, or at least look like we do. To appear burnt out, stressed, fatigued or overwhelmed is viewed as a sign of weakness. We can't appear unfit for duty. If we let others see us sweat, it is often as a badge of honor -- "I'm more important than you."

In our desire to have it all and be it all we are masking the warning signs of burnout. It's a myth that burnout means going up in a burst of flames, unable to work anymore, full-out exhausted. While that can happen, it never happens overnight. It can take years and even decades to get there. Whether you're the C-suite or a cubicle, burnout has warning signs. The key is to identify how you're masking the symptoms before it's too late.

Here are three warning signs you may be headed to burnout but don't know it.

1. You're wired and you're getting stuff done. Lots of it.

Burnout is often associated with fatigue, moodiness, disaffected attitude, etc. The path to burnout, however, can look very different. I recently met a high-energy woman everyone saw as vibrant, bubbly, busy and involved in everything. Indeed, she was a wired, nonstop, on-the-go type of gal.

Despite how much energy everyone said she had, Christy, as I'll call her, knew she was burning herself out. She got so much done because she was wired on caffeine, sugar and adrenaline. But she wasn't bringing her best self to anything. She got emotional energy from taking care of everyone else, except herself. Her adrenal glands were working overtime to keep up.

She was burning out and no one knew it. As she admitted, keeping up with her pace of volunteering for every assignment, family crisis and church obligation was not sustainable. While not in full burn out, she was racing there quickly while masking her pain from others.

2. You "can't turn it off."

I know how it is. You have a free evening. What do you do? You sit down on the couch and grab the remote. Ah, yes, a quiet evening. But then you see a TV ad that sparks an idea. You pick up the laptop to jot it down. Next thing you know you've done three hours of work. Your excuse for getting to bed at 2 a.m. is "but I can't turn it off."

Similarly, you've been told to meditate to relax and get more focused. Again, you say, "but I can't sit still and turn it off."

The "I can't turn it off" excuse for not recharging, refueling and rejuvenating masks the journey to burnout. This excuse is really saying "if I slow down they will find out I'm a fraud. The busier and more connected I am, the more essential I will be." Ah yes, the dreaded "I'm not worthy" reason.

I call this the "burnout mindset."

The belief that you are not worthy or that you're a fraud is rarely if ever true (and no, you are not the exception). Your employer, your family, your friends want the best from you and for you. They don't want a shell of your former self. They don't want to have to worry about you or fire you (as employee or friend). So take off the "I can't unplug" mask and realize you are good enough. Then turn off the smartphone. Stop checking email in the middle of the night. Stop masking the need to recharge. Learn to relax.

3. You keep telling yourself "it will slow down soon."

This was my favorite while working for a fast growth start up years ago. It was the lie we all kept telling ourselves.

Face it. Life is never going to slow down. It hasn't yet so why do you keep hoping?

You are surrounded by information 24/7. You are expected to do the work of three people. Deadlines are shorter. Pressure is greater.

I told myself it would slow down soon for almost 20 years. It didn't slow down until I chose to slow down.

Things outside you won't slow down. Your company is striving to get to market first. But you can't get it there, unless you build the stamina and resilience to keep up and excel. If you keep hoping things will slow down, you are masking reality and failing to act in ways to avoid burnout.

Burnout is not inevitable. It is avoidable. To avoid it, begin by identifying which of these three masks you wear. What will you do today to remove it?