03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dealing With Low Energy And "Burnout"

I think the most common complaints I hear from folks in corporations these days is that they are 'just tired', have 'low energy' or are 'burned out'. Usually these declarations are accompanied by a compelling story that there is 'too much work' or that they are pressed to produce without having the resources they need. It seems people are working in a condition in which they are being constantly called on to produce more for less. The results: poor morale (at best), an environment of stress (at worst), breakdowns in people's health, lower productivity, and even (in extreme cases) sabotage. But what do these statements mean? And what can we do to change our experience at work (or in life) for that matter?

These statements reveal a particular relationship with our circumstances, based on a point of view that there is something 'causing' us to feel this way. When we say our workload is the cause of our low energy or tiredness, we are connecting two separate things (amount of work as cause and energy levels as effect) and collapsing them into a story that leaves us suffering in a self-fulfilling interpretation. This way of thinking will keep us stuck being victims of the situation we believe is causing our experience.

Now I don't want to minimize people's experiences and I don't doubt they are sincere when they report how things are for them. But I would invite them simply to stop for a moment and reflect on what they are saying and what they are feeling.

I am not talking here about genuine physical fatigue or illness such as the flu. I am talking about the kind of 'low energy mood' that we can all experience when we are feeling overwhelmed or not in control of a situation or our own lives. Think of what happens when we resist being tired or having low energy. Generally, it will make our mood worse. We may suppress it for a while, but it will always come to the surface (and usually stronger than before). So how can we shift our mood?

I propose that we can alter moods like these by changing our point of view (our attitude). But, as we all know, changing an attitude or point of view isn't easy. It is not easy because our attitude is a habit--a habitual way of being in relationship to our circumstances and ourselves.

A mood is what connects our stories about the way things are and our experience. The mood locks us into a particular relationship with the past and the future. If we see a positive future, we are generally in a good mood. If we see a negative one, we'll easily fall into a bad mood. The key is to stop trying to get the circumstances to be positive or negative, but to master how we 'see' the circumstances.

In a way, it is the old 'glass half full' or 'glass half empty' dilemma--the glass is neither until we see it one way or another. This isn't about positive thinking. To think positively, we'd have to see the glass as half empty first and then pretend it is really half full. The question is not which way it is, but what point of view are we committed to.

When we know that there is an end to a particularly strenuous period of work, we can feel energized and become even more productive. When we think that the flow of work is endless or that we have no choice in the matter, then we may begin to break down, feel disempowered, become tired. Life begins to feel like a burden.

I have found that resolving these kinds of chronic negative moods about workload and feeling overwhelmed begins by reconnecting with the fact that we always have a choice, even when part of our story is that we do not. When we can 'own' that our work is our choice (even if we don't particularly like what we are doing), then we have taken the first step toward changing how we relate to it. It is OUR job.

The second step is to learn to 'be present' when we are working. One of the common pitfalls we can all fall into as we become more competent at a job is to 'go on automatic', which allows us to spend more and more time thinking or feeling sorry for ourselves and ultimately making the situation worse. If something happens that 'jolts' us into being present (such as a crisis), we experience an instant shift in our mood and our energy level increases dramatically.

The third element in mastering these types of moods is to approach all work as physically challenging. In other words, we need to stay in shape if we're going to play at a level of peak performance. This is just common sense. If we are feeling fit and 'alive', we will generally bring that to whatever we are doing. Having a heavy workload doesn't mean that we need to feel heavy also. We can only accomplish what we can accomplish in a day, and whatever is unfinished on or 'to do' list will be there tomorrow. In the end, we'll all die someday and leave something unfinished.

Finally, it is important that we acknowledge what we are not doing. Depending upon the organization and the nature of our work, it may even be appropriate to publicly acknowledge all the things that are not being done--not only to eliminate the extra stress of trying to hide incomplete work, but also to allow others in the organization to respond responsibly to the reality of a particular work situation.

At the end of the day, no employee should ever need to sacrifice over-long periods of time or put up with low energy or negative moods. But the responsibility for doing something about these begins with the employee, not the employer. Our moods are not caused by our circumstances and our workload. Our moods originate in how we relate to our circumstances and our workload. When we assume responsibility for how we relate to our circumstances, we are no longer victims. We can then either initiate changes in how we work or change our experience by becoming even more present while we're working.

© 2009 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.