07/08/2013 12:23 pm ET Updated Sep 07, 2013

Why Knowledge Workers Suffers From Employee Burnout

Consider this scenario that your key employee is in. Or maybe it's you.

It's 8 pm. You are exhausted. You haven't had a home cooked meal in months. You haven't gotten more than 5 hours sleep in weeks. Your to do list hasn't dwindled all day. The gym? Dinner? Who's kidding whom? You've still got 4 hours of work ahead of you.

If we are being honest, your work conditions aren't much better than a 12 year old in Bangladesh; assuming you aren't sleeping on the floor. The big difference between you and the 12 year old making the running shoes you never have the energy to use is that no one is protesting your working conditions.

Such is the life of a modern knowledge worker.

A logical question arises anytime I step back and look at the corporate and billable hour landscape my clients work in or create. Why do people do this? (Note: I ask this as someone who worked like this for many years)

Why Do We Burnout?

Because we don't know any better.

I've written about how people mask burnout, fatigue and stress, unless of course it serves them to wear it as a badge of honor. Either way, living with burnout means we aren't engaged employees and we aren't giving our best as shown by the Towers Watson 2012 Global Workforce Study. That translates into slow company growth and slow job creation.

As it turns out, burnout isn't just personal, it's an economic matter.

But why do we have this skewed relationship with overwork and undernourishment? We are operating under one of two myths.

Myth #1 Burnout Is Weakness

Just as Brene Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, debunks the myth that vulnerability is weakness, I feel so compelled to argue the same about burnout. Indeed, burnout and vulnerability go hand in hand. To admit we are burnout is to be vulnerable as its not something you talk about and if you do, you are weak.

From law firms to start ups, everyone is working 60+ hours a week. In April, all accountants are working 16-hour days. As you approach product launch, it's all-hands on deck.

As we falter under the weight of it all, when we want to raise our hand and scream "uncle", we look around and watch everyone else - heads down, toiling away.

Then we think, "who am I to complain or protest?"

We believe if we speak up, everyone else doing exactly what we are doing will look down upon us. We hear their replies before we ever speak:

"What makes you so special?"

"If you can't handle the heat, get out of the kitchen."

"Maybe you aren't cut out for this kind of work."

We begin to believe the problem is us, not them. So we work harder. We burnout.

Burnout is not a sign of weakness, it's the result of a de-humanizing work environment and following the herd. Be smart and break the pattern.

Myth #2 Burnout Is Cool

On the flip side, burnout is used by some as an "I'm cooler and more important than you" tool. Hang out at the coffee machine and see how often you hear:

"I'm crazy busy. I can't believe how much I have to do. I don't know how I'll get it all done."

"I've got so much to do, I don't know where to begin."

"I'm going to have to pull an all-nighter."

Do you think this person is cool? No, I don't either. Yet I've said these things, and if you've ever worked a day in your life, you probably have as well.

We say these things to let off steam, but also because it makes us feel important. "Someone must think so highly of me that they gave me all work. I must be indispensable."

Here's the thing, if your boss really cared about you and your well-being, he or she would want to make sure you had a reasonable (as opposed to a super-human) workload so you don't burnout. Right?

Unreasonable hours and workloads fueled on free pizza and sodas may (or may not) lead to more getting done. For sure, overwork and short deadlines will lead to mistakes, lost productivity and lost opportunity cost. Whether its coding errors, or missing $100,000 mistake in a contract, burnout is not cool and it's expensive.

It's A Matter Of Personal Responsibility And Strategy

I want to be clear that there is no one to blame here. Not the employee, not the employer. We are all operating within a culture that abhors weakness and celebrates hard work. Combine these values with technology-fueled speed, and you have a recipe for burnout.

There will always be deadlines, emergencies and urgency to get to market before our competitors. So how do we bust the myths and create an environment where employees are authentic to their physical and mental needs and still get the job done?

It comes down to personal responsibility. We each need to take responsibility for our own needs - employees and managers alike.

Busting the myths comes down to the old saying: it's not about working harder, it's about working smarter. How smart are you on your 12th hour of work? Would you want to get on a flight with a pilot who had as little sleep as you? How would you like to undergo surgery with a surgeon who was working as many as hours and taking care of himself as poorly as the average stressed out worker?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

Working smarter means more than finding a new productivity hack. Working smarter means taking regular breaks (every 90 minutes is ideal). Working smarter means eating real food, not processed junk. Working smarter means getting 8-hours sleep and daily exercise. Working smarter means setting boundaries.

Employee well-being matters. It matters for our health, our relationships and our economy. Well-being is not about fluff. It's about personal and professional results.