Identify the Problem: Burnout at Work

brown wooden sticks on white surface

In my book The Happiness Project, I made a list of my twelve Personal Commandments—the overarching precepts I use to guide my thoughts and actions.

My Eighth Personal Commandment is to Identify the problem. That is, when I’m annoyed, angered, or frustrated, I should pause to ask myself, “What exactly is the problem here?”

It’s surprisingly easy to skip this step.

“Identifying the problem” seems like an obvious step, yet recognizing its importance has been one of my most major happiness-project breakthroughs.

When we take the time to pinpoint the actual source of the problem, it’s much easier to see how to solve it. Even if that solution isn’t easy, it’s clearer.

In my observation, people often skip this crucial step! They know something is amiss, but have only a vague sense of what the true problem might be. And because they haven’t pinpointed the problem, they’re not effective at addressing that problem.

For instance, this issue often arises around burn-out. People tell me, “I’m so burned out at work! What do I do?”

Well, that depends. Why exactly do you feel burned out?

While “burn-out” sounds specific, there are many reasons you might be feeling burned out—and the solutions would be very different, depending on the cause.

Are you burned out because…?

  • your department has recently been downsized and now you’re expected to do twice as much work
  • your best friend at work took another job, and now work just isn’t fun
  • your team wastes so much time in meetings that you’re incredibly frustrated and behind in your work
  • you’re not treated fairly
  • you’re a social person, and because people come in only a few days each week, you’re not getting the face-to-face time you need
  • your boss now insists that you work in person every day, and your commute is draining
  • you feel exploited and unappreciated
  • you’ve been staying up until 2:00 a.m. to watch TV
  • your workplace makes sudden changes to workload, deadlines, and assignments without warning, so you feel you have no control
  • you want to find a new job, but you’ve been procrastinating about starting the process

These are all common reasons that people feel “burned out”—but they need different responses.

It sounds so easy to identify the problem, but it’s harder than it sounds.

Growing up, I thought I hated to exercise. I dreaded gym, and although I played on a team, I didn’t enjoy it at all. But finally I identified the real problem(s): I don’t like games! And I’m uncoordinated and bad at sports! But I like to exercise. Now I walk and do strength-training and yoga. No games, no coordination, just exercise.

A friend recently told me, “I thought I wanted outdoor space for my apartment. Then I realized that I actually want a husband.”

Identify the problem!



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