Are you suffering from brownout?
You're putting in the hours at work, but your heart's not in it anymore: welcome to brownout - not quite burnout, but still a problem - so what can you do to get back on track?
Published 18/09/2015 | 02:30
The idea of burnout at work has been with us for decades. But recently, executive coaches and business psychologists have started talking about "brownout", which is a sort of junior sibling. Staff affected by brownout become disengaged, demotivated and lose interest in their jobs.
As the name suggests, brownout is not as serious as burnout, but it is much more prevalent. The US coaching firm Corporate Balance Concepts recently looked at 1,000 executives: it estimated that 5pc of them suffered from burnout while 40pc suffered from brownout. Brownout can be fairly mild and is usually reversible, but in the long term can cause serious problems.
Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Michael E Kibler, the CEO of Corporate Balance Concepts cited a chief executive who talked of being so overwhelmed by work that, "Sometimes... I find myself actually hoping I'll have a heart attack. At least it would be an honourable way out."
The more usual symptoms of brownout tend to be disengagement, discontent, and lethargy. You'll turn up for work (and may even put in very long hours) but your heart isn't in it.
"You're not interested in new ideas, you're not proactive and you're less communicative and sociable," says Sir Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School.
"You'll use any excuse to not show up. A cold becomes flu."
It's not just work either. Brownout will often spill over into your home life. You could become withdrawn and passive aggressive. Rather than wanting to read with your children and talk to your partner, you'll flop in front of the TV and be sullen and indifferent to those around you.
The causes of brownout are very much linked with the new world of work and changes that have taken place since the recession.
One of the main factors behind it is very large amounts of rather dull work. In the recession, companies tended to either eliminate roles or not replace those who left. The extra workload was picked up by those who stayed.
The trouble is this means the work isn't challenging or stimulating: "You're just overloaded by more of the same," says Prof Cooper.
In a similar vein, the delayering that has taken place over the last few decades means that the traditional corporate pyramid often now has just four layers between the top and the bottom. Thus, the kind of incremental career progress our parents knew no longer exists.
This is one of the reasons that brownout often affects those in their mid-30s. When they started as graduates they were shown a glittering ladder that could be climbed. Now, it barely exists.
Technology has played a role too, by allowing work to eat into our home lives. With smartphones, we are often never truly not at work. Our evenings, weekends and holidays are no longer our own and so we never switch off and recharge.
Kevin Friery, clinical director of Workplace Wellness, says there has been a huge increase in sleep deprivation: "The single biggest factor in this was the use of mobile phones and iPads in bed." Executives, he adds, are particularly prone to taking work home and finishing their emails in bed.
All this leads to large numbers of people who are overworked and under-engaged. It never ends, but it's never stimulating and you never get anywhere.
Good companies, such as the famously innovative Swedish Handelsbanken, recognise that something needs to be done, even within the limits of modern companies. A spokesman explains that staff are regularly moved between roles in the organisation - from head offices to branches and vice-versa.
"It's not just about moving up - it's about expanding your knowledge of the organisation and providing real career progress."
But what do you do if you fear you're browning out at a less enlightened organisation?
Prof Cooper suggests a first port of call might be going to your boss or HR and saying that you need a challenge. As ever in these situations, it's best to go to them with an idea, rather than simply stating a problem.
You might say, "I'm really interested in broadening my experience, and would like to take responsibility for liaising with marketing on this project."
If the matter is simply one of overwork, you could talk about workload. Again, it's how you frame it. Rather than just say you have too much, it's far better to explain that the extra work you've taken over the years means you can't devote enough attention to really important matters.
Because brownout sits across the work-life divide, making changes in non-work areas can help too.
"People who are healthier tend to be more engaged," says Dr Peter Mills, an NHS specialist and medical director of the health insurer Cigna. While the relationship is not entirely clear, "trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and levels of activity is likely to help."
Thus, cycling to work may make you more positive about your job, even if your job stays the same.
Practice some electronic discipline too. "Turning off devices an hour before sleep time will lead to a healthier next day," says Friery.
Similarly, being half at work via your smartphone when on holiday or at weekends means you never get the benefit of a full break. So, if you must check your emails, during non-work days, do it once a day.
Ultimately, though, if your job has become become both stressful and stagnant, you may be best looking elswhere.
Here Prof Cooper advises that you might try something different, "If you've been at a big organisation for years, you might try a smaller company which is riskier, but growing fast - and where your role may involve doing a bit of everything."
The good news, he adds, is that an improving economy means that there are many more options than there were even two years ago.
10 signs you're experiencing brownout
1 You work long hours, but without any real interest in your job. The work itself is a dull slog and lacks intellectual challenge or stimulation.
2 You feel as if you never really finish tasks. There's always more to do.
3 You no longer know where your career is going and don't make important decisions.
4 You contribute the minimum in meetings and have little interest in new suggestions. You're the person who pours cold water on other people's ideas.
5 You'll use any excuse not to show up. A headache becomes a migraine and a cold is always flu.
6 You check emails when you get up in the morning and in bed before you sleep. You are glued to your smartphone on holidays, on weekends and even during social occasions.
7 Physically you've started to suffer. You're out of shape, you eat junk food, you don't get enough sleep and you've given up exercising.
8 You've lost your sense of humour and tend towards passive aggressiveness and surliness. If anyone (in work or outside) asks you how things are going, you tend to snap or answer in monosyllables.
9 Family life is no longer what it once was. You come home late to watch TV and show little interest in your spouse and children. Friendships have withered on the vine and outside interests have been forgotten.
10 You don't hate your boss, but they're moody and unpredictable. You never know whether they'll like or hate a given piece of work.