How Leaders Can Battle Burnout on Their Team

Battle Burnout: Address the 6 Motivators for Enjoying Work

By Erick Lauber, Ph.D.

Gloria wasn’t happy at work.  It wasn’t that she hated her job or anything like that. Her co-workers were fine and she didn’t mind the type of work she did. In fact, she thought she did it pretty well. Of course, she wanted more money, but who didn’t?  No, something else was bothering her.  At some basic level she simply didn’t enjoy coming to work. Whatever excitement or sense of accomplishment she used to get had been replaced by a lack of motivation.

Gloria’s issue was a common one. Employees around the world sometimes lose sight of what makes their work worthwhile.  They get run-down, burnt out and de-motivated.   At times like these it can be difficult for anyone to enjoy work and find the old levels of motivation and energy.

To help Gloria and the millions like her, it is necessary to look at the underlying causes.  Why do any of us enjoy work?  And can we re-ignite those causes in our own work environment? The answer is yes, there are at least six different reasons why we enjoy work, ignoring money, of course..

Inner Accomplishment

The remarkable time and energy some people put in to their work can only be understood as an “inner drive” – they simply want to achieve that goal.  Seeking a personal sense of accomplishment is natural and can be harnessed everyday by millions of workers and employers.  It can be described as “taking pride in one’s work” or a sense that “this is what I was meant to do.”  Whether the objectives are short-term or long-term, making progress toward a goal makes all of us feel good.

The Greater Good

Many of us are also motivated by a sense of community. The feeling that we are part of something larger and that life isn’t just about our own individual needs and wants.  .  This particular joy and peace is experienced by millions as they volunteer for church or service club tasks, but it can also be encouraged in the workplace.  For example, it is claimed many Asian/Eastern companies reinforce this message. Clearly many Americans are also motivated by community considerations.  Perhaps Gloria could be encouraged to reframe her circumstances and see how she is contributing to the greater good.

Personal Relationships

Many get enjoyment from the individual relationships they experience at work.  It helps them look forward to each day. The laughter, the camaraderie, the forgiveness and even the occasional stress are all something they enjoy and know they wouldn’t want to live without.  But not everyone is the same, and certainly we’re not all our best self every single day.  Enlightened managers respect this basic human need to connect with others and allow it, if not encourage it, in their workplace.  Has Gloria’s manager given her the opportunity to connect with others?  Has he diagnosed that this is something important to her?

Sense of Team

Similarly, some people enjoy a special sense of completeness and wholeness by experiencing team. In the workplace, many employers work hard to encourage this shared identity by conducting internal PR and messaging campaigns.  For quieter teammates, a sense of camaraderie might provide an extremely important opportunity to connect and feel like they belong.  Does Gloria feel she’s part of a team?  How much team spirit has her boss created?

Physical Exertion

For some, a special sense of joy comes from physical exertion, and the absence of it makes any job less appealing.  It just doesn’t feel like work if they aren’t breaking a sweat or doing battle with the weather.  This is partly a product of socialization and might be tied up with what “work” means to them.  Modern day psychology re-affirms the benefits from physical labor. We all know how endorphins can give us a slight high.  And everyone knows about the stress-management benefits from working out?  Is getting physical a way for Gloria to battle her “lack of motivation? If her job is sedentary, does her employer even offer a “get in shape” program?

Mental Challenges

Finally, a great many of us enjoy the special mental feeling that comes from exercising our creativity or satisfying our curiosity.  The small euphoria that comes from developing something new or conquering a complex problem can be for a big part of enjoying work for some. Does Gloria’s boss know whether she’s incredibly bored or frustrated by her tasks? Is it time for a promotion, or perhaps a little job engineering to offer a chance at being creative?

“Why” is the Answer to “How”

So, what can be done more generally to help employees enjoy their work? Or what can Gloria or any employee do themselves?  The answer is simple: treat the cause, not the symptoms. Instead of worrying about symptoms like aggressive behavior or poor attitude, employees and employers can create a more enjoyable work environment by directly addressing one or more of these common denominators.  Why not casually interview Gloria about whether she feels connected to her fellow co-workers? Does she have any friends at work?   Why not ask “is this job challenging enough?” or “would you like the opportunity to be more creative?”  Stepping back and reflecting on each of these six motivators can guide any manager or employee toward a more enjoyable work place.  There is hope for Gloria in the application of modern day psychology to the workplace.

Life Framing 101: Take Control Over Your Life Story

Have you reflected recently on your life story?  Its ups and downs. How it plays out day by day with you as the main character. Sometimes a drama or tragedy. Other days a comedy.  Have you marveled at how it just keeps going on, and though you know you don’t directly control every little thing in it, somehow you have a nagging feeling perhaps you could be doing this story a bit better?  There must be a way, you think, to steer or direct this film so the poor little old heroine gets more of what she wants and less of what she doesn’t want.

But how?  How do people really take charge over their life story and direct it in a way that keeps them on the right path?  Clearly some people do this. They seem more content, more happy. They handle things better than most and they have loving, kind people in their lives.  What’s their secret?

Perhaps it’s that they actually understand that their life is a story, and they take charge of it the same way any professional story teller or film maker might approach the task of crafting an excellent story. This approach could be called “Life Framing,” framing your life as a story, one that you are in charge of, and one that could be done well if you focus on doing the things that must happen in order to have a well-directed, excellent story.

For example, in professional film-making the three most important jobs are the script writer, the director and the lead actress or actor.  Each has the most direct decision-making authority over the story but in different ways and at different times. You need to do each of these three roles well in order to practice Life Framing and take charge of your life story.

The Script Writer

The script writer is the over-arching master of the story. It is their ideas that will be brought to life. If she decides the main actress will marry her life-long crush in scene 12, then a wedding happens. It’s in the script.  If the two characters eventually move to a small town off the coast of Lake Erie and remodel a bed and breakfast, then get out the paint brush.  It’s in the script.

All major decisions in a professional story are made by the script writer because the story must stay on track. It has to follow a certain trajectory, a particular path, or it won’t end where the script writer has decided it will end.  It’s the script writer’s job to have a vision of where the story is heading at each major plot turn, but it is also her responsibility.

So one might ask, “How are you doing at script writing your life?”  Have you sat quietly, thought through where you want to end up and who you want in your life and plotted out how to make that happen?  Are you staying on the path, “staying true to the script” as they say in film making, or are you being pulled “off script” by people, events or accidents?  If we don’t have a vision of how we want this story to go, how can we ever direct it in that direction?  Script writing your life is your responsibility.

The Director

The director of a film is the problem solver. Their job is to make the script a reality. They must work with team mates, follow through on logistics and solve problems of all types  but at all times, stay true to the script!  Yes, even if they are a big name director, they still do not get to rewrite the script. The story is still a comedy or love story or whatever was originally decided, and they do not get to change the direction of the story just because a problem pops up or an actor gets sick.  The director is a very busy person with immense responsibilities, but they still answer to the script writer.

Have you gone off script recently?  Has the need to solve a problem or respond to something unexpected caused you to veer off course? Can you still remember what your vision is, of what you want your story to look like in the future?  Maybe you spend a lot of your time in director-mode and much too little time reflecting and creating your life as the script writer.

The Lead Actor/Actress

There are times in your life when you must execute; you must step up and play the part you have written for yourself.  Some of these times you know what to do, but you get scared or can’t find the words.  You’re worried about your “performance” (how others will think of you) or you take the easy way out and convince yourself it is okay to re-write the script and not necessarily stay on the story’s path.

If we look at professional film making we might learn that good acting means, first, having the courage to play the part as written.  If our life story says the main character would always put ethics before money, then we have to follow through on that choice.  If a professional actress momentarily forgets her lines, it’s okay for her to ad lib as long as she stays true to the script – as long as her words and actions do not deviate from what needs to be accomplished in that scene.

Can you say that about your performance?  Are you acting in a way congruent with the life story you want to have?  Importantly, are you the person you want the lead character to be? Or have you become someone you wouldn’t want as the lead in your story?  Critically, at the most stressful or tempting moments – are you staying true to the script?

Separating the Roles

What is most important to learn from professional story telling is that never are these roles played by the same person at the same time.  The script writer, the director and the lead actor/actress have different responsibilities; different skill sets and their talents are required at different points in the story telling process. Not surprisingly, the script writer is active very early on and is only “called on set” when a major event has occurred and the script needs to be partially re-written to get it back on track.  Notably, the script writer typically works alone, perhaps in a quiet place, and reflects about the major points of the story. How should this story unfold from here on out, over the course of years? For you, the lesson is you should never try to re-write the script while you are in problem solving mode or while you are executing/acting as the main character in a busy scene.  Leave script writing for the quieter calmer moments. That’s what all professional story tellers do.

Similarly, there are many moments in each day when you are problem solving.  You need to accomplish this task, plan a menu or fix the car.  But does your problem solving reflect the major parts of the life story plot?   If you’ve decided that certain people will be important in your life, are you planning those activities accordingly? Have you created scenes where that message will come through loud and clear? Have you managed your finances so the characters can do the important things in the plot instead of being sidetracked by unimportant things?  Have you made your health a priority so, in the long-term, other people’s stories aren’t all about taking care of you?  Life framing is about perspective. Where do you want your story to go and are you problem solving in that direction?

Most importantly, when you are executing, do you have the courage to perform as the script writer wants?  Do you have the confidence to ad lib because you know the script inside and out? Are you treating the other characters as you should because you know what you want in the long term? Staying true to the script in the heat of the moment is perhaps the hardest thing each of us has to do.  But if you’ve decided the significant features of the main character in your life story – she is kind, forgiving, quick to laugh and an eager friend to those who are close to her – wouldn’t it be easier to stay true to the script?

Life framing is a change in perspective that allows each of us to examine our life in a broader “frame” and to stay true to the things we actually hold most dear. What kind of character or person are we? How do we want this story to play out in the long run? And who do we really want us as the principle, supporting actors in our life story?  Importantly, Life Framing tells us that there is a time and place for acting, problem solving and writing our script.  Each of these must be done well, though never at the same time. And, ultimately, the goal must be to stay true to the script.