Social media sites are aflame with discussion of “quiet quitting” — that is, burned out employees doing the minimum possible to meet their job requirements. It’s a natural reaction to overwork. But is overwork really the ultimate cause of burnout?
I have worked with many professionals and managers who suffer from burnout. In virtually every case, the cause was not the number of tasks or the hours, but that they were holding too many unresolved uncertainties in their minds, which they were trying to suppress instead of bringing out into the light. Those uncertainties included unpredictable bosses, hostile work environments, poorly explained changes in policy or strategy, or confusion about their future career path.
Suppressing negative emotions intensifies activity in the brain’s warning and fear centers, which creates more stress. Higher stress leads to hypersensitivity, creating a self-reinforcing negative spiral, in which the subconscious’s struggle with uncertainties takes up more and more of your mental bandwidth. This makes it difficult to sleep at night. Tired people think poorly and have less energy and willingness to engage on work tasks. We fall farther and farther behind. Burnout!
Three Steps to Deal with Uncertainty
A collection of brain centers called the “default mode network” takes care of everyday decisions that don’t require conscious attention. But the default mode network deals poorly with uncertainty. It sees uncertainty as risk, causing us to obsess and inflating our sense of the size and likelihood of problems based on that risk.
A better approach is to engage the executive functions in your brain, making decisions in a conscious way rather than reacting on autopilot. You can get started on that by following three simple steps:
- Write down each uncertainty — whether personal, professional, or both — and describe it briefly.
- Create a simple plan on how you could make that particular problem less uncertain.
- Every day, do something small based on the plan or plans that you wrote down.
Of course, “plan to fix the uncertainty” is itself not so easy. But it becomes easier when you break down the uncertainty into three elements. For each uncertainty, ask yourself:
- What am I certain that I should do? Why am I so sure? Do I need to confirm any of these elements? And once I’m certain, how can I take action, and how can I prioritize that action compared to everything else I need to do?
- What do I believe I should do, but am not certain about? How can I get more certainty on these things, and how should I prioritize them?
- What am I clueless about? Are those things really important, and if so, how could I gain insight into them?
What is This Like in Practice?
Imagine that you are Lisa, an accounting manager at ServCorp, a business services company. Last week you learned from the CFO that ServCorp is about to merge with a larger company, BigCorp, and that deal has just been announced publicly.
You already have a full day dealing with the usual problems: clients that aren’t paying on time, contracts with errors in them, short staffing, and so on. But now you start every day worried about how your job is going to change. And that makes you go home tired every day, and makes it difficult for you to sleep or engage with your family.
Following the process above, you might list the following uncertainties.
- Your accounts payable supervisor just quit. The uncertainty here is how to get the work done and hire a replacement. In this case, it’s clear that you must deal with the problem, since the department falls further behind every day. But it’s not clear that you have permission to hire in the wake of the merger.
Your plan for this problem might be to (1) meet twice a week with the payables team to identify and set priorities, eliminating work that’s not really necessary, (2) Get confirmation from HR and the CFO on whether you can hire a replacement, and (3) Start using your personal network to find a replacement more quickly.
And you might prioritize this problem quite high, because if you don’t deal with it, the work will become overwhelming, your department’s performance may suffer, and that may interfere with your future job evaluations in the soon to be merged company.
- Morale is low in your department. The uncertainty here is what to do about your own employees’ questions about the future. Perhaps it’s unclear to you what to do about this. So how could you get more clarity? One thing that would be helpful would be to get a timeframe on the merger and any related job losses from the CFO, so you can use that information to communicate appropriately to your staff. You might also do some research on helping people to prepare for mergers.
- Will you lose your job? That’s a huge uncertainty, and surely important to you. But it’s unlikely that you can get clarity on that until after the merger goes through. So worrying about it is unproductive. To gain some certainty, you could research what sort of severance policies your company has posted on its intranet, or even start researching other job openings to better understand the market for you if you need to get another job. Even though this is important to you, you might make these activities a lower priority since you will likely have some time to prepare in the event that you are laid off.
- Will the economy enable the newly merged company to grow? This could make a big difference in your future. But it’s not something you have any control or influence over. And it will make little difference in your immediate future. So you could decide that worrying about it is wasteful right now, and put it out of your mind to concentrate on your other priorities.
Once you write down uncertainties, they’re less likely to burn you out
For managers and professionals, “quiet quitting” is certainly not a path to future success. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, take charge of the uncertainty that’s contributing to your feelings of burnout. Even unknowns become tractable if you develop a plan for dealing with them.
This might make the difference between your being miserable and your dealing with and effectively managing in an uncertain environment. Applying your conscious, logical mind will help you deal with the unknown — and that’s a skill every manager needs.