Dealing With Workplace Fatigue

February 18, 2024

To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, the goal of therapy is to transform existential suffering into common misery.

As pessimistic as this sounds, it helps establish a framework of incremental improvement. You don’t need a complete 180 to start feeling better. A ten percent improvement in your energy or mood can make a big difference and can signal a trajectory change that can add up to major improvements further down the line.

In contemporary terms: it doesn’t matter where you are, just what direction you’re heading.

How does this apply to burnout?

There are three big factors of burnout: depersonalization, stagnation, and fatigue. (If you need a review, be sure to check out the first two articles in the Burnout series.)

Make significant progress in only one of these three areas, and the three-legged tower of burnout will topple. We will have successfully traded full-scale burnout for commonplace work stress. Not a bad deal, all things considered.

But we might be able to do one better.

If we can make progress in all three areas, you might actually start to find satisfaction in your work.

Of the three big factors, fatigue is probably the easiest one to make rapid headway in. But this is a double edged sword because it is also the one that is most likely to show up again with no apparent reason. Energy can be fickle. Somedays we have it, and somedays we don’t. It can literally change with the weather. Still, there is a big difference between burnout-level fatigue and common exhaustion.

What I typically recommend to people is to start working on fatigue to get in a few easy wins. Then channel that momentum into chipping away at the other two factors.

So here we go. Step one. Let’s get your energy back.

(I’m going to assume you are already using good sleep hygiene practices. If not, make sure you’re going to go to bed on time and getting the necessary amount of sleep. Otherwise the following strategies will be the proverbial cart in front of the horse.)

These are my favorite go-to strategies for treating fatigue

Managing energy with the 80-20 rule. You’ve probably heard of the 80-20 rule (also called the Pareto Principle based on the work of Vilfredo Pareto). It refers to a frequently recurring phenomenon found in many areas of both nature and society where 80% of the results come from only 20% of the causes.

The Pareto Principle is closely related to the law of diminishing returns which highlights “less is more” dynamics when they show up. The goal here is to strategize your workflow and build protections around the most effective uses of your time.

Instead of working through your task-list one item at a time, be strategic. A non-linear work-flow might allow you to incorporate more energizing activities throughout the day rather than having one long joyless task that dominates the bulk of your schedule.

Take a 12-minute break for every hour of work. If your schedule is too strict to account for this kind of work-break ratio, use that 12 minutes to engage in a task that uses a different part of your brain. This circuit training approach will keep your energy and attention feeling fresh for longer periods of time.

Use the 80-20 rule to scale up your role at work by identifying advanced tasks you think might enjoy and negotiate with your supervisor to spend an hour of your day or one day out of the week working on that task.

Don’t get caught up on the precision of an 80-20 ratio. Just focus on incorporating small changes to your daily routine that help you feel more energized. And as mentioned before, the Pareto Principle also suggests that 8 out of 10 strategies you try might yield little-to-no results, but the last 2 can be a total game changer. Keep the big picture in mind and stay committed to the long-term process.

Negotiating your time and space. Two concepts that I use often in my own life and with my clients are “the doorway effect” and “breaking the frame”.

You’re sitting in your living room and start to feel thirsty, so you get up to go get a drink of water. But as soon as you enter the kitchen you forget why you went there. When you go back to the living room and sit down you remember that you’re thirsty and wonder why you didn’t get a drink when you were just in the kitchen. That’s the doorway effect. There are times when crossing a physical or geographical boundary, even something as small as going into a different room in your house, can cause your entire nervous system to undergo a temporary reset. We lose sight of things that were bothering us moments ago. Even physical sensations and intense emotions can be momentarily forgotten. The doorway effect can be strong, and it is something we can use to our advantage.

Breaking the frame is another way of manipulating your environment to achieve a quick refresh on your energy. Irving Goffman says the “frame” is the set of external cues that help us to answer the simple question, “What is it that is going on here?” You’re wearing chinos and a polo or a pencil skirt and blouse. You’re sitting under fluorescents hunched over and staring at a screen. Where are you? -At work, of course.

Keeping that in mind, try this thought experiment. Imagine taking an axe to the ornate frame around the Mona Lisa. Chop away several chunks right at the bottom and imagine the paints starting to slip away. The Mona Lisa, in all practicality, is gone. What’s left is something closer to a Salvador Dalí. Now imagine taking that same axe to some of the external cues that frame your experience of work mode. What automatic thoughts, feelings, and behaviors do you imagine shifting as a result?

How can we apply these two concepts?

If your work allows it, try shifting your location throughout the day. Take your laptop with you to a different part of the building every hour or so. Start in your office, then move to an empty conference room. If your boss gives you the greenlight, take your laptop with you to lunch and setup for the one o’clock hour at a local park. From there, go to a library or coffee shop before spending the last few hours back in the office. The feeling of fatigue that we get at work is often nothing more than our nervous system feeling bored about being in the same location. Try negotiating for a flexible work space, and see what happens.

Try the same approach with the hours you’re expected to be working. Again, this may not be possible in some industries, but if it works in your context, and your boss is ok with it, give it a try.

Get creative. Which physical items in your office signal work mode? Or energy-crash mode? Which of those signals are you able to flex? Casual Friday is an example of this concept. Push it further. Can you change up the décor, lighting, or music? Some people keep a pair of slippers at their desk and put them on when they need to change things up. The possibilities are endless. Get creative, and find a way of breaking up the monotony of a boring workspace.

Finishing the day with energy to spare. If you work 8 hours a day for 15 dollars an hour, but your job actually requires 4 additional hours of recovery time just to get your energy level back to baseline, then you are practically working for 10 dollars an hour. By gaining an energy surplus, you are able to buy back your true wage. You can then use those extra 4 hours of off-time on something that is meaningful to you rather than using it as recovery time.

The value of five minutes of surplus energy is exponentially greater than finishing your work day in a collapsed mess.

I learned about a training exercise in martial arts that builds balance. You hold a pose on one foot for almost as long as you can, but never to the point of falling over. In this exercise you always choose to put your other foot down. The instructor explained it this way- by choosing to put your foot down instead of falling over, you build a sense of control into your subconscious that scaffolds your ability to tolerate increasingly greater challenges. Finishing your day with energy to spare builds on this same concept.

How do you begin creating surplus energy?

Try this.

Select an activity that makes you feel excited and energized and make plans to do that activity right after work (or as close as you can manage). When I say “make plans,” I mean it literally. Pick a time on your calendar and write it down. Writing down your goals increases the likelihood that you will follow through. This also makes use of the doorway effect and breaking the frame at the critical moment of switching out of work mode into family or personal time. Make note of how your energy fluctuates the day of and the day after the activity. What we want to see is a leveling out of some of the major ups and downs in your energy. It’s those drastic changes that lead to fatigue. You want to feel tired at the end of the day, but not like you’ve been hit by a train.

Pick a strategy to try this next week, and see if you notice a boost in your energy. You’re going to need that extra energy because in the next article we’ll dive into how to deal with stagnation at work.


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