It took a global pandemic for companies to begin to highlight the challenges of stress at work and the importance to focus on what really matters in life. In the defense industry, that meant that employers were concerned about childcare options for their employees. Remote work suddenly became a thing overnight. These are conversations that have been happening for a long time, but the way that the COVID-19 pandemic impacted everyone equally put actions behind many discussions. But after all these discussions, what about employee burnout? How much does your organization care about your stress levels – whether for personal or professional reasons? The way they respond speaks volumes.

What Does Employee Burnout Look Like?

For some, burnout looks like simple tasks suddenly seeming insurmountable. For others, irritation or cynicism can be high. Constant sickness can be signals that the body is keeping the score from all the stress. Another indicator can be an increase in mistakes. Burnout can come from either extended hours on the job and/or a high level of stress. Maybe it’s self inflicted, or maybe it’s encouraged in the environment. No matter how it started, not only will it need to be addressed, but it matters how your workplace responds to it.

After many national security offices began to resume in-office operations, leadership continued to encourage employees to take the time they needed to care for their families. However, many of those same leaders continued to be in the office five days a week, not realizing that they were sending mixed messages. Sometimes, toxic work environments emerge unintentionally. Your boss may not be a narcissist, but they may have unrealistic expectations about work and life and how you should personally balance everything.

Workplace Norms that Can Lead to Employee Burnout

You may be prone to thinking that you are the cause of the burnout. And maybe life outside of work has been stressful. It would be abnormal to have a stressful personal life not impact your work. However, feelings of employee burnout shouldn’t be ignored. Here are a few indicators that will help you know that it’s not all in your head.

1. Moving Goal Posts

Do job requirements change frequently? Are you working hard at a task, only to send it in for review and find that new requirements have emerged and others have been removed? When your client or your manager does not know their mind or what they want, that creates a stressful environment. Requirements may be defined in the statement of work or the project plan, but maybe you’re getting some passive aggressive comments that make you feel like you should complete some extra hours to make the client happy. It’s never fun when the goal posts keep moving.

2. Zero White Space

When there’s too much crammed onto a page, it doesn’t give the reader any ability to fully digest the information. Same thing with workload. If there’s too much crammed in to every hour of your day, there’s not enough time to fully process what you’re doing. Some people like to simply stay busy, but for the thinkers in the world, too much busy can lead to a lot of burnout.

3. Empty Wallet

There are times when cashflow issues are really just a personal problems. Even if working for your employer is driving you to a lot of takeout, Starbucks, and retail therapy, it’s not their job to pay you more. But if your salary isn’t in line with competition, or you have earned a degree but no one wants to pay you more for that accomplishment, it is a contributing factor to your employee burnout. Compensation is another form of recognition. If all the kudos from team members don’t lead to a promotion, bonus, or raise, then eventually, the words just become meaningless.

4. Leadership Issues

Not all burnout is the direct fault of leadership – sometimes, it’s unintentional. Leaders are also busy and have their own stressors. However, sometimes, a bad leader in the mix can have a subtle but damaging impact on organizational culture. Maybe it’s a direct boss or it’s someone all the way the top. This will show up in communications to job expectations to compensation. Worst case scenario is when a leader’s actions and words negatively influence the life of the office daily.

Identifying a Toxic Environment

If you find that you’re in a toxic environment, it’s less about you personally learning to say no or doing more yoga, and more about finding a better job. By all means, do some self assessments and adjust your personal habits. But if the job is not bringing you joy, find another one. Your security clearance opens up a lot of opportunities to support great agencies and contractors. Staying at a job that is leading you to burnout will have a long term impact on your career. So, take the time to clean up your resume, and keep looking at the job landscape for your next opportunity.

On the other hand, if you have open doors for honest conversations with your leadership, take advantage of that. Especially in a market where management may be having a harder time to fill roles, they may not realize all the work that’s falling on the shoulders of their current staff. So, communicate your needs, but if they are ignored or overlooked, don’t forget to keep searching all the open, cleared positions.


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Jillian Hamilton has worked in a variety of Program Management roles for multiple Federal Government contractors. She has helped manage projects in training and IT. She received her Bachelors degree in Business with an emphasis in Marketing from Penn State University and her MBA from the University of Phoenix.