Will You Burn Bright or Burn Out?

Suggestions for avoiding "fatigue brought about by devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward."

Neil Young's anthem on his "Live Rust" album was, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." For many it was a call to burn bright and passionately rather than resign ourselves to a complacent life of dull routine. I wonder, though, if many department managers across the country haven't misread the message. I encounter managers in many stores who have lost their vision and motivation. They feel burdened with the weight of all their obligations and responsibilities; feeling burnout has become a regular part of their daily work life.

Burnout (from Herbert Freunden-berger): "A state of fatigue brought about by a devotion to a cause, a way of life, or a relationship that failed to produce the expected reward." Does this describe anyone in your store?

One of the most common areas that managers neglect on the road to burnout is their own basic needs. Time off is one of the biggest. Managers feel obligated to be at work because things aren't going as well as they should. They often sacrifice their personal life for the needs of the store.

Sacrifice comes with the territory and some situations call for it: employees calling in sick, quitting, or being terminated. But this should be the exception, not the rule. Allowing time for family, hobbies, etc. will keep you healthier, happier and mentally prepared to do the job. You may need to take separate days off, but make sure you take them. Get away from the store during your lunch break (yes, it's important that you take one!).

Doing these things will give you a fresh perspective and set a good example for the rest of your crew. Quite often we fail to recognize that we actually encourage burnout in others. Setting the wrong example can lead to a co-dependent relationship. Employees may work every extra shift or hour needed if we let them. This band-aid may be good for occasional short-term problems but won't work as a long term solution. It leads to the same burnout the manager is feeling, causing more sick time and employee turnover. Good employees are a valuable resource and shouldn't be depleted.

If you are looking for ways to handle this situation, step away from your department for a few days. You say you can't afford it? But you can't afford not to! Your department depends on it.

Review the reasons for your fatigue, reflect back to what motivated you in the first place. If it was just a job, it will be difficult to regain the energy. If your motivation was a dream to create something different or better, then invest the time to replenish your desires. Visit a farm, go to a sustainable agriculture conference, and invest in that book, film, or music that will inspire you. Call up a produce pal to vent, seek counsel from someone with a different perspective of your store.

Finally, if all else fails, consider a job change. Allow yourself the freedom to recognize whether management was best suited to you. Maybe you would be a great buyer without the management responsibilities. Try working in another department even if it means less pay. The reduction in stress may be worth a whole lot more than you realize.

Take a good look at your department and find the areas that need work, make a list, and set a course for change. Most often it's the lack of systems that stop the progress, including consistent scheduling, job descriptions, and accountability for the work. If systems are in place -- for daily routines, proper training, clear lines of communication and understanding of department finances -- you will have more time to create and blossom. Frustration will be at a minimum, and the department will become a place where employees enjoy working.

Managers need to work on delegating and sharing responsibilities. It is difficult to let go sometimes, but it needs to happen. Many managers feel their plate is full and consequently don't take on new opportunities when they come along. When a new opportunity arises, managers need to take something from their workload and delegate it to an assistant manager or crew member who is ready for a challenge. This allows everyone to be challenged and feel ownership of the department.

Another piece to your revitalization process is creating a shared vision. I often hear from managers that the crew doesn't get it! Ask yourself if you have taken the time to communicate your dream for the department. Are you clear about what it is yourself? Write down your past, present, and future vision. Think about the part you play in achieving it. Ask the crew how you can reach goals together. If your crew feels they have a direct effect on those goals, they will be more willing to embrace it.

If we are going to follow Neil's advice -- "better to burn out than to rust" -- let's make sure we are like a star that offers light after it is gone: the light of a creative and passionately lived career. Move away from the unhealthy and stress-filled environment that dulls even the brightest prospects.

See other articles from this issue: #086 January - February - 2000