When You Feel Exhausted and Lonely At Work

Ryan Hoover created Product Hunt seven years ago as a side project. It started as an email newsletter and launched in a single tweet at Philz Coffee in San Francisco. Seven years later, Product Hunt has led to the discovery of over 100 million products across 50,000 companies, and is now a crucial part of the builder ecosystem in Silicon Valley. But at the end of last month, Ryan announced that he’s stepping down. In his own words, “the motivation and happiness that fueled my work started to fade, replaced with a growing cloud of depression and burnout. I suppressed my true feelings. I told myself, “This is what I signed up for. This is my job.

Nancy Hua, a founder friend of ours, stepped down as the CEO of Apptimize in late 2018. In the post mortem she wrote, “it took me years to admit that I wanted to stop being the CEO because I was scared the company would die if I stopped…I was scared to tell anyone I wanted to leave because it’s scary to lose control. It was lonely, but I didn’t know another way to operate.”

This sense of being consumed by your job is not only experienced by founders and CEOs. Perhaps you used to love your job, but now you just want to hide under the covers in the morning. How did we get here: exhausted, burned out, anxious, and perhaps depressed? Is there a way out?

Let’s examine potential causes of your angst and some initial steps you can take to move forward.

Slow down to speed up

1. The job becomes your identity. Are you afraid the company will fall apart if you take a vacation? Do you strive to answer emails quickly, even if addressed to several people? Do you feel responsible for others’ mistakes? These may be signs your job is enmeshing with your identity. Initially, the power you have may be addicting, but it can be harmful. You unknowingly believe that it all hinges on you.

Try: Take a forced vacation. When you leave for 2 weeks, you see quickly that the company can indeed survive without you. This is great for succession/promotion planning too – who stepped up while you were away? Who surprised you, positively or negatively? If nobody did, some serious work needs to be done — companies that revolve around one person can fail miserably when that person leaves. Surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Build a collaborative team where everyone is responsible for outcomes.

2. Inability to delegate. This occurs frequently with new leaders and in startups as they scale, where the person wearing 10 hats has trouble giving a few of them up. Have you ever thought, “Only I can do it,” “They won’t do it as well as I can,” or “I can do it faster.” Failing to delegate slows everything down, as decisions and work can only be completed by or through one person. You need to pass on your knowledge and some work in order to scale. But you may say, “No one cares about the company as much as I do.” They will care as long as you give them challenging assignments and trust them.

Try: Make the upfront investment to train and mentor. You need to slow down to speed up. You’ll enjoy it once employees are up to speed and moving things along faster. Delegating doesn’t have to be scary either. Don’t simply hand off an assignment and wash your hands of it. You’ll get anxious, and the employee may fail. That experience will lead you to tighten your grip, the opposite of what you’re going for. Instead, start small. Give a small task to the employee. Ask them how they would tackle it instead of telling them. This provides a sense of how they think and the amount of knowledge they possess. It helps build trust, meaning you’ll be comfortable delegating more.

Zoom Out, then Zoom In

3. Losing sight of your purpose. When you started your job, did the big picture excite you? Did you envision the person whose illness you’d help cure? Or the time people would save using your product? When we lose ourselves in daily minutia, our purpose can fade. Instead of celebrating milestones, we quickly move on to the next task. We lose sight of what we first loved and trade it for exhaustion.

Try: Carve out time to reacquaint yourself with your purpose. Strategize how you’ll keep your purpose front of mind. Slow down enough to recognize and celebrate accomplishments and milestones. Leaders, do this with employees too. Recognizing a job well done and tying it to the company purpose will keep folks engaged and motivated. In all of this, consider finding an accountability partner to help you stay on track.

4. Not the right fit. You’re an idea person but are managing project timelines. You prefer being an individual contributor but are managing a team. You thrive in chaotic small startups but become exhausted when processes are implemented to grow. Sometimes exhaustion occurs because we’re not a right fit for the role.

Try: Determine if there are any current needs that can be addressed, e.g. moving to a new role, managing more/fewer people, anything we’ve mentioned above. If you’ve done this and are still exhausted, it’s time for some soul-searching. Consider Lori’s Personal Board of Advisors exercise or Kate’s recommendation of the book Designing Your Life.

Your Boundaries and Needs are Valid  

5. Poor boundaries. This is especially prevalent during COVID, as kitchen tables double as home offices. When does work end and home life begin? We’ve lost our forced boundaries, e.g. commute time, school drop-offs, the gym. COVID will pass, forced boundaries will resume, yet you may still struggle. Is it difficult saying “no” to others? Is 24/7 your average work week? If you’re not careful, what you think you own starts owning you.

Try: Schedule specific start/end times for work, breaks, meals, connecting with family and friends, and self-care. Prioritize tasks and experiment with saying “no” or “not now.” Leaders, be role models for employees. Show them you have boundaries, and be vigilant they’re doing the same.

6. Poor time management. We go back to, “What you think you own starts owning you.” We believe we’re in control of our calendars, yet we go from meeting to meeting without a break.

Try: Look at your calendar for the last month, answer these questions, and adjust accordingly:

  • How many meetings do you have? How many are regularly scheduled?
  • When do you get your work done?
  • Which meetings can you stop attending? Hint: Delegate some to your employees.
  • Can meetings be shortened and/or less frequent?
  • Who should be in the meetings?
  • Can you block time, e.g. block 2hrs/wk for yourself to strategize, or have all of your employee 1:1s on the same day, back to back.
  • Are agendas sent in advance to improve meeting productivity and efficiency?
  • How are meeting attendees held accountable for next steps?

7. Not communicating your needs. Have you ever witnessed someone blow up over something that didn’t seem to warrant that strong of a reaction? Perhaps you’ve been that person. This can occur when we’ve been stuffing our needs and feelings only to become pressure cookers that blow off steam at inopportune times. You hear reasons for it: “I didn’t want to look like I couldn’t do it,” “I didn’t want to disappoint anyone,” “My team is busy. I didn’t want to add to their plate, “My manager doesn’t care,” or “I assumed my manager would notice. Isn’t that their job?”

Try: If you can’t identify your needs right away, become aware of when frustration and exhaustion are building. Ask what is causing it, then develop possible solutions. Gather the strength to communicate your needs and solutions to your co-founder, manager and your team. Tell them what your unmet needs are doing to you, the team, or the company (Try using the ABC Formula). Don’t fear what they’ll think. Most of the time we are our own harshest critics. You might be surprised by how much closer your vulnerability can bring you to people.

If exhaustion has led to severe depression or anxiety, know that you are not alone. Whether to seek professional help or support from family and friends, always keep in mind that your needs are valid, and it’s okay to take a pause. At moments of exhaustion, take a deep breath, and try our favorite mantras from the loving-kindness meditation:

With every breath, I feel myself relaxing.

I have control over how I feel, and I choose to feel at peace.

I give myself permission to let go of what no longer serves me.

Next post (we’ll see you in 2021 🎉): You have several dotted line relationships, and you are responsible for leading the projects these people are part of. You can’t seem to make them do what you want them to do. How can you manage if you don’t have the authority?

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