Burnout is not a myth

I happened upon an Inc. magazine article yesterday, where Marissa Mayer (CEO of Yahoo) is reported to believe that burnout is a myth.

There are some interesting points made in this article, some of which I do agree with and some of which are head scratchers:

  • Burnout has nothing to do with long hours
  • Lots of people work long hours continuously for decades
  • Burnout is more about resentment when work takes people away from things they truly care about – e.g. children
  • To avoid burnout ensure people make time for the things they do care about

The bit about resentment is certainly true. But I disagree with the part about burnout having nothing to do with long hours. Ms. Mayer has superhuman stamina. Most people probably can’t survive a 130h work week on a sustained basis. While I am in awe of her dedication, I rather think this datapoint is six sigmas out of the norm.

The fact remains that if someone is working that much, they don’t have time left to take good care of themselves. They aren’t exercising or eating properly or spending quality time with their family. This is fine when you are 25 and your body can take any amount of abuse and show no bad effects. For those of us who haven’t been 25 for a while… not so much. People get physically sick after a while, either with garden variety colds or with stress related illnesses.

The other thing I find, which seems counter-intuitive, is that when people have things other than work to think about, they think better and perform more effectively at work. This is certainly true for me: I volunteer at MIT and work with students to mentor them on entrepreneurship, and I always find that talking to students helps me refresh my perspective on my work and helps me arrive at new insights that I might not have arrived at without some external stimulation. If I can spend some time kayaking or riding my bike over the weekend, I come back to work balanced and refreshed and able to think more clearly on strategic matters than if I worked both days over the weekend.

So, in short, I think the article is fine and provocative, but I try to be vigilant and take what steps I can to prevent burnout in my team. I try to make people take comp time right after a big crunch, and to the extent possible, I try to regulate the big crunches so they don’t come too close together. It’d be nice if we can plan our work better to head off these big crunches altogether… but that’s a topic for another day.

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