Manufacturing is a cyclical industry. When things are booming, it's hard to keep up. So we work more. Then, when things are slow, it's hard to survive. So we work more. The sales may fluctuate, the market may boom or tank, but the amount of effort it takes to survive never seems to change. We’re constantly looking to improve the speeds and feeds of our machine tools and many of us push our bodies and minds just as hard as we push our machines.
How many times have you heard, “Slow down or you’ll burn yourself out”? That’s a phrase I heard a lot as I made the decision to be an entrepreneur within this cyclical industry of manufacturing.
I didn’t listen. I was so focused on success I forgot to consider if my efforts and rewards were balanced, or if my achievements were lining up with my goals and values. My excuse was that I would slow down later, when I got past that ‘next’ milestone. Then I’d be able to relax. Just one more dose of hard work and I’d be past it. But in reality, work was my badge of honor; worn like an entrepreneurial “purple heart”.
When people noticed me working non-stop, checking my phone all the time, sending emails in the middle of the night, and piling more on my plate, biting off more than I could chew, I thought, “when all of my ‘productivity’ bears fruit, they’ll see why I made these sacrifices”.
What I didn’t realize: burnout is real, and my obsession with “more” was going to bear less and less fruit as the symptoms began to show up.
There is a way to succeed in this industry and avoid burnout, and there’s also a way to come back from the brink. So, wherever you are in the cycle, here are a few things to know:
Burnout is Real and it Looks a Lot Like Depression
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, to describe the consequences of severe stress in “helping” professions, such as nursing and teaching. Today, more than 40 years later, burnout seems to have become a mass phenomenon, affecting people in any profession. It is one of the most widely discussed mental health problems of our time.
As more and more people are missing work due to burnout, it poses the question: is this set of symptoms a clearly-defined illness?
That answer is still being researched, but for now job burnout is considered a type of work-related stress, not an official medical diagnosis. However, it is undisputed that burnout can be the catalyst for serious afflictions that affect both your physical and mental health.
When I first tried to introduce my boss at Advanced Machining and Engineering (AME), who also happens to be my father, to high-level marketing strategies such as becoming partners with a podcast and building a media brand, over the traditional trade journal ads and show displays, it really could not have gone worse.
We couldn’t see eye-to-eye, and I ended up leaving the family business for a while to lead marketing for a big commercial insurance agency. The addition of the brand new job in an unfamiliar industry, along with planning the launch of my own business were the two key ingredients in my recipe for burnout.
I worked very hard for all the wrong reasons; mainly to ‘prove’ I could be successful without the family business and to demonstrate my worth to my folks and others who didn’t see the value, originally, in my dreams of developing a new manufacturing marketing and media model.
Does it come as a surprise that I burned out pretty quickly? Working tirelessly, by myself, and with the wrong motivation created a perfect storm. Anxiety, insomnia, cynicism at work and home, were just a few of the obvious symptoms. The worst part is I was rarely present with my wife and daughter during off-hours, mainly because my mind didn’t have off-hours.
I took the first step by seeing a professional and learned I was experiencing burnout. I alwo learned I needed to make key life changes before my symptom devolved into full-blown depression.
One of those key changes was to reconnect with my values, which for me began with my Christian faith. I decided I was tired of constantly thinking about my own issues and embraced the opportunity to get outside myself. So I got involved with my community by becoming a mentor to a young man a tough spot, and I humbled myself, apologized to my Dad, and restored my relationship with my family.
It may sound counterintuitive, but one of the biggest ways to overcome burnout at work is by finding meaning and value in the aspects of your life that are independent of your job. This may mean committing to new responsibilities or allocating time for activities that have nothing to do with your paycheck, title, or LinkedIn page.
You Can Win the War on Burnout
Burnout has a lot to do with balance. This should be easy for us to understand as manufacturers, since we know anything working off balance can not sustain itself for very long.
First, pay attention to the symptoms. From a physical standpoint, you may have headaches, high blood pressure, sleeplessness, muscle tension, or an increased susceptibility to illness.From a psychological standpoint, you may experience reduced performance and productivity, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, lack of creativity, exhaustion, negative attitudes toward coworkers, loss of purpose, short temper, frustration, or emotional numbness.
Obviously many of these symptoms could also point to some other. My advice is, if you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, take time to consider if it could possibly be the red flag of burnout, and visit a professional to get a diagnosis.
Know this: you can’t work your way out of burnout. It’s like quicksand; the harder you struggle, the deeper you sink. But you can overcome it. The first step is admitting you have a problem -- working too much and not allowing your mind to rest.
The next thing you can do is to figure out how to prioritize, delegate, and elevate. That’s right - you have to set aside the ‘Hero Complex” and let someone else have their moment to shine. I will tell you a secret - even though I still have to go to war against taking on more than I can handle, I win small battles every day by letting certain things go or handing them off to another person and realizing it is going to be OK.
My last bit of advice is to try to live life by putting your ‘eulogy values over your résumé values’. Hopefully this doesn’t need much of an explanation. Eulogy values are things people will say about you at your funeral — what kind of person you were; if you were caring, loving, faithful, fair, etc. As soon as I started putting my eulogy values of faith and family first, I started to find my way back from burnout.
Of course, I’m not done battling. I am just better at it. Plus, I’ve got my wife to help keep me accountable, and to make sure I stop and smell the roses from time to time (or, in my case, stop and smell the dirty diapers).