The World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”
As someone who has experienced burnout at work (and even quit a job without having another one lined up thanks to burnout), here’s how I describe it: Burnout is when the liquid in your hypothetical capacity cup is teetering on the edge or overflowing. You’re mentally and physically depleted. The passion, joy and fun you once had for your work is gone.
According to the 2022-2023 Aflac WorkForces Report, more than half (59%) of American workers are experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout, a notable increase over 2021 (52%) and on par with the levels reported in 2020 at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Communications and marketing work is notorious for leading to burnout. In a larger company, it’s more common to have an internal structure where there are separate leaders for marketing, communications and digital/social media. But in a smaller organization, one or two people are charged with every task. I bet you’ve seen a job description for a marketing or communications role that lists every possible internal/external responsibility that exists. I have—and it’s not sustainable or realistic for one person to own all that work.
Our role as communicators and marketers requires constant innovation, rapid (yet accurate) response, strategic thinking, crisis expertise, staying on top of evolving algorithms and trends … and that’s just scratching the surface. But our work is incredibly valuable and rewarding. It can (and does!) create real and positive change for an organization.
It’s incumbent upon us to cultivate the next generation of leaders who will carry the proverbial torch and continue proving why our work is critical. But to do that, we must ensure “PR work leads to burnout” doesn’t become the new “PR work can’t be measured” dark cloud that hangs over us.
Preventing Burnout Starts At The Top
One of the main causes of burnout is ineffective leadership. Leaders must model the ideal anti-burnout behavior. If we tell employees not to email during vacation or avoid sitting at their desks for 12 hours straight (particularly relevant for remote workers) but we don’t practice what we preach, then we’re hypocrites. And employees won’t feel confident following those anti-burnout recommendations if their bosses do the opposite.
Being an effective leader comes down to listening to and caring about our teams. Leaders should encourage employees to speak up when they’re overwhelmed by creating safe, trusting spaces to express their feelings. If leaders make it OK to not always be OK at work, employees will feel more comfortable telling leaders if they feel burned out.
As leaders who have experienced varying levels of stress (and likely even burnout) throughout our careers, it’s also our responsibility to help the people we lead avoid getting to the point of burnout. Leaders can only control so much, and employees also need to make an effort to avoid burnout. But sometimes they may not recognize that their work ethic or habits have put them on a direct path to burnout. If leaders put in the time to get to know their employees well (I’m talking about how they’re truly wired—not just their hobbies), then we’ll recognize when someone is on the verge of crossing over from the stress zone to the burnout zone.
Let’s talk more about healthy stress. Our work can be very stressful. But if the stress is temporary and subsides once we get through the challenging situation, we can look back on that period and reflect on what we learned and how we grew professionally. A former PR agency leader-turned-PR agency coach once told me, “When you stress, you must rest.”
Self-care is critical, particularly in crisis work. I get it—deadlines and expectations don’t stop. But as leaders, as often as possible, let’s commit to practicing reflection with our teams after a stressful situation/project, discuss what we learned and then reset before jumping into something new. Adopting this practice is a critical component to helping our teams—and ourselves—avoid burnout.
Other Tips For Communicators To Avoid Burnout
Aim for quality vs. quantity
I’ve yet to find a situation where quality vs. quantity doesn’t make sense! This especially holds true for our industry where a new tool, trend or channel (hello, Threads) seems to pop up every week. Let’s be smart about where we invest our time/resources and where we ask our teams to spend time promoting our brands.
Define right-fit clients/work
This is for my agency friends. I’ll preface this by saying it’s not realistic only to have clients and work that are 100% the right fit. We’ve all had that client who critiques every little thing. But it’s important to define what a right-fit client and right-fit work means for your agency. Ideally, that right-fit criteria should be aligned with your values, and then you need to stick to those boundaries as often as possible. If we take on too many clients that aren’t a good fit, that’s a one-way ticket to burnout land.
Stick to your values
Sometimes we have to accept that the counsel we provide won’t be taken—but there’s a fine line between adding a second quote in a press release because that’s what the CEO wants and a leader asking us to do something unethical. Having your counsel ignored frequently or constantly being asked to do things that go against your moral standards will inevitably lead to burnout. This is a sign that it’s time to evaluate whether you should continue working for this leader and company.
One of my favorite phrases is “It’s PR, not the ER.” Yes, our work is important. Yes, we should take it seriously and pour effort, energy and attention into our work. But we aren’t literally saving lives. Remember that phrase and these tips the next time you find yourself trending toward burnout.