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Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Cure For Burnout?

I first heard the term burnout in the early 1980’s. Someone had left our agency and her boss wrote a note saying about her, “Totally burned out. Leaving the business.” Today, a week does not go by when I do not receive an e-mail or in a conversation have someone use the term. Some people even say it about themselves.

Psychologist Herbert Freudenberger is credited with coining the term back in the 1970s. The standard definition usually is something such as “long term exhaustion and diminished interest in work. Reporters Bianchi, Schonfeld and Laurent projected that 90% of workers who are “burned out” meet diagnostic criteria for depression.

I sent the burnout question to about a dozen members of my Media Realism panel. You had to be over 50 and in the advertising or communications business for more than 25 years to be asked to weigh in on the issue.

Most people felt that it was growing but I did get some interesting answers and a few hard nosed ones. Highlights, all quoted with permission, were:

1) “The people who say that they are burned out always tended to be the lazy people who were not bad enough to fire but never really great performers. Now that we all have to work a lot harder in the ad business, they say that they are burned out. Well, they certainly are not exhausted. They never worked a week like I do every week and have for 40 years.”
2) “A lot of the alleged burnout cases around me are people who cannot keep up with the changes. The business has passed them by and they hide behind burnout. After a drink, some will tell me that they just want to survive 5 or 10 more years and then retire. Somehow they think that the clock is going to stop. What irks me, and I am 59, is that this is arguably the most exciting time ever to be in advertising or media. My regret is that I will be gone soon and miss all the fun. One woman told me the other day that she wished we were back in the day when she only had to buy three stations in a market. I am not sure if these people are depressed. They, to me, suffer from lack of engagement. Change is scary, sure. But there is no alternative to it, none”.
3) Lastly, a very thoughtful executive gave me his cure for burnout. “Don, I have, as you know, changed jobs and companies every 5-7 years for the last 35. It is the perfect tonic for creeping burnout. The challenge is to prove yourself in a new arena and with new clients and customers. You never get in to what you used to describe to me as “a comfortable rut.” Also, when you start a new job, all of your ideas seem fresh to your new associates. I knew it was time to leave a job when associates would tell me that they knew what I was going to say about an issue before I opened my mouth. When you start a new position, for the first couple of years, you are not so predictable. You also learn a lot when you change your group of cronies. I have always loved getting a different perspective on things. A change in venue does that in spades.”

My last friend from item #3 has an interesting perspective. Fortunately, he lives in a big city, New York, where he can change jobs without uprooting his family. If you are in a Baltimore or Burlington or Salt Lake City, it might not be so easy to leave an agency or media property and find a similar or better job across town.

Clearly, depression is a big problem in 2014 America. Yet, are some people using it as an excuse as some of my panel members seem to feel? And, is leaving your present job the solution in many cases to reinvigorate your career?

If you would like to contact Don Cole directly, you may reach him at doncolemedia@gmail.com

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