Is Avoiding Burnout As A Consultant Possible?

With  a weekend ahead of us, we have a great opportunity to unwind and relax, take a break from work and have a chance to disconnect and to get re-energized before ‘hitting the road’ again next week. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

In reality, however, for many consultants the break won’t be long enough to help them recharge their batteries. We all know that it’s almost a badge of honor for a consultant to put in long hours and to take on multiple project and business development / practice building responsibilities, all without even breaking a sweat.

It’s therefore not surprising that – despite the rise in dialog about work-life balance – quite a few consultants still continue to experience burnout and all too often live with it for many years before doing anything about it. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and there are many, even small actions you can take to avoid a burnout.

So What Is Burnout & How Do I Know If I’m Experiencing it?

Burnout typically manifests itself in two ways, in a physical and psychological way.

Physical: The physical demands of being a consultant (as is true for many other professionals too) can be exhausting. Sometimes a few good nights of sleep are enough to get you through and to re-energize and motivate you for the next work week, project and/or client. If that is the case, here’s the good news! You probably aren’t experiencing any burnout symptoms…yet!

However, intensive work environments, grueling work and travel schedules, and the need to constantly be ‘on’ can take their toll. What this looks like is different for everyone, for some it may show in form of fatigue, regular colds, physical aches and pains, weight gain or loss; others may fight a constant lethargic feeling.

Psychological: The physiological demands of consulting are far less documented, but still very real.

Consultants often spend long periods of time away from home and family, working alone, sometimes with little or no positive recognition from their clients, living in a temporary way out of hotels and constantly mindful of ensuring the satisfaction and happiness of others (their clients, their project manager, their team mates etc.) over their own.

Again, what this looks like is different for everyone, but typical reactions include feelings of dread when thinking about going into the office or traveling to a client site, avoiding colleagues or clients who might represent stressful situations, constantly looking for excuses or ways to get out of things. Another manifestation is the constant feeling of self-doubt. Doubting whether this is the right career for them, doubting their values, doubting if they are smart enough and questioning whether the work they are doing is actually valuable or making a difference.

So what can you do to prevent any such situations? Here are some tips and advice from some seasoned consultants:

Firstly, Is this Burnout, Or Are You Just Finished With Consulting?

If you experience some of the physical and psychological effects typically associated with burnout, but on a temporary basis rather than a chronic one, consider if what you are feeling may just be the norm in our profession and is experienced by everyone from time to time.

It may also be the case that you are just done with consulting! For many, consulting isn’t a lifelong career path, but just a stepping stone to something else after a few years in the game. Some people just aren’t cut out for consulting – that’s a fact! So if you think this might be you, take some time to re-consider your career choice, your values, ambitions, working style and needs. Consulting might just not be right for you, and there is nothing wrong with that.

Reconsider Your Boundaries (Or Set Them If You Haven’t Yet!)

This all really boils down to taking better care of yourself and your needs. Do you have clearly defined boundaries set? And are those you work with aware of them? We aren’t talking about a written document shared with your team, but actions and behaviors you display that make it clear what your boundaries are. Boundaries you set could address:

Time – This is the most obvious one. How much time every day, week, month are you prepared to spend doing work and how much work can you take on within that timeframe? This includes weekends and evenings at home, not just the face time in the office.

Talk to your clients and project managers; make sure they are aware of any personal commitments. As long you plan for it, there’s really no reason to not go on that family trip or attend your best friend’s wedding…

Breaks – Research has shown that taking breaks during your workday will re-energize you, enhance your focus and help prevent burnout. So start proactively scheduling breaks into your day away from your computer. It might be as easy as taking time for lunch away from your computer. And there’s always a Starbucks to be found nearby in case you need a coffee break.

Digital Devices – We have all read the research about how our devices prevent us from switching off, sleeping and even maintaining healthy relationships. So it’s time to set mobile device boundaries for yourself, and stick to them.

The project won’t fail just because you don’t respond to a client email at 2 a.m.

Internal/ extracurricular activities – How much firm building activity have you taken on? Sure you need it for your next promotion / performance review, but do you need to be doing all of these activities right now? Maybe you can just select fewer but more value adding initiatives?

Think Weekly Instead Of Daily

Sometimes as consultants we can barely imagine what the end of a day will look like, let alone the end of the week or the month or a project. However this daily approach to consulting life can quickly lead to burnout, as we try to cram as much as possible into each day, not realizing the impact it has on us.

Working until 3am on a Monday doesn’t just ruin your Monday, it will negatively impact your whole week.

Relying on little sleep, no exercise and a poor diet Monday to Thursday and banking on the fact that you have Friday and the weekend to recover is a poor strategy. Spending Friday and the weekend resting and recuperating ready to do the whole thing again the next week isn’t sustainable.

Instead consider an approach which requires you to be more mindful of the work week as a whole. Consultants are typically expert planners. So why not put these skills to good use to plan out your work and personal life with the same rigor?

Try spending 20 minutes on the plane or over breakfast on Monday morning to come up with a ‘project plan’ for your week, and think about how you can make the best use of your time from a work AND personal perspective. Sure consulting is unpredictable and you probably won’t be able to stick to your plan 100%, but just this little bit of planning can help you achieve a lot more balance than you may currently have.

Make Personal Time A Priority

We know this is easier said than done, and many consultants during the early part of their career believe that devoting all their energy and time to work is the only way to succeed and make partner, usually because that’s what they see people around them doing.

The truth is that your well-being and long term success is dependent on you having some balance.

You need to set aside meaningful amounts of time for yourself and for you to spend with other important people in your life. Everyone needs support and recognition, to be listened to and the chance to talk about non-work related topics. It will help you make sure you replenish your energy levels consistently and not just when work schedules allow you to. 

Build Good Habits & Encourage Others To Do The Same

Many people will be reading this and saying to themselves ‘sure, that’s nice in theory but…’ and we get it, the very nature of consulting makes many of these suggestions difficult, but not impossible. 

As a young consultant, you have so much energy and may often wonder why people don’t want to go for team dinner every night, the long hours don’t bother you and all the traveling is fun and exciting.

However, maintaining these ‘bad’ habits in the long run, and demonstrating them to others around us as we progress through our careers is exactly what can lead to burnout for some of us.

The good news is that it isn’t too late! It’s never too late to change your habits, and to talk to those around you about your experiences and how they can learn from you and put into practice some actions to help prevent them from burnout.

This article was originally published on our partner site, TheConsultantLounge.com

TheConsultantLounge is the leading career platform specifically for consultants. Find them on Twitter!

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