Exhausted and lonely
My first experience with management - that is, being responsible for what my co-worker did or didn’t do while on my watch - was at The Rugged Bear, a boutique children’s clothing store in Albany, NY, at the ripe old age of 17. As a keyholder (!!!), it was my job to count the contents of the cash register while my colleague vacuumed the whole store. Boy was it amazing to be at the top of the food chain!
Fast forward and my first “adult” job involved managing college students and a gentleman about twice my age in a gelato cafe. It was in this role, where my responsibilities included a lot more than just counting the cash register, that I learned just how lonely and exhausting it can be at the top. As a recent college graduate myself, it was a bit awkward to manage peers my own age. It was even more awkward to manage a tired musician, twice my age, in a role that he clearly didn’t enjoy. He had a temper and after one particularly nasty blow up, I told ownership that he had to go. And so it was.
On another occasion, it was my responsibility to terminate an employee who called in before his shift to share offensive, drunken feedback with me.
Being the boss meant that when I fired someone, I was ultimately responsible for covering their shift. For anyone who has worked retail, this is one of the worst parts of the job. The show must go on, even if it means working a 15+ hour shift.
Despite working on my feet and being perpetually sticky from gelato and frappe-everything, I found the most exhausting part of my job to be the always-on mindset. I was the boss and my behavior, even on my break, set standards for everyone else. If I enjoyed a particularly large scoop of Cherry Vanilla gelato (in a waffle cone, of course!) on my way out the door after a particularly busy day, the rest of the team would follow my lead and start carrying pints of the stuff home after every shift. If I rolled my eyes ever, it became okay for the customer to come second.
I long ago graduated to a desk job with a team that is more motivated by professional achievement than unfettered access to sweets. A lot has changed, but a lot remains the same: I’m still always on and I’m still lonely at the top of my heap. Only within the last year or so have I settled into a good routine that allows me to decompress, vent, and relax. I’m a knowledge worker, as you probably are as well. We enjoy a lot of luxuries (ping pong tables, office snacks, the ability to work from home). But rather than quit when our legs give out, we’re subject to mental burnout.
I found the best way to avoid burning out from being “always-on” was to embrace my own limits and to be a human. I finally realized that I work best when leading from a place of empathy. Part of that means admitting when I’m tired, when I’m not 100%, and when it would be better for everyone if I waited until the following morning to give feedback about a particularly complex financial model.