The modern world is no stranger to burnout. We see ourselves burn out in love, work, and even worry. When people are exposed to stress and do not have enough time and space to recharge and recover, burnout is inevitable in whatever area of life is stretched the most. Sales, being one of the areas where work-related stress is abundant, is rife with constant fatigue and lack of self-care.
UNCrushed.org, a non-profit platform committed to mental health awareness, reports that about two-thirds of those having sales positions admit being close to experiencing burnout. Among the symptoms they mention are feeling physically drained, emotionally depleted, snappy, suffering from insomnia, frequent colds, increased anxiety, addictions, and escape fantasies.
The mechanism of burnout is simple: you give away more than you get back, and if the non-reciprocal giving lasts long enough, your physical, emotional, and mental batteries get depleted, which results in different degrees of exhaustion. A romantic burnout is disillusionment with your partner or the love scene in general. A worry burnout (a recent trend due to the unending march of the Covid-19 variants) is a depletion of your capacity to sustain a high level of vigilance and concern. Professional burnout is a reaction to prolonged stress and can occur in any job.
So, what does burnout look like? Can you recognize burnout at B2B sales and avoid having it? Let’s jump right into it and unpack the definition of sales burnout and a whole ton of other topics related to this as well.
What’s sales burnout?
The first thing to do is to define what burnout is. The World Health Organization included burnout in the 11th revision of its International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as an occupational phenomenon. Here’s what they say in the ICD-11:
Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
- feelings of energy depletion and exhaustion
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job
- reduced professional efficacy.
Each characterization can be further unpacked. Physical and emotional exhaustion can be manifested in irritability, quickness to anger, headaches, frequent illness, and “being tired all the time” because of sleeplessness or excessive sleepiness. Salespeople with increased negativism tend not to collaborate with their peers, voice negative opinions more often, bring down their colleagues, feel a low sense of their personal accomplishment, and demonstrate similar behaviors. Poor performance at work means not only failure to hit sales quotas and deliver great sales results but also flanking meetings, coming in late, not putting in the expected hours, not returning people’s calls, not turning on their web camera for a meeting, telling white lies, and so on.
People used to regard burnout as something of a choice. Listing it under “problems related to life management,” ICD-10 referred to burnout as “a state of vital exhaustion” not directly connected to work. But now, when low productivity, work-related cynicism, and chronic fatigue are closely linked to employment, the world of B2B sales can no longer turn a blind eye to this phenomenon because it not only hurts someone’s mental health and has the knock-on effect with one’s family, but also has negative effects on a company’s financial outcomes.
Is burnout the nature of sales?
Burnout is common in emotionally draining jobs like nursing, palliative care, and similar. However, sales turned out to be the breeding ground for garden-variety burnout. Let’s take lead generation for B2B sales and see what exactly can trigger burnout in SDRs.
- Variable compensation. The biggest stress for sales reps is hitting their quota. It feels great to exceed quota and earn commissions. But when a tough year comes (like when the global pandemic struck), it’s not fun to make just your base pay. Sales teams that expect to sign up a couple of high-ticker ‘whale’ customers and cover their annual sales quota and then find themselves being unable to do so simply cannot pay their bills, which is highly stressful.
- Too much workload. Many sales reps get into sales because they love the excitement of generating B2B leads and closing deals. However, when SDRs take on too many projects at once and do more than their sales role officially requires, without resting enough, they feel overwhelmed and end up physically and emotionally drained.
- Available 24/7. Sales teams are aware that they come to work in a fast-paced, high-stress environment. However, the unwritten rule to be available around the clock is not sustainable! Even though technology has made it possible for sales professionals to be constantly ‘on’ with customers and leads, it has detrimental effects on their emotional and mental health. Being flexible on work hours is great, but there should be the time when SDRs don’t think about work. Pulling all-nighters, checking email frequently, and not getting enough rest are the primary causes of sales burnout.
- Lack of necessary tools, resources, or training. While technology provides multiple opportunities to stay in touch with clients and automate email campaigns, transitioning to full-stack automation can be difficult for some companies. It results in two challenges. First, people working in the sales industry get drained when they lack sales tools and software that make their daily tasks easier and allow them to stay focused on selling. On the other hand, the complexity of new technology is overwhelming. People in the sales industry can be frustrated by juggling multiple lead generation apps and productivity tools daily or simply not finding a good fit with the applications and tools. Therefore, it is up to sales managers to arrange proper training to use sales tools.
- Lack of coaching or mentorship. Sales reps need guidance and motivation. Period. It’s not enough to set sales quotas and leave the team members to it. If the sales team has no one to guide them to success, they most likely will have burnout issues. An experienced mentor or supervisor will help handle rejection and sales pressure, remind them about the importance of self-compassion, and make sales reps feel supported. By investing in training sessions and professional development, employers help SDRs optimize the sales process, develop new skills, and increase their capacity.
Therefore, it’s critical for B2B sales companies to recognize that fast-paced environments and high-competitive workplaces with performance-based pay are extremely triggering for stress and anxiety that, if left unaddressed, get sales professionals burnt out.
What causes burnout in sales?
So far, the description of sales burnout looks like nothing more than a challenging job. However, there are multiple high-pressure jobs and many highly motivated people who want to work hard. Do they burn out too?
In the Industrial Age, it was common to see work as “disutility,” something that is drudged through for the sake of pay and that doesn’t need to be pleasant and inspiring. Having a clear-cut schedule, people could expect to work as much as they agreed upon and be free to do whatever they felt like: fishing, jogging, or mending socks.
The Information Age came, and society changed. Now we expect ourselves to find jobs that fulfill us. We want to be motivated with our jobs and grow into better people. These increased demands for a job pose certain threats of not being able to separate work from play.
If we love our jobs so much and they represent who we are, let’s keep doing job-related activities all the time, right?
Checking emails at midnight doesn’t feel like work. I’m just reducing tomorrow’s workload. Why can’t I research lead data on weekends? I’m doing it on LinkedIn, and surfing social media is a legit leisure activity. Listening to the latest episode of the Belkins Growth podcast while on the treadmill is multitasking at its best – I’m learning new things for my personal growth and investing in my health! But are you?
The problem with burnout is that it doesn’t arrive unexpectedly like the flu. Burnout is a process that feeds on our inability to give rest to our mind and body for the sake of better financial and professional outcomes. The biggest irony is that burnout often starts from your passion for your job.
Stages of burnout
When psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger first noticed that employees could get burned out by their jobs, he singled out 12 phases of burnout, later simplified into 5 stages of this syndrome.
- Honeymoon. Surprisingly, the first stage couldn’t be further from the burnout symptoms like anxiety, disassociation, and irritability. Quite the contrary, the Honeymoon phase is characterized by heightened productivity and energy levels, desire to prove yourself, intense creativity, and a strong commitment to the new role or project. Every sales rep would love to stay in this stage forever and could if burnout prevention strategies were in place and practiced. Unfortunately, many businesses take bouts of optimism and productivity in their workers for granted and don’t even think to create structures to prevent overworking. And that’s where the trouble begins.
- Casual stress. Imbued with ambition, people often push themselves to work harder. SDRs are likely to perform at their best once they’ve landed a dream job or a lifetime opportunity. More deals, more hours on cold calling, more clients. It seems to make sense: now they give every waking hour to writing emails, chasing leads, and attending meetings, and then they will reap countless benefits. Casual stress comes from neglecting your own needs. Here you give away an hour or two of weekend sleep. There you miss a training session. Now you’re munching a donut in front of the screen instead of having a properly balanced meal packed with nutrients and shooting the breeze with your peers. However, you make all these compromises for the sake of a project or a new role. Very soon, you will catch up on sleep, proper meals, and exercise. But so far, you indulge in mindless social media feed scrolling, binge eating or drinking, etc., to unwind.
- Chronic stress. Signing up for life-changing, exciting projects, sales professionals take on a bunch of commitments and then are terrified of screwing up. It starts a vicious circle of chronic fatigue and anxiety where stressful work causes stress that impacts work performance that results in more stress and anxiety, and so on. At this stage, the burnout symptoms include increased anxiety levels, trouble with focus and concentration, anxiety-associated insomnia, longer instances of procrastination, and anger and aggressive behavior. Usually, people in chronic stress don’t see their behavior and a sense of dissatisfaction as a problem and blame their troubles on whoever comes to mind: the boss, the job, the government, or colleagues. At this stage, deadlines are sometimes missed, the pressure is intensifying, social interactions give no pleasure, and people withdraw from friends and family. Energy levels are sustained by gallons of coffee all week and multiple units of alcohol all weekend.
- Burnout. The onset of a crisis is manifested through clear behavioral changes. People get snappy even with the loved one who used to see the best of them. Turned into full-blown workaholics, people feel guilty for any non-productive activity: taking a trip, visiting a friend, watching TV, sleeping in, anything that is not connected to money-making feels guilt-ridden. At that, work fails to give satisfaction. It’s impossible to stay motivated at this stage. A sense of emptiness and being lost is gnawing. Pessimistic moods and social isolation tendencies set in. To invigorate themselves and stimulate their cognitive activity, some start popping brain pills like Adderall. Physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, or bowel issues become chronic at this point.
- Habitual burnout. At the final stage, burnout is not separable from depression. Feeling detached from their life and work results, people feel empty and see no meaning in life. They can continue trudging with their job responsibilities because they have families, children, and mortgages. Still, they are doing so at the expense of coping mechanisms like substance use, overeating, gambling, and so on. Eventually, people’s ability to cope can be compromised and result in mental or physical collapse.
How to prevent burnout
Even if a relatively small percentage of sales reps reach extreme cases of burnout, many admit to experiencing burnout from time to time. As we have seen from the 5-stage syndrome description above, a full-blown case of burnout looks very much like depression and requires therapy and prescribed medication.
According to the 2019 National Survey of Drug Use and Health, sales reported a 6.7% depression rate.
However, the good news is that many cases of burnout can be prevented if addressed multilaterally. Culturally, society now recognizes that mental health issues are of utmost value and norms get relaxed. Changes in attitudes are not uniform, though. Whereas some people have no fear of being diagnosed with depression, others are very much aware of the stigma around mental conditions. Putting cultural assumptions and expectations aside as something that requires time and collective effort, let’s examine the organizational and individual levels of addressing sales burnout.
Burnout prevention is up to top management
Regardless of the burnout-depression overlap, the WHO hasn’t defined burnout as a legitimate medical diagnosis. The new definition directly connects it to occupation and work-related problems to encourage executive buy-in. Because burnout is associated with chronic workplace stress, employers are now aware of their responsibility to prevent burnout in their employees.
According to the “Six Areas of Worklife” model, burnout research singles out six elements to negotiate a harmonious balance between work and life. Mismatches of work and expectations in these six areas result in the burnout experience.
The workload is the primary cause of burnout. Human capabilities aren’t limitless, and there’s only that much time in the day, and people can’t work 24/7. Workload includes emotional work and role conflict. Many companies burned SDRs with too many responsibilities, from researching and nurturing leads to cold calling and closing deals. In the sales process, automation tools and outsourcing opportunities also affect workload.
Whereas work autonomy is essential for stellar performance and personal accomplishment, lack of control at work is a significant contributor to burnout. When multiple authorities conflict, it’s draining for employees. When employees see their initiatives stifled and have no leeway to make necessary decisions, it can result in burnout symptoms like self-doubt, loss of interest in work, anger, and tiredness. Having little control, employees can’t structure their work according to their values. Thus, the contribution to burnout comes from lack of control itself and unsatisfactory work setting.
Insufficient financial and social rewards can contribute to burnout. Emotional exhaustion and cynicism can be especially strong and noticeable when workload and compensation are seriously mismatched. Suppose SDRs fail to see recognition from customers, sales managers, and external stakeholders. In that case, they pick up signals that they are professionally ineffective and unaccomplished, which contributes to the development of burnout.
Social support is a buffer between the demands of a job and exhaustion. The context of social support within an organization includes informal interactions between colleagues and supervisor support. Research reveals that burnout is almost impossible in a community of responsive and attentive people. At that, a sense of community and personal relationships with clients and colleagues is very subjective.
The way employees see fairness in an organization refers to conflict management and administrative leadership. Being linked to reward and community, fairness can be interpreted as mutual trust among people in a company. Employees want their supervisors and executives to make fair decisions and distribute resources and opportunities with due consideration to multiple viewpoints and various circumstances. Fair supervisors cannot be disrespectful and impolite to workers. When sales managers are perceived as fair, SDRs accept organizational change and are less vulnerable to burnout.
The general rule is the greater value overlap, the more ideal a sales rep is. Values are extremely important for job efficacy and job satisfaction. When sharing values with a company, employees obtain the opportunity to use organizational resources and pursue their personal objectives. It is possible to make sales in exchange for rewards and have no personal goals with a company, but research findings show that a mismatch of values undermines personal achievement and depletes energy. Burnout often occurs when young sales professionals have idealistic expectations about the companies they come to work for. Aligning one’s expectations with those of the company reduces the possibility of burnout.
Thus, it’s in the interests of employers to give employees enough control and autonomy, invest in professional development, and create supportive and trustful working environments.
Burnout prevention is up to you
The fact that the WHO recognized burnout as a workplace issue doesn’t take away from workers some responsibility to protect themselves against the conditions that can burn them out. It’s up to SDRs to sleep eight hours per night, have a healthy diet, take time off to recharge, and structure their work life according to their personality and needs. Some call it living your truth, others refer to it as aligning your job with your values and personal objectives, and we say, “Just maintain a healthy work-life balance.”
Each individual needs to know the needs of their physical body and understand their personality. Here’s a list of simple strategies that will help you navigate the challenges of a demanding workplace and avoid burnout if you register the red flags signaling you’re not restoring your energy levels properly for a long time.
It’s a big mistake to take your body for granted and think it will serve you no matter how badly you treat it. Your body isn’t a slave to you, and it needs repair and restoration through proper amounts of sleep, rest, movement, and nourishment. Just by prioritizing proper sleeping, eating, resting, and moving, you can combat burnout and ward off even early signs of it.
- Sleep. For a long time, sleep was undervalued as a core healthy habit. It used to be ok to brag about staying up late and surviving on only four hours of sleep a day. Some SDRs used to view sleep as “wasted hours” while they could be productive in the workplace. Now sleep has regained its status as the ultimate performance enhancer that regenerates our brain cells, regulates our mood, and restores our energy levels. Lack of quality sleep is a major contributor to burnout that starts the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and overeating. Hit the sack at the same time (not later than 2 AM, even for night owls). Get no fewer than seven hours of sleep per night. Fix your erratic sleep schedule, and the odds of getting burnt out will get much lower.
- Healthy food. Overeating, binge eating, and emotional eating are common issues in burnout syndrome. Severe cases of eating disorders would require therapy. But if you get your 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night, you most likely will see yourself going easier on junk foods. Then you’ll need to figure out your major problem with food. Do you get enough proteins? Is your diet made mostly of sugar-laden, high-fat foods? Do you eat plenty of greens? Get tested for vitamin and mineral deficiencies. If you’re getting good sleep and eating healthy yet you’re still feeling tired, you may have low levels of Vitamin B, potassium, selenium, or magnesium. Correct the deficiencies, and you will see your energy soar.
- Movement. SDRs usually know they need to exercise and try to hit the gym at least once or twice a week. However, the human body benefits from everyday movement. It’s important to know the difference between movement and exercise. Taking a brisk 10-minute walk and stretching after each hour in front of the screen will do your body more good than doing a bench press at weekends. Remember, you have to move each day for the sake of your physical and mental health. And set aside time to exercise as often as you can. Find a 15-minute Pilates workout on YouTube and do it daily. That’s your significant contribution to burnout prevention.
- Rest. Being passionate about your work is great, but you need to have time when you’re not even thinking about work. The human brain needs to switch between cognitive activities daily. Don’t think it’s enough to have two weeks of vacation a year, especially if you keep checking your email and staying in touch with the customers. All people need frequent breaks from work during the day. Don’t be on your smartphone first thing in the morning. Don’t use your last waking hours to “do your work,” as if you have no right to rest.
In Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, Charlie Hoehn refers to the concept of play and says that he couldn’t have guilt-free fun. “I didn’t allow myself to play because that meant I wasn’t working. But I couldn’t really work because I always felt tired and jaded.”
Learn to switch from work to play mode. Have some fun with your friends, enroll in an improv class, or find a hobby. Let your mind have time to recover and process emotions.
Although basic human needs should be met at all times, self-care is more than eating, sleeping, and moving. Knowing what works for you and what doesn’t is a recipe for buffering against the potential for burnout. Being aware of your personality traits will help you operate within your natural state and not deplete your energy levels, pressuring yourself against your nature. Here’s what you need to know about yourself.
- Identify your personality traits. People with Type A personalities – goal-oriented, status-conscious high achievers – are especially susceptible to burnout because they see worth only in work-related things. They struggle to keep the work-life balance. Being passionate about their jobs and outcomes, they put all their time and effort into hitting sales quotas and exceeding KPIs and forget to restore their energy with mundane daily activities. Knowing where you are on the Introversion-Extroversion Scale will help you identify activities that fulfill your needs. It’s madness to expect a highly introverted individual to function in a high-power mode without having plenty of alone time to recharge. Similarly, extroverts combat burnout when they have time to hand out with family and friends.
- Know your motivations. According to Professor Steven Reiss’s book Who Am I? The 16 Basic Desires That Motivate Our Action and Define Our Personalities, human behaviors are guided primarily by curiosity, idealism, order, power, status, family, romance, an urge to eat, honor, acceptance, saving, social contact, vengeance, physical exercise, and a desire to have peace. More so, the bulk of these motivations are genetic, so if you have it, you have it. However, when you know what intrinsically motivates you, you can control it to control your life. For example, if your core desires are status and power, you’ll struggle to rein in your workaholism, but you can make sure your work doesn’t engulf all your time, and your other needs are met. You recharge by tidying up your house if you’re order-oriented and don’t feel like you’ve wasted your time. Once you become aware of your fundamental nature, you will find out ways to work around or together with it rather than fight it for some other purpose.
- Go to therapy. People can find themselves burning at both ends when they flee unresolved personal issues and inner conflicts. The way you treat your job is just one of the areas where you manifest your self-esteem, confidence, and your ways of thinking about yourself and what you deserve. Let's imagine a tree with branches like codependency, unhealthy relationships, addiction (to anything from alcohol and substances to food and social media), or lack of boundaries. In that case, the root will point out what gap you have inside of you that provokes said unhealthy behaviors, including burnout. It is possible you can’t resolve your unhealthy eating, sleeping, and living habits until you address underlying root causes.
So, what about you?
How do we know when we’re having a burnout VS. We've just worked particularly hard this week? Burnout doesn’t strike like a bolt from the blue, and you can detect early symptoms and avoid burnout altogether. Are you experiencing burnout right now? People often miss the first few burnout stages because they are in denial and don’t want to see causes and effects. Ask yourself these questions.
- Do you regularly sleep more than seven hours per night?
- Do you eat most of your meals not in front of the screen?
- Have you stopped using stimulants each day to energize yourself and hide your exhaustion?
- Do you have more than two hours per day away from the screen?
- Do you see friends and family IRL outside of work?
- Do you see sunlight for at least 15 min daily?
- Do you have a personal life?
- Have you stopped feeling guilty or anxious about doing things and activities other than work?
- Have you stopped relying on alcohol or drugs to cope with social situations outside of work?
If most of your answers are ‘yes’ to those questions, you’re most likely not edging to developing burnout any time soon.
The good news is you don’t need to hit bottom or wait for a wake-up call to avoid burnout. For some people, the advice to balance work and life will work. However, workaholics and high performers are not very keen on balancing because they think their job is their life. They should then strive for harmony, passion, and matching values. Who needs a successful career with a bitter taste of depersonalization, social isolation, and depression.
Burnout is not something that is either present or absent. There’s a sliding scale that moves you closer to complete burnout if protective measures aren’t taken.
We used to admire and boast about getting through sleepless nights for the sake of a project or a launch, etc. Not anymore. We aren’t robots. Let’s embrace the new trend for caring about our mental health and consider burnout prevention a sign of strength.