From Over Here: Generosity Burnout

February 9, 2017 Robin Whalen, President of The Tite Group

Ask her for help. She’ll do it!

All of the time. Then most of the time. Then some of the time.

So, what brought on the change in behaviour?  It’s simple. Exhaustion. And this was before there was a label for it. Maybe I was ahead of my time? Ha. No. Just overwhelmed and drowning a touch. Let me explain.

Our business is all about give and take. Help others and they will help you.  Grow up in advertising with a mentor, and then become a mentor to someone else. Ask someone to introduce you an industry big-wig, and one day you’ll be fostering the introduction yourself.   It’s just common courtesy and the very basic premise of society. Do unto others as they do unto you (in a non-biblical way of course).

So, when I had the time, I was the first to raise my hand. Volunteered to be on every committee at work, ran multiple conferences, wrote for blogs and took countless requests for lunches, breakfasts and coffee breaks. All in the spirit of helping others. Because I like to. And because so many kind souls did it for me.

But at a certain point, I started running out of time. The mentoring lunches meant work extended into the wee hours of the morning. Networking breakfasts meant emails were pushed to the evenings. You get the picture. I’m not unique. It’s a phenomenon many experience.

But now there’s a term for it: Generosity Burnout.

Harvard Business Review recently launched a series on this very topic.

Selflessness at work leads to exhaustion — and often hurts the very people you want to help. Here’s how to share your time and expertise more effectively.

The concept is rather simple. There are those that give. And there are those that take.  Givers add more to organizations; they tend to rise through the ranks and they excel in more than just the conventional path up the ladder.

But there can be a negative side to this equation. As HBR explains:

Although givers are the most valuable people in organizations, they’re also at the greatest risk for burnout. When they don’t protect themselves, their investments in others can cause them to feel overloaded and fatigued, fall behind on their work goals, and face more stress and conflict at home.

Makes sense right? You always say yes. And you feel good ‘cause you helped someone. But something fell off your list in order to make the time. So you commit to doing it tomorrow. But tomorrow comes and someone needs to bend your ear for 1-hour to review a presentation. So you pledge to finish day 1 and 2 of missed work on day 3. And so on. And so on.

After a while, you take these meetings and offer up help, but you begin to resent it. Or you go forward without your full attention. It happens enough times and then BOOM. What goes up, must come down.

So knowing that this is an inevitable outcome for those obliged to be overly generous with their time – what can one do? Easy. Move along the spectrum from being a “selfless giver” to a “self-protective giver”. HBR describes this as a generous individual. “One who knows their limits. Instead of saying yes to every help request, they look for high-impact, low cost ways of giving so that they can sustain their generosity – and enjoy it along the way.”

So I tried it out recently. A respected colleague asks if I will meet with his good friend’s daughter who is looking to break into our industry. My gut reaction is “Yes, I would love to chat with her.” But instead, I take a deep breath, fight the urge to be a martyr, push back on the guilt that confronts me whenever I say anything other than “sure thing”, and answer cautiously but honestly.

“I’m crunched for time at the moment but would love to help. While I can’t spare a lunch right now, I’d be most happy to schedule a ½ hour call with your friend.” To my surprise, he’s happy. The friend is happy. I’m happy. I also offer up my email so that she can reach out to me whenever she wants with questions.

It was as simple as that. No-one sacrificed, no-one lost, everyone got what they want. I took a shot at being a “self-protected giver” and the outcome was positive. Sometimes you just don’t know how easy change is until you try it. And commit.


So, moving forward, in an attempt to avoid burnout, follow your gut and desire to help out, but do so in a manner that works for you.  Win win.

“Reactive helping is exhausting, but proactive giving can be energizing. Tap your own interests and skills when you give. You’ll feel less stressed – and have a bigger impact.”

"Contrary to popular belief, I'm not always right. But in all seriousness, I've walked the walk in many different aspects and this is just how I see things from over here." 

With a dash of wit and a full serving of insight, Robin Whalen, president of The Tite Group, shares her insights on the things, topics, conversations and general goings-on that have earned her minutes. 

This is an inside look at how her thoughts power her actions. 

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