Natural Foods Merchandiser

Recognize burnout before you get singed

The Natural Employer

Are you feeling apathetic about a job you used to love? Do you work all day without breaks, or all year without time off? Do you find it difficult to prioritize your overwhelming workload? Are you complaining to coworkers or losing patience with customers? Are you consuming too much coffee, sugar or alcohol, in spite of your belief in a natural diet?

These are just some of the symptoms of job burnout, defined by the Mayo Clinic as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term exposure to demanding work. As a result of cumulative stress, people can lose motivation and no longer find joy in their work, falling into behaviors that exacerbate their condition.

Working in the naturals industry can make you particularly susceptible because it's not just a job—it's a cause and a lifestyle. Psychologist Herbert Freundenberger called burnout "a state of fatigue brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward."

Jan Tobin is a natural products industry veteran. Starting 30 years ago with an employee-run natural foods distributor, she went on to sales and marketing for two leading brands, and now runs her own store, Salmonberry Naturals in Florence, Ore.

"For the first 15 to 20 years there was the pure challenge of getting natural products to the people," Tobin recalls. "We were creating our own market and pushing the envelope to do it. It was damned exciting!"

Working with manufacturers, Tobin traveled around the country, witnessing the phenomenal growth of independent and cooperative retailers. At trade shows she connected with like-minded people.

Settling into a small town in 1992, Tobin and her husband started Salmonberry Naturals with 1,600 square feet of retail space and a four-person staff. Her store became the focal point of the farmers' market and community-supported agriculture program she helped found.

But after a divorce, running the business on her own became stressful. Competition from area supermarkets was relentless. For a year and a half, she didn't take time off. After a lifetime of work she loved, Tobin faced burnout.

For Francis Murphy, general manager of Neighborhood Co-op Grocery in Carbondale, Ill., it was working seven-day weeks through an expansion that pushed him to the edge. Moving to its new location in 2006, the co-op went from 1,800 to 7,300 square feet and doubled its staff from 25 to 50.

"After the new store opened, we spent three weeks being total zombies. I'd get calls at 3 a.m. because the bakers couldn't get into the store. It was like the shock of the first three weeks of parenthood, of 24/7 care of a baby," Murphy recalls.

Despite its efforts, Murphy's team wasn't reaching projections. "Sales and margin weren't quite there," he says. "Labor costs were too high, so we were losing more than budgeted."

Both Tobin and Murphy have found that the remedy for burnout lies in self-care. Tobin makes sure she takes time off to watch wildlife, garden and read. "Take vacations," she advises, "even if you feel you can't."

"What keeps me going," Murphy says, "is exercising. It's difficult, when there's an enormous pile of work, to walk away at 5:30 and go to the gym, but I make it a priority."

Also, Tobin and Murphy both watch for signs of burnout in key staff. "They're willing to work more days in a row than they should," Tobin says. When she goes on vacation, she schedules carefully to avoid overworking anyone, and ensures they get time off after she gets back.

Murphy insists his managers take vacations. "I tell them they're more help to the co-op when they're healthy and whole." An upcoming management retreat will feature a presentation by a life coach about coping with stress.

Tobin takes her staff to vendor fairs and trade shows to help them "see they're connected to something much larger than Florence, Ore. They come back expanded."

Carolee Colter is the principal of Community Consulting Group ([email protected]).

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 4/p. 20

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