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Are We Fatigued, Exhausted Or Just Tired?

In the days now known as pre-pandemic, if you were to ask an organization’s leader why they were experiencing turnover in their workforce, they might have said things like benefits, compensation, or perhaps even blamed the employees fit in their “culture.”

Today in the not-quite-post-pandemic new normal however, we’ve heard from client after client their sense that the core reason for turnover is fatigue. Or burnout. Or exhaustion. And we all have a cacophony of different opinions and thoughts as to why that is. What are we to do? While we don’t pretend to have “the answer,” we do want to offer a great starting point. On Patrick Lencioni’s podcast At The Table, he recently delved into the topic and it got us wondering, how do we define the difference between these tiresome words?

What’s the difference between being fatigued and exhausted, as an example?

When we hear that someone is tired, fatigued, exhausted or burnt out at work, perhaps the most practical thing we can do is to ask more about it. Ask them to define what they're experiencing. This ensures that we can make sure we understand the problem before we go about trying to fix or address it. An old mentor of Tom’s used to say that as leaders what people need from us most is to listen. Just listen. Not do, or talk, or fix. Just listen. People are not helpless and often just need someone to listen as they work out their own solutions.

So, with that in mind, we want to suggest some definitions for these words.

Tired is the daily, and we’ll add expected, feeling of being drained of energy and strength. It happens to everyone. If we’re not tired at the end of the day, we may not have done very much that was productive.

Fatigue, by contrast, is a pattern of tiredness. A pattern of weariness that we carry throughout our days and weeks. Fatigue should be a sign that something else is going on that we need to pay attention to.

Exhaustion is the extreme version of fatigue. It means to tire extremely and completely. This is an absolute red flag that some drastic measure must take place so you don’t reach, what I would argue, is the final stage: burnout.

Burnout means that something came to failure, totally empty. It has nothing else to give. In short, it’s too late. Our work is to pay attention to the first 3 stages. When we’re aware, we can try to intervene before we ourselves or our employees ever get here. 


Here are some simple remedies;  A good night’s sleep is the solution to tiredness. The important thing around tiredness is making sure that we’re sleeping the right amount, eating well, and maintaining healthy rhythms.

Contrast that with fatigue. If your night’s sleep made you feel rejuvenated and ready for a new day, then you were simply tired. But, if that night’s rest did nothing for that sense of tiredness, you are fatigued.  Fatigue is an indication that you need to do something that energizes you.

Too often when we sense fatigue setting in, we think we need less stress, less working hours, less structure, more flexibility, less in-person meetings, less zoom etc. There’s no doubt those things can contribute to fatigue. Most often, however, what we need is real human interaction. We need the chance to casually chat with someone in the office. We are wired to be face-to-face with someone who can hold space for our emotions, support us, read our body language, challenge us, ask how they can help. We need to find the kind of work and people to be around that energize us. Too often we try to fix fatigue by getting away from people and work when it’s the very thing that can help fix it. This goes for introverts and extroverts alike.

Exhaustion, therefore, is a warning sign that we have ignored too many warning signs from our fatigue. Perhaps it’s a warning sign that, despite our best efforts to stay energized, work or other life circumstances need to change. We all know what it is like to be on a project or in a “season” that is particularly demanding. Where we know we’re going to have to work more hours and that it is not sustainable. But we can’t always be in a “season.” The most effective solution is to consciously schedule a shutdown. That is more than just a vacation or weekend off. It will require being very intentional with your time off. It means you will have to genuinely disconnect from email, social media, and the things that constantly distract us, and end up keeping us from feeling rejuvenated or refreshed. For many of us, it’s not the vacation several months down the road that we need but the rest that results from a Saturday and Sunday where we genuinely disconnect from work.

Burnout is the hardest one because, by definition, burnout is when it’s over. Burnout should only be applied to those that have already quit…when there’s not more that we can do. Leaders, how can we do a better job helping our workforce clearly tell us what they’re experiencing and creating a safe space for them to do so? That way, we’re not dealing with some ominous, all-inclusive term for being disengaged. I even think that the very worst thing we could do is give our employees more freedom and flexibility in their hours. Assuming a healthy work environment, this creates more distance from being around real people. Most of us don’t need more flexibility as the answer to our fatigue, we need more inspiring leadership! We need to be in-tune with our higher purpose and why we work. We need the social, daily interactions with other healthy team members where we feel like we’re contributing. 

We need to raise the bar for our tired and fatigued workforce…not lower it. 

Here are a few more suggestions for you to manage this in your own life, and then to help you better lead those that work with you.

First, identify what you’re actually feeling. Not just the stage (tired, fatigued, exhausted, approaching burnout) but to rate the severity of it. On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the worst, are you a 7 on the tired scale or a 10 trending toward fatigue? Then, you can situationally approach some solutions. 

Tired? Get a good night’s rest. Fatigued? Find the spaces, people and/or projects that energize you. And then do more of that. That might be to schedule a walk every day. It may mean you take a bike ride every morning or you spend more uninterrupted time, thinking creatively and technically about the problems you’re working on. This way you can do the deeper work that really fills your soul!  (Opposed to frequently answering emails to empty your inbox, though satisfying, it is not long lasting).

And if you find yourself in a space of fatigue. What does it look like for you to rest? How’s your diet? What about your spiritual/religious life? Are you mindful? Are you engaged with your purpose in life? Perhaps you need to volunteer somewhere…soon.

Wherever you find yourself, adjust accordingly.

Another component of fatigue, one often missed, is loneliness. Loneliness is just as dangerous for us as poor eating or sleeping habits. We are social creatures. No way around it. And many times, when we feel fatigue, we don’t realize that we’re experiencing disconnection from other people. We’ve been working too many hours and not cultivating deeper relationships. We’ve been working efficiently on zoom and with flexible hours, but not interacting with other people and building relationships. 

Lastly, consider budgeting your time. Wherever you are on the scales of tired to approaching exhaustion, you need to plan. Think of it exactly as you budget your finances. A budget is simply a plan of how to spend and invest your money wisely. Do you have a budget for your time? Do you budget rest? Do you budget relational time with others? If not, that could be the very deficit you are facing, one that is manageable. We just have to trust that the benefits, which won’t always seem as beneficial as another hour of work, are worth it and necessary. And they will play into our long-term health and energy levels. 

Do you find yourself constantly having to rest from your work, as if work is the thing to escape? What would it look life for you to work out of your rest?



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