I went to my office, closed my door, sat at my desk and thought:
Screw it. I'm done with this.
After a meeting with my Sales Manager (for privacy purposes we will refer to him as “M”), I finally felt like I had had enough. The company I was working for at the time decided (without announcing or explaining why) to allow Sales a “veto power” on decisions made by the Credit Department on new account credit terms and approvals.
Meaning, if sales decided that a credit app signed with an “X” was sufficient (this actually happened to me), or it was ok to extend credit terms to new accounts that I knew were clearly not creditworthy, then that’s what would happen.
One of our last conversations went something like this:
“Rola, I don’t need you to worry about this. This is not your job.”
“M, this is my ONLY job. I am the Credit Manager”
A big part of the reason my team missed their bonus that year was a result of M’s decision.
It was at that point in my career that I thought maybe credit and collections was no longer for me. Though at the time, I wouldn’t have identified it as “burnout,” that’s exactly what was happening.
Burnout and stress are not the same
Oh?! I thought burnout was just a super stressed person?
More than stress, burnout causes overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of cynicism and detachment from your job, and a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.
You heard that right- cynicism and detachment. Yikes.
Or, as Dr. Sharmila Dissanaike, puts it:
“Stress is the person who looks a little crazy when they turn up for an after-work get together at the end of the week, strung out and frazzled; the burned-out person is the one who didn’t even bother to show up.”
Even the World health organization has classified Burnout as an "occupational phenomenon": and included it in the International Classification of Diseases.
So, what causes a person – more specifically, a credit and collections professional - to move from regular job stress to “detachment and cynicism”?
Let’s get one thing straight- burnout is not a one-incident show. I didn’t just wake up one day and have a sudden midlife crisis about my purpose in life; this was years of accumulating experiences.
“Wrong” Job # 1: Hardcore Third-Party Collection Agency
My first experience in collections was with a collection agency- it was very aggressive, very hardcore techniques, and it wasn’t my environment. Despite the popular stigma, most credit and collections professionals are incredibly relationship-driven.
I mean really, can you imagine me as Danny Trejo in the Bill Collector? Hardly.
Not only that, but strong-arming, being belligerent and threatening is not usually the best way to generate a response that you want.
“Wrong” Job # 2: Old School Corporate A/R:
I thought I would try another company thinking a different environment would help. I found a company where I came to know that many of the people working there were long-term employees, this being the only company they ever worked for. I thought “this HAS to be a good sign”. Right?
Within a couple of days, I realized they had an H/R Management strategy straight from the 1950s.
How did this translate to the culture?
“Because I’m your boss and I told you so”
“Because we have always done it that way.”
or my favourite,
“We don’t pay you to have relationships. We pay you to collect money.”
(If you know me personally you know how well that last one sat with me)
I.e., they couldn’t have said anything more ridiculous.
Can we all agree- collections is not for the weak of heart. If your environment isn't suited to you, your tough-by-nature job can become even more challenging.
It's not about having a 'good' or 'bad' culture, it's about finding the right fit.
The Potential Downsides to Credit & Collections
A survey of 7,500 full-time employees by Gallup clearly demonstrates that the root causes of burnout do not really lie with the individual and that they can be averted- there are particular industry root causes that I see in Credit & Collections.
Lack of Appreciation and Respect
Once at a company event, one of our top-level managers opened with a speech:
“I’d like to talk about our Credit team. Now, everyone in this building, has, at one time or another, been irritated by Rola...”
It was kind of true. There wasn’t one person that at one time didn’t see my name and think,
Ugh. Why is she making my life like this?
A lack of respect and praise is a common thing I see in companies. If left unchecked over a long period, it starts to wear down a credit team. The constant questions of why you’re the blocker of all human progress can make you start to wonder why am I even doing this? Does anyone care?
Speaking of blocker…
Always Being the “No” Person
People don’t fully appreciate the toll it takes on a credit professional to continually be the one to say “no”.
The customer, the sales department, the transportation department, the VP, the driver, the warehouse, the admin person, the receptionist, the cash desk: as a Credit Manager, you say no to all those people regularly. You may as well have a sign on your door.
Newsflash: people generally don’t view “no” as a positive word.
When you’re always the one saying “no”, it is easy to inadvertently slip into a negative headspace, and the people around you reciprocate that negativity.
Maybe it’s because we want to be the heroes of our companies, to take on as much as we can, and to truly make a difference, but this is one I see all too often.
When a never-ending workload is paired with lack of appreciation, burnout is almost inevitable.
Feeling Ineffective or Unaccomplished
Most goal-getting credit professionals I know get into this line of work to make a difference and see a transformation (more on this later). Credit and Collections managers should never be left wondering why they are not empowered to do their job.
When Credit and A/R staff feel like they aren’t doing a good enough job, it takes a significant hit to their self-esteem, which leads us to stage 2.
Stage 2: Becoming Militant & Perfectionistic
When things go bad, Credit people are often stuck ‘holding the bag,” even when their recommendations were not followed. I found myself holding this bag a lot, which made me miserable. My numbers started lagging. The natural thing to do? Do it exactly by the book - and be freaking perfect at it.
Broadly defined, perfectionism is:
"a combination of exceedingly high standards and a preoccupation with extreme self-critical evaluation" (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990).
If I am right by the book, if I don’t make any mistakes, and if my numbers are perfect, THEN I will feel ultimate career fulfilment.
In other words, you become a credit tyrant in the name of perfection.
I don’t know about you, but becoming a “tyrant” didn’t exactly engender warm fuzzy working relationships.
According to this study by York St John University:
“Pure” perfectionistic strivings displayed notably larger negative relationships
Thus, the once fun, inspired, relationship-focused Credit Manager driven to make a difference now becomes terrifying. And people legitimately start becoming afraid of you.
Stage 3: Becoming Crusty (Cynicism & Detachment)
The truth: I became grumpy. I know what you’re thinking, it’s hard to imagine Rola, who would be nominated for laughing the most in conversation to be grumpy, but I was.
As clinical psychologist Ben Dattner puts it:
"You always know based on the humour in the organization what people are cynical about. If an organization has a slogan, like 'We build trust every day,' and people repeat that in an ironic, cynical way, that's a signal that there's something wrong."
Let’s take a look at how this typically translates into the credit and collection world.
1. Negotiations turn into arguments. There is a difference between critically assessing a situation and being negative. A Credit Manager that’s burned out gets to be short-tempered. You feel like you have more arguments than negotiations.
2. You can no longer separate business from personal and get emotional regularly outside of work
3. Things that normally wouldn’t get to you, get to you. If pen-clicking Sue clicks her pen one more time…
4. You become oversensitive and defensive like everyone is questioning your decisions.
That’s when you start to see crusty collectors. You know the type.
Stage 4: Questioning Yourself (Maybe I'm Not Right For This Anymore)
After multiple jobs in multiple places, inevitably, you will start to think- maybe it’s me? Maybe I don’t belong in collections anymore?
And in some cases, maybe it’s true. Perhaps it’s time to make a switch altogether. More often than not, however, it’s about recognizing the difference between needing a change in career and healing from burnout.
The leading researchers on burnout in the workplace are Drs. Michael P. Leitner and Christina Maslach. In their book, The Truth About Burnout, they outline six major imbalances between employees and their work that often lead to burnout:
• Lack of control. You don't have a lot of say about what's going on in your work, or your sense of control is undermined or restricted.
• Values conflict. There's a disconnect between your own core values and the core values of the organization.
• Insufficient reward. You feel under-compensated, underappreciated, and taken for granted.
• Work overload. Your workload is too much, too urgent, or too complicated.
• Unfairness. You're treated poorly by the organization, management plays favourites, and assignments and promotions are made behind closed doors.
• Breakdown of community. Your colleagues patronize you or others, there's no-one to talk with about conflicts, and feedback is non-existent.
At this point, you're probably thinking:
Thank you, Rola, for dissecting your complete breakdown in great detail; but how does one get OUT of the burnout rut?
Fear not, I bring solutions. And no, you might not have to quit your job. Yet.
Suggestion 1- Freshen Things Up
Recently our team did an online negotiations course- which was AMAZING. To be truthful, I had never seen anything like that before. Here I am, 20 something years into my career, and I had never taken something like this.
And you know what? I felt like a kid again. Like a young professional collector learning something for the first time. Something as simple as that, and now I have a few new tools to add to my repertoire that I didn’t have before. I feel fresher.
Not that I need to convince you of the benefits of learning a new skill, but what I didn’t know is that by learning a new skill, you are actually increasing brain plasticity. Learning something new causes the brain to build connections between neurons, replacing some of those we lose over time. And bonus, your brain gets a hit of dopamine at the same time.
The brain is a little more complicated than we were taught via 80's TV commercials:
So, before you rake in all your chips and call it quits, take a step back. Ask yourself some questions.
Do I have to change my approach? Learn something new? Grow some new myelin sheath?
Suggestion 2: Stop (Or at Least Slow Down).
Trying to power through only makes things worse. While leaving your job, like I did, is an option, it's not the only one.
What I had to do was literally stop and think about everything I was doing and ask myself -
Does it still work NOW?
Current economic times are a perfect example. If you’re not in a recession, you can be a little more aggressive. But when you’re dealing in COVID or recession times, that going-hard aggression is likely not going to get you anywhere. Now is the time to start pulling out those negotiation skills. Now is the time to put your emotional intelligence to the test and listen to what’s happening.
Continually reassess what you or the team have ‘always done.’
Suggestion 3: Remember Your Purpose as a Credit Professional
The first time I was part of a company’s financial transformation, I was hooked.
I knew that this was what I was made for. Between you and me, I think that’s where most credit and A/R people's true burning desires lie.
To be a part of making a change. To see a department completely turn around. To be able to say:
Look what we built! Do you remember where we started? Now look at us!
It’s thrilling to be the coach of a credit department’s ‘before and after’ shots. To see finance departments that started with no policies and procedures, hitting performance records years later. Knowing YOU were a part of massive growth. We went from a complete mess to killing it, and that’s when I realized- I LOVE THIS. I really love this.
If you feel that you are in a rut, remember the reason you started. Do you feel that this position is empowering you to live out your values? Are you filling your purpose or filling a seat?
For me, that was easy. I wasn’t meant to just fill a seat or be the “no” person; I was meant to be a part of my department’s transformation.
So, I ask you, do you get giddy thinking about the impact you can have? Do you daydream about the growth you’ll see, the transformation that could occur because of your influence?
Suggestion 4: Tap into your support network
According to Mayo Clinic, a support system isn’t just good for burnout; it’s good for your overall health.
Studies have demonstrated that social isolation and loneliness are associated with a greater risk of poor mental health and poor cardiovascular health and other health problems. Other studies have shown the benefit of a network of social support, including the following:
• Improving the ability to cope with stressful situations
• Alleviating the effects of emotional distress
• Promoting lifelong good mental health
• Enhancing self-esteem
• Lowering cardiovascular risks, such as lowering blood pressure
This suggestion has never been more important. Psychologists are finding higher rates of burnout due to COVID-19 isolation and working from home. Take some time away if needed and rejuvenate.
If all else fails, it’s time to change your environment
Repeat after me: I deserve to have managers that brag about me. That celebrates me and my hard work and success.
And not just once a year at the company Annual Meeting, but on a regular basis. You deserve to be in a company where you’re not only recognized for your accomplishments, but that is a cultural fit for you.
If burnout results from an unchanging, uncompromising culture, it might be time to look elsewhere.
Recognize it. Find people to support you. And find a place where you can contribute and get back to your purpose.
And boy, am I sure glad I did just that.
Before becoming a lifelong member of the PCM family, I was a longtime PCM client. I knew Brad, and I knew Alysia. I didn’t come back to the collection agency world because I missed the environment. I came back because of who I knew the people were.
The bottom line is this: It doesn’t matter how much you love your job; if you don’t love the people you do it with, your work becomes meaningless.
I had once told myself I would never entertain the thought of going back to a collection agency, but the people make the difference. PCM changed the way I thought about collection agencies.
If you are in search for a place where you mesh, keep this in mind:
Like attracts like- and you will know a company shares your value system when you see it. Like a magnet, values have one of two effects; they attract the people that match and repel the ones that don’t. When you see true values in business, it stands out. I was attracted to that.
Yes, I want us to grow and to see that mass growth and mass work, but not at the expense of our values and who we are.
Find your comfort zone- Know yourself and what you want and don’t want. What values matter to you? Do you want to work for a small company or a large company? Maybe you’ve considered going out on your own. Before jumping aboard, investigate the company culture on platforms like Glassdoor. If it has a bad reputation across the board, it’s telling you something.
As I said before, being a collector is a tough job. It can be even tougher if your environment isn’t suited to you. It’s the same skills that you're using from company to company; what’s different is the people you work for.
As the co-editors of the Burnout Research e-journal ask:
“Highly stressful workplaces are often poorly designed, socially toxic, and exploitative environments. Why should such workplaces be given a free pass, when they are the sources of stress, while their inhabitants are being told that burnout is their own personal problem and responsibility?”
Collecting money comes with its own challenges. If those challenges also include internal obstacles to success, your job becomes downright miserable.
If you are a credit geek at heart like me and you think “it’s not for you,” it’s probably because you’re in the wrong environment
Loyalty and seniority are not reasons to stay at your job
At one company I worked for I was the Queen Bee (in my own mind anyway).
My teams’ masterful collection skills were well-known, and what was better, the place was like a family. I thought this would be the place I hang my hat forever until “Corporate” took over, and things changed fast. I started to feel less like a family member and more like an employee number.
Keep in mind that what was once a great fit may no longer be the place for you.
Burnout does not have to be a life sentence
As designer Frank Chimero writes:
“Fatigue happens to your body, but burnout exhausts your soul.”
Burnout syndrome can feel insurmountable. But it’s a sign of something that needs to be fixed, not a lifetime sentence.
Have you walked yourself out of burnout? What's worked for you?