“The studio is too hot.” “The music is too loud.” “My trainer was 3 minutes late.” “Why does she teach all the best time slots?” “I didn’t like the substitute.” “We need more kettlebells.” And so on and so on.

Sound familiar? As a fitness manager, you may hear complaints like these on a daily basis, perhaps while rushing to get to the class you didn’t think you’d have to sub that day. Being a manager can be wonderful and rewarding, and you have the potential to change people’s lives in positive ways. However, constant complaints from members and employees, combined with long hours and extensive job demands, may leave you feeling down-and-out.

Everyone in the fitness industry experiences job-related stress: last-minute sub situations, client cancellations and tough performance reviews, to name a few. You can alleviate acute stress with a little rest or vacation time. Chronic stress, however, can lead to resentment, dread and total burnout. This article offers tips on how to deal with feeling overwhelmed—before it affects your life and job performance.

What Is Burnout?

According to Amanda Scanlon, MA, LCPC, owner and principal therapist at Hinsdale Therapy Group in Hinsdale, Illinois, burnout is “a psychological state characterized by physical or mental exhaustion and poor workplace or professional identity, caused by excessive and prolonged stress and dissatisfaction in one’s job situation.” Scanlon continues: “Burnout can lead to intensified stress, relational issues, general dissatisfaction, depression, substance abuse and illness.”

Burnout can happen to anyone in any industry. However, Scanlon states, “People in helping professions, such as health and fitness professionals and counselors, take on a greater responsibility to give of themselves to produce change in others. This puts people in these professions at a higher risk for burnout.”

Deanna Castro, fitness director at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, agrees. “I started as a trainer 18 years ago and have been in management for the past 12 years. I have seen burnout. As fitness managers, we carry an overly heavy workload because we’re often fulfilling several job descriptions. We also tend to exceed traditional full-time hours, because we aim to meet department revenue goals or [we are] still training or instructing classes in order to stay close to what we love.”

Are you just a tad stressed out, or are you headed for burnout? According to Scanlon, here are the most common signs of burnout:

  • ongoing negative or cynical attitude/morale
  • constant irritability or social conflict
  • lack of motivation, and low productivity
  • changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • unhealthy coping strategies, such as drug or alcohol use
  • continual headaches and fatigue
  • feelings of being overwhelmed and underappreciated

If the above symptoms hit too close to home, don’t get discouraged; there’s always a solution. Your individualized remedy may require some soul searching and/or schedule restructuring, but finding what works will be worth your time and sanity. Consider the following coping strategies:

Rediscover Your Purpose

Scanlon says that self-awareness is an important tool in preventing burnout, and she encourages managers to “frequently reflect and assess their feelings, needs and goals.” Have you forgotten why you initially decided to pursue a fitness career? Maybe you were an athlete, and fitness was a way to continue your passion and assist young athletes. Perhaps you had an injury or illness that was remedied by a fitness program, or you have a fabulous personal weight loss story and you want to help others feel and look their best. Search for that primary reason, passion and/or motivation. Putting the “why” in perspective may help you manage the trivialities.

Schedule “You” Time

If you aren’t taking time for yourself each day, you should be. It’s absolutely crucial to take small mental breaks during the workday to maintain your health and productivity—even if you can squeeze in only a few minutes. Eating lunch at your desk while catching up on emails is not a break. “During nice weather, step outside the club and walk around the block for 15 minutes,” Castro suggests. “The fresh air and sunlight will help you refocus, and will push you through the next 3 hours or so.”

Castro also suggests preplanning your vacation time each year. “Our industry has some very high highs, and we need to push ourselves to meet the intense demands during those months. I recommend preplanning special time off during the slower periods to recharge your battery.”

Say No on Occasion

It’s impossible to do it all. Be honest with your members, staff, supervisors and especially yourself about what is feasible for you to accomplish. “People with poor boundaries—meaning people who struggle with setting limits and saying no, or those who set high expectations or continually seek approval from others—are especially vulnerable to burnout,” observes Scanlon.

If you’re awakened by an early morning text stating that your 5:30 AM yoga instructor is ill and will not be coming in, take a breath before you jump out of bed and scramble to work. Think about the situation for a second. Did you work late last night at a member event? How many people regularly attend that yoga class? Is anyone else available? In reality, on the rare occasion when a class is canceled at the last minute, most people understand. Try to get another hour of sleep, and go into work feeling well as opposed to needing a second cup of coffee.

Delegate If Possible

Sometimes you may feel as if you have a never-ending list of tasks to complete. Saying no may not be an option. In this case, ask a trusted staff member to take on some of the load. “One of the most important things you can do is to not take the entire workload on yourself, even if you’re an overachiever,” advises Castro. “Assess your tasks and workload quarterly. Identify two large tasks or programs and two small ones to delegate to another qualified staff member. My rule is if you can’t perform a task with a high level of passion, then it’s time to delegate.”

Know Your Audience

If an employee who rarely complains brings a concern to your attention, the issue at hand is probably important and deserves follow-through. On the flip side, be wary of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf” syndrome. You know who these people are: members (and maybe employees) who complain about virtually everything. Unless they have valid complaints, you may want to prioritize wisely.

Being a manager is about helping others succeed. The job also involves creating and delivering stellar programs, growing and educating staff and providing an enjoyable, safe and effective environment for all. To keep managing well, however, you have to take care of yourself. Manager burnout leads to unhappy employees and dissatisfied members. If you think you’re on the verge of burning out, make a change. You focus on helping others change in positive ways every day. Now it’s time to focus on and help yourself.

What About Your Staff?

Our trainers and instructors are also at risk for burnout. They too work early mornings and late nights and handle humble tasks throughout the day. Deanna Castro, fitness director at HealthTrack Sports Wellness in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, attempts to prevent staff burnout by being “in the trenches” with her staff. “I try to show my staff that I do the same things they do, like work the floor, clean up the weights, change the toilet paper, scrub the ellipticals and train late hours. This helps me be a leader, not just a boss.

Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

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