Before we dig in, I feel compelled and obliged to remind you I am not a doctor… no medical qualifications here! I am setting out below what I know from various training I have participated in and from my own personal experience and stories around this topic. And with that flag firmly planted.. let us begin.
What is burnout? You’ve probably heard about it, possibly experienced it (I hope not..). It is often bundled under “stress” and that just doesn’t really cover it. Stress and burnout are two distinct things and although stress is a key contributor to burnout, it does not always follow that experiencing stress will lead to burnout. Burnout, in my language is the terminus on the stress highway. The bus stops here, if you are still on it, lolling on the back seat, you’ve missed your stop big time and are now going to have to take time and effort to get back to where you wanted to be in the first place.
If we can manage our stress levels effectively then we may never see negative effects from it, it’s only when we lose our handle that we can, metaphorically, miss our stop and start on that terminus bound journey.
What causes burnout is fascinating to me because I have experienced it from both sides of the coin. For the purposes of explanation, I shall label them “carnage” and “tumbleweed” and even writing that made me laugh, because it so beautifully encapsulates how I felt about those times.
Carnage: The job where there just weren’t enough hours in the day, where everybody wanted everything immediately, or better still yesterday, where everything I submitted seemingly was needed to be tweaked, amended or just down right repeated. Where I often felt like I had been told off, or had disappointed in every meeting and exchange. Where I just didn’t have the resources in me or in my department to meet the brief, where there was little to no acknowledgement from my peers or my management, where long hours were the badge of honour and a 10 to 12 hour day was normal, with a hurried loo dash the only relief (accidental pun!). Where I felt a distinct lack of fairness as some folk near me not only did not contribute, but took deliberate steps to be obstructive and, well, mean. In other words, my values were not only not being met, they were being stamped on. And finally, and the clincher for me – an utter ambiguity about what my role was, what I was supposed to be delivering and why it was important (indeed, I believed it unimportant). I lasted 18 months before I successfully applied for another role.
Tumbleweed: The astute will have figured this may have been something of a polar opposite.. The role was super clearly defined and had purpose – I knew what I needed to do, I had the personal skill and resources to deliver it and deliver it well. A good team of people around me whom I respected, and I received frequent and heartfelt acknowledgement. Hoorah! Here’s the tumbleweed bit… not enough work, and for many days at a trot, no work at all. Now my personality traits include dedicated, hardworking, contributor.. it was torture for me to be under-utilised. The purpose to my role was cost effectiveness and I was failing in that daily, personally, by being idle (for the record – yes I flagged this consistently to the powers that be.. the why’s aren’t important, just that it went on for some months). My eyebrows all but disappeared into my hairline, they were raised so frequently as I oozed increasing cynicism and incredulity over the enduring months.
What I have subsequently learnt is that both scenarios can lead to burnout – the classic “overworked” running around like a headless chicken and feeling like we are not getting anywhere and also the “under stimulated” and/or lack of clarity on role, where we just seethe with confusion and frustration and in my case have far too much dwelling time.
They were both very difficult and pivotal times in my career, and both caused me burnout. I know there is not such a term as “functioning burnout”, but I am coining it anyway because I think it important. I continued to work, consistently. I do not say this to claim another badge – I actually would have helped myself far more if I had taken time off to recover, but at the time it was not what I wanted or felt needed. I am saying it because I believe it possible to suffer from burnout and still cobble a work existence together (note.. not my recommendation). My point – you may be working a full week “as normal” – you could still be burnt out.
How then do you know? What should you be looking out for?
There are a range of physical symptoms that can accompany burnout - depleted energy or exhaustion, stomach/digestion problems, problems sleeping, headaches, muscle tension. There are also behavioural impacts such as increased cynicism and pessimism (the eyebrows remember!), a reduction in confidence of ability – this one really knocked me, reduced creativity; all of which can lead to a drop in performance. In the extreme we can experience a loss of ideals and hopes, feel hopeless and helpless, disengage from people and pastimes. You may note some overlapping symptoms between depression and burnout and depression can be symptom of burnout in itself.
Should you start to identify with any of these tell-tale signs, it may be worth a pause and a reflection as to what is happening for you right now in your life and if you are managing things as you would like. Are you largely negative at and about work? Are you rigid in your thinking? Do you avoid tasks, procrastinate around them? Are you forgetful? Angry, anxious and/or irritable in and around work? Do you doubt yourself and your ability? Are you showing some addictive behaviours that are new - increased anything.. shopping/spending, drinking, eating, exercising…
What to do then, that’s the question. A twofold strategy; we can tackle this from what you can do when you are at burnout and we can approach from how to prevent it in the first place, or from happening again. If you are already at burnout point, now would be a great time to point you to your manager and/or your HR team; because burnout needs help and your company can do this. It requires you to be brave and to be honest. Burnout or any of the rungs below this point is not a failure by you; indeed it often (not always) reflects more about the organisation, the leadership, the department, than it does about the affected individual. However, unless you say something, they can’t know. You may think it should be obvious, that you shouldn’t have to say anything – like it or not – you need to say something. It is only from that point that they can support you with the changes that will be needed. Should you be really struggling with symptoms here’s the signpost to your GP. Asking for help is key and it is the hardest part. Remember that if you broke a bone, you would not hesitate to get medical assistance – indeed not doing so would be bonkers – and everyone would tell you so. So, asking for professional medical help when your world is figuratively collapsing about you, is utterly sensible, indeed necessary.
In terms of helping yourself there is much to be getting on with and this both helps recover from and also prevent future burnout. The good news is much of this is going to be familiar to those of you who are regulars. The not so good news is that much of this is going to be familiar!
Autopilot: learn to notice when you are acting under it and practice coming off it. It is an unfortunate fact that those of us who have personal characteristics around dedication, putting other people first, going above and beyond and perfectionism, are more vulnerable to burnout. These are also well practiced behaviours and as such we are likely to act in autopilot around them. Awareness, awareness, awareness. Because with this comes choice. Start to deliberately introduce spaces in your day – you do have time – they can be as little as two minutes at a time, where you come into the present and notice. It doesn’t matter what – the colour socks you have on, the smell of your coffee, a bird outside, the feeling of rubbing two fingertips together. Learn to recognise your negative thought traps and learn to distinguish between thought and fact, an awful lot of what we think is not factual.
Breathwork: this is your best friend. It’s free, it’s always with you and it is absolutely proven, aka the science bit. Taking a deliberate and deep breath activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is the bit that looks after bodily functions when you are at rest. In short it helps you relax. So the well known “take a deep breath” in scary situations is an actual thing. It’s another way you could use that two minute pause. It sounds pathetically simple and yet it is a game changer. Many a time you could have found me running a 3 minute breathing space meditation in the loo (the most valuable takeaway from my Mindfulness Cognitive training), it was and is an instrumental tool for me. Note that any movement helps bring the soothing function online!
Boundaries: this is a tough one for the people pleasers I know, as one of that clan. Learning to say no was such a relief for me. When I changed jobs away from “carnage”, I made a conscious decision that I could and would, never do that to myself again. In the interview for the transfer, I actually said as much and informed my (I hoped) new manager to be, that I intended to work hard, and there would be boundaries and these included going home at a reasonable time and not being available in the evenings, or at weekends, unless the factories were burning down. And guess what he said? “no problem” and he meant it. Yes there were long days sometimes, when we had a problem, but my boundaries were respected, largely I believe because I laid them down and I ensured I kept them. We all need down time – it is critical – and this is unchanged when we work from home. Log off, move away from the laptop, turn off the phone, stop looking at your phone! Go and do something, anything else.
Connection and fun: this will be unique to you. We are social creatures, even us introverts. Staying connected, in whatever ways are open to us at the moment, is so important. Reach out to a colleague for a coffee, even if this is virtually. These pauses and human interaction are not time burners, they will refresh you and make you more focussed and productive. A few minutes here and there “off” is significantly more beneficial to your company than weeks or months of lowered performance or absence because you haven’t prioritised your health. And by holding these spaces and keeping those boundaries, you can do what is important to you for fun – family time, exercise, pottering in the flowerbeds, meeting your mates at the pub. These are not nice to haves – they are part of our long-term strategy to ensure resilience and enable us to deliver and develop professionally.
What I have learned is that burnout can so easily happen, and it creeps up incrementally. It starts with you missing your gym session a couple of times, because you work late and it ends with you shut off from your network, barely able to function and in need of a dedicated plan of rest to recover fully. Preventing it is far, far better a plan and provided you establish healthy boundaries and KEEP THEM, it is perfectly possible to deliver at a high level at work and satisfy your needs for a well- rounded and contented you. If you are struggling now – ask for help, it’s a brave and smart thing to do.
I have spaces available from May, if you are interested in working with me and to find out more you can watch me on YouTube (who could have possibly imagined!?) https://youtu.be/B9EiOo-N7ql
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