“Burnout leads to accidents, arguments, breaks relationships and costs the bottom line.” -Ellen Kossek
Burn-out? What burnout? Blake heard the word and felt a sensation of dread, like a weight in the pit of his stomach. As he listened to his boss Gemma extrapolate about his recent bad judgment calls and lack of creativity, the sensation turned to waves of nausea, each successive one rising up from his gut more forcefully than the last one, finally threatening to engulf him like a thirty foot wave. If he was sick right here in her office, would she fire him? Was she about to fire him anyway? Was that what this was all about? Downsizing and outsourcing were both in the pipeline, he knew. Was the day of reckoning finally here? Maybe one of those young energetic up-and-coming project managers was in the wings, ready to take over his position for less money. Oh God, what doomsday scenario was about to unfold? Gemma’s words had become a blur. He heard the word ‘break’ then ‘redundancy’. The image of his highly pregnant wife Mary flashed through his mind. How was he going to tell her? Another flash of all the baby stuff she’d bought on credit. Then he remembered the mortgage. And the car loans. He felt beads of sweat trickling down his back as the weight in the pit of his stomach sank down to his groin sending a swell of acid back up to his throat. He forced himself to swallow and heard his boss’ sharp insistent voice command him to sit down. He somehow found the chair and sat.
She leaned across the desk and handed him a folder. “This is your package,” she said. The wave engulfed him.
Blake is one of hundreds of thousands of people struggling to survive in the current sink-or-swim corporate environment, almost inevitably burning out in the process – either to be let go due to anxiety-ridden reduced performance or having a full-on mental breakdown. A recent study found that people putting in more than forty hours a week, are six times more likely to suffer from burn-out. And of course more and more companies are demanding at times excessive additional hours from staff remaining after redundancy initiatives have left them to cope with oft-impossible workloads. What makes matters worse is that most employees are too afraid to object for fear they’ll be the next in the firing lines. Sadly, that’s exactly where many of them end up when like Blake, they effectively stress themselves out of a job. ‘Burnout is a disorder of hope. It sucks the life out of competent, hardworking people. You lose motivation and vitality,’ says psychologist and author Joan Borysenko. “So many of my clients have hit rock bottom,’ she adds, ‘their spirit is gone, there’s no smile and no joy in their eyes.’ Sound familiar?
The downward spiral that results in burnout often begins with the mistaken belief that stress is a necessary ingredient for success. Although initially some stress can increase productivity, this will only occur up to a certain point and is never sustainable. In a continued state of stress you believe that you are being effective when in actuality you are becoming less and less effective. This is because the stress triggers parts of the brain to work in ‘survival or defensive mode’ causing the frontal lobe – which determines our creativity, problem solving and self-evaluation skills – to essentially shut down, The result is that you lose the ability to see the big picture or to make objective assessments, and instead start acting and reacting in habitual ways, chasing the same old carrot, (whatever that carrot is) or avoiding the same old stick (whatever that stick is to you), emotionally reacting to events and people rather than objectively responding, all of which places you in a wicked cycle; you’re working harder and harder but getting less and less quality work done! End result? Burnout.
Unfortunately the symptoms of burnout can resemble depression. I say ‘unfortunately’ because symptoms of depression often lead people to take anti-depressants and other prescription drugs, usually with little or no result because, as Dr Borysenko points out, no medication will cure burnout. The only cure for burnout is a change in lifestyle.
That may sound like a tall order – even overwhelming…. for where do you start?
Take hope! Believe it or not, the good news is it actually can be quite straightforward, (and for those of you familiar with the AEM skills*, it really is an issue of ‘back-to-basics’): There are 3 basic steps that, if you faithfully stick to them, will help reduce if not entirely eliminate burnout, and could prevent serious illness and other victims (i.e. relationships, marriages, children, etc.) of the insidious malady we call burnout.
1.Recognize the difference between positive and negative stress – or ‘eu-stress’ and ‘di-stress’: Eu-stress feels good, invigorating end energizing. Di-stress feels draining, accompanied by worry, anxiety and tension. In eu-stress: keep going & enjoy! In di-stress, STOP what you’re doing, (if you’re in a meeting, excuse yourself to go to the rest-room for 2 minutes). Breathe slowly – extend the out-breath and shift your internal state to a positive focus BEFORE you do or say anything else.
2: Increase your self-awareness (that first, foundational and critical quality of emotional intelligence). Keep checking in with yourself every half-an-hour: are you in eu-stress or are you in di-stress? How do you feel? Set an alarm on your phone or watch to alert you and remind you. Eventually you will do this ‘on the run’. If in di-stress; Go back to step 1.
3. Ultimately, your self-awareness will help you recognize the warning signs of the downward spiral, should you ever get that far! If & when you do: Go back to Step 1. (You will find yourself getting insights each time you shift your internal state, as it helps your brain change the way it works to access your more creative, wise self.)Use the insights you get from stopping and state shifting-into-a-positive-feeling, to recognize in what ways you can change your lifestyle, attitude, and priorities. What are the steps you can take, practically, realistically, that will help? Here are 5 suggestions to get you started:
1. Attach something bright red like a sticker or elastic, to your phone. Each time you go to answer it, let the red colour remind you to take a deep breath before you answer.
2. Schedule a massage once a week, and keep every appointment!
3. Start each day with five minutes of feeling appreciation for aspects of your life while you breathe slowly – if you don’t have time before getting out of bed, do this while brushing your teeth and taking your shower.
4. Get a coach, even if it’s only once a month. This can help you off-load tension, get clear on values and goals, and stay on your chosen path!
5. Give yourself half an hour between work and home to de-stress; i.e. Go for a walk, enjoy a pretty view, or have tea or coffee and read something funny.
The most important thing to remember is that we are designed to function at our best when we feel good. Running on overdrive and anxiety may seem like it’s necessary, but that is just an illusion, for at the end of the day it will only run you onto the ground, burning you out like an overused, neglected engine. Conversely, when you feel good and are well taken care of, you function like a well-oiled, super-charged engine — much more likely to win the race!