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Tuesday, May 17, 2022

‘If You Love Your Job, You Are At Elevated Risk Of Burnout’

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We talk to Dr Lucy Hone, Co-Director of New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience about the cause and symptoms of burnout, how do you know when you should quit your job and the power of post-traumatic growth: how surviving hard times can make you stronger. First up, we’re talking burnout.

If ‘unprecedented’ is a word we’ve heard more than ever in the past 18 months, ‘burnout’ has got to be a pretty close second. At the New Zealand Institute of Wellbeing & Resilience, it’s the topic they’re being asked to cover the most – as both individuals and collective groups reckon with the extraordinarily difficult conditions we’re all still expected to thrive under.

Social inequity, racism, discrimination, ever-increasing workloads, the vicious lens of social media… all have ganged together to create an atmosphere – both online and in real life – that is taking it out of us. When we arranged this interview, I expected our burnout chat to centre around Covid-19 but as you’ll see from that list, all of these factors outdate our global pandemic. Covid-19 is an amplifier, Lucy says, but it’s not the cause.

“Sadly lots of people are struggling psychologically at the moment,” Lucy says. “Even if you’ve got money, got a job, are hugely successful and love your work, then you can still be at risk of burnout. Because there’s just so much work, the stress we are all under feels endless and there doesn’t seem to be any particular end in sight. It’s that pressure of overwhelm and huge workloads that people are drowning under.”

“Even if you’ve got money, got a job, are hugely successful and love your work, then you can still be at risk of burnout.”

Lucy says that the training they run for businesses (from the largest multinational to small to medium enterprises) reveals very few people are taking annual leave, for a variety of reasons: There’s too much work, there’s nowhere to go and people’s jobs still feel more tenuous than they have previously. “People aren’t taking holidays that at least give them a bit of a moment to catch their breath and have a reset. For many business leaders, if you can’t go overseas, then you can’t get that distance from work that different time zones bring, making it extra hard to get away from the constant draw of their phones and emails.”

Passion has long been argued as something of a protection against burnout but Lucy says this is a myth. “Sadly, the research is clear, if you love your job, you are actually at elevated risk of burnout. Think about it – if you love what you do, you do it for passion or because it gives you a sense of purpose, and because it fills you up psychologically, every time people offer you more, your tendency is to do more. Those people are primed for burnout because they don’t know how to say no or they’re in systems that don’t allow them to say no. For those people who derive a sense of identity or meaning from their jobs, they’re at a higher risk of burnout because it affects the super engaged.”

“When you start to hate everybody, when everyone gets on your nerves… that’s a pretty sure sign of burnout.”

Burnout is more than just feeling physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. There are two other important elements, Lucy says: You start to feel cynical, and you start to feel ineffective. “The typical thing we hear is ‘I’m lying in bed in the morning, I can’t face getting up and I think, ‘well, what’s the point, nothing I do is going to make a difference anyway.’’ That’s the ineffective part. The cynicism part presents itself as that eye-rolling, snarky, deflated attitude. “When you start to hate everybody, when everyone gets on your nerves… that’s a pretty sure sign of burnout.”

She also emphasises that while people usually view burnout as an individual problem, it can’t be solved by individuals alone. “Burnout is an individual response to system-wide problems and challenges”, she explains, such as discrimination or working in overloaded jobs. When your job demands exceed your job resources, that’s a recipe for burnout. “Basically, you’ve got so much coming at you and you can’t get it all done, you haven’t got the hours in the day, you haven’t got the support staff and support infrastructure, so no amount of being told to be more resilient or take more breaks is going to help that.”

The answer, Lucy says, is working as teams to reduce the workloads, increase autonomy and flexibility in the workplace and increase the support for each other. “What happened during Covid is that people who have had the freedom in some workplaces, came back to work and wanted more freedom to choose when they do and don’t come into the office.” Workplaces who have worked with their employees to create that idea of ‘structured freedom’, e.g. treating your staff like grown adults, have helped create a better working environment and providing greater flexibility around home working.

She also notes, however, that there are tools you can use on an individual level as well to help prevent burnout.

– The team at NZIWR practise what they like to call ‘Ruthless Prioritisation,’ where they continually challenge themselves to focus on the things they can influence and things that matter. Every Monday morning she writes a “jumbled” list of everything she needs to do for the week – at work and at home – on the left-hand column of her diary. On the right-hand column, she brings over 7-10 things that “if I nail those, I will know I’ve achieved something meaningful.” If something is on the left-hand column for three weeks and still isn’t done, she drops it as it’s clearly not important. “This keeps burnout at bay because I can see I’m being effective and I’m willing to let things drop off the list.”

– If she starts checking her emails in the middle of the night, because her phone is next to her bed, Lucy has learned to identify that as a warning sign that she’s becoming obsessed by work and starts leaving her phone by the front door instead.

– She avoids ‘bedtime procrastination’, which she describes as when you decide to watch more Netflix, scroll through social media endlessly or start doing some household chores just to avoid going to bed, “because once you go to bed you know it will soon be time for work in the morning”. “If I do that, I catch myself and I say, ‘is this helping or harming you, stop it! Go to bed!’”

Next week, we’ll be looking at the difference between burnout and depression and how do you know if you should quit your job. For more information on the New Zealand Institute for Wellbeing and Resilience, including resources, visit here.

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