‘What If My Panic Zone IS My Comfort Zone?’ The New Burnout Book That’s Here To Blow Your Mind

When it comes to burning out and then reshaping the career of your dreams, Happiness Concierge Founder and CEO Rachel Service has been there and done that… a couple of times. She talks to Capsule about how Covid-19 has changed our working environment, for better and for worse, why we need to work out what kind of career path is the most sustainable to us and why we all need to book in some annual leave, now.

Rachel Service’s burnout story contains one of those anecdotes that’s so good – in hindsight! – that it lead to a TED Talk. Suffering from burnout from her job, she decided to book a ticket to a Beyoncé concert as an emotional Hail Mary, only to sob through the entire thing. If she couldn’t feel happy at a Beyoncé concert, what was going on? This ended up being the catalyst to completely overhaul her life – personally and professionally – and put her on a new career path as the founder and CEO of Happiness Concierge, where she helps other people create their dream jobs and better work/life balance.

In March 2020, Happiness Concierge moved overnight from working with individuals and corporations to helping leaders navigate themselves and their companies through an unprecedented global pandemic where suddenly, the majority of white-collar jobs were being done from home. What has followed is a great awakening to a) the possibility of flexibility in the workplace and b) a redefining of success, matched with the darker end of this new set-up: a nearly universal cry of burnout as the boundaries of work and home are dissolved further.

Ironically, much of this was the content that Rachel and the Happiness Concierge had already been dealing with for years, from the – as she calls it – “Corporate survivors” who had been chewed up and spat out from the relentless corporate world. So none of this was new to her.

“Putting my CEO hat on here and speaking to workplaces, what I’m seeing is that there’s a sense of what the New York Times refers to as ‘languishing’, combined with the feeling of decision fatigue, which is a psychological condition where we can’t decide how to manage our day, and then we can’t decide what to have for lunch. It’s all too hard,” she laughs. Part of it, she says, is due to the total loss of control we now have with Covid-19 and lockdowns. “People are finding it a lot harder to focus… there’s also a sense of mental fatigue, making small decisions is hard and then there’s also a sense of hopelessness.”

“People are saying ‘Well, if work’s going to be part of my living room, or my kitchen, or my spare room, I want to have some control over something and for me, that’s my schedule.’”

The conversations she’s now having with clients, Rachel says, are completely different to what they were a year ago. “Last year it was ‘how do we work remotely, how do we communicate with each other?’” she says. “Now, it’s one of two conversations. Number one, ‘how do we do less, effectively? How do we radically prioritise?’ And number two, ‘what does it mean to have a workplace culture where people want to come back to work?’”

Rachel lives in Melbourne, which has been in lockdown for months on end, so it’s a slightly different landscape to Aotearoa (so far!) but she cites an interesting recent McKinsey study where 40% of workers felt like they were likely to quit their job in the next few months. “A number of people didn’t have other jobs but they feel like they have options.” That increased flexibility and sense of autonomy workers now have is not to be underestimated, Rachel believes. “People are saying ‘Well, if work’s going to be part of my living room, or my kitchen, or my spare room, I want to have some control over something and for me, that’s my schedule.’”

So if we’re waking up to the unnecessarily constrictive nature of most workplaces, there’s also the idea of needing to break out of the nature of workplace stress as well. And this is where Rachel’s book There’s Has To Be More: The Essential Guide To Personal Growth comes in. Written eight months after the pandemic started, she wanted it to be a practical guide that people who were feeling stuck in their current situations could develop the self-awareness of why they were in it, and then make a plan to get out. Covering Rachel’s own experience with burnout and depression, and then a full life reshaping, there was a section title in particular that might make you also go ‘oh, holy shit’ when you read it.

That title? ‘But wait… what if my panic zone is my comfort zone?’

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If you’re someone who has experienced burnout or is currently coming close to it, that might also strike a nerve with you. It’s a state that Rachel knows well, from her time working in public relations, where she got used to ‘reactive deadlines and impossible tasks’ being the norm. “There wasn’t time for imposter syndrome because everything was impossible,” she laughs. “What I learned is that if the panic zone is my comfort zone, then yes, the highs are higher but the lows are much lower. And when the lows are lower, it’s just harder to get back to the emails on Monday. It’s harder to finish the book.”

“They’re in this busy trap, this hive of busy-ness but their inside voice is saying ‘I don’t think I care about any of this.’”

It’s something she sees mirrored in a lot of her clients, who come to her stuck in what the New York Times called ‘The Busy Trap.’ “They’re in this busy trap, this hive of busy-ness but their inside voice is saying ‘I don’t think I care about any of this, but I don’t know how to get out of this cyclone of busy, and it used to stretch me, but now it’s my normal.’”

You don’t have to look too far to see just how much adjusting to a new normal fits with our pandemic life, how we have become phenomenal at not letting A GLOBAL PANDEMIC (!!) slow our output at all (!!) despite every single person working in harder conditions than they were before. But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily doing a good job – or enjoying it.

“What I found interesting from visiting different workplaces is that the panic zone and the comfort zone both breed incompetence. Panic zone you’re exhausted, complacent, burnt out and cynical, and if you’re in your comfort zone, you’re doing the exact same thing – the only difference is complacency. So how do we go into our ‘learning zone’ instead and then go back to our comfort zone for a little bit of a mental cuddle, and snack, and sleep.”

One extremely important example of creating what she calls “a circuit breaker” is taking annual leave. When Capsule speaks to Rachel, she has just returned from four days leave – a long weekend – and she says that we all need to redefine what we think a holiday is for, now that going on an overseas trip isn’t a possibility.

“I avoided taking leave because, as I said to my staff, ‘what am I going to do at home without something to do? Work is something to do!’ but then I thought I should practise what I preach, so I took a four-day weekend and I just slept, and put out the washing.”

It was nowhere near as exciting as going on a holiday, she laughs, but it gave her a mental break. And as we’ve all suddenly woken up to the realisation that it’s October and, most likely, you haven’t had a chunk of time off since January… that’s a hell of a long time.

“We need to renegotiate our idea of a holiday. Sometimes it’s a holiday from our routine, a holiday from reacting, a holiday from our expectations. Just having some time to not have to be somewhere or not have to be ‘on.’ We need a holiday from our nervous system being in ‘flight or fight’ mode.”

In Rachel’s case, she’s learned what works for her. “I’ve tried every scheduling tool under the sun and what I’ve surmised is that I work best when I go 100% on a project – I have a project brain. And then I just need to lie down for a week. And then after that week, I get bored and I want to go again.”

Looking at what you want both your career and your life to be like long-term, Rachel says it’s all about looking at what’s going to be sustainable. “It has to be about my relationship to achievement, my relationship to accomplishment, my relationship to my identity and how do I sit with myself, without being exhausted?”

There’s Has To Be More: The Essential Guide To Personal Growth is out now, at all good bookstores and online at Amazon and Booktopia click here for more information.

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