Suzi McAlpine is a leadership coach, award-winning blogger and an international keynote speaker. She also experienced burnout and then wondered why there were no Kiwi-specific resources about this incredibly seriously and increasingly common condition. So, she decided to write her own: Beyond Burnout. Here, she shares with Capsule her 10 tips to kick burnout to the curb.
These are three words that many people use to describe their experience of burnout. The bad news is that burnout is on the rise – and that’s even before COVID hit. So if you’re feeling like you might be on the brink of burnout, you’re not alone. The good news is that there are things you can do to protect yourself from burnout – and recover if you suspect you might be experiencing burnout.
What exactly is burnout?
Well, it’s not just stress. In fact, the right amount of stress is actually good for our performance and wellbeing at work. Burnout is when workplace stress becomes chronic, unremitting and extreme. It’s when your batteries won’t recharge. When you lose your ‘bounce back’ factor. It’s a state of mental, emotional and physical exhaustion that’s caused by excessive and prolonged stress in your professional life.
Recognising the three red flags (or symptoms) of burnout is an important first step to addressing it. They are chronic exhaustion, increased cynicism (or depersonalisation) and reduced professional efficacy. So if these are ringing alarm bells for you, it’s perhaps time to pause and look a little deeper at what’s going on in your professional life.
What causes burnout?
Although overwork is a common cause of burnout, it’s not the only one. There are five other causes and some of them may surprise you. They are a lack of control, a sense of isolation, insufficient rewards, an absence of fairness and a values conflict. When more than one is present, your risk of burnout increases. And if they’re all present? Well, that’s a perfect burnout storm.
“I suspect I might be suffering from burnout. Now what?“
If you’re identifying with any or all of those three red flags I’ve mentioned, then that’s good news. Well… it’s not good news that you might be suffering from burnout – that sucks. But the good news is that you’ve employed one of the first strategies to giving burnout the bird. Recognising it.
Ten tips if you suspect you might be on the burnout on-ramp
Many of these are not only important if you’re suffering from burnout, they can also go a long way in preventing burnout in the first place. And I’m all for preventative measures!
- Practice self-compassion. Kick those self-critical voices we all suffer from into touch. One of the biggest myths I come across is that people who suffer from burnout are mentally weak or can’t handle stress. The research unequivocally shows us that organisational and environmental factors are by far, the biggest levers of whether burnout is about. Not personality. One simple way to bring self-compassion into the picture is to treat yourself as you would a dear friend. What advice would you give to them if they were in your situation? What words or guidance might you offer that friend? Say these things to yourself. Often we speak to ourselves in a harsh and judgemental way that we would never use in speaking to others. So, take some of your own wise and kind instruction that you would offer to a friend.
- Reach out. One of the causes of burnout is isolation. We’re hardwired to connect in order to thrive. Don’t try to fight burnout on your own. Trying to dig deeper, soldier on and tackle it on my own was a mistake I made when I experienced burnout. Ideally, speak to your direct manager, HR, a trusted colleague, mentor or friend. At the very least, reach out to your doctor or medical professional.
- Identify the why. Exploring and reflecting on the root causes of your burnout helps you get to the why — the nub of the issue. That way, you’ll be better positioned to tackle it and prioritise where you first take action. Which of those burnout causes above are resonating for you? How, specifically, they are showing up in your work? Work within your circle of control. Ask, “What is within my power to influence in this situation? What is within my control? What are at least 4-5 options I can brainstorm as potential solutions?”
- Make refuelling and relaxation your TOP priority. As hard as it may seem to do, you need to make yourself your top priority for a bit. If this seems too much of a reach or a selfish thing to do, consider this: how are you showing up for your loved ones, colleagues and other important stakeholders in the state you’re in now? It’s pretty difficult to be your best for anyone when you’re burned out. So, if it helps to think of it this way, put yourself first for them. This might be an approach that’s easier for you to swallow.
It doesn’t matter what your logic or rationale is for doing this, but do it you must. Make time for relaxation and for doing nothing at all. Yes, I get it — most of us have busy lives filled to the brim with big responsibilities, both inside and outside of work. Taking off for a holiday to some tropical island is outside the realm of what’s possible for most of us at the best of times, let alone in times impacted by Covid-19. But there may be things that you’re currently committed to that are draining the life out of you, and that you can temporarily say no to.
Your job is to find more space in your life right now. In this space, seek joy. Find little things each day or week that might bring you happiness and allow you to relax. A walk in nature. Curling up with a blanket and a good book. That cup of coffee. Meeting with a friend who fills up your tank. Seek out little things that bring you joy. Whatever it is that is a pause, a stop, a metaphorical (or literal) slow deep breath that lifts your spirits will help to fill up your tank.
- Put work in its place. This can be hard, especially when our identity is so strongly tied up with what we do professionally. But that overused quote that we will never lie on our death beds wishing we had spent more time at work is overused for a reason. It’s true. What are the most important things in your life right now? Write these down. Then, and this is the important part, put them in order of importance. Does your current calendar reflect that list in that order? Maybe the balance of what you’re focusing on in your life has got a bit skew-whiff.
- Sprig clean your commitments. Evaluate your existing commitments and consider cancelling or rescheduling a few of them. Get rid of those energy vampires and commitments that you feel you ‘should do’ but which really drain you. Or, to put this another way, say ‘no’ unless it’s a ‘hell yes!’ Consider slowing down your life outside of work for a little while. Reduce stressors in your life where you can. It won’t be forever, but it may help you get some of the space you need to recover from burnout.
- Take a break. You may not be able to take a big holiday. But is a long weekend where you do nothing but recuperate and relax off the cards? Taking a break on its own won’t solve burnout. But any break may give you some space to consider what you need to do next.
- Recognise the mind body connection. Research shows that the body and mind are inextricably linked. When your body is fit and healthy, and when we employ some straightforward interventions to incorporate things like exercise, mindfulness and good sleep hygiene, our ability to perform and remain resilient at work is dramatically increased. These things matter – you know the drill. Now’s the time for doubling down on these things.
- Focus on purposeful connection at work. A sense of isolation is one of the major causes of burnout. We humans are hardwired to connect for our survival. Have ‘how we are going conversations’, as well as ‘what are we doing conversations’
- Up your prioritising and time management game. Now’s the time to look at your time-management practices. This won’t solve burnout if the cause of your burnout is overwork, but it might help you manage your workload a bit better and find some space to slow down for a few moments. It’s also something that’s within your control. Eighty per cent of our work contributes to less than 20 per cent of its value. What do you see as currently the most crucial 20 per cent of your workload? Write this down. What can you do to concentrate more on this? Is there anything in your work that you can ditch, delay or delegate? Overwork and a feeling of being overcome by work commitments are often caused by overloading our diaries with things that don’t matter. Manage your inbox (rather than letting it manage you). Set times of the day to check your email rather than constantly checking it as it arrives. Limit distractions. When you time block for a certain activity, turn off all notifications, beeps and anything else that will take you away from concentrating on the one thing that’s in front of you. Research has shown us that multitasking is not only a myth, it’s actually really bad for productivity. It also stops us from practising mindfulness (being present, in the moment, non-judgmentally).
Although leadership and organisational factors have the most significant impact preventing burnout, we all have agency when it comes to spotting, stopping it and stamping it out.
You can read more about burnout prevention and cures in Beyond Burnout: How to Spot it, Stop it and Stamp it Out.