Burnout has become more common as individuals struggle to manage work obligations while coping with the trauma of the pandemic. In the first post in our series on the topic, our Practice Management Team shares some of the techniques that have helped her start to recover from her own experience with the affliction.
You may feel as though you’ve been seeing discussions around burnout popping up more frequently these days. It’s not your imagination. Nor is it surprising, really. Having lived through a global pandemic for well over a year – with plenty of uncertainty still remaining about COVID’s continued progression – many of us have found it virtually impossible to cope with the stress of dealing with a crisis of this magnitude while also managing our day-to-day responsibilities.
As the vaccination campaign has started to turn the tide, those first, tentative steps back toward “normal,” while in many cases welcome, can also feel disorienting and even frightening for some. Returning to the office after months of remote work is a prime example. And it is that transition – and the associated stressors – that I will focus on here, in the first of our series on the topic of burnout.
What Is Burnout?
While the term “burnout” was coined in 1974, it was only recently – in 2019 – classified as a disease by the World Health Organization. The WHO defines burnout as:
A syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions: 1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; 2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and 3) reduced professional efficacy. Burnout refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life."
The classification of burnout as a disease feels like a natural extension of the growing awareness around mental illness in general – a topic that in just the past few weeks has once again entered into the national discourse with Simone Biles’ announcement that she was dropping out of a portion of the events at the Tokyo Olympic Games to focus on her mental health. In my opinion, Biles’ decision was a crucial reminder that no job is worth sacrificing your health.
Where Does Burnout Come From?
The WHO definition reminds us that burnout is a phenomenon specifically related to our occupations. Every industry, profession and workplace is obviously vastly different, but I would say the culture in the U.S. around work and what it means to be successful at one’s job is fairly consistent. Productivity is often equated with personal worth. Being constantly busy is respected and even expected by most. As a result, being “burned out” (even if not in the true medical sense) is often viewed as a badge of honor.
And then there’s the matter of emotion (or, more accurately, hiding it). Particularly in the corporate world, there tends to be an attitude of “just get it done.” When our workload is the utmost priority, expressing empathy for others and being open about the emotions we may be dealing ourselves with tends to be forgotten or even outright discouraged.
This culture (and the ensuing problem of burnout) was well established long before COVID. Add in the trauma of a global pandemic, the isolation and logistical challenges of remote work, and now the awkwardness and anxiety associated (for many) with returning to a physical workplace, and it’s no wonder so many of us have either experienced burnout firsthand or dealt with the fallout of colleagues who may be struggling with it.
How Can We Heal Ourselves from Burnout?
In an ironic turn of events, my efforts to complete this post on burnout were hindered by the fact that I was burned out while attempting to write it. On the positive side, my experience is precisely what allowed me to finally complete the piece – and to be able to share some of the steps I found to be effective in my own healing process. The suggestions below are not meant to be a quick cure or magic formula. Everyone’s situation is different, and recovery from burnout tends to be slow, with most taking anywhere from one to three years to heal completely. They are, however, based on principles and techniques my team here at Janus Henderson has been coaching clients on for many years through programs like Energize for Purpose and Managing Stress for Success.
Before I get into the more specific techniques, I want to take a moment to discuss the initial step of recovery, which was to reset my nervous system.
Without getting too bogged down in neuropsychology, when we are suffering from burnout, everything is perceived as a threat. This results in our amygdala (the primitive part of our brain that is responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” response) going into overdrive. Meanwhile, our prefrontal cortex (the advanced part of our brain that enables complex cognition and moderates social interaction) may cease to function as it should.
It doesn’t take a neuroscientist to figure out that this is a recipe for disaster. So when I felt my decision-making abilities falter, my social skills deteriorate and my ability to concentrate all but vanish, I decided it was time to for a nervous system reset.
I started this process on August 1, which happened to be exactly 75 days from my 40th birthday. I asked myself what I wanted to achieve in those 75 days. Then I started adopting the daily habits I felt would help me become the person I wanted to be at the end of the process. Those habits include:
- Movement that is based on what my body needs, not what I think I should (In other words, not forcing myself to do an hour-long high-intensity workout when what I really need is restorative yoga or just a simple walk outside.)
- Connection with my values and myself through an established morning routine, designated quiet time for reading or listening to podcasts, and writing in a journal daily.
- Healing by consuming food for energy, nourishment and also enjoyment, but never out of stress or boredom.
- Kindness to others and empathy for their situation, but also in terms of not admonishing myself for failing to sometimes keep up with my intended habits.
That last point on kindness brings up another important lesson I learned through this process: How destructive it can be to feel guilty for experiencing burnout. This has been especially common during the pandemic. I’ve continually dwelled on how much more difficult it was for other people who had “real” problems – such as colleagues trying to juggle remote work while coaching their kids through virtual learning – to not mention the health care workers at the front lines of the crisis, or restaurant and retail workers abruptly losing their livelihood. After all, I’m a single woman who has been fortunate enough to work from a comfortable home with only a dog to take care of. Yet I developed all the classical signs of burnout. What’s more, this self-judgment led to even worse burnout – as it will for almost everyone because it’s yet another source of stress.
Remember, it’s not the circumstances that cause burnout, but rather what we chose to make those circumstances mean in our mind. Everyone responds differently to different types of trauma. For example, while I’ve been relatively content with many aspects of working from home – and doing so was not necessarily a source of my burnout – one of my business partners has found the remote setup to be isolating and mentally draining. Thus we both need to find very different solutions to the issues we’re dealing with as a result of the exact same crisis.
Which brings me to the subject of the next post in this series, which will focus on how to help prevent and address burnout among your team. How do you recognize burnout in others? How can you help team members cope? What are the potential consequences of failing to do so? I’ll speak to each of those questions and offer guidance based on my own experiences.
Lastly, before you can gauge and start to address your team members’ stress, you will want to understand how close you might be to developing burnout. Our Stress Load Audit is a great tool for conducting this crucial self-assessment.
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