Do You Have It?
What Can You Do?
Are you burning out?
Are you worried about yourself, both in your work, and in your personal world..?
Do you feel a little brittle, and a lot “on the edge”?
It seems appropriate, in the early part of a week, to pose these questions, and to offer you three sure-fire signs that you may be heading for a bit of trouble. And a few powerful strategies to “catch it” while you still can.
At some point, earlier on in my career, I did some work for an Executive Wellness clinic. Corporate executives would come in for an holistic wellness-screening day, and get assessed on all facets of general well being (nutrition, exercise, blood markers, etcetera). And they would see me, to assess, primarily, the extent to which they are managing the demands of their lives, without being at risk of burnout.
For this purpose, we used “The Maslach Burnout Inventory”, which is a simple but robust series of self-report questions, and, on completion, yields a risk profile. This psychometric assessed for three indicators of burnout risk, and it is these that I want to share with you, briefly, now.
Specifically so that you can check in with yourself, and reflect on how you are faring.
THREE INDICATORS OF BURNOUT RISK
- Emotional Exhaustion
Emotional exhaustion is more than just garden-variety tiredness. This is fatigue in your soul… Yes, there is most certainly a physiological component. But when we speak about emotional exhaustion, we’re talking about a “profound spiritual and psychological flatness”, a de-motivation, and a general sense of “I couldn’t be asked”. It’s an energy issue. It’s almost as though one has unwittingly “sprung a leak”, and is hemorrhaging the will and courage to go on.
And it’s dangerous.
It’s dangerous because sleep doesn’t really help. The “usual reliefs” don’t touch sides. Everything, no matter how innocuous, starts to feel like a drain on you, and it leads to social and professional withdrawal and shut down. Left untended, it can start to skew perspective, and lead to faulty cognitive processing and therefore poor decision-making. An otherwise sane and rational person starts to come apart at the seams…
I really don’t like cynicism. Not in myself, nor in others. (Sure, a humorous, satirical diatribe can relieve stress, but that’s not what I’m talking about). Cynicism is a thief. And it’s the hallmark of a very, very injured person. And this saddens me.
When I see true cynicism, I see a part of a human that has been really badly burnt. Cauterized, if you will, to stop the bleeding. Bleeding, from the wound of just NOT winning… From the wound of trying with all your might, but going nowhere slowly. From the wound (perhaps) of your best just not meeting the demands of the moment. And so, faced with this on a chronic level, the belief emerges that we are rigged to fail… That succeeding isn’t possible. And that energetic and energized peers are naive, idealistic and have imbibed the KoolAid. The stupid KoolAid :-).
And so we start to see only the darker sides of life… of people… of possibilities. We may even feel that we know a truth that others don’t know. And, in a sense, there’s truth in this – because non-cynical people won’t and don’t embrace such truths about futility and nihilism and the inevitability of failure. (And thus this is mostly not their experience).
And it’s dangerous.
It’s dangerous, because we give up. Not necessarily consciously. But somewhere deep in our soul, we stop trying, because there’s no point.
- Reduced Sense of Professional Efficacy
Ai, the age-old Loss of Confidence. I’ve seen it in my clients, and I’ve seen in myself. It seems to creep up out of nowhere. We go from feeling “in the zone” and “in flow” (on top of our game, and professionally “on fire”), to wondering if we have any value at all… (Or even any grey matter between our ears). Tasks that were previously really effortless suddenly feel profoundly challenging. We second-guess our every move and motive. We become desperately insecure, and genuinely concerned about being exposed as a fraud. I’ve even worked with people who almost appear to have incurred a head injury, through burnout, in the sense that they are literally less capable than they were before (it doesn’t have to last – recovery is possible – but it’s tangible!).
And this is dangerous.
Because, as with all facets of burnout, a little begets a lot, and it spirals, escalates, grows teeth and takes on a life of its own. Confidence is such a precarious issue; “whether you think you can, or you think you can’t you’re right…’. So truly, perception of performance determines performance, and so on.
DO YOU RELATE? WHAT NOW? Catch it while you can!
So perhaps you’ve scrolled through my list, and feel settled that you’re mostly actually ok…
But perhaps a little more of this has resonated, than you strictly would like… What now?
Simply REALISING this is a large part of the battle won… It means that you have come up for air sufficiently even to have been “hooked” by this article. The mere fact that you are reading it is useful, and testimony to an inner wisdom that wants to “catch it before it lands”. “Catching it before it lands” is a metaphor I use quite a lot, almost instinctively, in my private practice. I have a mental image of a ball or bomb or grenade hurtling at a person, but a swift hand manoeuvre managing to literally halt the destruction, in its tracks, through skill and foresight. Perhaps I watch too much fantasy TV, and too little science.
But nonetheless, my reader is emotionally exhausted, cynical, and has lost faith in his/her ability to be professionally excellent. What now?
- Seek REPLENISHMENT, not REST.
Conventional wisdom says, “take leave”, “take a break” etcetera. And, in some senses, conventional wisdom is correct. However, I have too often worked with people who have activated such a “mental health holiday” for themselves, only to return sluggishly to work, feeling that they are resuming their burnout right where they left it several weeks earlier. (Think of the common response to “how was your holiday” – “lovely, thank you, but I already feel like I never went”.
So “leave” is not necessarily the answer. But REPLENISHMENT is… Replenishment is finding what people and activities sooth you, and restore your soul, and learning, with discipline, to incorporate these into your normal daily life. Regularly. Always.
Most drug rehabilitation centers teach their patients that, every morning, they should set two goals: a physical one, and a spiritual one, and be sure to attend to both in the course of each waking day. This is useful for many reasons, not the least of which are to have a sense of purpose and accomplishment, and to stay grounded in one’s own process.
What REPLENISHES you..?
What PEOPLES’ company nourishes you, and restores your soul..?
What ACTIVITIES make you feel like you can breathe again, and “come up for air”?
Are you prioritizing a healthy amount of sleep? (I find that SO MANY ISSUES start with a lack of quality sleep, and I’m a firm proponent of the use of whatever reasonable and managed aids assist in getting enough of this very basic human need).
If you are feeling burnt out, rather than taking mindless days off, apply MINDFUL consideration to the replenishment of your soul more regularly. I believe daily journaling, if that’s your thing, would go further to rejuvenate than two weeks at home. Ditto, a regular evening walk with a good friend and confidante… Ditto the practice of meditation, or yoga, or 30 minutes in a boiling bubble bath on a daily basis. Ditto the application of work-life boundaries, or taking 10 minutes at teatime to listen to a podcast or a favorite playlist.
REPLENISHMENT is key. It’s bigger that rest.
- EVALUATE WHY YOU SPRUNG A LEAK, AND CHECK YOUR VALUES
In my work with burn(ing) out people, I am very often aware that the initial problem emerged from an issue which clashed with their values. Something happened, and caused them to feel a sense of cognitive dissonance. (Cognitive dissonant is a rather exhausting condition, which involves one’s beliefs and one’s behavior being at odds with each other). Sometimes this can be due to a Serious Issue, like being complicit to fraud or negligence. But often, it’s even the result of a restructure, an organogram shift, or a change in reporting lines. The point is that the change creates an environment which no longer feels “right”, nurturing or peaceful. We know that each individual is driven and motivated fundamentally by one or two guiding “professional values”, and if the environment changes, away from their preference, this can set up an inner angst which, untended, can result in a burnout.
So my advice to burning out people is to assess what the initial point of impact was, that served as a turning point and critical moment in where you now find yourself. My sense is that you would not have to dig too deep… Once you’ve pinpointed this, you may wish to then do some self-work to determine what is, and isn’t possible, within the situation that feels untenable.
Can you live with it? Yes? Then RESOLVE to live with it, and GET ON with living with it…
Does LIVING WITH IT serve a bigger life goal or value for you (like financial/family peace), and should you then FIND A WAY to LIVE WITH IT?
Do you need to find creative strategies to make the environment kinder and more palatable..? Is it perhaps a courageous conversation with key players in your turmoil? A desk change?
My biggest advice in THIS portion is to DO SOMETHING… Not just to let the circumstance and sentiment build and dominate you, as though you were completely at its mercy. We are NEVER completely at its mercy. There is ALWAYS something creative that can be done, to navigate through a precarious situation. And we know that anxiety is reduced by action, and that action is important as it restores our sense of power and agency.