They say the first step to fixing a problem is becoming aware that it exists. My first clue that I was showing signs of burnout was when I noticed that I was having a lot of déjà vu conversations. People would ask “How are you?” and I’d find myself repeating “Eh – I’m okay. I can’t remember what I did yesterday. I have plenty to do but I’m not motivated to do any of it. What should I do with my life? I’m so tired. I can’t focus. I’m not present. I can’t take any time off. Talk to you tomorrow.”
What I have learned is that these are key signs of burnout. Forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating, diminished pride in your work, losing sight of yourself and your goals, difficulty maintaining relationships and being present with loved ones, frustration and irritability with co-workers, and unexplained muscle tension, pain, fatigue, and insomnia. Sound familiar? Since 2019, burnout has been a recognized disease by the World Health Organization. In the past eighteen months, burnout has been rampant.
Why Are We Experiencing Burnout?
Asking why we are seeing an increase in burnout feels a little like a “duh” moment. Is anyone really surprised?
- At-home employees are working longer hours to compensate for their worry that their boss thinks they’re being unproductive. So their work-life balance is all out of whack.
- The amount of time employees spend in meetings has increased by 13%.
- We worry about keeping our jobs, searching for a new job, or managing finances.
- Relationship problems are on the rise, especially ones that seem to have no resolution.
- There is the stress of caring for a loved one with a serious or chronic health condition.
- Everywhere we look we see daily doom and gloom newscasts.
- We walk on eggshells around people for fear that our words could be misconstrued and provoke conflict.
- Loneliness: The article, Burnout at Work Isn’t Just About Work. It’s About Loneliness, states that loneliness, whether from social isolation or exhaustion, has huge costs for organizations and serious consequences for individuals. Millennials show the most signs of burnout, with Gen Z close behind. The biggest factor leading to burnout for these groups? Loneliness.
Even before the pandemic, chronic stress was the norm. Long hours and overwork were celebrated. In 2018, Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla, tweeted about their culture of long hours: “There are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” His response to what number of hours is needed to change the world? “About 80 sustained.” Yikes!
Marina Khidekel, author of Time to Thrive: End Burnout, Increase Well-being, and Unlock Your Full Potential with the New Science of Microsteps shares two drivers for burnout:
- A collective delusion that burnout is the price we must pay for success. We see this in the beliefs we might associate with “hustle culture.”
- The belief that a sweeping life overhaul is the only way to make a change. But what science shows is that small, incremental mindset and behavior shifts are more effective and sustainable.
Work On Your Mindset
The first step is to stop, take a breath, and realize that the world doesn’t rest completely on your shoulders.
Do you believe that you’re not tough enough if you don’t push past your limits? Or do you feel like you always have to be busy, and you can’t make a mistake? Is taking care of yourself just not a priority? Some beliefs can be untrue and limiting. Redefine those beliefs and change your behavior.
Reframe the Situation
Write your answers down, talk it out with someone, or use a creative strategy like a brain dump for the following questions:
- Does everything have to be perfect? Or all done at the end of the day?
- How have you gotten past other challenges in the past?
- What would you tell someone else?
- Does it have to be the way it always has been?
- What if you didn’t care what others think? For example, when I ask what others will think if they slow down or take a break, I hear things like my colleagues will think I’m lazy or my boss will think I’m not driven. My follow up question is “What assumptions are you making?”
Failure is an Option
Realizing that you’re showing signs of burnout can bring up feelings of inefficacy and a loss of direction. I recently read Everything is Figureoutable by Marie Forleo. Her advice is not to be quick to judge supposed failures. She says, “A flop might be a cosmic redirect, guiding you to a better, bigger purpose.” When things don’t work out, that’s information you can use to reset and re-focus.
Move to Action
You are responsible for your actions and results. Thinking in this way allows you to choose to take action even if you don’t feel like it. And then you’ll have momentum!
Learn to Say No
Have you heard about “the art of the pause?” Before you agree to help someone or accept an invitation, take a moment. This will give you a chance to check-in with yourself to determine whether you have a conflict, to walk through everything that will be required of you if you agree, to ask yourself if you really have the time and energy, and to consider whether doing it offers value to you.
Revisit Your Values
When was the last time you reflected on your core values? For many people, the past eighteen months have clarified what is most important. We have a higher awareness of our boundaries, and we are no longer willing to cross that line.
- Identify what makes you feel grounded and happy. Make time for those things or people.
- Build community, encourage networks, inspire mentorship, talk to people you trust. Besides reminding you that you are not alone, other people can help you see all the possibilities.
- Schedule (and take) time off. Knowing you have time off on your calendar can be that extra motivator to keep going. And if you are a leader, you need to model that it is okay to take a break.
Once You Help Yourself, Help Others
“Recognizing what people are feeling so we can know we’re not alone — is human, and in its humanity, it’s powerful. We’re here to walk through life together, including in the workplace. So, we must aspire to take the hard path of authenticity and engagement in the face of suffering and be a leader who names what’s really going on also puts positive pressure on a culture so other leaders will do the same.” – Katya Andresen, Head of Marketing & Customer Experience at Capital One
Burnout takes many forms and each person’s solution may look different.
- Allow people to talk about it, and tell your stories too – make it a normal conversation
- Share resources and tools
- Ask questions and be non-judgmental
- Validate their feelings and make sure they know it’s okay to not be okay
- Dig deeper than an occasional ‘how are you doing?’ and the typical ‘I’m fine’ response. A study by the Mental Health Foundation found that on average an adult will say “I’m fine” 14 times a week, though only 19% of people really mean it. And almost a third of the 2,000 people in the survey said that they often lie about how they’re feeling.
If there is one thing you take away from this article, I hope it is that burnout can be fixed. It’s time to break the cycle!
Debby Neely is a Professional Certified Coach through the International Coach Federation who specializes in leadership coaching and facilitation. Her business, Neely Coaching & Training, supports both formal and informal leaders in realizing their potential and in getting results. Their mission is to help you be the best you can be.