The occupational phenomenon
Burn-out is trending as one of the most common words to be looked up in Dictionary.com. It seems ‘stress’ does not adequately cover when an individual is exhausted and overwhelmed by events and the situation they are in.
Burn-out is defined as “fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.” Is burn-out now a more intense word to describe work-place stress? If we go to the GP with ‘stress’, perhaps this does not sufficiently sound like a problem that needs addressing, as opposed to ‘burn-out’. This obviously signifies a far greater need for urgent attention…
Burn-out is now included in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (#ICD11) as an occupational phenomenon. It is not however classified as a medical condition and crucially, they say it’s a result of ‘chronic workplace stress which has not been successfully managed’. Interestingly, the WHO also says ‘burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the work setting and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.’ Make of that what you will.
The WHO is to begin work on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental well-being in the workplace, so this will give a greater understanding of recognising the symptoms, how to deal with it and hopefully most importantly, ways to prevent an individual reaching this point of diagnosis.
Self-imposed, self-diagnosed and self-composed
We can do this good work ourselves because burn-out, as with stress, is preventable and manageable. Stress and burn-out are relative but it is within our power and our choice as to how we respond to the circumstances we find ourselves in or indeed, the lead up to these circumstances. Stress doesn't have to be stressful… It's about the way you think about it, as a great TED talk by Kelly McGonigal explains. Choice is our ultimate ally.
Philosopher Andrew Bernstein said: “The truth is that stress doesn't come from your manager, your children, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” Pokey stuff but as we say on The Winning Edge, it's the way you think about what you think about - you can choose your response to all of these circumstances and the level of stress you assign to each one is within your control. It’s about running your brain, rather than letting it run you – thinking about how you want situations to pan out and whilst you might not be in total control of what happens, you are in control of how you respond.
Making yourself think positively about a situation isn’t the way to go though – pretending that stress or the development of burn-out isn’t real, that if we put a positive gloss coat on all the stuff we find challenging, we can convince and fool ourselves that everything is OK. No, The Winning Edge is about conscious thinking and there lies the crucial difference. Feelings of frustration, stress, disappointment or anxiety need to be acknowledged and understood rather than ignored or put on the back-burner, hoping they'll go away. It’s important to be conscious of the way we're thinking about these circumstances and any measures we may need to take to help our emotional and mental well-being, rather than let it spiral out of control.
When it starts to feel like work is getting on top of you, when the overwhelm starts to increase, be self-aware, recognise when things are reaching fever pitch. Take your foot off the gas... and breathe. Slow everything right down and that's when the solutions to the challenges start to flow.
"Your best ideas, those eureka moments that turn the world upside down, seldom come when you're juggling emails, rushing to meet the 5pm deadline or straining to make your voice heard in a high-stress meeting. They come when you're walking the dog, soaking in the bath or swinging in a hammock." Carl Honoré. Wise words indeed. When you’re stressed and negative, finding creative solutions becomes much more difficult or even impossible. The brain can come up with new ideas, images, creativity etc when it’s operating in an open and resourceful state. When you’re relaxed and have a strong, positive belief that you can find answers to problems, your brain is mobilised to seek and present solutions to your conscious mind. Next time you need an answer to a challenge, try to give your brain the twin fuels of time and belief. Think to yourself, “I know there is an answer to this challenge and it will come to me”. Then stop thinking about it for a few hours. You may well find the answer bubbling up in your mind when you least expect it to…
Because you’re worth it
There are managers out there who expect the earth and for that, you get your salary in return and not much else in the way of performance-related bonuses and suchlike. For some managers, discretionary effort is expected, it’s the norm. To go above and beyond is the unwritten bit of your contract. However, if this is where the burn-out is occurring – the extra hours, working at home in the evenings and on weekends to ensure the expected is done, plus the extra so you get recognised, that’s when you need to think about whether it’s all worth it. Because after all, it’s all within your power as to how much work you do.
If you want that job and the salary, maybe the progression it offers, them’s the breaks and you take the rough with the smooth. Or not. You decide whether the pay-off of working all those hours is worth it or not – worth the stress you’re starting to feel. Sometimes we get comfortable with the uncomfortable. Sometimes inertia builds and we’d rather the status quo than question it. Sometimes accepting our current situation is more beneficial than challenging the fear of the unknown.
Working out what’s important
That’s when you need to think about your values. What’s most important to you? Maybe short-term stress is manageable if you know the next rung of the career ladder is within reach. Maybe you’re working towards a bonus which will ensure you can pay-off the extension to be built on your house, or will ensure you can take the family away on holiday. But maybe, just maybe, all this stress and feeling of burn-out isn’t worth it…
So, to prevent the preventable:
It’s all within your control and it starts with your thinking.
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” William James