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How to sneak up on burnout, before it sneaks up on you

Aug 31, 2021

The occupational phenomenon

Stress is a word bandied about fairly frequently. So much so, it perhaps doesn’t adequately cover when someone is really at breaking point, as opposed to feeling like they’ve got a lot on their plate.

Burnout is the term which describes when someone is at their lowest - physically, mentally and emotionally – when they are so overwhelmed by events and the situation they are in.

Burnout is defined as “fatigue, frustration, or apathy resulting from prolonged stress, overwork, or intense activity.” Is burnout now a more intense word to describe workplace stress? If we go to the GP with ‘stress’, perhaps this does not sufficiently sound like a problem that needs addressing, as opposed to ‘burnout’. This obviously signifies a far greater need for urgent attention…

Burnout 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, the World Health Organisation say it’s a result of ‘chronic workplace stress which has not been successfully managed’. Interestingly, the WHO also says ‘burnout 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. I’m sure there are plenty of people who will say that other events in their life outside of the work sphere are leading them to feel challenged, sapped of all energy and a feeling of failure or hopelessness.

The WHO is to begin work on the development of evidence-based guidelines on mental wellbeing 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 burnout, as with stress, is preventable and manageable. Stress and burnout are of course 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 – how you manage your mindset.

Making yourself think positively about a situation isn’t the way to go though; pretending that stress or the development of burnout 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 – that doesn’t work. 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 wellbeing, rather than allow it to spiral out of control.

Taking ownership

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 are 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 burnout 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 burnout isn’t worth it…

So, to prevent the preventable:

  1. Recognise the warning signs
  2. Take your foot off the gas
  3. Make time for time-out
  4. Figure out your values
  5. Use conscious thinking to make choices

It’s all within your control and it starts with your thinking.

As philosopher and psychologist William James said:

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Do you feel at breaking point, that burnout is just around the corner for you? Would you like help with finding ways to cope with stress and to feel more resilient and in control?

The Mindset Coaching Membership can help you understand the tools and strategies needed. With Masterclass Teachings + Coaching + Accountability, we will help you to create the future you want. Find out more here.

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