By Tanya Tarr
Burnout can feel like it’s inescapable, but there are small steps you can take to conquer and recover from it.
“I wish I could go back and tell myself that not only is there no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and high performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving. That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.”
Arianna Huffington, Greek-American author, syndicated columnist, co-founder of The Huffington Post and founder and CEO of Thrive Global
I remember the strangest details of the day I realized I was burned out. It was a Wednesday. I couldn’t find the red pen I always used to edit a direct mail piece. Strangely, I didn’t feel as if I would be able to lift the pen, even if I found it. I kept staring at my computer and my paper calendar, feeling utterly numb and almost paralyzed. My brain felt like it was broken – which is not physically possible, but I didn’t feel capable of stringing a simple sentence together. Not being able to think my way out of this situation felt like the ultimate betrayal. I was the political director for the largest teachers’ union in Texas and had built my entire professional identity on being an indefatigable workhorse. And, that day, I realized I just didn’t care anymore.
It was the fall of 2013, and I was burned out.
For me, burnout manifested in many ways – chronic health issues, emotional numbness and ultimately the decision to leave the industry. I consider the process of recovering from burnout to be a career transformation, rather than career death. It happened in stages. By 2015, I had stabilized my health and beaten Type II diabetes. And by the end of 2017, I had successfully pivoted into the private sector.
What, Exactly, Is Burnout?
Burnout as a phrase has entered the public lexicon in ways that trigger emotional resonance but without much scientific grounding. It is not just being tired, bored, angry or fatigued. It’s a chronic and persistent sense of numbness, anger and disengagement that can impact many dimensions of our lives. While it previously was understood as being caused by occupational dynamics, the pandemic has expanded and exacerbated its damaging reach.
At a high level, the World Health Organization defines burnout as “a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” It includes work-related exhaustion, negative feelings about work and reduced efficiency at working. Dr. Christina Maslach is the pioneer of research on occupational burnout and author of the Maslach Burnout Inventory, which is one of the most widely used measures of job burnout. She points out that, while organizations cause the conditions of burnout, it’s the individual who experiences the burnout.
How Do You Know You’re Burnt Out?
Dr. Maslach points to three key indicators that may suggest burnout is happening. The first sign is emotional exhaustion, which is also referred to as compassion fatigue. Where previously a person might feel mission-driven, they can’t seem to bring themselves to care anymore. The second characteristic is a deep cynicism or depersonalization, where a person feels detached or indifferent to their work. The third indicator is ineffectiveness at work that is driven by a low personal sense of accomplishment or autonomy. It’s a sense that no matter what is attempted, nothing will change.
In my case, I would pitch strategic ideas and make innovative suggestions; however, despite my attempts to contribute sound ideas and creative concepts, the organization’s lack of openness to experimentation and questionable strategic decisions contributed to an overall feeling of ineffectiveness on my part. And that perceived ineffectiveness only served to perpetuate my burnout.
As if that isn’t enough, another challenge associated with burnout is the desire for immediate relief. Unfortunately, a speedy resolution isn’t possible since burnout never happens overnight, or even in the span of a few weeks or months. Burnout is the result of taxing working conditions and unmitigated stress occurring over months, even years. It’s a chronic issue that often takes just as long to resolve and recover from as it did to manifest.
But, there’s hope! As is the case with many overwhelming situations, the solution often lies in small changes. It’s all about steady baby steps!
4 Steps to Start Conquering Burnout
Here are four quick triage tips and tactics to consider if you are exhibiting symptoms of burnout:
– Focus on small actions or activities that take less than 5 minutes to complete. Making major changes might feel out of reach, but never underestimate the power of small things to make big impacts. Remember: Goliath never saw the pebble coming! Taking down the giant of overwhelmingness starts with one small action to create change.
– Write a one-sentence purpose statement to start your day. As I rebuilt my motivation to keep going while I was in burnout, I found that writing a sentence to start my day helped. I would ask myself what my daily purpose was. I found myself writing sentences like “My purpose is to help make the world a little better than I found it.” “My purpose is to help support my sisters and brothers.” I think the act of writing is important, with a pen on paper. Though writing with a pen is a small action, this combination of mentally setting an intention and physically writing it out always helped me gain focus to get through the day.
– Do a quick body weight exercise or stretch when you’re feeling stressed. Physical activity closes the stress loop. Burnout happens because we have unmitigated stress and our brains keep processing it on some level to “solve” the stress. We want closure, even if it can’t be reached. Dr.Emily Nagoski suggests short bursts of physical activity, in her book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Those bursts of activity (like holding a plank position for a minute or doing 20 jumping jacks) can help close the neurological and physical stress cycle, at least temporarily. It is a short-term mitigation strategy and can make enough space for you to keep going for a specific interval (like, say, 2 weeks until you turn in a big project.)
– Focus on what’s working, no matter how humble. Make a point of talking about a small victory that you had at work, especially with coworkers. If you manage other people, find something you can point to that they did really well. This act of self or group affirmation is a small and important act of rebuilding confidence that will help your team keep moving forward, no matter what.
Burnout is hard. It’s gnarly and layered like many complex, chronic problems. We want to blame someone or some organization or one thing – we want someone to take responsibility for this damage. In truth, that responsibility is shared. So is the work of fixing it, whether you’re fighting your own burnout or trying to help someone on your team. We all must show up to the work of dissolving burnout. Organizations (and the pandemic) have created conditions of individual burnout, but organizations are made of individual people. Getting everyone stabilized and healthy won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if we all pitch in. Our future success hinges on building more sustainable ways of living and working. What repairs the damage of burnout is curiosity, iterative innovation, and a commitment to steady action. Want to join us?
Tanya Tarr is founder of Cultivated Insights, a corporate learning and development company, and is also a senior contributor to Forbes where she writes about leadership and burnout. Trained as a behavioral scientist, Tanya worked for seventeen years in political and legislative campaigns across the United States and brings her perspective on how to support burnout recovery through her lens as a scientist, journalist, leadership strategist and woman of color.
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