This article was originally published in Psychologies as part of Mental Health Awareness Week.
I was headhunted for a dream leadership job. I was thrilled, and determined to make a complete success of it. But two years later I felt completely overwhelmed. I constantly compared myself to other people, who I believed were more capable, more effective, more impactful than me. I was running on my nerves, constantly attached to my laptop or phone at all hours of the day and night, and struggling to sleep.
My partner, family and friends were all asking me to slow down. They regularly expressed their concern; I felt frustrated that they didn’t understand. Though I couldn’t see it at the time, I was losing the ability to think clearly or prioritise effectively. I neglected my friends. I neglected my health. I poured more and more time into the job. Yet still I was exhausted. And still the pressure felt out of control.
With the benefit of distance and of perspective I can see that I was well on the road to burnout. The demands of my job had consistently exceeded the amount of energy I had available for almost three years.If someone had said to me that it would be ok to say what I felt, I would have simply whispered what I believed: “I’m not very good at my job.”
Burnout is on the increase
A 2018 Mental Health Foundation survey on stress – one of the largest ever undertaken – showed 74% of people reported they felt so stressed they have been overwhelmed or unable to cope. That’s a lot of people.
One of the most pernicious things about burnout is that many people, me included, fail to realise that they are experiencing sustained, long-term chronic stress and will label it something else – workaholism, a heavy workload, the pressure to succeed.
Why? Because we live in a culture that lacks a basic understanding about the conditions that allow for optimal performance at work. Being busy, working all hours and ‘powering through’ stress are prized and praised. The result is that we think nothing of sacrificing our mental and physical health – not to mention our relationships – in the pursuit of work.
So, what did I learn from burnout?
I gained perspective that changed how I approached my career. I got clear on my values and strengths and understood whatI needed to excel at work and what mattered to me. Most importantly, this newfound clarity brought me a renewed purpose and meaning for work.
What would I do differently?
I would have not jumped straight into another role. I was completely numb. I clearly remember physically checking my pulse in the office because I just didn’t feel anything. I was working in an area that was important to me, and yet I wasn’t as engaged or energised as I would normally be. I felt I had made a mistake taking the role, further compounding my feelings of failure.
6 signs you might be on the road to burnout
Chronic stress is hugely detrimental to our minds and bodies. Stress releases a mix of chemicals and hormones that activate our ‘fight or flight’ mode in response to perceived threats. Blood is pumped away from our brains and into the muscles in our legs and arms, it closes down our immune system and prevents neurogenesis, the growth of new neural tissue. If you are experiencing burnout, not only will you be struggling to perform at work, you will also be experiencing a degree of cognitive, perceptual and emotional impairment.
Exhaustion – this can be physical, mental and emotional exhaustion and shows up as lacking energy and being completely depleted.
Not taking care of yourself– when suffering from burnout people will engage in coping strategies such as drinking too much, over or under eating, and not moving as much as they usually would and disrupted sleep.
Frustration, anger, cynicism and general negativity– everyone experiences negative emotions, but it’s worth paying closer attention if you feel you’re in an unusually negative state.
Always in work mode– constantly distracted by work emails and messages, working long hours and feeling overworked; a third (32%) of us find ourselves thinking about work when you’re not at work.
Lowering of self-belief– this can manifest as a lack of boundaries, taking things personally or inability to make decisions for fear of getting it wrong, feelings of failure.
Interpersonal problems at work and at home – not being “present” when at home or withdrawing emotionally and getting into more or unnecessary conflict and arguments.
So, what can you do to better manage stress and prevent burnout?
You can love your job and still experience burnout from time to time, perhaps a particularly big project or team dynamics are taking up more of your energy that usual. Or you can experience something more sustained and serious. Either way, the route to achieving long-term, sustainable performance at work is to make sure you take breaks and replenish your mental energy.
David Rock and Dan Siegel have developed the Healthy Mind Platter, seven daily activities to help reduce stress and burnout, get back into balance and protect your mental health.
Sleep time – we all know that humans need 7-9 hours of sleep to give the brain the rest it needs to recover from the activities of the day and prepare for the day ahead.
Physical time– good for heart and physical fitness, studies also show exercise reduces stress, anxiety and depression, promotes memory formation and learning and helps with focus, emotional regulation and slows down cognitive decline.
Focus time– simply (but not easy!), this is about single-tasking – giving your full focus and attention to one thing and finding your flow.
Down time– this is about intentional day dreaming, idling, relaxing. This state is when the brain starts to problem solve, generate new insights and come up with new creative solutions.
Play time– be spontaneous, creative and seek out playful new experiences to help learn, develop new motor skills and just have some good old fun!
Connecting time– social connection is a basic human need. Research has shown that connection with the natural world also has powerful benefits. Call a friend, grab a coffee and walk in the park.
Time in – this is the practice of mindfulness. Start small with just a minute or two and build your practice over time. The evidence shows that mindfulness helps to regulate emotions, enhance attention and creativity, reduce stress, and increase empathy. All essential leadership skills.
How many of these activities do you spend time doing each day? There’s an old and ever-popular adage that it’s best to slow down in order to speed up. If you feel like you’re suffering from stress and burnout give these activities a go, starting with a few and building up over time.
Understanding what drives optimal performance and your personal leadership style, is a powerful formula for success. It will help you excel at work without cost to your health and relationships.
If you want to discover more about how to better manage stress and build your resilience or discover your personal leadership style get in touch for a chat.