3 tips to avoid burnout

A few years ago I was left anxious, emotional fragile and lacking in confidence, after 10 years of intense leadership learnings, frequent job changes, inadequate support to learn the necessary skills and overwhelming workload pressures the almost inevitable happened and I burnt out. At the time I didn’t know what was going on, I just thought that I wasn’t cut out for leadership roles, I wasn’t tough enough or resilient enough or just generally enough. I left my role, managing a couple of hundred staff and millions in turnover and moved to the other side of the World (Saudi Arabia) to lick my wounds and decide what to do next. After slowly regaining some confidence over my 18 months in Saudi Arabia, completing my Masters and starting a scholarship in leadership with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation, I did jump back into leadership roles, but I was always cautious and wary, even with my new skills and knowledge. I didn’t realise how cautious and wary until I was challenged recent.

So I was prompted to review that time in my life and reconcile what happened and why, I only just learnt the label for what happened, burnout. A actual thing, not lack of resilience or lack of capability to lack of being enough. BURNOUT.

What an amazing privilege to have the opportunity and resources to reflect and learn new ways of doing things, so I wanted to share with you what I have learnt and some tools that might help you to identify and address possible burnout in yourself, members of your team or colleagues and friends.

What is burnout?

Burnout is a psychological syndrome characterised by overwhelming exhaustion, feelings of frustration, anger and cynicism and a sense of ineffectiveness and failure. The experience impacts social, personal and work functioning. Christina Maslach defined three dimensions or symptoms that characterise burnout and these include emotional exhaustion, lack of accomplishment and depersonalisation. For me these three dimensions are interesting, because they provided a much better understanding of my behaviours, feelings and physical state at the time, this allowed me to create early warning system for myself.

Having a personal early warning system is critical, because once you have experienced burnout, you don’t want to go there again it is debilitating across all parts of your life.

So what happened according to the three dimensions of burnout and how can you stop burnout happening to you?

Emotional exhaustion

Emotional exhaustion occurs usually after a prolonged period of stress, at a personal level things like being a caregiver, having a child, significant long term change such as a illness or death of a loved one, a long term abusive relationship. In the work setting this dimension of burnout relates to relationships in the workplace.

Are they positive and trusting or are they characterised my mis-trust and un-resolved conflict? Is your workplace a community or a battle zone?

The health industry, which I have worked in most of my life has some of the highest levels of employee burnout, combined with or in part due to some of the highest occupational violence levels of any industry. I had to completely change industries, to gain some insight into how emotionally exhausting most workplaces in the health industry are. Ironically it was tradies who taught me the value of working with colleagues who look after and support each other. Interestingly the construction industry actually have some of the most mentally safe workplaces in Australia, so they are doing something right that other industries are missing.

In my case I had been managing multiple relationships that were characterised by mis-trust and un-resolved conflict, including my relationship with my direct line manager. There was also a lack of congruence between my personal value set and that of my line manager at the time.

Lack of accomplishment

Work overload, high work demands, lack of autonomy and inability to access the resources that they need to do the job are all contributing factors to this dimension.

If there is little time to rest and restore balance or access opportunities to refine skill sets before learning new ones then you can become at risk of experiencing a lack of accomplishment. You don’t have time to reflect and celebrate successes and allow changes to bed in and provide you with results and learnings.

In my case I had climbed the management ladder fairly steadily over a ten year period, but I didn’t have many mentors. The health industry is big on promotion based on technical ability and poor on fostering that ability and helping people develop the new skills that are required to be a good leader. The opportunity to develop the skills needed to manage the role you have been given is critical. If you do not have a strong skill set then you are constantly vulnerable to not being able to identify your limitations or those around you. You are always winging it and hoping you don’t fail.

Workload is also an issue, immediately prior to my burnout I was a Director of Nursing. I was being required to answer the phone at 5am every morning and often 10 pm at night to make sure that we didn’t have to many staff on. The profit margins were so lean, and my CEO didn’t have the skills to bringing in new business, therefore she focused on her skill set which was technical and micro managed the managers, through me so that every employee paid hour was critical, this was the biggest flexible cost. So I was expected to micro manage these details on a 24 hour basis, no paid hour slipped past me and we won most improved profit margin for that financial year.

Work overload pressures with limited time to relax and restore balance across an organisation doesn’t just impact on the change bringer but all staff who are part of the change process, its not just micromanaging, constant organisational major change, constant turnover of managers, inadequate ratio of experienced to junior staff.

Lack of accomplishment can also result in low morale and decreased employee buy in to the organisation, meaning that it impacts productivity.

Cynicism

Cynicism is a coping mechanism, the outward display is irritability, loss of idealism and withdrawal. You become a negative person, you sometimes de-personalise the people around you. Cynicism is also contagious, meaning the person experiencing burnout impacts on those surrounding them. There is a mediating relationship between social interactions in the work environment and ability for employees to stay engaged, connected and deflect negative energy, it makes sense that the more burnt out employees you have the more work environments become characterised by interpersonal aggression.

In my case I was cynical, I was withdrawn and it was impacting on my social and personal life as well as at work.

So what can we learn, how can you avoid burnout?

These are my non negotiables

Don’t work for people who have a different value set

Tip One - Spend some time identifying what is important and what is non-negotiable.

The amount of stress and conflict that is caused if your immediate manager has a value set very different to yours is incredible. Some people don’t know what their values are but recognising and being clear on your own values and what is important to you, then you will be able to identify when there is a mismatch.

Learn to say No

Tip Two - Think before you say yes, it is OK to push back and help people but don’t take on their monkey.

A very wise person once said to me, beware of how many monkey’s you have on your back. What a great mental image. We all have our own monkeys, our roles that we fulfil and our key responsibilities. Be careful when people say can you do this for me…. Are they passing you one of their monkey’s? You can only carry so many, your shoulders are only so broad.

Watch for cynicism

Tip Three - If you can’t find anything to be grateful for then there is a good chance that you are cynical, dig deeper and find out why?

Cynicism is very unattractive, it makes you feel bad, it colours your life and relationships. Stay alert for it in your life and relationships. Gratitude is a natural antidote for cynicism, so start and end each day by being grateful for something, preferable something that someone has done for you. Gratitude has made me appreciate the good people and the good things that happen every day all around us.

Jen Wressell