What I learned from a near-burnout experience
Before sharing with you my near-burnout experience and what I learned from it, let me tell you upfront what I consider a universal truth after that: there is no such a project, boss, company, or tasks-list that worth a trade-off for your health and wellbeing. Especially when they have a direct impact on those you genuinely care. Make sure you keep this in mind at all times.
It was during the summer of 2009 when I became conscious that I was always feeling tired and losing motivation in many dimensions of my life. There was a sense of emptiness and lack of purpose behind everything I was doing, even if my passion and ambitious goals were pushing me to dedicate all the energy I could to achieve what I thought I wanted. From the outside, everything looked ok, and it seemed I was living a successful life, but inside, it all seemed dark and without any light to be seen soon at the end of that tunnel. I found temporal comfort in food, and my weight went out of control due to my diet habits and high levels of constant stress.
What happened to me it's not a rare case, and to make it worse, it seems that it's becoming an unfortunate megatrend. In a report from 2018, Gallup surveyed 7,500 full-time employees and concluded that "Organizations are facing an employee burnout crisis. [This survey] found that 23% of employees reported feeling burned out at work very often or always, while an additional 44% reported feeling burned out sometimes. That means about two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job." Becoming aware that this is an issue is just a first step to develop better leaders in supporting those around you and make sure you keep your warning signs on to make sure you don't reach that moment.
I was lucky enough to get a great team at work that helped me, as well as people in my private life with whom I could go to and get support. But I don't want to tell you what I did to avoid a likely burnout. What I would like to do is to share the top learnings and a few empowering pieces of advice based on how I approached my situation so that you can draw your own conclusions.
So...What did I learn?
These are the five main things I believe you should keep in mind to avoid ending up in a burnout situation:
1- There's nothing wrong with stress until this becomes permanent. Burnout is the result of chronic stress. "The stress response was designed to go off only for a short time until you were out of harm's way. There's a good reason for that, since the stress response suppresses the immune system and tissue repair system, among others, to push blood to arms and legs to fight or run. Chronic stress mode keeps the immune system suppressed 24/7, which is why burnout comes with so many health risks"*. Long periods of exposure to psychosocial hazards and stress will also reduce our cognitive capabilities, deteriorate our mood, and bring a higher probability of depression and anxiety. Under those circumstances, the dopamine level goes down, bringing with it a decrease in our motivation, feelings of pleasure, and happiness.
We will also experience an excess of cortisol release in our body, which could bring an increase of hunger, hypertension, sleep deprivation, migraines, back pain, or hostility, among other negative impacts. When we are near or experience a burnout we will as well notice behavioral changes as procrastination at work and/or home, having a lack of hobbies, persistent tiredness in the mornings, have a pessimistic outlook on work and life, complete neglect of personal needs, self-doubt and lack of confidence, or social isolation.
2- Be careful with the "Ikigai philosophy." It's been popularized during these last years the mentality that you should find the combination of four core elements: what the world needs, what you are good at, what you love, and what you can be paid for. If you find yourself in a work that answers all those four questions, it's excellent, but be careful. HBR published in a recent article saying that "If you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life; it's an excellent idea but a total myth.  There are certain sectors and roles that are at increased risk— that is work people love and feel passionate about.  Mission-focused executives, non-profit employees, teachers/principals, nurses, and physicians are some of the people most at-risk for burnout.  Beyond the care-giving industries, burnout can show up when leaders equate long hours with getting ahead when there's an implicit expectation that staff should come to work despite mental and physical illness, and when production-focused, remote, and inside sales' environments tend to push relationship-building to the back burner, which has been shown to increase loneliness."
You might find yourself working on something you love and where you can deploy all your passion into but keep an eye open for the signals that your passion is becoming obsessive, exchanging part of your wellbeing or quality time in other areas of your life.
The previously mentioned Gallup survey reported that burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job. And even if they stay, they typically have 13% lower confidence in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager. So, in the end, the passion you might put behind your efforts could be the same driving you to a complete meltdown.
3- It's not just about managing your time or your energy, but also about making sure you understand your priorities and that those are into your agenda. I recall a conversation I had with a client, where he was saying how important his family was for him. At the same time, he was complaining that he didn't spend time enough with them and that his daughters were calling him the "Panda Daddy" just because he was gaining some weight. I asked him to show me his agenda, and all I could see where meetings and calls booked from Monday until Sunday, with no mention of any time dedicated to his family or anything else than work. It just took a second for him to gain awareness of that fact and understand that it was his job as well to make sure that he dedicated the needed attention to all the essential things in his life, and that meant to block his agenda for his family.
That evening I had the pleasure of being invited to meet his lovely family. During the dinner, I asked his daughters about the nickname they found for their father. What I found out is that it had a bit do with the weight increase as he had indicated, but more with the fact that when he was home, he was sleeping most of the time, "like a cute panda!" the little one said. When he heard that directly from them, it had an impact, and that simple task of just blocking time on his agenda for his family took a deeper purpose. A few weeks after, he spent a full weekend in a water park resort for the first time with the whole family. As Steven Covey said, "the key is not to prioritize what's on your schedule but to schedule your priorities."
4- Sometimes, the hazards come as well from the outside. We can find ourselves in a toxic environment where there is unfair treatment at work or a values mismatch between what's essential for you and what's practiced at work.
According to the study of human needs, when goals and tasks are aligned with our psychological needs, the more satisfaction we feel. These are:
Autonomy: As the ability to decide what we do without being overly controlled.
Relatedness: Having meaningful and satisfying connections with other people.
Competence: The feeling we are competent at what we do and able to put our talents to use.
If those three elements are not respected, and there is a lack of clarity on what we are supposed to do, lack of support from our superior and not enough time to complete all the tasks given to you while being pressured to do so, you are in a perfect combo to end up down the road of a burnout.
5- Usually, the last one to notice is oneself; it's hard to see it coming even if for those that care about you it was apparent all along the road. When we are about to experience burnout, we might find ourselves telling anybody concerned about us that we are ok, that all is under control, when deep down we know that it's not true.
Being able to consider the feedback we obtain, look into it, and validate if that could be the case, and we are close to experiencing burnout is the first critical step we have to take before being able to get any benefits out of the presented recommendations. It's not just about daring to reach for help and support, but also about being ready to accept it when this comes.
What can you do about it?
Once we experience burnout, it is not easy to overcome it, but luckily, we have a lot of resources available nowadays to avoid it and if it happens to recover. Let's explore five different concrete actions you can do to empower yourself:
Empowerment 1- Be your case study. Ruth Franco, a prestigious Spanish psychologist, and psychotherapist working in Finland recommends using your own experience to increase self-awareness. In one of her retreats, she suggested to pay special attention and gain awareness to detect the signs and identify the stressors that are causing you to see that situation as a threat. The next step is to have a few coping strategies ready based on resources you already have and identify which areas of development you have to start working on those as well.
For example, a sign could be having public emotional outbursts, feeling pressured with short-term goals, or merely feeling insecure and losing confidence. The stressors causing them could be things like being sidelined, go through unexpected changes, feeling unappreciated, or having to deal with too many details. Spending time alone could be a strategy to calm down and gain awareness of what else can be done to approach the issue or focusing that frustration into exercise or other hobbies. As an opportunity, this person could learn problem-solving skills to become better at managing short term tasks or have a chat with her manager to present the case and reduce work commitments if possible and asking for help.
Ruth's advice helped me to learn to take the needed distance between the event and my reaction afterward, gaining a deeper space for reflection, inner calmness, and acceptance to process those emotions more positively.
Empowerment 2 - Work on your self-awareness. Being too perfectionistic, taking things too personal, or other personality traits you might have could also be taking you to the edge. There are many tools available to explore those traits and preferences and learn how to accept them and use them to get the most out of them. Workplace Big 5 or the MBTI are some of the most used tools at the moment. Getting a coach that helps and guides you through the process is essential, so make sure you don't walk the journey alone.
Isabel Briggs Myers said once that "We cannot safely assume that other people's mind works on the same principles as our own. All too often, others with whom we come in contact do not reason as we reason or do not value the things we value or are not interested in what interests us. " Make sure you get to know your boundaries and how your natural preferences support and affect you during good and stressful times. This will help as well to accept others. First, understand yourself, and then understand others before being understood.
Empowerment 3 - Take care of your recovery quality. Some people believe that by resting more over the weekend or taking holidays now and then will help to compensate those sacrifices they have been doing. Unfortunately, that doesn't work. Bring facts on the table and check the quality of your stress and recovery. It is vital to check if your lifestyle is supporting that balance. You can do so by using the LifeStyle Assessment provided by Firstbeat. This report offers detailed information on your wellbeing and helps you reach your health and performance potential with science-backed confidence. You can contact me for more details on the report, contact Tiina Hoffman from Firstbeat, or get more info directly from their web.
Empowerment 4 - The profound impact of the way we think about stress. We published back in 2018 an article presenting the studies of the health psychologist Kelly McGonigal. Her research concluded that it is not only stress matters: how we think about it seems to be crucial for the possible negative impact on our health. Especially when we can reach out and make use of meaningful connections with others during stressful situations, our bodies release a set of hormones that counteract the impact of stress. Consequently, finding a supportive environment, where we can safely review our strategies and beliefs about stress and develop our potential, can turn into a lifesaving experience.
Challenge your perception and meaning of the stressful situations that could potentially cause burnout, turn the situation into an opportunity to learn something new, and make sure to build the needed social support around you. A friend of mine told me once that he used this approach when having to give a public speech. He used to become stressed and nervous, with his hands all sweaty and his heart pumping at the maximum rate. After noticing he would never get rid of that feeling, he reframed the meaning telling to himself: "this feeling just means that I am about to get ready to give the best speech of my life." Nowadays, he is one of the best public speakers at a speaking club called Toastmasters.
Empowerment 5 - Take the needed time-out and get yourself into a focused retreat. Sometimes there's nothing we can do to change our jobs or affect the environment that is causing that potential burnout, but there's a lot we can do to get ready for it. We experience constant pressure around us most of the time, and this is taking a toll on our performance and wellbeing. In the long-run, there is the risk of losing our purpose, the sense of meaning, and impact negatively on our levels of energy. What is the essence that drives performance, allowing you to experience your best? We created an exclusive retreat for that purpose, The7SecretKeys.com.
This retreat is a special hands-on experience for executives and professionals to develop a clear vision, improve their performance, and experience of life. During the retreat, the participants explore how to use a methodology based on the situational context and a set of research-based tools, strategies, and techniques. The participants are guided through creating and developing a personalized plan choosing what fits their preferences and what works for them to turn visions into tangible, short-term results in a sustainable manner.
Define your space for calmness and wellbeing
There's a lot of support and tools you can reach out for nowadays, but at the end of the day, you will have to be the one who does the heavy lifting to make sure that you take the needed actions and you feel empowered to bring into your life the experiences and moments you desire, with confidence and joy.
And remember, it's never too late to become who you truly are.
(You can listen now to the podcast version of this article in this link: https://open.spotify.com/episode/6jVVBQXosKe36rDv3D0cj7?si=6kC4bB4KQ2uJGYwL4G9jXg.)