From Thriving to Surviving
Due to an almost perfect storm of the legacy of the pandemic, Brexit (the pressure of supply chain issues, staffing shortages etc) and rising prices and cost of living crisis, in my role as a coach, I am observing many business owners and leaders struggling with overload and overwhelm both for themselves and their teams. Also, as an experienced business leader who has suffered from severe burnout and come through it, I am very conscious of how overload and overwhelm can quickly lead to burnout.
Whilst there’s a growing awareness of burnout as a condition in the business context, it remains ill-defined and as a result, there is not much reliable and credible advice available to support both those at risk or in the throes of burnout as well as the individuals who are trying to support them. What there is focuses largely on managing resilience and having firm boundaries, and for more severe cases, highlighting drug and or talking therapies. All of these have a role to play, but it is far more nuanced than this.
Based on my research and ensuing work in this area, the following are five key insights to both understanding and managing the symptoms of burnout:
1) Burnout is absolutely individual to each person. There is no one common set of symptoms, and therefore no one course of action works for the majority of sufferers. It requires detective work by the individual to piece together a coherent set of symptoms which will then help them to build an approach to recovery. This is a real problem as time is exactly the one thing burnout sufferers mostly lack. Even keeping a very simple diary and noting down symptoms in a few words on a daily basis can help build a picture which in turn can assist the individual to understand and articulate more effectively what is going on and what support they may need both professionally and personally.
2) Burnout is a catch-22 – it is neither just mental nor just physical as a condition. However, most available support for burnout tends to focus on either the mental (the preference of the medical establishment in the UK) or the physical. What do I mean by this? If I take my own not uncommon experience of a midlife female professional. Unknown to me, I was going through a severe case of early onset perimenopause which meant my hormonal health was greatly contributing towards my symptoms of anxiety, insomnia married with bone deep weariness and brain fog which ultimately contributed to (but also confused) my burnout diagnosis. Whereas before, I would have been able to handle the high levels of cortisol (due to stress) in my work and life, I found myself unable to cope on the adrenaline/cortisol roller coaster. Through detective work, I was able to better understand how the physical symptoms contributed to the mental symptoms and vice versa and what I could do to address both the burnout and perimenopause symptoms – much of it from a lifestyle perspective.
3) As someone who maybe supporting individuals through burnout, finding a way to open up the conversation, listening, asking them to reflect on what they need, including crucially what they might need from you, as well as professionals and themselves to help them on the road to recovery. Burnout remains an “Achilles” heel for most sufferers, particularly if it is severe. Most individuals who have been through it and come out the other side need to manage themselves and their sensitivity to burnout on an ongoing basis.
4) Burnout is an expensive business in so many ways, not least of it financial. To access good support costs money. However, there are actions individuals can take at a minimal cost. Paying attention to the basics – food, drink (especially alcohol and caffeine), prioritising sleep above all else, building in regular breaks (and sticking to them!) and ultimately getting better at defining boundaries and saying no. Additionally, by turning as many activities as possible into routines, we reduce the number of decisions to be taken and therefore lower stress in the equation. Finding rest in nature; walking, gardening or just sitting outside if that’s all one can manage, is critical. Many of us live our lives inside often stuck behind screens. Prioritising gentle outdoor exercise until one starts feeling better is an essential step.
5) Having access on a regular basis to supportive professionals to help on the recovery journey is critical. Money may be tight so investigating, if possible, with the support of a GP, what can be accessed for free or at a reduced cost is a starting point. Some health insurances also provide cover for support like mindfulness programmes, therapy (eg talking therapy) and lifestyle interventions (eg nutritionists) to assist with recovery.
In my coaching work, burnout is still to a great degree a taboo subject. There is a tendency for individuals to downplay symptoms as “feeling a bit tired” or “run down” and few are willing to go on the record. The stigma for many, particularly in the workplace, and the desire not to worry nearest and dearest, leads many to suffer in silence. If we can talk about burnout in as many spaces as possible, it will be easier for individuals to find the words they need in order to ask for help and for colleagues as well as qualified professionals to better understand how they can help.
Through this post, I hope to open up a bit further the conversation and chip away at the stigma, misunderstanding and silence surrounding the condition.
If you’re interested, as part of my work with Wise Sherpa, I’ve written a longer blog on the A-Z of burnout – a practical guide here.
For consultancy and coaching support for leaders and their teams, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org