A successful, go-getting Superwoman friend of mine recently put an uncharacteristic post on Facebook: “Wondering if I have got it wrong?” she asked, and proceeded to list work, personal commitments and projects, interspersed with travel sprints and marathon commutes. “Maybe I need a holiday,” she concluded. When I mentioned the possibility of impending burnout, it provoked an outpouring of knowing concern from those who’d experienced it, had teetered on the edge of the abyss or had watched colleagues, friends or relatives slide into that black hole.
It reminded me that burnout is more common than we might imagine. I am not talking about feeling tired or exhausted, but getting to that debilitating point of being utterly spent and having nothing more to give.
Stress-related illness is at epidemic proportions according to the World Health Organisation and burnout is a product of intense or prolonged stress. I have observed the huge cost in human and financial terms in many organisations, as people with often unblemished sickness records buckle and eventually find themselves within the ranks of the long-terms sick. The individual affected and their colleagues are often bewildered when it happens, only able to piece the signs together in hindsight.
There are a whole range of reasons why burnout can sneak up on us, but often at the heart of the issue is a tendency to default to tried and trusted coping mechanisms which have served us well in the past. The people I have had the privilege to coach through burnout over the years have tended to be high achievers driven by deeply held values, typically rooted in a strong work ethic. When they were “up against it”, their default coping mechanism was to keep working harder and longer.
As we concentrate on trying harder and working longer we can lose focus on our wellbeing and other things we care about in our lives. It is difficult to see the bigger picture with our heads so close to the grindstone and it’s easy to lose perspective. Importantly, we can fail to recognise when coping strategies which have proved successful in the past may no longer be working.
There is a tipping point on everyone’s stress barometer where continuous pressure becomes debilitating and something’s got to give. There are physiological factors underlying this. If we simply continue to work harder and longer, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. This typically includes difficulty concentrating, indecisiveness or forgetfulness and reduced productivity.
Breaking out of this vicious cycle and letting go of familiar coping strategies like “work harder/work longer” can be very difficult when these have contributed to past success. Replacing them with unfamiliar strategies and then making these habitual can be tough without support.
Perhaps you recognise yourself or someone you know in this description? Recognising that you might be heading for burnout is a huge first step to avoiding it. Most people don’t see it coming until it is upon them. What was great about my Facebook friend was that she had recognised the potential issue before it engulfed her, shared her musings, was instantly surrounded with recognition and support, and then took action. I am not suggesting you share on social media but one of the most empowering things you can do is to talk to at least one other person you trust and seek professional support. If you are concerned about somebody you know, broach the subject with them and share this post if you think it might help.
Sally Sheen, MSc, FCIPD is a leadership coach, speaker and organisational development consultant. She speaks, coaches and runs workshops on personal resilience and works with organisations to develop resilient cultures.