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The burnout monkey trap

Burnout is getting a lot of press in Belgium these days, given the new legislation stating that employers must do something about it. But what can they do? Isn’t burnout just another monkey trap that needs what Charlie Sheen would call a “blink to cure the brain”?

 

Having just subscribed for the Epsilon ForumPlus 2014 conference, my interest in burnout is rekindled (pun intended). I will be following 4 sessions on well-being at work, burnout and flow. I’m intrigued to see what speakers have to say about decreasing the risk of burnout in the workplace.

Recently, I was invited to complete a survey about burnout by a well-known actor in the Belgian HR sector. Questions like “Do you think there is more stress in the workplace today?” and “Do you think remote and mobile working increase stress in the workplace?” seemed odd to me. Maybe I missed the point, but isn’t stress something that is in people rather than the workplace? Or, as the American Institute of Stress says: “we create our own stress because of faulty perceptions you can learn to correct”.

 

Isn’t burnout just another monkey trap?

 

If you want to catch a monkey, but some food in a hole or a jar rooted to the floor. The monkey comes along to get the food and reaches in. When grabbing the food, the monkey forms a fist. And due to the size of its fist, the monkey cannot get its hand out of the jar again. The monkey will not let go of the food in the jar. He has trapped himself. The hunter waits for the monkey to die, or captures it.

Other blog posts have already talked about the analogy between the monkey trap and addiction. And if you think the monkey trap is just a myth, watch this video.

 

I’m just wondering: If burnout is like the monkey trap should we be blaming the forest, the jar or the food? Or should we be blaming the monkey? Should we be trying to change the organisation or conditions of work, putting a stop to flexi-time and homeworking and banning email after 6pm on a Friday? Of course, if the work conditions and employers are unlawful or simply unacceptable, that does need to be changed. But isn’t it more necessary to help our employees better understand why they seek to hold onto their “monkey food” through their burnout disposed behaviour and how to let go of it?

I’m not saying that this will be easy and I’m certainly not belittling burnout. I just don’t think that the organisational solution to stress and burnout reduction should be to take away anything that might cause harm to the people susceptible to burnout. It is easy to rehab when you are in rehab. But people will fall off the wagon when they are back in the real new world of work. Should employers change everything in the environment to suit dysfunctional employees (yes, I did just say that! Whoops!) ? Or should they help people to better deal with their own private monkey traps?

 

And while we are not on the subject: Is burnout a bad thing anyway? It costs companies money and productivity, and it’s no fun for the burnout “victim”, but it may also be a fantastic opportunity to replace an unhealthy flame with something more sustainable, satisfying and healthy for the employee. (More on that later)

 

So, what can the employer do?

 

My own expertise being limited to one person in a non-corporate environment and without a complete vision on the law, this short list of actions is no more than a first brainstorm for employers to consider:

  • Be willing to help
  • Look out for people who show unsustainable behaviour and attitudes towards work
  • Create better dialogue better dialogue between employer/employee; make the “person of confidence” worth confiding in
  • Educate those at risk on the impact of their behaviour and attitudes
  • Help employees to find structure and limits in their approach to work
  • If necessary, help employees to reorient towards more satisfying and fulfilling work

…hopefully, I will hear more ideas at the ForumPlus conference on the 6th November.

See you there?

 

 

5 Modern Day Stresses To Avoid At All Cost

We live in a fast-moving, ever-changing VUCA world. Stress, depression and burnout symptoms are more apparent than ever before. Our long lives are filled with all sorts of stress. Fortunately, the 5 things listed here are easy to avoid…

 

STAYING UP LATE LEADS TO SLEEP DEPRIVATION

I have a friend who is always staying up late (working). He is overweight, smoking and tired. A little more sleep would change his world.

The physiological effects of sleep deprivation are numerous, ranging from yawning and minor irritability to confusion and depression …passing by headache and obesity. How much sleep does an adult need?

  • According to the American National Sleep Foundation, a sufficient amount of sleep is defined as “a sleep duration that is followed by a spontaneous awakening and leaves one feeling refreshed and alert for the day”.
  • Simple and quick research suggests that 7-9 hours between the hours of 8pm and 8am is about right
  • In his book “The 4 Hour Body“, Tim Ferris says that these common sleep patterns are not always what is needed. The minimum effective dose of sleep is what gives us enough REM sleep and physical rest over a 24 hour period. It really doesn’t matter if you get that in one go or in several smaller sleeps (regular polyphasic sleep or just an occasional good old fashioned siesta).
  • A 1 hour reduction in sleep on one night (compared to your average) is all it takes to creep into the effects of deprivation.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

As a general rule, if you are wondering if you sleep enough, you probably don’t.

  • Tip number 1 = go to bed just a little bit earlier 🙂
  • Tip number 2 = turn off your alarm when you can. Some highly productive people set their alarms even when they don’t need to, as if it were a sin to sleep in. Don’t. Let your body wake you up when it wants to.
  • Tip number 3 = try a mini-siesta. If you have 10 minutes during the day, jump in bed. If you are at work, nip out from the office to your car, or just put your head on your desk for 10 minutes. Even if you don’t sleep, its better than nothing.

 

 

DANGEROUS MULTI-TASKING

Although productive and efficient people consider multi-tasking to be a strength, the risks of today’s most classic multi-tasked tasks are enormous:

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Tip number 1 = Try doing one thing at a time for just one day and see how it goes.
  • Tip number 2 = The next time you have to chop vegetables or vacuum the house, try a little mindfulness. Concentrate fully on what you are doing, instead of rushing to get to the next job. And don’t listen to music for once. Even if you think that’s boring, focus on the movements and actions you are actually doing.

 

 

MINI-FOCUS ON MINI-SCREENS (ALL DAY LONG)

The use of smartphones continues to rise at a crazy rate:

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

If you, like me, love your smartphone, follow these eye-gonomics tips from The Vision Council:

  • Tip number 1 = Take regular breaks
  • Tip number 2 = Maintain an appropriate distance
  • Tip number 3 = Remember to blink!

 

 

TOO MUCH TV If you don’t use a smartphone or computer all day, you might feel like its OK to watch as much TV as you do. But how much are you watching? According to AC Nielsen, the average Americans watches 4 hours a day. That’s 1460 hours a year. And if you start at 16 years old and live to 80, that’s 11 years over a life time ! And according to a study by the Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) referenced in the Independent, the average Brit is watching more TV than ever.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • If you watch TV every night, make a promise that for just one night this week you will do something else. Read a book, play a game or just go to bed.
  • Watch a movie. Pick a short one, but watch a DVD, turn on the TV just before a film starts or watch something you have recorded. Anything to be sure there is a finite start and end time.
  • Stop watching TV series that never end. If you are “on” season 6, this is a good sign it is going nowhere!

 

 

SUPERSIZING IMPLIES STRESS AND “EXTRA WEIGHT”

Food. Houses. Cars. Special offers. We always seem to supersize our purchases. I think this is a modern-day sickness, based on our ever-evolving obsession with growth and instant gratification.

In the comedy-drama-documentary “Supersize Me” (2004) Morgan Spurlock looked at the impact of this phenomenon by only eating McDonalds for one month. No surprises for guessing the result: Yep – fatty fast food leads to fatty slow body!

Supersizing your house might seem like a great way to have more space, but it doesn’t last long. Before you know it you are filling every space with more and more stuff you don’t need. This blog from the New York Times discusses how accumulating things doesn’t make you happy.

 

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Tip number 1 = Don’t take the extra size up because you can. The marketeers know that by offering more for a relatively lower price, you are more likely to buy. But 3 for the price of 2 doesn’t mean you needed the extra one.
  • Tip number 2 = Take some time to reassess what is essential for you. What is the 20% of your house that you are most spending time in and why do you need the other 80% ? For some good ideas, check out this wiki post on how to downsize your home.
  • Tip number 3 = Eat more slowly. How many chips do you actually need to eat to be full up?

 

 

That’s it. Just stop it. Get some sleep, stop multi-tasking, turn off the screens and stay small. Easy!

 

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Burnout: Causes, Symptoms and Positive Action

Burnout is the name given for the “breakdown” associated with the experience of long-term exhaustion and diminished interest. It can be considered as the opposite of “flow” and can include a number of different symptoms, although all are related to the temporal inability to manage life properly and a state of extreme exhaustion and dissatisfaction with the status-quo. This post is the result of my own research on and experience with the topic. It gives further information about the meaning of burnout, how to recognise it in yourself and others and what to do about it. There are 4 sections:

  • “Burnout can happen to anyone, for different reasons”
  • “Burnout symptoms differ for everyone”
  • “Immediate action is required”
  • “Burnout is an investment in a brighter future”

 

BURNOUT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE, FOR DIFFERENT REASONS

The most obvious assumption about burnout is that you have to work really hard to get it. Although it may be true that too much hard work (A) leads to burnout (B) this does not imply that (B) must be caused by (A) or that (A) necessarily leads to (B). Like other forms of stress (and potentially depression) the causes of burnout are different for each person, but there are some common factors:

  • Over-focussing on one area of life (work, a specific project, building a house, making babies…) at the expense of others (and at the expense of “balance”) may lead to burnout
  • People who push themselves too much for their own resources, competences and/or preferences (in whatever domain) are more likely to suffer burnout
  • Perfectionism and “other-oriented” people may be particularly prone to burnout as they feel they “must” achieve everything perfectly in order to be “acceptable”
  • Extreme engagement and passion for a project, subject or job at the expense of other things can end in burnout
  • Non-consideration of the connection between specific goals you are working on and their link to personal values, vision and belief may lead to burnout. Being extremely productive does not mean you are working in-line with the “real you”.
  • Read here for other causes of burnout or have a look at this burnout risk self-test and some ideas from mindtools.com on avoiding burnout.

 

Re-reading this list, the “thin-red-line” that holds it all together seems to me to be the idea of “getting lost” in something, losing work-life balance or the feeling of “wholeness” and general life-satisfaction.

 

BURNOUT SYMPTOMS DIFFER FOR EVERYONE

Not everyone reacts to burnout in the same way, but there is of course a standard definition of burnout and a known set of symptoms (read “How to recognise when you are on the road to burnout“). You shouldn’t superficially compare burnout symptoms between different people because each person is individual. But if you suffer from a few of the following symptoms, that should be enough to get you thinking about the possibility of burnout. Hypochondriacs aside, if you’re asking if you’re having a burnout, you probably are or will do soon. Symptoms include:

  • Constant sadness that doesn’t seem linked to any one particular cause
  • Lack of inspiration or sudden disillusionment for the work you had previously been doing with lots of motivation and effort. You can read more about this in the introduction to burnout from mindtools.com.
  • Inability to “get started” on things. This could range from a kind of apathy for “life in general” to one specific moment of literally not being able to get out of your car to go and visit the client you just arrived at.
  • Feeling that things will never get better or that the work will never be done
  • Crying regularly, for “no reason”
  • Finding no pleasure in everyday activities, from spending time with family, to sport or hobbies
  • Anger, sarcasm and other obtuse behaviours
  • Sleeping or eating differently, whether it be 14 hours of sleep a day or 4, loss of appetite or binging
  • Other physical symptoms like headache, anxious heart palpitations, fatigue or dizziness

 

IMMEDIATE ACTION IS REQUIRED

It would be wrong of me to post this piece without underlining the importance of medical attention or the fact that I am not a doctor. If you think you yourself are suffering from burnout, get help. In addition to medical support, here is my list of things to do to help deal with (and accept!) burnout:

  • Stop working. Turn it all off. This is probably the hardest first step for people suffering from burnout. Daring to stop is tough. Many people suffer from “Information Deprivation Disorder“. Believing the world will carry on without you and you’ll be OK is even tougher. If you work for yourself, add to that the false idea that no-one will ever hire you again and you are set to keep on working even when all the signs say stop. You need a leap of faith to make this first step, or an intervention from someone else, or a complete breakdown or putting your back out or…. But it has to happen. Stop.
  • Try and keep things in perspective. This is tough, because prior to burnout you didn’t keep things in perspective and at the start of burnout you just may be crying, miserable and lost. Good “perspective strategies” include speaking with different people you trust and love, writing down any little realisations you might have and a whole lot of trust. If you can remember that human beings tend to live to nearly 100 these days, you might be able to realise that this is only one point in time and things will change, one way or another. As George Harrisson sang: “All things must pass.
  • Do things that please you. This is a tough one. If you are feeling depressed and someone says “Do things that please you” it is likely you won’t have any idea what to do. Nothing pleases you! But if you can think of just one little thing you wanted to do at some point, but didn’t (because you we’re doing too much or working too hard) now is the time to do it. Go surfing. Play your guitar. Read that novel. Get a massage. Watch a movie at 1pm while the kids are out. Lie on the grass and walk in the snow. Not everything needs to have a reason and these previously seemingly irrelevant things that don’t advance your project or career need to have their space too. Start now.
  • …but don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water. If you are burnt-out, you might get to thinking its a good idea to quit your wife, your job, your kids or sell the house. Don’t. Those are big decisions that need to be made with good mental health. Although you might get the idea that the causes of your burnout are all interlinked and therefore one major change will affect everything else, this doesn’t mean that the results will be positive and you are certainly in no state (yet) to implement massive life changes. Slow down!
  • Sleep if you need to. Although at some point you will have to “get up and get on with your life” don’t be too tough on yourself. If you feel you need to sleep, do it. You are exhausted from the rhythm of your life to-date. Take the time to get your breath back.
  • Move a little. Get out for a walk or do sport. Before burnout you were probably doing the same things in the same way all the time. Now you are taking a break from that. Although you may well spend a fair bit of time sleeping or doing nothing, just getting outside for a little fresh air and gentle movement can make a massive difference to your physical state and your mood.
  • Focus on little wins. Going for one little walk or cooking a nice dinner or cleaning a cupboard or whatever you might fancy, success in doing something small is a wonderful thing. But keep it small! Then relax again. One thing at a time. This advice is the same for getting back to work, which we’ll get to in a minute…
  • Find a way to express yourself on the subject. In a certain way, burnout can be seen as the previous non-expression of some part of you that now forces itself to be heard. (If you don’t understand what I mean, read “I think therefore I am. Not.“) This could be any facet of your ego/personality, but whatever it is, it refuses to lay down and let the intense workaholic one-track mind takeover anymore. You need to give that part of you some space. In the film “The Beaver” with Mel Gibson, the main character Walter Black (who is suffering from depression) manages to express another previously-silent “brighter” side of himself by wearing and speaking through a puppet. Although this film is not a lesson in how to deal effectively with burnout and depression, Gibson’s character at first finds a way to say what is on his mind and share with his family and friends. There is no shame in burnout and no reason not to share.
  • Don’t think people are judging you. Mostly, they are not. People understand. And if you are an engaged, highly motivated passionate worker like many burn-out sufferers are, chances are that some of the people you hang around with will have had their own experience with burnout. As for everyone who judges you and thinks bad of you for your burnout: It will be hard to do, but you have to let these people go. They are not helping you and they don’t love you.
  • Get advice, even from non-experts. Don’t try and do everything alone. Many other people have already lived what you arriving during burnout and there are plenty of experts out there, from medical professionals to life-coaches. But there are also friends and family, business acquaintances and random strangers. They might have something useful to say, something that enlightens you a little to your situation, style or options. If you trust these people, why not listen to what they have to say? And let’s face it: If you burnt out already all by yourself, you could probably use a little help from someone else.

 

For more ideas and resources, check out this very complete page from mindtools.com about recovering from burnout. It includes ideas about changing jobs and other things i have also written on like doing a SWOT analysis and creating strategic action.

 

BURNOUT IS AN INVESTMENT IN A BRIGHTER FUTURE

When you buy a nice new car, you tend to look after it. You get it serviced and you keep it clean, topped up on all the right fuels and oils and filters. It runs for years and you continue to love it. If you don’t service it and follow the maintenance instructions, one day you find yourself stuck on the side of the motorway, loaded down with bags and screaming children, no longer able to go on holiday and wishing you had done it differently.

It is easy to go through life at 120km/hour. When you are new to a job, young, fit or successful and healthy it’s easy to give 150%. When you can see the results that that gives and you want to grow even more, it’s easy to just keep going. But if you don’t sharpen the saw and maintain yourself, you will eventually breakdown. With a little luck you will have a burnout. If you’re unlucky, you’ll have a heart attack. Even a Ferrari needs to stop moving from time-to-time.

When you have a burnout, it might feel like the end of the world. its difficult to imagine that things will get better, but actually burnout is the start of something new and better. When you are done with the “immediate actions” noted above, you will start to reflect on what needs to change and how you can get better and stay sharp in the future. The following list of ideas may help you get back to “work” in a healthy and sustainable way:

  • Realise that life is an opportunity to express different sides of yourself, not just one. Even if you are the CEO of the biggest company in the world and you made it all yourself, you are still a father, musician, husband, lover, runner, writer, fun person etc etc as well. Those sides of you need to have room to breathe and flourish. When you are feeling a little better from your burnout, sit down and list the different things you like to do and be and how you will help them to have more space.
  • Make a schedule for a balanced life. At work, you plan time for the activities and projects that have the most importance. That is what they teach you in leadership courses and management classes. The same must be true for “post-burnout you”. If you think it is important for your physical and mental health to do some sport, plan it. If you wish you spent more time eating dinner with the family, plan it. And on the work front, if you hate admin and can only stand to do it one day a week, plan for it one day a week.
  • Focus on little wins at the start. If you go back to work at 150% trying to “fix all the mess you made” you are going about things in the wrong way. Focus on small actions that show small successes and move you in the right direction. If, for example, you find yourself faced with an overflowing inbox, focus for 1 hour on just seeing what is in there. Don’t try and answer or deal with everything, just assess the contents. When that is done, stop. Do something else. Relax again. Even the biggest mountains in the world can be climbed in little steps. Don’t fall back into the old obsessive behaviours from the start…
  • Get a post-burnout buddy. This could be a formal coach or just a good friend. But you need someone to help keep you stay on track. Burnout happens a lot to people who think they are indestructible entrepreneurial self-starters who can do and be anything they want. If you already burnt-out you know that this is not the case. To avoid the risk of just doing it again, find someone with whom you can discuss your plans and promises and who can call you up from time-to-time to see how you are doing.

 

What is important to remember with everything here is that without some realisation and tools, left to your own devices, you burnt out. Now you had the realisation, it is important to implement some new tools, until they turn into new habits…

 

I hope this post helped. Maybe you will realise that you need to take action now for the future, maybe you know someone who is having a burnout and this will help you help them, or maybe you can think about preventative actions for your own organisation.

If you have an experience to share or a reply to any of these ideas, please comment.

 

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