Burn out! Sustaining Wellness in the Workplace
By: Toni Knight
A few years back, a work colleague told me the story of how she left her previous job. She was carried out of the office on an ambulance stretcher, she told me, never to return. Burnout had dramatically and completely claimed her.
I’ve never forgotten that story. It’s frightening. But I’ve found myself wondering more often how she got to that point of collapse.
How did she so completely ignore the worsening signs of deep exhaustion? What compelled her to keep going, regardless of the cost to her health? And didn’t anyone else notice and say something?
I didn’t ask her those questions back then but I wish I had. Because burnout continues to claim more of us and despite reams of information that warns us to clock out, get more rest and sleep, play and connect, and look after our health; we are simply not doing it.
So what gives? Why is such common sense so far from common practice?
The answer: it’s not easy to prioritise your wellbeing and wisely manage how you spend your precious energy when productivity is king. We live and work in challenging, unhealthy systems that pass the burdens of participation back to us. This means we must achieve highly despite harsh work conditions (including long work hours, exacting tasks and toxic environments), and shoulder multiple caring responsibilities, high living costs, red tape and the resulting health issues, with social pressure to smile through it all.
We struggle and do our best, but it’s hardly surprising that looking after ourselves can feel like we’re swimming against the productivity riptide.
Here are three challenges of ‘toxic productivity’ that can render you vulnerable to burnout if ignored:
As with my colleague who burned out, the signs, symptoms and risks of burnout are the ‘writing on the wall’ that we don’t see, because stress narrows attention to the details of our problems. And there are always problems.
Stress reduces us to reactivity, keeping us stuck in a state of feverishly putting out one spot fire after another, never tackling the pyromaniac that created them.
But when you step back from the wall, you can see the big writing there. Invest time regularly in taking stock of your burnout symptoms (fatigue, illness, emotional numbing or distress, and reduced performance), the contributors and especially the solutions.
We have an inbuilt ‘status quo’ bias. We ignore, then resist, the invitation to change.
But why tolerate the tasks, people, and situations that distress or numb you? Can you eliminate, delegate, or recreate tasks for greater efficiency and sanity? This is called ‘job crafting’.
Consider the conventional wisdom of the 80:20 rule. There is probably 20% of your work that is producing 80% of your results. Why are you doing the other 80%? Be clear about the return on the investment of your precious time, attention, and energy. Then be ruthless about stripping away the activities that don’t give back.
Or you’ll wastefully burn energy, like throwing one-hundred-dollar notes onto a bonfire, to keep warm.
Burnt out people resist job crafting. So work with a colleague to unlock opportunities. Consider the impact. Then trial your improvements.
You’ve probably heard the saying, ‘You manage what you measure’. Productivity is always measured – in customers, profits, stock prices, ROI. These numbers create urgency, competition and strategy meetings. And we play these numbers games together with gusto.
You can similarly create compelling systems to draw your attention and energy towards maintaining your wellness.
Without desirable, well-resourced habits and tracked results, what is merely ‘personally important’ falls off our priority list. Only when a crisis occurs (such as being carried out of the office on a stretcher) does our health register as a higher priority than the numbers we generate at work.
We can’t wait for someone in power to rescue us from burnout. We must create our own ‘healthy havens’, individually and collectively, starting with the strategies I have mentioned. Nurturing healthy personal spaces, within this megalithic system, means attending to the small, yet powerful ways we can support each other to thrive.
Small consistent efforts will maintain these oases of health and sanity, allowing you to realise your potential, sustainably.
It’s a no-brainer to invest energy in our flourishing, yet we are unaware of the forces within us and around us that pull our attention away from the obvious and important. But we can refocus. We can achieve and flourish.
The investment is reasonable, and the payoffs are more than worth it.