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Well, I'm a bit put out to be honest. Arianna Huffington has just released her book "Thrive" in which she looks at how burnout is all too common in our busy, driven western world. She looks at how we need to address this through improving working practices and culturally changing the work hard, play hard (keel over) mentality. So, having beaten me to having a #1best seller on this subject (wink, wink). I thought I'd write a little. ole blog and add my two pennies.
Just like Arianna, I've suffered from burnout twice in my life during my mid 20s and early 30s and I can tell you, it's no fun.
Working in teaching and the charity sector there are often scarce resources and staff to support you. (I'm sure there are people in the private sector who'd say the same. I'm just giving you my experience.) Perfectionist standards and a desire to make a difference in people's lives led me to work harder and harder in order to give as much as I could to both roles.
What did I get in return? Exhaustion, feelings of never being good enough, taking on too much for one person with no one to delegate to and then beating myself up again for not coming up to scratch.
In both cases it was expected that I do ridiculously long days. No one said it. In fact you'd be told not to do it to your face. But the demands of the job dictated that to do it well you would have to do double the 37 hours you were paid for. The managers in all of the positions above me were also working to the point of falling down, so to do less would appear lazy!
I know I wasn't down the pit or working the docks, but this complete imbalance of giving my all to my job was draining the joy and passion out of the work that I loved. So much so that in both cases I came to a point of complete exhaustion where I had to decide if I would carry on in the vain hope things would improve. (NB: This was pre social media and only the start of email days too!)
These stats suggest there is an epidemic in the UK. According to the HSE, "the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2013/14 was 487 000 cases (39%) out of a total of 1 241 000 cases for all work-related illnesses." and they will just be the reported ones! Admitting to stress or depression is still seen as a real weakness in our culture, despite the strength being admitting it and seeking help.(Click on the link above for the full report)
Now, I believe that we should have work that brings at least satisfaction, at best joy. All of my working life has been involved in helping other people realise this. As I am a big believer in making the change you want to see happen, in both cases I chose to make a plan and take a change in direction. So, I did and I will never regret it as all of these experiences have taught me a lot about me and the world we live in.
So, don't see burnout as all bad if it happens to you. Like anything bad in life there can be a positive. It makes you take a good, hard look at your life and assess what is working and what isn't. Then more importantly you can make changes to enjoy the life you want with the work that you want. Arianna found herself on the floor with a cut on her head. I found myself, crying too many times in the staff toilets and dreading waking up in the morning. In both cases there were sure signs that change was needed.
However ironically, I also was carrying a badge of honour, one I was reluctant to let go of. One that was heralded and rewarded for being conscientious in the extreme. One that was presented as the way to do the job well to more junior members of staff and I remember being put out and feeling hard done by, if there were colleagues who did just do the paid hours and then went home. They must have been doing a bad job! Right?
Wrong. Having a work life balance is a word that is bandied about and used a lot in the coaching world, but it is so important to living a full life, as opposed to a busy life. A person who doesn't bank all their self esteem and achievement in their career is more likely to have a full life. If you are working so hard that you burnout, it is clear that it will be at a cost to other areas of your life, be it relationships or health etc.
I believe a growing number of women who are tired of this burnout culture are making a silent, but important, protest about the epidemic we are living in by leaving the employed world to become self employed and have the freedom, choice and flexibility they need to enjoy working and family life in a more balanced way.
I know this because I have done it, and I meet many of them in wonderful local and on line networks, where we share our hopes, dreams, stresses and strains. They aren't taking the easy option, as it is hard work, but more and more of us are following our passions and making it our purpose, which makes work feel less like work and more of a mission.
Does the change have to be that dramatic or can we do something to improve working life in employment too? I believe there are some key principles to apply.
So, whether you are experiencing burnout, have experienced it or want to avoid it, feel free to learn from the 5 lessons I have learnt below.
1. Change your 'badge of honour' - what does success mean to you?
Now, having learnt from the burnouts I've experienced, and just swerved a third, my 'badge of honour' isn't one that equates to the number of hours I'm working or the level of status I have in the work that I do. It isn't a big sign saying 'Burnout here' I've worked so hard! Aren't I good?
Stop feeding the fear that if you don't work 'til you drop you aren't good enough.
My new badge says, 'Success is feeling calm and content in all that I do. Success is the freedom to choose.' If I'm not feeling calm and content then I stop, look at what I'm doing and decide if I should carry on doing it, do I need to think about it differently or not do it at all. Simple.
2. Stop being busy and start feeling full.
It was a Wednesday. Up at 6am sort breakfast, shower,kids ready for after school club. Drop them off. One crying, complaining of stomach ache. Race 20 miles to work. Deal with 25 different issues. No lunch, no time. Feel faint. Banana in the car. Race back to pick up, stuck in traffic, nearly late. 6pm pick up crying, hungry children. Take home. Feed. Read, spellings in the bath! Kids in bed by 8.30pm. Cook and feed myself and husband. Finish work that needs to be done by tomorrow. Iron new uniform for morning. Put another load on and hang out. Sort paperwork in school bag. Finally do Thank you cards for the birthday presents daughter got, a month late. Watch an hour of dross to feel human. Bed by midnight Repeat, repeat, repeat.... This was me a year ago. On the road to another burnout?? Possibly, but didn't go there as I knew I'd had enough of busy and want full.
Just reading that makes me feel stressed. But there is choice in this. Even if it is simply in the way you think about it.
Since coaching entered my life I now decide very clearly what is going to fill my week. If it doesn't help me feel calm and confident, then I don't do it. I'm still working on not feeling guilty when I say no to certain things or people, but the bottom line is I will be no use to anyone if I burnout, so controlling how I am filling my time is an important step in avoiding burnout. It doesn't mean I don't stretch myself or feel fear in taking action in a new area ( I jumped off a building a few weeks ago for heaven's sake!), but I need to know that it will pay off by moving me closer to where I want to be in the long run.
Remember you don't manage time. You manage YOU.
3. Does your work define you?
If all you do is work, there is no room left to feed your self esteem with other achievements. If you then face a situation where you can't work or work isn't fulfilling you, you feel empty, unworthy, unsuccessful. I believe doing something you love, doing it well and doing it conscientiously are important to having satisfaction in the workplace, but if it is at the exclusion of everything and everyone else is it really worth it? Whilst, you are working your fingers to the bone how are your relationships with your family, your friends, even your colleagues? Have you any time to just relax and think? Is it helping your creativity and passion for what you do?
Feed other parts of your self esteem as well. What did you like doing as a kid? Take it up as a hobby. Are you taking care of your health and well being? When was the last time you exercised? Had a health check?
How often do you hear of people being diagnosed with cancer making radical changes to their lives? Why wait for something that awful. Start small, start today.
4. How SMART are you? Really?
If I'm dead honest I wasn't very SMART in my 20s working life. I was very much demand led in that whoever or whatever shouted loudest got my attention. All for the right reasons and with love in my heart, but I wasn't being clear enough on what was a priority, which meant everything felt urgent. I wasn't making space for much else either. Bingo, burnout. So I've learnt from that.
Be SMART. The clearer you are in what you want and need in your whole life and then plan time in to achieve it in a realistic way, the calmer and more content you will feel about how busy you are.
Now, I have a really full week, but by and large I feel excited by how full it is because it is taking me closer and closer to the things I want in my life. Yes, there are some things that just need doing like the never ending washing pile or tidying up after the kids, but if I am SMART about how I work this into my week I can see how doing these things brings me closer to my big goals, so they don't feel so hard or I can get help when I need it or create ways of the family sharing the load that are more positive.
The more specific we can be about what we need in and out of work, the more life can be lived to its fullest.
5. Why are you working so hard?
Simon Sinek says, "When we know Why we do what we do, everything falls into place. When we don't know Why we do what we do, we have to push things into place."
Is it for the money? The status? The appreciation of others? The freedom? The "stuff"? Holidays? Nice car? Bigger house? Your own self esteem? Shirt on your back? Loaf of bread?
Really, take a hard look at the way you are working. What is it bringing into your life? Then decide whether the 'pain' it might be bringing you is worth the 'pleasures' mentioned above. Everyone will have different things that are important to them, but really think about what having it "all" means to you and what costs might there be. Are you willing to pay that cost? What are your need? Are they being met by wants?
If I start to feel I'm working in a way that is chaotic or unfocused or an area of my life is suffering from too much priority in another area, I come back to the question with which I always start, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?"
I know I've asked myself this at key points in the past. Consequently, I look to do what Arianna calls "Thrive", instead of what our culture dictates, which is to "Strive".
Do you want to try to do it differently with me?
Are there any changes you can make today to move from busy to full? From overloaded to SMART? From pain to more consistent pleasure? From striving to thriving?
Let me know how you are getting on in the comments below.