The Working Women's Guide To... Avoiding Burnout
The Working Women's Guide To... Avoiding Burnout
Challenge and change are part and parcel of any modern woman’s career path. Our Working Women’s Guides are a series of practical, expert-led advice pieces that will help you navigate through the difficult times and empower you to thrive in an ever-evolving landscape. In the second of the series we explore how to be indispensable at work while also avoiding burnout...

Type ‘lockdown burnout’ into Google and almost 1.7million results come back at you. That’s a lot of people typing and talking about it. But as working from home becomes ever more commonplace, how do we stop it happening? 

 “Burnout is a form of addiction,” says behaviour change specialist Dr Heather McKee, and no one is immune. McKee knows. She found herself in hospital when her burnout spiralled out of control while working in academia. “The whole premise of healthy psychology is that the mind and body aren’t separate,” she explains. “The problem is, when we are in that burnout zone, there is a disconnect and we only think from the head up, ignoring what the body is saying.”

 Last year the World Health Organisation actually classified burnout as an official medical disorder. But it was first recognised as a condition by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s. He defined it as “a state of mental exhaustion caused by one’s professional life”.

 Exhaustion sounds severe, doesn’t it? But it’s easier to get there than you might first think; especially if your passion for what you do spills over into overwork. Right now, people who never thought they would experience burnout are suddenly finding themselves teetering on the brink. Lockdown has blurred the boundaries of the working day and we are no longer sure when to turn off.

McKee, who has been running webinars from her lockdown office (aka her spare room) has had companies coming to her worried about their staff – they simply aren’t taking enough holidays. “I can understand that a lot of people are worried about their jobs and trying to prove themselves, but it’s unsustainable.” She estimates that she has reached almost 10,000 tired people in just six months. 

The Stages of Burnout

The University of Wisconsin breaks burnout down into five stages – the honeymoon, balancing act, chronic symptoms, crisis and enmeshment. The hope being that if you do make it to stage 5 (and no one wants that), you can still reverse back down the ladder again. 

But prevention through self-care is more advisable. To do this, you first need to identify the initial signs that you personally display. These are the first red flags of burnout. Maybe you are eating more unhealthy foods, consuming more caffeine, feeling more isolated than usual or prioritising your work over your personal life. Start tracking anything you think is relevant. 

 Then you need to identify your motivation – or what reward you are looking for from these behaviours and dig into it. Are you searching for a sense of accomplishment or is it a distraction because you haven’t got anything else to do? 

“Burnout behaviours are a habit,” says McKee, “and the best way to break any habit is to imagine it as a tangled knot. You can’t just pull it apart straight away. You have to approach it in small steps instead.” 

"Lockdown has blurred the boundaries of the working day and we are no longer sure when to turn off."

“You’ve got a cue, a trigger, a behaviour and a reward,” she explains. “With a burnout behaviour for example you might notice you don’t have any plans that evening, so that’s the cue. The trigger is to actually engage and keep working, because that will make me feel more fulfilled.”

Untying Your Knots

Not sure what your trigger and reward is? Dr McKee often gets her clients to do a temptation tracker to record when they are tempted into bad behaviours, with details covering the time of day, the time of week and the rationale behind it.

One trigger can be a fear of saying no. If you find yourself saying yes, all the time at work, examine what you are trying to achieve. Every time you say yes when you don’t want to, you are compromising on something that’s important to you. 

Still don’t want to say no? Then try this. “I would like to fully commit to this, but it just isn’t the right time for me.” People will respect your answer and you. 

Another trigger can be environment. With most of us WFH, it’s not unusual to work from your kitchen table or leave your papers out at the end of the day. If you remove all your work stuff from your living space, you remove your trigger. 

“Think about what is causing you to re-engage with work after hours,” says McKee. “One of these things is probably your phone, as it is a micro-environment.” McKee puts hers in shutdown mode after a certain time of day. She also recommends not opening work emails once you’ve clocked off and having something to do at 6pm. A daily online class – be it in yoga or mindfulness – can be a good option.

Finding a Healthier Reward System

If you’ve reached this point, you are now on your way to breaking your habit loop, and it’s time to create new habits, which are rewarding and fun. This will release dopamine in your brain, making it more likely you will engage with them in the future.

“As women a lot of our self-worth is caught up in achievement,” explains McKee. “We are rewarded for that – we reward each other, and we reward ourselves. ‘You work so hard’ and ‘you are so busy’ become praise. It can be difficult to step away from that and believe that you can build that feeling outside of work.” 

She believes a joy list, built around what you enjoy outside work, can help. “It can be a walk in the woods, or a swim in the sea or listening to a nice piece of music or meeting with a friend or walking your dog or washing your car. Start to look at what those joyful pursuits can be in your life. You have to look at your life like a project and set yourself up in a way that is going to be the most supportive for you.”

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