Understanding Burnout: Unraveling the threads of burnout, distinguishing it from depression, and exploring its multifaceted impact on our lives.
Over the past 11 months, I have interviewed numerous guests for the Decode Your Burnout podcast. You may have listened in on these conversations, but their essence bares repeating. Given the scope of this project, I put together a six-part series, the first of which is about understanding the phenomenon known as “burnout.”
Our journey through the realm of burnout began with a simple question: What exactly is burnout, and how does it differ from other forms of mental and emotional fatigue? As we listened to the profound insights shared by our esteemed guests, we discovered that burnout is not just a personal crisis but a societal one, calling for a deeper understanding and more nuanced conversation.
Each episode has been a piece of the puzzle, contributing to a comprehensive picture of burnout. Our panels on absenteeism, productivity, and morale offered real-life anecdotes and strategies to combat the silent epidemic that burnout has become in the workplace.
As we peel back the layers of burnout in this series, we will illuminate the signs that often go unnoticed, the prevention strategies that can be life-changing, and the recovery paths that lead to renewed passion and purpose.
Whether you’re a long-time listener or new to our community, this series is your invitation to revisit these powerful episodes. Let them be your guide as you navigate the challenges of burnout, armed with the knowledge and tools to not only survive but thrive.
The Many Faces of Burnout
When I created the Decode Your Burnout podcast, I did so because I wanted the world to understand that people burn out for different reasons. While we have external circumstances that contribute to our chronic stress levels, it’s also true that our personalities, our beliefs, and our coping are large contributors to how we feel at work. I say this not to point the finger in blame. It is NOT your fault if you’re burned out. Instead, it is meant to be empowering because those are the exact factors over which you have control. With this notion in mind, each guest brings a unique perspective, shedding light on the multifaceted nature of this condition.
How Moments of Wonder Can Transform Your Burnout
In the episode “From Awful to Awe: How Moments of Wonder Can Transform Your Burnout,” Dr. Amster delves into the unexpected remedy of awe to combat burnout.
At first glance, awe might seem like a luxury, reserved for extraordinary circumstances and exceptional individuals. Yet, Dr. Amster demystifies this notion, revealing how awe is not just accessible but essential for everyone. His approach pivots on the idea that awe can reset our nervous system, offering a powerful antidote to the numbing effects of burnout.
Dr. Amster dispels common myths, including the belief that awe is the sole province of the extraordinary. He elucidates that awe doesn’t necessitate grandeur or rarity. Instead, it can be found in the simplicity of everyday life – in a child’s laughter, the intricate pattern of a leaf, or the serene stillness of a morning. This accessibility of awe makes it a practical tool in our arsenal against burnout.
Another misconception Dr. Amster addresses is the fleeting nature of awe. Contrary to the belief that awe is a transient emotional high with no lasting impact, he underscores its profound and enduring effects on our nervous system. Awe, he explains, has the capacity to decrease anxiety, depression, and symptoms of burnout. It’s not a mere ephemeral experience but a state that can lead to lasting psychological benefits.
Dr. Amster introduces a simple yet powerful method to harness the benefits of awe: the ‘AWE’ practice.
‘A’ for attention – directing our focus to something we appreciate.
‘W’ stands for wait, a mindful pause to marinate in the moment.
‘E’ is for exhale, stimulating the vagus nerve, which plays a crucial role in our parasympathetic nervous system.
This practice encourages an expansion of our experiences, allowing them to become part of our being.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of awe is its contagious nature. Sharing our experiences of awe can inspire similar feelings in others, creating a ripple effect of positive emotional states. This communal aspect of awe underscores its potential as a tool not just for individual well-being but also for fostering collective resilience.
Dr. Amster’s conversation with us illuminates a path out of the burnout maze – a path paved with the simple, yet profound moments of awe that life generously offers. His insights challenge us to shift our focus from the overwhelming to the awe-inspiring, reminding us that the antidote to our burnout may lie in the very world we often overlook.
Burnout vs. Depression
As a single mother living on welfare in subsidized housing, Wendy Nickerson faced immense challenges that led to her burnout. Her experience is a testament to the fact that burnout is not a condition reserved for the overambitious or the workaholic; it can touch anyone who is stretched too thin, regardless of their life circumstances.
One of the most critical distinctions Nickerson draws is between burnout and depression. While often conflated, she clarifies that these are distinct states. Burnout, as she describes, is akin to a system shutdown – where the immune and digestive systems are among the first to bear the brunt. It’s a state of complete exhaustion, not just mental or emotional, but physical as well.
Depression, on the other hand, relates more closely to being off-course from one’s mission in life and a depletion of serotonin levels. Nickerson’s insight here is crucial – understanding this distinction can lead to more effective approaches in addressing each condition.
Nickerson also delves into the stigma and shame often associated with burnout. She addresses the internal dialogue that many face: feelings of inadequacy, the fear of not being good enough, or strong enough. By sharing her journey, she shines a light on these often-unspoken aspects of burnout, offering solace and understanding to those who might be silently struggling.
Her approach to overcoming burnout involves a holistic blend of reducing workloads, setting boundaries (especially in work-from-home scenarios), and, importantly, finding spiritual meaning. It’s this latter point that resonates deeply – the idea that aligning with our purpose for being here on earth can be both a preventive and curative measure against burnout.
Nickerson’s contribution to the discourse on burnout is a powerful reminder that the journey to recovery is as much about self-compassion and understanding as it is about practical steps and strategies. Her story encourages listeners to recognize the signs of burnout early and to approach it with a mind, body, and spirit perspective.
Decoding Burnout Through Personal Development
Arel Moodie came onto the show to talk about the interplay between Adult Development Theory and burnout. He began by mapping out the stages of adult development and how they intersect with the three distinct burnout personalities. Each stage of development, as he explains, comes with its own set of strengths, motivators, and, crucially, limiting beliefs and fears.
For instance, in the Self-centric stage, while strengths like self-awareness and survival instincts are prominent, you may also grapple with fears like the loss of control and abandonment. In the Group-centric stage, the strengths of empathy and group identity coexist with fears of isolation and group conflict.
This nuanced understanding of adult development stages provides a lens to view burnout not just as a state of exhaustion, but as a complex interplay of personal growth, fears, and beliefs. It highlights the importance of self-awareness in recognizing and addressing burnout. Understanding where one stands in their development journey can be pivotal in identifying the best strategies to combat burnout.
Moodie’s discussion is particularly insightful when it comes to the motivators at each stage. For example, in the Skill-centric stage, mastery and learning are key motivators, while in the Achiever stage, the drive comes from recognition and success. Recognizing these motivators can be crucial in understanding why we might be pushing ourselves towards burnout and how to realign our efforts more healthily.
In essence, Moodie’s episode offers a roadmap to navigate burnout by understanding our development stage and corresponding personality type. This approach empowers listeners to not only tackle burnout but also to emerge as more resilient, self-aware individuals. It’s a call to embrace personal growth as a tool for both preventing and recovering from burnout.
Addressing Burnout in the Workplace
Several of the episodes I shared this year were from panel discussions I held with five other female burnout experts. We call ourselves, The Burnout Panel. Together, we tackle burnout and related issues from our different perspectives and backgrounds.
The first in the series of these joint episodes was about absenteeism, which is how burnout sometimes shows up in the workplace. Below are some key strategies for combating burnout-related absenteeism.
- Enhancing Employee Engagement: A crucial strategy discussed was the enhancement of employee engagement. This involves setting clear expectations, encouraging open feedback, and recognizing employee contributions. A positive workplace culture, where employees feel valued and have opportunities for growth, can significantly reduce the likelihood of burnout.
- Understanding the Root Causes: It’s essential to identify the underlying causes of burnout-related absenteeism. This means looking beyond the surface and understanding the individual and organizational factors contributing to employee burnout.
- Cultural Reformation: The role of organizational culture in either exacerbating or alleviating burnout was highlighted. Cultivating a culture that prioritizes employee well-being and addresses the root causes of burnout is key to reducing absenteeism.
- Tailoring Solutions to Root Causes: Solutions to burnout should be as varied as its causes. This could include professional development opportunities, enhancing wellness programs, or providing more targeted support for chronic stress.
- Proactive Support and Extended Breaks: Offering extended breaks and comprehensive support systems, such as therapy or coaching, can provide employees with the necessary resources to manage and recover from burnout.
- Building Trust and Connection: Addressing issues of disconnection and lack of trust within the organization is critical. Creating a work environment where employees feel connected and trusted can help mitigate the factors that lead to absenteeism.
In short, what we are saying is that it’s crucial to take a proactive and comprehensive approach in addressing burnout-related absenteeism. While these strategies are helpful, integrating can be even more powerful, helping organizations create a more supportive and resilient workplace, where burnout is not just managed but actively prevented.
Balancing Productivity and Well-being
The Burnout Panel discusses how to sustain high performance in the workplace while safeguarding employee well-being. Here are the strategies shared during that conversation:
- Creating Distraction-Free Environments: A key strategy discussed was the importance of allowing employees distraction-free periods. This involves minimizing interruptions and enabling a work environment that reduces cognitive overload. Such an approach allows employees to focus on important tasks without the constant stress of multitasking and digital distractions.
- Emphasizing the Importance of Breaks: The panel underscored the necessity of regular breaks to maintain productivity. Understanding the natural rhythms of work, such as the ultradian cycle, can help in scheduling effective work-break patterns. Encouraging employees to truly disconnect during their time off, including evenings and weekends, is crucial for long-term productivity.
- Stress Management and Flow State: Tackling unresolved stress and creating conditions for the flow state were highlighted as critical for productivity. By addressing sources of stress and designing work that aligns with employees’ skills and challenges, organizations can help individuals enter a state of flow, where they are fully immersed and engaged in their tasks.
- Reframing Organizational Mindsets: The panel discussed the need for organizations to adapt to contemporary work environments, especially in the post-pandemic era. This involves recognizing that outdated standards of productivity may no longer apply and that rest and downtime are essential components of a productive work life.
- Leadership’s Role in Stress Management: A crucial aspect brought to light was the influence of leadership on employee stress and productivity. Leaders are encouraged to model stress management techniques and create an environment where employees feel supported in managing their own stress levels.
- Fostering Psychological Safety and Connection: The panel also touched upon the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Creating an environment where employees feel secure and connected can significantly enhance productivity by reducing the mental and emotional strain of workplace stressors.
Organizations who implement these strategies can foster a more sustainable and supportive work environment, where productivity is achieved not at the expense of employee well-being, but in harmony with it.
Retaining Top Talent Amidst Burnout
In an era where burnout is increasingly prevalent, retaining top talent has become a critical challenge for organizations worldwide. The recent discussion on the Burnout Panel shed light on innovative strategies to combat this issue effectively.
- Understanding the Stressors: The key to preventing turnover begins with understanding the underlying stressors that lead to burnout. It’s essential for companies to identify and address these factors proactively. By helping employees manage stress and creating recovery strategies, organizations can prevent burnout from recurring, thereby fostering a healthier and more sustainable work environment.
- Proactive Career Wellness Check-Ups: One innovative approach discussed was the implementation of career wellness check-ups. These check-ups serve as a preventive measure, much like annual health screenings, but focus on an employee’s career health. These sessions provide a safe space for employees to express their concerns, aspirations, and any misalignments they may be experiencing in their role. This proactive approach not only helps in identifying potential issues early on but also demonstrates the company’s genuine investment in its employees’ career satisfaction and growth.
- Stress Management and Recovery Strategies: Another focus was on the development of effective stress management and recovery strategies. It’s crucial for companies to help employees develop skills to manage stress, including setting realistic goals, prioritizing tasks, and encouraging regular breaks. Recovery strategies, such as offering mental health days, promoting work-life balance, and providing access to wellness programs, play a significant role in helping employees recharge and maintain their well-being.
- Frequent Check-Ins with High Performers: High performers are often at greater risk of burnout due to their high levels of commitment and workload. Regular check-ins with these individuals are vital to ensure they are not overwhelmed and to provide support when needed. It’s not just about assessing their productivity but also about understanding their mental and emotional state, ensuring they have the necessary resources and support to maintain their performance without risking burnout.
- Empowering Leaders to Support Their Teams: The panel emphasized the importance of empowering leaders with the tools and knowledge to support their teams effectively. Leaders should be trained to recognize the early signs of burnout, provide empathetic support, and foster a culture where employees feel comfortable discussing their challenges without fear of stigma or repercussions.
Rethinking Employee Morale and Burnout
As work becomes more demanding, employee morale is crucial in preventing burnout and eventual turnover. The Burnout Panel shared several innovative approaches for enhancing workplace morale and tackling burnout.
- Cultivating Psychological Safety: A key takeaway from the panel was the importance of cultivating psychological safety in the workplace. Psychological safety, the belief that one can speak up without risk of punishment or humiliation, is fundamental for employees to feel valued and secure. This includes addressing microaggressions and ensuring that all team members feel respected and heard. A workplace where employees feel psychologically safe is one where they can thrive, contributing their best work without the fear of negative repercussions.
- Implementing Tailored Solutions to Dissatisfaction: The panel also emphasized the importance of tailored solutions to employee dissatisfaction. Rather than one-size-fits-all approaches, such as generic team-building events, companies should strive to understand the unique drivers of dissatisfaction within their teams. Solutions might include providing opportunities for mental health days, supporting boundary setting, or even offering less time with each other if that’s what employees need. Regular surveys and open forums can be effective tools for gathering this insight, ensuring that the solutions are genuinely aligned with employee needs.
- Positive Feedback and Recognition: Another significant point discussed was the role of quality recognition and positive feedback in boosting morale. Implementing systems that facilitate peer-to-peer recognition and acknowledging achievements can have a profound impact on employee morale. These practices help slow down the triggering of the amygdala (the brain’s stress response) and engage the reward system, making employees feel safer and more connected to their work and goals.
- Supporting Boundaries and Work-Life Balance: The panelists highlighted the importance of modeling, discussing, and supporting healthy work boundaries. This includes setting clear priorities, realistic expectations, and understanding when and how to say no. Leaders play a crucial role in this aspect – they must walk the talk by taking breaks themselves, discussing mental health openly, and encouraging their teams to do the same.
This discussion underscored that rethinking employee morale in the context of burnout is not just about implementing standard well-being practices. It requires a deeper understanding of individual and team needs, creating an environment of psychological safety, offering tailored solutions, and reinforcing positive workplace behaviors.
The Neurochemistry of Burnout
Understanding the neurochemistry behind burnout is crucial for developing effective strategies to manage and prevent it. Dan Lieberman helped debunk several myths about dopamine.
One common misconception is that dopamine is a rational and controlled force that always acts in our best interest. In reality, dopamine can be likened to an untamed animal – powerful, but not always predictable or easy to manage. It’s important to understand that while dopamine can drive us towards achievements and pleasures, it can also lead us astray if not regulated properly.
Another myth is that dopamine always leads to happiness and success. Contrary to this belief, dopamine is more about pleasure than happiness. It’s a persuasive force, encouraging us to pursue certain actions, but it doesn’t guarantee lasting contentment. This distinction is crucial in understanding how dopamine influences our behavior and decisions, particularly in high-stress environments that can lead to burnout.
Lieberman suggests that understanding dopamine’s limitations is the first step to managing dopamine. It’s a neurotransmitter that thrives on novelty and can get tired when overstimulated. Recognizing when to seek dopamine highs and when to appreciate more stable, fulfilling experiences is vital.
One practical approach is to engage in activities that stimulate dopamine in a balanced way. This could include setting achievable goals, pursuing new hobbies, or engaging in physical activities. These activities provide the right amount of stimulation without leading to the overdrive that can result in burnout.
Lieberman also discusses the concept of “mental time travel,” a way to activate dopamine through visualization of future possibilities. This involves envisioning potential outcomes or solutions, especially before sleep, to harness dopamine’s power in a constructive and restful way.
Balancing the dopamine-driven pursuit of goals with mindfulness and presence is another key strategy. Focusing on sensory experiences and the present moment can help mitigate the constant forward push of dopamine. This balance enables individuals to appreciate the here-and-now, reducing the risk of the relentless chase for more that often leads to burnout.
Beyond Situational Burnout
In my conversation with Eric McDermott, we talked about the difference between situational and existential burnout. Situational burnout is often linked to specific circumstances, such as overwhelming workloads or challenging work environments. It’s usually addressed by changing these external factors. Existential burnout, however, delves into the deeper existential questions of purpose, meaning, and fulfillment. This form of burnout arises not just from a stressful situation but from a fundamental disconnect between one’s actions and their sense of self or purpose.
Eric emphasized that recognizing whether one is experiencing situational or existential burnout is key to finding the right approach for management and recovery. While situational burnout might be alleviated by changing jobs or reducing workload, existential burnout requires introspection and a reassessment of one’s values and life goals.
To address existential burnout, McDermott suggests techniques that focus on maintaining balance and building sustainable practices in one’s life. One such technique is “Fence-Posting,” which involves setting clear boundaries and priorities to ensure that life’s flux and uncertainties do not lead to overwhelming stress or loss of direction. It’s about knowing your limits and ensuring that you don’t stretch yourself too thin across too many areas.
Another crucial aspect is understanding that structures determine behavior. By creating strategic structures in our lives, we can make it easier to engage in sustainable practices. This could involve establishing routines that promote work-life balance, dedicating time to self-care, or engaging in activities that align with personal values and bring a sense of fulfillment.
Dealing with existential burnout also involves a deeper exploration of one’s life purpose and alignment with personal values. It may require redefining success, reassessing career paths, or even exploring new avenues of personal growth and development. This process is often about finding a balance between one’s professional ambitions and personal well-being.
(This episode will be released on December 12th).
The episodes from the “Decode Your Burnout” podcast series in 2023 have not only shed light on the various facets of burnout but also provided a rich array of insights and strategies to address it.
Key Takeaways from the Series:
- Understanding Burnout: We’ve seen how burnout can be distinguished from similar conditions like depression, and how awe and mindfulness can reset our nervous systems.
- Workplace Dynamics: Our discussions have highlighted the critical role of workplace culture in both contributing to and alleviating burnout. From absenteeism to productivity, and employee retention to morale, the impact of organizational practices is profound.
- Neurochemistry and Burnout: The exploration of dopamine’s role in burnout underscores the importance of understanding our brain’s wiring in managing stress and self-care.
- Beyond the Surface: Delving into existential burnout reveals a deeper layer, one that connects to our sense of purpose and fulfillment.
Now that you understand burnout more deeply, stay tuned for the next 5 pillars of the 2023 podcast compendium.
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Dr. Sharon Grossman, AKA the Burnout Doc, is a clinically trained psychologist and subject matter expert in burnout and mental health. Associations and Fortune 500 companies hire her to be their closing keynote speaker, to help their members and executives crack the code on burnout, and create custom-tailored solutions for recovery.
Over the past 20 years, Dr. Sharon has been helping high achievers who are struggling with anxiety, overwhelm, and burnout go from exhausted to extraordinary by better understanding how their brain works and how they can design and run their programming on purpose to live the kind of life they want to live. She is the author of several books on burnout and mindset and host of the Decode Your Burnout podcast. Through her speaking, training, and coaching, she helps organizations keep their top talent.