Optimize Your Life

Episode #50: Burnout and The Year Ahead

Show Notes:

Ladies and gentlemen – we made it! Another year under wraps. Can you believe it’s already over? So much has happened – some good, some not as good. And while we want to review our year, we also want to think ahead to the coming months about what we want to change. 

I’ve been researching, talking, and writing about burnout for years now. I never knew it would blow up as much as it has done. So this week, I’m going to share with you the latest on burnout (because I know you’re feeling it), some next steps, and my plans for 2022.

It seems like everywhere you turn, someone’s writing about burnout. There are so many articles that come out every day. And I check them out. I’m not going to lie. Partly it’s because I want to spy and see what other people are doing in this space and partly to find out if there are any new statistics that I can then turn around and share with you all. 

So here’s what’s happening. According to a recent survey, 42% of women and 35% of men say they’ve been burned out for a large part of the year. While the numbers are high in both camps, you can imagine that women are bearing the brunt of this because they typically have more of a dual role at home and at work while men have their wives to look after the kids, the meals, the house, etc. Typical age old problem, right?

That said, burnout is affecting such a large percentage of the total population that we have to look at what’s causing it. 

Let’s back up. Burnout, if you don’t already know, is essentially chronic stress. Now stress is nothing new, I’m sure, but when there are lots of stressors or stressors that are chronic, they build up. 

Your work is a big external stressor and within work there can be a variety of factors that affect you. A big one is feeling valued. In fact, I just read that there is a 40% lower chance of burnout if you feel valued at work. Considering all the other things that could possibly stress you out at work, this is a huge protective factor, so we need to consider what helps you feel more valued and how to get more of it. 

Finances are a big contributor for folks. Sometimes you feel like if it weren’t for the money, you’d leave in a heartbeat. I’ve heard some people say that their job was massively burning them out, maybe because of the treatment they got and maybe because it was too demanding, and that they stayed because they couldn’t afford to leave. Others stayed for the security because they were too close to retirement and wanted to cash out on all their benefits. In fact, I read that 61% of workers say they’d take a job with a reduction in salary for better benefits, so clearly this is something that’s very important to us. Sometimes, we see it as so important that we forget about what else is at stake.

Other work related stress factors might include cultural expectations, a toxic boss, discrimination, or even too little autonomy. If you’re working remotely, you might be burning out because you’re always plugged in. Work doesn’t start or end anymore. It just keeps going 24/7. 

There are also internal stressors that contribute to our burnout and this is where I like to focus with my clients because this is where they have the most influence. If you’re someone who is filled with self-criticism, who has perfectionistic tendencies, who gets stuck in indecisiveness, who’s battling low self-worth, or who experiences excessive anxiety, overwhelm, resentment, or guilt, you’re at risk for burning out. And if you’ve already been fried, now you know why. 

So what’s happening that we’re toast? Let’s look at the stress cycle and how that leads to burnout. 

When you find yourself in a situation where you deem the demands to exceed your ability to cope, you become stressed. In other words, it’s all in your perception of things. This is why I focus so much of the time in my coaching on managing your thoughts…but I digress. 

So something feels stressful. Your brain gets the message and the factory is turned on. Something turns on that switch and it’s all systems go. It affects you neurologically, hormonally, and physiologically. You get into fight-or-flight mode and the adrenaline starts pumping. Your senses are heightened and your muscles tense up. Your body is preparing for battle which means that digestion and immune function both go down. 

Think about what that means if it’s happening day in and day out. You’re not digesting your food well and you’re more susceptible to illness. And to top it all off, we’re in the midst of a pandemic. You’re working long hours and you’re not sleeping enough. The perfect storm.

Stress is nothing new, but here’s the problem. Stress is a cycle. When you get stressed out and the factory lights go on, you’re in that fight or flight mode I mentioned. You need to get through this to complete the cycle and get to the other side where it’s time to turn off the lights and let the machinery rest. But when there is no shut off and the factory is rolling without stop, the parts start breaking down. 

I like to think about it like you’re playing tennis with someone. So long as you’re hitting the ball back and forth, there is action when you hit the ball and then you rest until the ball comes back over the net. It’s that stress cycle being completed each time you hit the ball to the other side. 

But imagine how different the experience would be if you didn’t have a racket and instead of taking turns with the other player and resting in between, what would it be like if they just took an entire basket of tennis balls and aimed them one by one at you? Now you’re bombarded with balls coming at you. You’re in fight or flight and there is no escape. There is no downtime. That’s what chronic stress can feel like. And after a while, you break down. You’re anxious because you know you’re about to get hit and you’re so exhausted by it all. 

You might think that our goal in life is to avoid stress altogether. Then everything would be chill. But that would mean living a routine, mundane life without any excitement or thrill. You’d get burned out for the opposite reason – because you’re bored. No, the optimal scenario would be for you to bounce back from fight or flight to rest and digest. And it doesn’t have to be a 1:1 ratio. 

Often when I talk about balance, people say, “It’s not possible.” That’s because we’re defining it differently. When I say balance, what I mean is that you have some downtime. It doesn’t mean that 50% of the time you’re resting. 

Think about a yoga class, if you’ve ever been in one. You might take a 60 minute class where you work hard and sweat. When you get tired, you take a child’s pose and catch your breath. At the end of the class, you spend the last 5 minutes in savasana. That’s where you allow everything to integrate. You’re not doing anything. You’re just being. 

What if we were to apply that same premise to our lives? Work hard, rest so you don’t overexert yourself, and then take time to recharge – whether that means leisure time after work, sleeping 8 hours a night or taking your vacations. 

Let’s rewind. When it comes to burnout, there are three things to consider:

#1: You want to know what to look out for so when you see it, you can identify it as burnout related

#2: It’s not enough to know you have the diagnosis. You want to uncover what’s led you to burn out.

#3: With that knowledge, you can now customize your recovery strategy based on the factors that have contributed to your burnout. That helps take a chronic stressor and make it acute at worst or eliminate it at best. 

Earlier, I mentioned that there are a number of external and internal factors that contribute to burnout. When you uncover what these are, you can crack the code on your burnout. 

So if you’re struggling but you’re not sure whether you’re burning out, if you want to know how far along the burnout path you are, or if you know you’re burned out and you want to know what to focus on first, I have just the thing for you. I created a Burnout Checklist. You can download it at bit.ly/checkyourburnout – I’ll leave the link in the show notes. And once you download it, I’ll also share some more information about how you can decode your burnout. 

Let’s circle back to this being episode 50 of the show. When I started this podcast last January, my idea was to call it Optimize Your Life because in my mind, optimization is the opposite of burnout, and I wanted to focus on the solution, not the problem. That said, I’ve come to realize that when you want to speak to a burned out audience who’s searching for answers, you have to mention the problem by name. 

To that end, I decided that in 2022, I’ll be starting a brand new show called Decode Your Burnout. In it, I’ll be interviewing high achievers from all walks of life about their burnout story and as they share it, I’ll decode it based on their programming, environmental stressors, and personality. I’ll also be interviewing guests who share how to debunk the myths in their area of expertise and we can spin those tips and apply them to how to optimize things in the workplace to minimize burnout. 

Sound cool, right? I’m super excited about it. But what that also means is that I’m wrapping up this show with this very last episode. I hope you’ll join me over there and continue the journey we started together. 

If you’d like to learn more about what I am doing and don’t want to miss out on anything,  head on over to drsharongrossman.com where you can sign up for my brand new newsletter. Starting in January, I’ll be sending out the Burnout Doc Weekly Digest where I’ll share a new blog article, the link to that week’s podcast episode, and a recommendation for an impactful and relevant TED talk. 

Those are some of my plans to start off the new year. I can’t wait to get started. But in the meantime, you can find me taking a bit of time off to be with family and get that much needed rest. So I don’t burn out. 

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