overwhelm drowning at work burnout wellbeing at work

Preventing Burnout

January 23, 2023

Astonishingly over 50% of people have experienced some kind of burnout, mostly work related. Women seem to be more likely to burn out than men. Perhaps because they are more sensitive and actually notice it whereas men ignore what is going on within, push it down and then later develop some other kind of stress induced dis-ease in the body.

The Prime minister of New Zealand has just stepped down, making her the first world leader to openly acknowledge burnout and take the radical, although most logical step of resigning from her job to re-prioritise her health and her family. Perhaps for men it is easier to put work first and give the family what little time they have left, without feeling remorse. Such feelings certainly play a part in overdriving the nervous system. 

There is no such thing as a negative emotion, the very word negative creates aversion, a force of repulsion away from pain and attraction towards the positive or pleasurable. That aside, there are many things we’d rather not feel, that are DIFFICULT or UNCOMFORTABLE. Yet no matter how much we push down feelings of regret, disappointment, self-judgment, inadequacy etc. the body keeps the score and the emotional energy simply gets locked away. We are masters of distraction, but by choosing not to consciously process these feelings they get filed away, generally in a weak spot. Persistent pain in a body part may be trying to tell you more than you think. It could even be a sign of approaching burnout. Moreover it is an invitation to listen to what the body is trying to tell you, how can you learn to speak the language of the body?

Leaders typically experience other emotional stressors, such as:

  • Responsibility, living up to expectations, being the figure head, being responsible for the lives of people in your organization.
  • Authority, the need to be right, having to deal with the consequences of decisions - even of those beneath you, the buck stops here.
  • Imposter syndrome, not feeling worthy, not owning your own power.
  • Competition, the need to stay ahead, the danger of others trying to topple you, the pressure to be the best.
  • Attention, the need to be recognised, the need for compliments from others, and the disappointment when your endeavors are not celebrated.

Although an emotional imbalance in these areas mostly stems from deeper self-worth issues, they are very real emotions under the skin. Probably many people feel these things at an unconscious level as long ago they leant in their childhood, that they must be strong and not show signs of weakness. However, it takes great courage, to open up, to be honest with ourselves and allow ourselves to truly feel all that is going on inside us. In fact, doing so will bring many therapeutic benefits, including improved health, vitality and longevity. 

The body's mechanism to recover from a stressful experience

Obviously external stressors also affect us greatly. But our internal reaction in the long run matters more. Our inability to say no, to establish healthy boundaries, to prioritize our health, and put our families first - inevitably takes its toll later. 80-90% of illnesses in the Western World are stress induced. We all have a baseline level of stress in our bodies. Some stress is actually a biological necessity. The nervous system has a switch that flips between stress activation AND maintenance mode, where the body can carry out essential vital functions. If we don’t factor in down time during and after a day of work sooner or later the system will burn out!.

This is of paramount importance, now more than ever. Yet this truth stands in stark contrast to the example set by our CEOs and politicians. When irresponsible and emotionally damaged people such as Elon Musk drive their people to the absolute limit insisting they sleep in the office, then what hope is there for wellbeing at work to balance out the high stress level? Many companies pay greater care to the maintenance of their machines and installation than to their people, arguably their most important resource.

Learning to speak the language of the body means learning to listen. Then we can spot the signs of burnout before it happens. To prevent means literally to come before. But for that you've got to be aware of what is coming.

"Normal" baseline gets higher as you turn up the temperature, creating chronic stress

Like the proverbial lobster in a pot of water, slowly heated up from room temperature to boiling point, we don’t notice the gradual increase in the baseline stress level. Herein lies the danger of normalization, we learn to function in an environment not conducive to optimal health. We learn to adapt to the hot water and get through the day. We don’t notice that the water is intolerable until it is too late and BOOM. Bye bye lobster. The body says no.

In this, as in all, we have a choice, if we choose to choose, we can act first.

If this feels important to you, I’d love to hear from you, feel free to reach out for a chat about it.

Photo credit Derek Story, Elisa Ventur & nikko macaspac on Unsplash.

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