How ‘resilience’ causes burnout

Subira cropped

This opinion piece is written by burnout specialist Subira Jones, based on an interview she did with Make A Difference Media on key issues concerning employee wellbeing right now. It covers why resilience causes burnout, what you can do about it, how financial wellbeing is fundamentally linked to true resilience and why an employee cannot be solution-focused if worrying about money. Over to her…

Urgh. ‘Resilience’. I hate that word.

It’s so unhelpful defining strength as your ability to put up with difficult conditions. To illustrate why, I like to tell the story of the frog in tepid water: if you put a frog in boiling water it will freak and do anything to jump out, but if you put him in tepid water and build the temperature up slowly, he will not perceive the danger and boil himself to death.

The same thing happens with humans in the workplace.

Resilience keeps you in the cycle of burnout

It happened to me.

I spent years with that ‘resilience’ badge of honour, which actually kept me in the cycle of burnout, teetering on the brink of boil, but never dealing with the core issues causing my pain. My ‘resilience’, my ‘mental toughness in adversity’ was literally killing me, little by little. The other hazard is, because you appear to be coping ‘so well’, no one around you is concerned for your wellbeing, either.

We actually need that metaphorical frog-in-boiling-water moment, to give us, and those around us, that innate barometer which tells us when our wellbeing is being significantly compromised. Though, as a burnout specialist, I am in the business of ensuring your barometer is not as harsh as a saucepan of boiling water being poured over your burning skin.

The corporate world attracts seemingly ‘resilient’ people

To shift to another waterborne analogy, I advocate surfing lessons (bear with me!). Life’s challenges come at us like waves, sometimes gently, sometimes ferociously, and managing the stress of this is not about escaping or stopping the tides (of course, this is impossible) but about learning to surf the waves, preserving as much of your precious energy as possible.

I specialise in burnout in the corporate world specifically because this space tends to attract stress and humans who do really well (outwardly, that is) under that stress. Those people who might talk about their ‘resilience’ in job interviews, or reviews, or be noted by colleagues as ‘highly resilient’ as shorthand for ‘can deal with any sh*t’. After all, stress can be natural performance enhancer… up to a point.

Resilience is just a short term solution

Unfortunately, resilience has been positioned as the ‘go-to’ quality to have in the corporate world. But resilience is a short-term strategy, not a long term solution. The other big bugbear I have with resilience, as it is currently talked about in the wellbeing industry, is how one dimensional it is.

For instance, to me, having financial wellbeing is fundamental to having a sense of resilience – something particularly pertinent at the moment given we are facing a cost of living crisis. We need to ask ourselves as individuals: how well can we withstand a change in our income or expenditure over a short period of time? And as organisations: how well can the organisation withstand a short-term shock?

You can’t have resilience without financial wellbeing

Financial freedom is probably unattainable for many. But financial flexibility isn’t. And financial flexibility gives you options, which builds your sense that you can deal with the waves that life crashes over you. A lot of us have become so accustomed to leveraging our lifestyles on loans and credit cards, not living within our means, thinking spending is the route to happiness, that this reduces our options, as well as our resilience.

For example, when I was burning out my initial kneejerk response to working so hard was to reward myself with retail therapy. But when it got to the stage that I had to resign from my job and I’d just been diagnosed with MS, I suddenly understood – deeply – how financial wellbeing and resilience are fundamentally linked.

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Taking control of your finances gives you true resilience

I knew that in order to make good decisions around my wellbeing, I needed to become debt free, to give myself that flexibility. Decreasing your consumer debt increases your disposable income and means you can increase the amount of money you have to move about, without having to rely on an income or pay increase or promotion.

As part of facing up to my burnout, I got back to the bare necessities focusing on paying for what really mattered, which allowed me to take back some personal power – something a lot of people lose, like I did, when they are burning out. Taking control of your finances gives you purpose and direction and helps you really connect with why you are going to work, or making certain decisions.

You can’t perform if you’re worrying about money

And, while my burnout situation led to me resigning from the corporate world, I see the same feelings and disempowerment detrimentally affecting employed professionals, too. People who, due to money worries, have compromised resilience because you can’t perform at your best if you have debt, or seemingly-unmanageable bills, or the threat of redundancy, in the back of your head. You can’t be solution focused when you’re broke, or worrying about being broke.

If you want to create a burnout free lifestyle and fireproof your career from uncertainty, then your financial wellbeing must be at the top of your priority list.

A burnout out prevention lifestyle is actually nothing to do with work. Yes, organisations do need to educate, empower and equip employees to manage their own wellbeing but ultimately it’s about how you show up for yourself. It’s about taking ownership of your own wellbeing.

What word is better than ‘resilience’?

So, what word do I use instead of ‘resilience’?

Tenacity.

Tenacity gives you the agility, the ability and the capability to manoeuvre.

Don’t make lemonade when life gives you lemons

Let’s take another popular analogy (can you tell, I love my analogies?): the one about life giving you lemons. When life gives you lemons, everyone says ‘hey, make lemonade!’. And that is exactly what ‘resilient’ people do; they make bucket loads of lemonade! They make so much lemonade they drown in the sticky stuff. Resilience, you see, keeps you stuck.

But tenacious people are more in tune with themselves and the bigger picture. ‘Do I even like lemonade?’ they ask themselves. ‘Do I have enough lemonade already? What else can I make with this lemon? And – most importantly – is this lemon worth the squeeze?’

Subira Jones, also known as ‘The Corporate Hippie’, is founder of MPWRD Consulting and helps talented professionals avoid burnout and debilitating work stress illnesses. She also contributed to this article in which she explains why she believes that psychological safety is a “fallacy”. For another fascinating take on resilience, see ex-hostage Terry Waite CBE’s Keynote takeaways in this article.

You might also enjoy:

A guide to workforce resilience – why is it a critical issue for businesses?

Aon’s Guide to Workforce Resilience

What We Can Learn From 5 Years In Captivity About Loneliness, Resilience and the Future of Work: Opening Keynote at The Watercooler

 

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