A few weeks ago, I posted on LinkedIn about burnout and stress, after my first week off since the middle of March. The first paragraph went like this:
We talk about stress and burnout a bit. We need to talk about it a whole lot more. I am one of the lucky ones – (so far) I have a fairly big stress container and I am fairly good at self-care. That said, just 9 days ago I felt pretty broken – probably the most physically and mentally tired I have felt in a very long time. We have been working in extraordinary conditions for 3 months. In some ways it had passed in the flash of an eye. In other ways it had been a very long time.
After a week off I feel like a completely different person – like I have been rebooted. My mind is clear, I am having creative thoughts and I am ready to be back at my best tomorrow.
(You can read the rest of the post here – https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6683094667862663168/)
Burnout: too close for comfort
This post clearly struck a chord – compared to normal engagement this was my biggest hitter by a long shot. I talked to Mark Rowland, the brilliant CEO of the Mental Health Foundation, about it and his view was that ‘your post named something that lurks below the surface of most of our days and we long to know we are not alone’.
I have never experienced ‘proper burnout’. Someone challenged me about the LinkedIn post because they said if I was burnt out a week would not have been enough time. I accept that. My point hadn’t actually been that I was burnt out but that I was too close for comfort.
Where to draw the line between stress and burnout
I welcomed the challenge. It did make me think about the line between being tired and a bit stressed and completely burnt out are maybe not quite as solid or obvious as some might think. Including last month I have probably been too close for comfort three times.
Once about 15 years ago. A ten-year relationship ended at the same time as I started a 3 day week secondment. The pressure of two jobs combined with separating lives took its toll and in the end I took extended leave to recuperate. The second time was five years ago my brother died. I tried to function in a new job, was driving to Cornwall to see my parents as often as I could and determined to complete my college course. Six months after Andrew died I was unable to sleep properly, unable to feel and cry I went to the doctor who told me to rest. All three times it was a combination of both personal and work-based influences coming together.
What is burnout?
So what is burnout? The books describe it as ‘a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands’.
In May 2019 the World Health Organisation updated their definition of burnout as ‘resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed’.
We all experience stress differently, we all experience exhaustion differently and we process our experiences differently. My understanding and perception of burnout will likely be different to yours. And that is ok. Just as our experience of, and recovery from physical pain is subjective, so too must be our experience of, and recovery from mental pain and burnout.
COVID19 is creating the perfect conditions for burnout for many of us who are continuing to work – many of us home – in a global pandemic, learning different ways of doing things and delivering to tight deadlines, often with less resource.
It may seem like we have been doing this for a long time, but it is still fairly new to all of us. We are learning as we go along. It is our collective responsibility as leaders, managers and colleagues to do all we can to prevent burnout.
10 tips to prevent burnout
Over the past few months, these are some of the things that I have learned from personal experience, from conversations with my team at MHFA England and from friends working in different sectors;
- Remove unnecessary stressors and role modelling behaviours – we know change starts at the top; it is incumbent on every leader and manager to remove all the stressors from the workplace that they can as well as model behaviours that minimise the risk of burnout.
- Have absolute clarity on the priorities – reduce priorities and re-calibrate expectations of the team as a whole and of individuals.
- Ensure flexibility and balance – we have learned about the importance of flexibility as many people juggle parenting, caring or other responsibilities. The flexibility we have been afforded through COVID19 is really important. Make sure increased flexibility doesn’t knock balance out of kilter.
- Set up and pack up at the end of the day – if you are working from home it can be really easy for the kitchen table to turn into a desk. We can end up eating dinner in the same way many of us eat lunch. Packing away signals the end of the day.
- Take time away from the desk for exercise – some people have talked about using the commute time to get more work done. I try to make sure that I get out for a walk at least twice a day – preferably without my phone.
- Have meeting controls – we need time to think as well as time to do. Make meetings 25 minutes or 50 minutes instead of 30 minutes or an hour. Start them at 5 or 10 past the hour or half hour to give more of an incentive to finish on time. Use the breaks to get up and walk about. Six one-hour meetings over a day, reduced to 50 minutes gives you an hour back to walk about.
- Take time off – it may not feel possible to take time off, or for some there is a question about what the point of having time off is if you can’t do much. We need time to rest. We need time off. Take it and encourage colleagues to do the same!
- Be sure to connect and disconnect – at the beginning of COVID19 we urged the importance of staying connected. Almost everyone will say we have definitely stayed connected, sometimes to the detriment of wellbeing.
- Build organisational resilience over the summer – at MHFA England we know there are concerns about taking time off over the summer. We have brought back some of our furloughed staff to ensure resilience.
- Make sure there is support – whether that be line managers, the People Team, MHF Aiders or the Employee Assistance Programme, the important thing in preventing burnout is knowing that people are there to support and help address stress.
There is no one right way
You will have other personal strategies that help you manage stress, overwhelm and ultimately prevent burnout. There is no one right way.
In my simple terms to avoid burnout we must all do all we can to look after our own and each other’s brains, so our brains can look after us. What we eat and drink, how we process and switch off; how we put our phones aside, how we rest and sleep really matters.
Look after your brain so it can do its best to look after you.
About the author
Simon Blake is CEO of MHFA England, a social enterprise with a mission to train 1:10 of the adult population in MHFA England skills and knowledge. Prior to this role Simon was CEO of National Union of Students and the sexual health charity, Brook. Simon is vice Chair of Stonewall the LGBT Charity and a Companion of the Chartered Management Institute. He is a keen runner, competitive horse rider (eventing) and dog lover. His dog is called Dolly after Dolly Parton. His horse, Boris, named after nobody famous! T: @simonablake Insta: simonatmhfae