I’m just back from a team retreat, which is always an incredible tank-filler. Regardless of how well planned or how open the agenda is, there’s always something that completely takes me off guard. This time it was a post-it asking me to take more holiday. It really made me realise that my team thinks I’m on a path to burn-out, and maybe I am… I figure I should write about to get my thoughts together.
What is burnout?
There’s lots of different views on burn-out, which likely originate from people’s distance from it. Here’s how I understand it. Some people describe it as stages, for me it seems more like pillars.
Walking around feeling constantly under pressure. Things feel as though they’re getting out of control and running away from what I can manage. The big symptom for me, is waking up with that adrenaline/butterflies feeling in my stomach. Something I really note that I need to listen to. The risk with this pillar is that it’s cumulative, each day when I might be in this state adds to the pressure of wanting to get away from the source of stress. 3/4 days of this might feel ok, depending on the trigger, but I’ll never really know how many days I can handle before breakdown/collapse.
The pressure spills across at home. Thoughts about work are constant, even when with family (Marcie is big work off-switch for me, and when that doesn’t happen, I know I’m seeing pillar two. Work becomes a continuum as opposed to a part of the day. Night working drifts from a ‘clearing my head’ or ‘finishing something exciting’ to ‘keeping my head above water’ dynamic. The key thing here is that the symptom is at home, rather than at work. The hard to spot thing here for me, is that it’s not purely about hours, it’s about how those hours feel.
The pressure spills across at work. Often the guilt for any home-life impact or the feeling of not being able to resolve the work pressure builds and then manifests in my work. I might be tetchy or find niggles that I can usually brush off becoming more problematic in my mind. I find I have to apologise for being grouchy. Because part of work is about being professional (professional literally means ‘behaviour for money’) when this slips I know something needs attention.
The interesting thing for me is that not having gone to a place of breakdown or collapse with burnout where things become clinical it’s hard to really understand the dynamic in full, or what the limits are. However, depending on the trigger I might have any combination of the above. I know I might be able to handle one or two for a period of time. Like pillar one before a big event, or pillar two before a big deadline. But I’m really aware that if I feel all three I’m on track to something bad, and need action. Healthy people know when they are about to burnout, but I can imagine that some people run on 99.999% for so long they dull that feedback. If you are bursting for a wee and ignore the impulse it goes away, but it isn’t good for you! Same applies with stress. I’ve no idea how it might feel for you, but this is how I understand it. Dulling the feedback by building pillars of burnout.
So what do I do to avoid burnout?
There’s a couple of big areas in my life that I focus on to try and stay clear of burnout. One is generally focussed on reducing the speed things move in my life (it’s harder to be stressed when you’re going slowly), the other is around recharging my batteries and resting.
“You need to slow down” is often a phrase given to people in distress (literally stress that is too much…) like all truisms there is often some truth in there somewhere. Here’s what it looks like for me.
- Choose the slow option everywhere - if I’m at the supermarket I pick the longest queue, on a motorway the slow lane (mostly! I struggle with caravans…). This is to achieve two things, firstly, cruising gives me space to think, some of my best ideas have been during a long boring drive. Secondly I find the practice of picking slowness over pressure to arrive faster helps me not to mindlessly get to a place where I’m just trying to race life.
- Drive at the speed limit - sounds daft, but if I’m stressed I rush, and forcing myself to slow down helps reinforce the mindset of not rushing. This is like going to the gym for burnout. You feel it when you’ve not practiced for a while.
- Don’t text and drive. It’s illegal for a start, but also if I’m feeling the need to multitask, I’m likely really feeling some pressure to catch up time.
- Let people go at junctions - I think I’m generally quite polite, but if practicing prioritising other people’s progress helps me reframe my own… helping me pick a slower calmer pace.
That’s a lot about driving - something I don’t actually do that often with my train based commute, but there’s something about our road-rage tendencies as a species that seem to be a perfect way to measure stress and pressure. I wonder if those that do shout and scream at other road users are really just having a bad time at work… 🤔
- Try to get ahead of meetings - I know I perform much better when I’m ahead of meetings. What I mean here is that 10mins before a meeting, I’ve read the agenda, I’ve stopped working on everything else (Thanks to Mark Forster for the SWEET time concept). When I’m back to back with no prep time, I’m likely building one of the burnout pillars. One of ironic factors here, is that when I get this wrong I know that my team knows it, and it contributes to stress.
- Dumb phone - I follow a lot of tech trends, but I’m really happy with my dumbed down Pixel 2. I’ve tried to let go of the ‘latest phone’ treadmill, as reading reviews was a big time sink. I’ve also got a minimal text only launcher (no red dots) removed a bunch of noisy or infinite scrolling apps, and forced a monochrome display. The result is I use my phone much less. I still keep some of the ‘living in the future’ apps, like train ticket or navigation bits. I even have slack on my phone, but the way I’ve set it up, makes it a chore rather than a dopamine hit.
- Phone bed time - Marcie goes to bed at 7.30pm, so does my phone. It’s a useful routine to cut the tie to the endless expanse that is the internet. I also have a ‘bed’ for my phone (just a plug socket really), that’s downstairs away from my bedroom. I have a separate alarm clock for waking up.
- Phone-free mornings - I then steer clear of my phone until 9am.. or at least until I’ve done ‘something’ useful/productive first. It’s just a way to practice keeping away from ‘automatic’ habits.
- Getting off social - It just doesn’t help me to have an infinite number of inputs to think about. I have a list of users that I follow intentionally and see what they’re saying, but apart from that, for me, it’s a laptop only, periodic activity.
- TV on purpose - TV based escapism is great, I’m not going to lie, but I only watch shows/movies rather than TV programming so the time is going to content I’m consciously picking. I also limit myself to 3 episodes (about a movie worth) to keep the late night binge at bay.
- Journalling - trying to get the thoughts down means there’s less flying around in my head. I don’t have any really structured shape or format, just brain dumping onto paper. I found it really hard because the notes have little real value (I kept trying to optimise) but once I let that go, it does seem to help.
- Getting outside - particularly now the UK weather is picking up, being outside, and being slow are massively effective ways to
Things I’m trying to get into, but can’t claim to have cracked…
- Email schedule - only accessing email at a couple of times. I’ve experimented with different plugins and blocking of gmail at different times, but haven’t quite found my stride. This is definitely something I want to crack though.
- Longer & fewer holidays - something I’m trying is to take fewer breaks but make them bigger. Those 3 day long weekends really aren’t enough to get any real rest. This seems to have two big impacts: one is that time feels more seasonal (peak performance followed by rest and recovery) and also its easier to do fewer, bigger handovers with the team.
Recharging for one day at the weekend
So going slower generally is a great way I’ve found to keep myself from harm. Another is to recharge a bit each weekend so I’ve got more in the tank during the week.
Each weekend (either Saturday or Sunday, depending on what I have on) I pick one day and designate that as a recharge day. I then try to follow these rules:
- No work thinking or doing. It has be zero work or the batteries don’t recharge. This can be hard, but I’ve found that by giving some permission to clear things on a Saturday (really limited time) then I can really switch-off on the Sunday.
- Focus on rest. It’s definitely a day of lie-ins and pyjamas for as long as possible (sometimes tricky with a five year old) but really helps. Movies together and being slow is the order of the day.
- Lots of family time. Lots of play as a group, trips to the park, days out (where we can afford it, or can actually think of something!). Generally they’re outdoors so we can get lots of air and out of the house to a different headspace. My family is amazing, and I’m super lucky to have Kirsty and Marcie, so this is a space to give time back to them.
- No alt-work. Housework and other chores are kicked back or forward a day. There’s always some level of chore, but on a recharge day about minimum viable chores, instead of using it as a chance to spring clean the whole house. It doesn’t mean more work for Kirsty either, we both need to recharge. So the other Saturday / Sunday is for blitzing the home to-do.
- Light reading No management books or productivity cult stuff, just general interest or fiction. This is something I’ve been experimenting with to fill up the day so work time has no room to creep back in.
So there you go. I’m not burnout-proof or have this cracked by any stretch of the imagination (there was that team post-it remember!) but this seems shape seems to be working for me so far. There’s definitely a culture amongst organisation leaders to try to display superhuman attributes and invulnerability to stress out of some misguided attempt to generate confidence I imagine. The reality is that with one in four of us facing mental health challenges, it’s better to be real about things being difficult in every role and modelling better ways to talk about things. (Can you imagine managing a team of stress-deniers?!)
Bottom line for me is when I find when I don’t slow down or recharge regularly I start building burnout pillars, and when I do, things feel more calm and more manageable. Hopefully next retreat the surprise feedback will be different! 😅