Dealing with Burnout

As it’s holiday season, Christy Mori chats with Dr. Josephine Palermo about Burnout and Fatigue and how it can alter lives. We also look at how to recognise the signs and making prevention our best friend.

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Christy (00:09):

Welcome to Gears Action Growth, shifting business culture, one conversation at a time. My name’s is Christy Mori and I’m joining Dr. Josephine Palermo whose superpower is to create business cultures that transform organizations team by team. Today, we’ll be chatting about burnout and fatigue because we want to encourage everyone to rest over the holidays. Hope you get value from it.

C: (0:36) Hey Jo, it’s Christmas week. How are you?

JP (00:39): Ohh, I’m good Christy. Although um, you know, every time this week comes, I always think where did the year ago? And where did December go? And I thought I had an extra week. It’s the same thing every year. And I should really learn by that.

C: (00:54): And even in the pandemic year?

JP: Yeah, yeah. I know… (laughs)

C: Did you have good weekend?

JP (01:00): I did. I did. I actually had a bit of a rest and went shopping a little bit and, but I, I it’s been so hectic that I just needed to take some time. And I just took the time, even though there are a million and one things to do, I just thought I can’t, can’t go there. I need to just take care of myself, shut off. And I took care of myself. Yes.

C (01:22): That’s great. That’s actually very fitting for our topic today then. We’re chatting about burnout and fatigue. So today we’re hopefully going to cover dealing with the fatigue and burnout and what to look out for, how to put in place self care for you and your team and how to avoid burnout in the future by taking time out for you and your team.

So we decided this Christmas week that we would talk about burnout because there’s many different ways and how people are adjusting to the pandemic and the season of holidays around the world. We know we can’t cover everything, but we just want to address this topic to just open it up.

The first time I actually personally knew someone who had to stop working at a high level position at an organization she was at was because of burnout, which made me curious, because she said it was very difficult for medical people to diagnose because it’s not currently a medical diagnosis.

And I was recently asked speaking to someone at a gathering who had a stressful position before the pandemic, but after the pandemic hit, it just was all time chaos broke out and he’s actually just resigning after Christmas. Cause he’s, he just said you know, literally not going to go back, I’m gonna just send in my, you know, resignation. And basically I don’t know in this industry or what company this is, but he said the same person in Sydney who has this position was experiencing the same thing, and he’s already resigned as well. So something was not quite right in terms of the lack of support there.

But that’s actually more common than we think I guess, you know, like, if we’re really fortunate enough to be working with people or working in situations that are not going to push us over the edge, then we don’t really think about the people who are actually in these scenarios. So, Jo, have you been speaking to people this year, especially where there’s a sense of heavy fatigue and maybe burnout is the norm for them?

Stressors that push us over the edge

JP (03:30): You know what, I have. And I think that, I think that the pandemic has exacerbated all of that. And particularly because, you know, when you think about it, the change that we’ve had to adapt to this year has just been phenomenal. You know, it’s no.. it’s no mean feat to, for example, change your living arrangements and working arrangements. And, you know, those things are often at the very top of the list of things that, that people talk about as causing undue stress. And this year, what we had to do was learn new technology and be you know, relating to our work in a different rate in a different way, relating to our colleagues, you know, and our team mates in a different way, because we were all sort of needing to work remotely. And on top of that, there was an insecurity about what was going to happen to our jobs as well as a global anxiety about the pandemic and where the life would ever get back to normal and, and what it meant for our freedoms.

JP (04:38): And then on top of that, again, was concern about our families and our loved ones and our elderly. And, and then on top of that, again, we were faced with restrictions to our own movements and you know, new behaviors around wearing masks and not hugging people and not seeing people and not socializing. And then perhaps for some that caused some social isolation, which again exacerbates stress. So when you it’s like a melting pot of all the things in the world that can contribute to stress and burnout this year. And no wonder, we get to this time of year, which is, you know, as we, you know, as you were saying, Christmas itself brings on feelings of stress because of a lot of the expectations that are around at this time of year, not only, you know, around the expectations of family, the dynamics that some families bring and not always positive, but it’s also that expectation of gift-giving, which adds stress to the, you know,

C (05:50): I think that’s another, another topic we can talk about.

JP (05:54): We should have a topic about that. We should absolutely. And so that the whole, all of that is very difficult, but, you know, particularly for people at work there were also situations, and I know a lot of people who were working in organizations where they were either asked to reduce their pay or reduce their hours worked, or they saw other colleagues around them being made redundant and are all stood down. And that may not have been aligned to changes in the workload. So people who have a lot of people that I talk to, have actually been working longer hours and particularly have struggled with the balance between home and work because, you know, suddenly home is your workplace. And so all of that has actually, I think also lent itself to this idea of just mental exhaustion and and, and, you know, I feel really bad for your, for the person you were talking to about who is going to resign because of this, you know, burnout level that, that, you know, he, or she’s feeling, I think that to get to that point means that there’s such despair because you know, I’m sure that there are so many things other than resigning that that person would rather do.

JP (07:22): And so, you know, I really feel for people who are put in that situation, and then the, the thing that they feel is the only alternative is to resign. I think, I think that that’s very sad.

C (07:35): Yeah. Especially, yeah, I think in that situation, those really, it sounded very stressful. Pre- pandemic a year in, and then the pandemic hit. And obviously if something’s not going well before a global pandemic, I think a global pandemic could possibly swing it to not as, you know, even worse. Yeah.

But it would be great if the pandemic had made it better for people in certain ways. Like people thought, Oh, I have to change, you know, the way I’m doing things or I’m burning my staff out. Or, you know, if there was a level of awareness because the common definition of burnout, it seems like through some research I did is the loss of meaning in one’s work. And coupled with mental, emotional, or physical exhaustion as the result of long-term unresolved stress. So it just seems like it’s stress every day. And I got this from the website, “This is calmer”, which I can help link in the description below later, but they also list the five stages of burnout, which can be helpful for all of us in measuring out what it takes of burnout.

C (08:48): And according to this article, it seems like in the five stages, the first one is the honeymoon phase of being at a job, a new job or something like this, where we have the job satisfaction, high level of commitment being challenged, et cetera. And this is where we kind of want to sustain our level of activity because the next stage actually goes to onset of stress and it just goes gradually worse. Or else the fifth stage is like complete stress and we’re no longer able to function well or function at all. It seems like the fifth stage. So it seems like this honeymoon phase is where we want to keep ourselves in any sort of position is yeah, where we are engaged and we have energy to do our work and we have a personal life and things like that. Yeah. What do you think about that, Jo?

The Burnout Cycle

JP (09:44): Well, other than being like, I can see I’ve seen that happen before and I, I can see that those phases get worse and worse. And the reason that that gets worse is, and I want to focus on that word that you said when in your definition from thisiscalmer.com, it’s unresolved stress. So when you, when you, when you are faced with something new, say a new job, it could be a new role within the job or a new project. There’s a feeling of, we call it, youstress, it’s actually good stress. And that that’s because even though you may feel like you are being challenged, that the resources you have, you know, like your mental resources or maybe the knowledge you have about that role or that project is more, is limited. In accordance to the demands that you’re required to, you know, kind of meet or address you, you kind of feel it’s sort of a positive emotion because you are in a state of learning.

JP (10:44): And maybe you’re finding particularly for an environment where there’s a lot of support and reinforcement. You’ll probably you know, taking quite an optimistic view of the future. So, so even though there’s a bit of youstress, it’s good stress because it’s it’s, you, you, you have a more positive view of, of that being resolved because we all remember we all, when we all start something new and we tell ourselves, “Oh, but I’m only new and I’ll learn as I go. And other people tell us too, “Oh, you’ve only been here two or three weeks. You know, I’m sure that, you know, by, by six months you will have it.” Now, the unresolved stress comes in when you get to six months and you still don’t have it, or the demands are still exceeding what you can address in terms of the resources that you have.

JP (11:34): And it might be that you don’t have the knowledge. You might, you might not have the ability. You might not have the supportive environment. It might be that there is just too much work to do. And the, the culture around you or the, the management is it could be a leadership problem too. Is it prioritizing well enough for you, or allowing you to prioritize so that you’ve just got a long to do list and it never gets done. And so what that, in that situation, that’s, that starts to become stress destress and burnout, and you get to burn out when that cycle just keeps repeating itself. So often we can experience stress and it’s it can be, it can be mild, or it can be a large amount of stress, but, but we, we sometimes experience that in a short time and then it gets resolved.

JP (12:29): So, you know, often you hear people say, “Oh, you know, the last two weeks, I’ve been really busy, very slammed with work, but I know that, you know, this week I can take it easy and regroup.” That regroup and that recovery is what’s required for us to cope with stress because the other side of stress is coping strategies. And what kind of coping we have at our disposal to deal with the demands of stress. Burnout occurs when those coping strategies no longer work, and they no longer work because the culture or environment of the workplace is not addressing the stress. And so, even though perhaps the individual is trying to cope with that manner of stress, there’s just no relief. There’s no support in the environment. Or sometimes individuals just have ineffective coping strategies too. So it can be happening because, you know, there’s something going on for that person individually, or it could be that there’s an environmental issue, or sometimes it’s both.

JP (13:35): And so, so you get to burn out when you’ve got this prolonged repeated cycle of stress, try to cope, it doesn’t work stress, try to cope, it doesn’t work. And so what you get is this feeling of absolute hopelessness, and that’s where people feel at burnout, that utter exhaustion, where they just, and they’ll tell you, they just do not have anything else to give. They are just, I feel fatigued. They just feel like every ounce of, you know, if, if we were like you know, a cup, every ounce of liquid in that cup is, has just been drunk dry. There’s just no way. And so, so, so that’s why I, I feel for people in that state, because there’s this absolute despair around that. And it’s very difficult to see how to, how to move out away from that. And that’s why, like, you know, to your point earlier, that’s why a lot of people just decide to take themselves out of that situation because they just hadn’t been able to resolve it within that context.

C (14:43): [Inaudible] And sometimes that is the right thing to do if there’s no long-term changes. Yeah. Yeah. And I also just wanted to clarify that I found in helpguide.org with an article on burnout prevention and recovery, which will also link that it’s not just from jobs that people can experience burnout it’s anywhere in life, where people are overworked and undervalued is basically what it says. Yeah. And I never had actually thought that because I remember experiencing burnout when I was very young in my early twenties, but it was because there was a lot of stressful family kind of issues. And I didn’t realize at that time, like I was completely burned out from those kinds of issues. So I also want to say to people who are listening that it might not be job related and there’s also burnout is also dependent on our personality and lifestyle as well. And it’ll obviously circumstances is a huge part, but it’s just a mix, I think.

JP (15:46): Yes. Yeah. And, you know, and we can never just take people outside of their total life context and just look at them at work and understand what’s happening. And that’s why, you know, I keep saying, and I’ve said for many years, we bring our whole selves to work. That’s our emotional selves, that’s our psychological self. That’s how our, our competent cognitive self as well. But we bring all our whole self to work. When we are at work, we bring our community, our family, our friends, our kids, our partners, we bring all the issues we’re having. I mean, those things just don’t go away. When we walk through an office store or when we’re at home trying to make it work remotely, you know, sort of sitting at the kitchen table or sitting in a study, they just don’t go away. People have different coping strategies though.

Address the stress

JP (16:41): So some people use coping strategies where they can compartmentalize their lives. And they can perhaps focus on one thing at a time and focus on the issues related to one context. And then you know, kind of park the other issues. That’s different. That’s not what I’m saying, but, but what I’m saying is when, when we you know, when you, when you, for example, have an employee, but those leaders out there or managers, when you have an employee, who’s obviously it’s showing signs of, you know, distress that’s D I S T R E S S, like distress, distress. Yes. Yeah. So when as opposed to youstress, which is positive stress, you know, distress, then you, you need to kind of have a conversation about what’s going on for that person, which may be a conversation, which is not, it may, may or may not be just about work, like to your point.

JP (17:38): So it’s actually about leaning in, be curious, ask them what’s going on, what’s happening at home because the other really effective sort of buffer to stress is social support. So people that have that feel supported in their social network so will more likely experience less, or be able to cope with, you know, less burnout and will be able to cope with more stress. So, in other words, for example, you, Christy, if you, if you feel like you have a very strong social network outside of work, that could even be a buffer to the stress that you experience at work, and then even more so, if you’re at work and you feel like you have a really lovely, strong, supportive you know, network of colleagues at your workplace, then that’s going to buffer that, that experience with stress as well. It’s a coping strategy for you.

JP (18:38): You can, you can lean on, on that support. People who don’t have that support are going to find it more difficult to really you know, address or resolve that stress. And so you know, social support is super important and it, and it can come in both in both of those areas, you know, some people find it in their church, for example, and in their communities, it doesn’t even have to be very proximal or, you know, like it doesn’t have to be something that’s close up and you know, it doesn’t, I’m not talking about the people living with you at home. I’m talking about, when you think about who you might go to to talk about a problem, you know, who are the people you think about? Where are they, who, you know, cause that is the perception of support that you have that perception, regardless of actually, whether it’s real or not is going to be an enormous buffer against stress.

C (19:36): Well, that’s very, very true, like seeking out a community. Yeah. I definitely benefit from that is that I do go to church every Sunday and we like such a great community, I think, and it’s really helped us out from beginning of our marriage all the way to now. It’s just, we had premarital counseling, we had support, we had people who were for us. And so that’s why I feel like, yeah, we couldn’t have done it on ourselves and have a successful marriage.

JP (20:07): Wonderful example, Christy, because I think a lot of people, you know particularly newlyweds, you know, people who are newly kind of committing to each other in that way, they just feel like they have to do it all themselves. And they can’t admit that, you know, there, there might be some, some issues that they need to resolve so…

C (20:25): Yeah, I know this is a business podcast, but I highly recommend premarital counseling for anyone listening. And I don’t know you’re getting married. Yes. Premarital counseling very recommended with people you trust. So according to the help guide also in terms of burnout, there’s these three R’s that it mentioned, and it was recognize, reverse and build up resilience. So that’s, I thought that was really fitting. These steps are for everyone regardless of position and title. So there might be different demands on leaders versus employees, but burnout really can happen to anyone as we discussed before. Yeah. So what do you think Jo about?

JP (21:12): Yeah, I was going to say, yeah, I think that that’s a, probably a nice, easy way to remember to address the stress. And so, and noticing it, recognizing it is the first thing. And we talked about this in a, in a podcast earlier that we did on compassion in the workplace, because the first part of creating a compassionate workplace is, is noticing. And and so, so that’s actually really important. I have, I’ve had people and unfortunately more than once, I’ve had people come to me and they’ve, they’ve always got the same story. And the story is, you know, I was feeling really stressed and the workload is unmanageable and, you know, I I’ve been trying to cope with it on my own and, and everybody else is in the same boat. And, and then, you know, and then I’ll often ask, well, have you spoken to your manager yet?

Take time to recover

Dr. Josephine Palermo (22:08):

My manager knows about it. But that they’re not doing anything and that’s where it stops. So, so noticing and recognizing something is, is wrong is really important. But sometimes, you know, and that’s why I like these three ‘R’s. Cause it’s a nice way to remember. Sometimes it’s not, you don’t just stop there. I often have, you know, I can’t count the amount of times people say to me that their managers know, their team leaders know, the business owner knows and they just do nothing. And often they’ll, they’ll turn around and they’ll say, yeah, but if the work just needs to get done and, and stop, like that’s a resolution, that’s not a resolution. The work just needs to get done is not addressing the elephant in the room that someone’s, you know, feeling distress and on the, maybe on the verge of burnout. Yeah, because, you know, cause the other thing we haven’t talked about is it takes time to recover from burnout.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (23:13):

People often experience physiological issues related to burnout. It’s not something you want to get. It’s like, COVID, it’s not something you want to get because even if you recover, there are these long-term issues that might stay with you. You do not want to get to a point where you are so depleted. You are so exhausted that you, you just are in kind of this despair and sometimes it can lead to depression. You don’t want that. So you want to stop it. You want to recognize that and do something about it. And the amount of times I hear people say, you know that, you know, yes, it’s being recognized, but nobody’s doing anything. So the next part of that, the “reverse” to me is an action word. And that’s why I like that as well. It doesn’t have to be “reverse”. It can be “stop”. It can be, “do something different”.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (24:08):

You know, but “reverse”, I like that metaphor because it means somehow you’re, you’re, you’re putting on the brakes, you’re stopping what you’re doing today. And you’re reflecting on how you can do it, how you can do it better or how you can do it differently. Or maybe you’re even giving some people time out because that can be what they need often. Doesn’t mean they need a whole month off. They might need a week off just completely to turn off and experience just that period of time where they just don’t have that demand because it’s the demand equation.

Balancing demand and resource

Dr. Josephine Palermo (25:08):

Stress is like an equation. On one side, we have demand. Workload is demand. The to-do list is demand. On the other side, we have our resources as an individual, your resources are your ability, your knowledge, your physical hours in the day, that you’re able to commit to something. You know, that the time it takes, but it’s also the effectiveness the way in which, and that’s actually where team effectiveness comes in too because when you have teams that aren’t effective, it’s going to add to, it’s not going to add in a positive way to that resource equation. You’re going to… it’s costly, yeah very costly. So still got the demand and you’re not actually able to, to, you know, kind of be using the resources in an optimal way. So, so you know, that equation is really important. So I like that reverse because the reverse means somehow your you want to bump up the resources. There are two things you can do. Actually you can bump up the level of resource you bring to someone. So that’s hire more staff, get them some help, get people off this project and all swarming on that project that needs help, whatever that is.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (26:01):

Or you eliminate the demand or you reduce the demand and you do that by telling someone they, they just need to take a week off to, to avoid that. Or you, you re-prioritize the demand for them. You say, okay, you’ve got 10 things on your list. Just work on one thing, get that done. And then we’ll look at the other nine. So, so this is, this is it’s it’s, it’s, it’s kind of easy to think about it that way. It’s like a, almost like a, you know, there’s old fashioned weighing scales. Well, you already got one side tips the other side, that’s where you need the balance. And ideally, ideally for thriving in an environment at work, you always want people to almost feel like they have more resources than demand. And what that means is they, they can, they know how to pull on resources if the demand ever gets higher.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (26:52):

So you, some ways you want the scales to be tipped towards resources. And then the other, the other part of that, you know, the three R’s recognize, reverse, and resilience. That last part resilience is about developing a bit of muscle in terms of your competency to deal with stress. When we resolve stress. In other words, when our, when our coping strategies kick in, and it resolves that issue, we have more confidence in our ability to cope with stress and that confidence is also part of the equation because it leads to optimism and it kind of counteracts that feeling of, you know, not being able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Is the, the kind of opposite to that- if you know that you can cope with stress, even though you know, that for example, the next period of time is going to be a highly stress invoking environment. If you have the confidence that you’ll, you have coping strategies in place and you know, they work, then you’re more, that’s resilience. You’re more likely to to go into that period and, and be effective.

Christy (28:05):

Yeah, absolutely.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (28:07):

So it’s a, self-fulfilling prophecy, the most success you have, the more confidence you get that, those strategies work when you apply them again, you, you feel more resilient.

Christy (28:17):

Yeah. And I think this you know, as the generations pass, like I’m in the cusp of the millennial generation, like, and this was not something that was really taught, like this kind of culture or language around burnout was not really taught. So there were statistics that I saw that it says the most burnt out sort of age range is between 20 something to 44. Wow. And I wonder if it’s because like even recognizing what it is. Yeah. Cause I didn’t have any knowledge of why I was so burnt or just really exhausted or fatigued when it happened. And I had no idea of why, but like if I had learned this earlier, I think I would have definitely had some steps of, you know, trying to reverse it, like and not let myself like really needed the time to recover because recovery time is costly because it takes so long to try to recover from years of something. It’s not a quick fix. So yeah, for those people who are wondering they’re business owners and they’re talking about your money people. Yeah. It is, you know, humans can’t work like machines and, but humans are more worth it for sure.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (29:42):

Oh, absolutely. And you know, and, and, and to that, to that, we, we know, I mean, there’s a lot of research that says that you need staff who are engaged in the work that they’re doing. And that means they’re finding meaning in the work that they’re doing. And they’re actually able to work effectively because they’re not experiencing this constant distress all the time. And we, and all the, all the studies know that that makes a difference to, you know, revenue and profitability. And it also improved safety culture, importantly as well, you have people who are disengaged or feeling, you know, cause when you have people on the brink of burnout, they are disengaged, right. So you will have higher safety incidences, you know, breaches of safety. And you know, that can get quite dangerous. You have, I know you also had higher turnover as we’ve been talking about as well.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (30:34):

All of these are costly. All of these are costly to the business. What you want in the, the opposite of that is highly engaged people, which are you know, experiencing a sense of absorption and vigor in the work that they’re doing the opposite to feeling like you just can’t handle the workload. You can’t manage the workload or there’s too much stress going on in the workplace. Because demand can come from other things other than workload, by the way, Christy can come from, for example, expectations around certain ways of behaving. It can come from also just a set of other, you know, sort of values that are misaligned to your own values or, you know, demand is like, we’ve been talking about workload, but it might be other things. It might be just definitely other expectations. But what you want is for is for people to feel like they’re in flow when they’re working. So they’re dedicated to what they’re doing. They can immerse themselves in it, they’re absorbed in it. They’re they feel a sense of vigor, vigor is kind of old fashioned word, vigor.

Christy (31:54):

As always thank you for listening and a very Merry Christmas to all of you. We’re taking a couple of weeks off and won’t be back until mid January in 2021. We hope you get some real rest. And if you are wanting to continue the conversation on burnout, please reach out to us at [email protected] And we will do our best to answer. In the meantime, we hope you stay well and we wish you the best of the remaining 2020, and we’ll chat again next time, bye for now and take care.

Dr. Josephine Palermo (32:27):

But you know, when you think about what bigger means, it’s like I’m full of energy. That’s opposite to burn out where you’re like a flat pancake and you have, you have no energy. Hmm.

Christy (32:41):

Yeah, I think we can, this is definitely a topic that I wouldn’t mind talking about again, if people are interested, but as always, we do have to wrap it up. So thank you.

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