Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour

Ep. #6. Overcoming Tiredness, Exhaustion and Burnout

March 10, 2022 Jean Balfour Season 1 Episode 6
Making Sense of Work with Jean Balfour
Ep. #6. Overcoming Tiredness, Exhaustion and Burnout
Show Notes Transcript

Are you on the tiredness/exhaustion/burnout continuum?

A recent McKinsey study suggested that over 50% of us at work are exhibiting signs of burnout.

In this episode Jean Balfour shares her own very personal story of Burnout and what she learnt from it. 

She goes on to share

  • Signs and symptoms of exhaustion and burnout
  • Possible causes from our working lives
  • Her approach to recovery
  • A call to action to leaders and organisations to take exhaustion seriously. 

She ends on a high note - sharing how fully recovery is possible - bringing back enjoyment and meaning in work. 

The Way of Integrity by Martha Beck

Singapore Botanic Gardens

Mindfulness and Meditation apps

Cal Newport on ways of working -

You can find Jean Balfour here -

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Hi everyone.And thanks for joining this episode of making sense of.Have you experienced exhaustion in the past12months at any point?Or have you wondered whether you're burnt out so many clients,friends and family talking about their lives?And how they seem to be just getting increasingly busy and hectic.A recent McKinsey study showed that over50%of people were reporting symptoms of burnout.And they think that that was heavily underreported because there's some research showing that when people are burned out,they don't answer surveys.For many of us,this a problem.And we are in a state of tiredness or exhaustion and for some of us burnout quite a lot of the time.And in this episode,I'm looking into what's happening and what we can do about it.But this holds,it's a very personal story for me.I've had a real journey of burnout myself,and I'd like to share with you a bit about that journey,what I've learned from it and what I think the lessons.And that journey really carries a lot of hope.I'm really in a very good space.Now I'm fully on the other side of the burnout.In fact,I,I kind of feel ready and motivated and I'm really enjoying life again.So as we go into this conversation today,I'd like to share with you what it is that I've done and I've learnt I am.Still testing strategies to make sure that I don't go there again and I can share some of those with you.And I've looked at the research to see what it's saying about what's good for.So here's my story.It was mid2020when I really realized that I finally wanted to name what was happening to me as burnout.It was actually really hard to name it.I didn't want to own up to my own humanity and it felt like a real weakness.In fact,it took a good friend calling my partner.And expressing big concern that I began to wake up to what was really happening.And I think it was actually that it was impacting others that I really began to take it seriously.I was actually quite depressed by this point.Crying a lot more than normal.I am somebody who cries,but this was more than normal.I'd really lost motivation for my work.You know,I ran a company,this wasn't a good space to be in.I was struggling to focus.I was pretty moody and I was snapping at people a lot.And.I was doing a lot of blaming for my own state.It was like,I was kind of looking at the external world and saying it was all everybody else's fault,but mine.I couldn't see how anything I was doing was helping people.I'd lost a sense of value in what it was that I was bringing to my actual work.And so this was a real problem.I do a job that's about helping people and I was really lost in seeing that that was making any difference at all.I am really grateful to my friends for helping me to see how bad I was.But even as I was preparing for this.I remembered some of the shame I felt I CA I really can't believe that I felt both so bad and so ashamed about talking about it.And that really,it took for people around me to notice this for me to accept it,but accepted.I did.So what was it that caused it really?By the time I hit rock bottom.Um,our coach training business was doing quite well.We had a lot of students studying with us simultaneously.I had my own consulting and coaching practice that I was doing.Um,we were also right about six months into COVID.This happened at the middle of2020,and it was the,uh,First locked down.Really.It was the first period where we were at home.I'm not convinced that COVID was a big contributor.I think,uh,the only impact it had was that perhaps I was working a little bit harder because we weren't sure what was going to happen to businesses at that stage,but actually we were already an online business.So I wasn't totally worried about that.The things that were triggering me,I think we're to do with the nature of work.I was working a lot in the evenings and I am not an evening person.And I,um,I really liked to go to bed at nine o'clock,but I counted up that in2020,I ran52evening workshops that run between6:00PM and9:00PM.And then often I'd need to be up in the morning for meetings.And,uh,back on again,doing things I never really regained my energy.The other thing that happened was that,of course,because of this,there was a lot of operations in our business,so that had grown and I am not naturally an operational person.So that was causing me quite a bit of stress.There's also been things happening prior to the stage.I'd been building a business and a new country here in Singapore,and I was tired I think,from that alone.There were also other causes,as I've said,I'm not a natural operations manager.And so all the focus on the details was taking me away from my strengths and it really took me into areas that.Well,not only word strengths,but really drained me.So there were many things,not just one thing that led to the state.I was doing too much work.I was working too many hours and I was working hours that didn't suit.And I was doing work that didn't play to my strengths.And I couldn't see where I add any value to this.Now it's worth remembering that I also run my own business.So I have control over the situation and despite all the blaming I was doing,I really had to stop and look and see that I couldn't blame anyone else.I had to take full responsibility for it myself,and look at what I was.So after I finally acknowledged the state,I was in a few things,began to change.And the first was the arrival of two wonderful people who arrived to help in the business.And they were both friends and they came to really support me.They particularly helped with the operations and that was sorted out and started running smoothly.And that made a big difference.And then I was able to step back enough and say,okay,what's my long-term strategy for recovery.Now I needed actually at this point to be very honest with myself about the part I was playing and that I'm quite a driven person.I like to work.It's kind of part of my identity.It's important to me.And.So I must have been contributing to the problem in some way.I was already trying to do a lot of things,right.I was journaling.I had a good meditation practice.I was practicing gratitude that wasn't solving the problem.I think that some of the problem was some of this bit about my personal drive.I'm strongly a pleased people person.So I like to keep people happy.I also have a try harder focus of if that doesn't work,try something else.And so those things,I think we're playing into the fact that I was just working,not putting it down,trying to keep everybody happy and not looking after myself.The next part of my recovery once the business was a bit sorted out,was to really step back and allow myself some time and some space.I sought the help of a therapist and that helped me a lot.And that really helped me to work on things like my please people driver,and also to think about the practical things.How I was going to get myself back out of the state of exhaustion.I had a fantasy,I think like a lot of us do about a big stop and taking a lot of time off.Uh,some of you will remember,I talked about having a sabbatical and that,uh,in a way didn't happen.But what I did do was I managed to work at a slower pace.I slowed down.and.Actually I realized that that was important for me because I do in a good day gain a lot of meaning and satisfaction from work to actually stop might've caused a bigger problem because then I would have lost the things that actually feed me.And so I carried on working,but at a slower pace,I also did quite a bit of reading.And the one book that really had an impact was a book called the way of integrity by Martha Beck,which I read last year.In fact,Oprah has just chosen this as one of her book club books.So it's gone viral.The premise of Martha's book is that we need to look inside ourselves and be really honest,really,really honest.And when I did this,I could see that many of the places.That weren't working in my working life were my own contribution and that I needed to be honest about that.I slowly got better.And as I got better,I began to look more at what is it that feeds me and realize that really creating and designing courses,coaching programs helps.I actually.Decided to create the podcast as a part of this period as a way of doing something creative.So that helped,that really helped me on my journey to recovery.And I really began to get into.Into more coaching,doing more coaching,which is also very important part of my life because I feel deeply rewarded when I'm able to help people to make the changes that they need to be making in their lives.And so here I am,18months later,I'm really back.In fact,I feel in a very different space.I feel good in myself.I'm ready for new chapter at work,and I can see that burnout.Uh,terrible thing really bad.I never imagined that I would go there that way,but there's also possible to really come out the other side.And so I want to see if I can help you to think about what can you do if you're in this tiredness,exhaustion,or hopefully not burnout state,what can you do to recover and what can we do to prevent it?Because that's also part of the story.I think that we need to be learning about.I looked at the research about what are the signs and symptoms of burnout.And I was a pretty much a textbook case,actually,lack of motivation,being cynical,or critical,um,trouble getting started with work.Even for those of us who are generally pretty motivated,being irritable,low energy,finding it hard to concentrate,lacking satisfaction.As you heard me say,I struggled to see where I was getting value from my job,using things like food or alcohol or other things to help.I didn't do masses of that,but perhaps was drinking a bit more than I should.And then other things like perhaps sleep changes or some people get palpitations when they're very stressed and very tired.And then of course there's the low mood or depression.All of those things,you might notice that you've got several of those or one or two of them,but I think it's good for us to begin to be earlier on diagnosing some of these challenges and thinking,what could I be doing about this to solve the problem.And so one of those is to begin to look at the causes what's causing me to go into this space.Before,I go into what the individual causes might be.I want to say a bit about organizations.We have,in my view,a systemic problem with our organizations.We have an idea that we always need to be on that.We need to have a hundred priorities of many of us.Worried that if we're not working full-time all the time,it would negatively impact our job.And many organizations I think are perpetuating that.There's some research that's showing that hybrid working has made this worse because things are a bit more ambiguous.So people need to feel the need to kind of prove that they're online,that they're working.And so as we look at how we can deal individually with the causes,I really.don't want to ignore this.I think that,uh,Lee for those of you who are leaders.For example,we need to be talking daily in our organizations about what are we doing about work overload about the fact that jobs have got too big and how are we going to support employees to lead a more sustainable life?Because otherwise we'll continue to see what we're seeing with the great resignation is that many key and valued people will leave because it's become too hard to work.So having said all of that,there are some other things that I think that we,as individuals can do to prevent exhaustion or to fix if we're already in that state.Um,and so these are things like.Getting back to what our values or our strengths are looking at our working lives or even our personal lives and saying,can I express more of the things that feed me in a different way?It may be that one of the things is that we're working with some difficult colleagues or a challenging boss or what some would describe as a toxic work environment.And we may need to look at that and see what our choices.As I've said,we may have work overload.We may have lost control or feel we don't have enough autonomy.Daniel Pink's work about motivation showed that having autonomy in the level that we needed,everybody has a different need for autonomy,but actually that affects our motivation,our mood and our stress.We may have unmanaged fears or anxieties,and these can seem to be a bit small about worried about what a colleague thinks about an email I've sent right through to anxiety about whether I'll lose my job or struggling with confidence and not thinking I'm good enough.So it can be a whole range of things.And these whirr away inside are some cause us to feel tired and have lethargy,I think.And they also take up energy having those kinds of worrying thoughts.It may be that we're actually in the wrong job.It may be that we are too introverted for our extroverted job and having to be out there all the time is actually wearing us out.Or it may be the other way round.We may be working from home and we're a very extroverted person and that's causing us a problem because the being out with people is not feeding us.There might be some practical.Uh,a sense of unfairness about the way you're being rewarded for your job that could be happening.Um,or it may be that there's too much complexity in the type of work that you've got.And finally,it might be.You haven't got enough time to even stop and think and look at whether you're doing a job well done.And of course it could be many other things,but as you're thinking about it,I think it's worth us being honest.In fact,this was the thing I learned from Martha Beck was to really be honest with myself.What is it about my work that is not working for me?And what can I do about it to come up with a solution?Which brings me on to what can we do?So why the prevent getting into this space?That's the ideal,or if we're in there,what can we do to recover from it?So my own story,I think tells a tale of the first step of this,that owning up can actually be really hard.I think we can feel that we ought to be able to cope and that if we're saying I'm tired,I'm exhausted or I'm burnt out that we,people will see us as lesser.I think it's tied up with,uh,some of the stigma.And we're really concerned about talking to people.But unless we begin to own up at least to ourselves and perhaps to a couple of close friends,we're not going to be able to sort it out.We're not going to be able to work out what it is that we need to do.And,you know,as I said,I really felt a lot of shame about this.So I'm with you in the sense of not wanting to talk about it,but when I began to talk about it,I was able to take charge.So I,I guess I encourage you to really be honest with yourself about where you are.And I think the next thing is actually that it's important to either slow down or stop that we somehow need to take a bit of time out to step back.Our nervous system when we're in this stressed and burnt out state is on high alert.Uh,we're probably in a bit of fight flight or freeze.And in that state,we can't think clearly.So we can't begin to plan our recovery.I do,as I've said,I think a lot of us didn't fantasize about taking a lot of time off,you know,let's have six months live on a beach.I'm not convinced that's the solution,because if we step away fully,we might lose our sense of meaning.We might worry about our job,but also we might not then work out how we find a long-term sustainable solution to the situation that we're in.And so if we can find a way to perhaps slow down to take shorter breaks,maybe even just a three week holiday.So take an extended holiday,doing anything that's going to help us to slow.Stop,but perhaps not in this kind of extended way,which may in itself cause problems.We can then stop and look at the causes.And this may be that you decide to do this with the help of a coach or a therapist.And particularly if you're noticing that your mood is very low,I would suggest finding a good therapist and.Or do it with a friend or a colleague,or maybe you have a very trusted manager that you who you can talk to and begin to look at.What is it about my working life or my personal life or the combination of the two that's leading me to the state of burnout and exhaustion.And then of course,by understanding the causes will begin to help you to identify the strategies are going to put in place.And in an ideal world,you would be able to talk to your manager about the situation and for some of you that will be straightforward because you trust them.But for others that might be problematic.They may be part of the problem.And so it may be difficult to do that.So,if that's not the case,then have a look around in your organization for someone you can trust and then start to confide in them.Don't hold it into yourself.There's so much research that shows that by talking about what's going on for us,it helps us to come up with our own solutions.It's cathartic.It helps us to expressing the express,the feelings so that we can feel them,notice them,talk about them and then let them.Something I did.That's been really helpful was I looked for small daily things that I could do that might help me to bring about the change.One of my goals was to not be so exhausted that I spent the entire weekend,wanting to sleep,because I'd been too busy during the week.I put a few things in place.You could try some of them.I.Took very seriously,the less digital time.The first thing I did was I turned my work emails off on my phone.So I had to log into my computer.So look at my emails,which actually meant I did it less.Um,I also made a commitment not to look at my emails,evenings or weekends,although have to own up,it's like I did it last night.And then I was thinking about particular email before I went to bed.And I know that that's the kind of thing that doing it every day,really contributes to my stress and tiredness.And so putting little boundaries around your time and things that you can do.Anything that you can do to really detach from work and be other places helps if you're worried about doing that and you think,wow,you know,when I'm detached,actually I begin to solve problems.I noticed that when that happened,I'd grabbed my phone to write the solution down.And then I was looking at my phone.So instead I kept a notebook close by.And if I kind of thought about something and thought,do I want to remember that tomorrow?I wrote it in a notebook so that I didn't go back.Uh,devices basically.There are lots of things that you'll know time with family and friends can really help doing things like playing board games or going for a nice walk,even watching some telly together,cooking meals together,anything that's going to give you time that's with people where you're stepping away from the day-to-day grind.Of course,for some of you cooking the meal might be the day-to-day grind.So whatever it is,that's going to help you with that space,walking in nature.Incredibly beneficial in any way that you can find a way to do that.For me,the Singapore Botanic gardens became a real Haven.In fact,I've been there for a few hours this morning before recording this.I know when I go there that my system down-regulates and I can really come back into myself.And that leads me on to another area that I think,uh,we don't talk about enough and this is what I would kind of call rumination time.This is time where we take a complete break from doing anything that our brain needs to focus on.That includes listening to podcast.So this is building in some absolute,nothing time,and it might just be15minutes where you make a cup of tea and sit somewhere quietly.And just think anytime that you've got where your brain is not focusing,gives your brain a bit of a rest and rest is good for recovery.So it could be,uh,that you go for a walk outside without listening to anything.Or you,as I say,sit with a cup of tea somewhere,or you look out the window,anything that's going to help lie down on your bed without sleeping,but just kind of lie there thinking.And that of course leads on to mindfulness and meditation,which I do really believe helps enormously but often when we're really stressed,it can feel really,really hard to stop and stop thinking.And so if that's true for you,try some guided meditations,there are lots of different places that you can go to find those.I'll put a couple in the show notes and.If that's not going to work,do something that helps you connect with your body.That might be some yoga go swimming,pilates run.Um,I've mentioned walking several times.I think walking is very healing for us in this process.So anything that's going to give your brain some downtime,give your brain some rest in all of this.We are of course,hoping that we're going to be able to really fix those causes.So that's really about looking at values and strengths.Um,for me,it was stopping pleasing people.It may be for you about how you work out,where you get meaning in your work and what you can do to change that and improve it.You might want to look at the way you're working and that may lead you to looking at some of your productivity strategies.Um,I'm a big fan of Cal Newport's work again,I'll put a link in the show notes.His book Deep Work really impacted me.He also has a podcast,which I listened to sometimes.And so some of the things that I've done as a result of him is I have uninterrupted work time,or I closed my emails and I do other pieces of work.He would call that time blocking I manage.I have a very good list system where.Basically,it's a parking lot where I put things and then I go and get them.So I've not gotten them on my mind.Um,I am intentionally thinking about productivity and notice I'm not calling it time management because I don't think it's that.I think time management's really a thing of the past,but I'm just thinking about how I can do my work in the shortest time,in the best way.So here we are.There's a lot we can do to help ourselves come back from exhaustion and burnout or to prevent it or to learn to notice it.It really does take time and it takes a commitment from ourselves to heal and organizations.And those of you who are leaders that takes a commitment from our organizations to begin to take the seriously and think about how we can work differently.But I want to finish by saying it's really worth it.I am so much more motivated.I'm and life a lot more and that's a huge relief.I'm an ambitious person.I like to work and I'm really happy to be back.I've really learned so much about myself,about how to look after myself about how to stop myself from heading to burn out.And I want to really encourage you to look at how you can do that and how you can put things in place to take care of yourself.