If the World Health Organisation takes care to include something in its International Classification of Diseases, we should probably pay attention.
Earlier this year the WHO included burnout in its classification, describing it as an "occupational phenomenon" and defining it as "chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed". The global health body also listed three ways in which burnout is typically categorised:
- Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
- Increased mental distance from, or feelings of negativity or cynicism towards, one's job
- Reduced professional efficacy
It’s a little over 40 years since the term "burnout" was coined by American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger, so what has made it so prevalent now that the WHO saw fit to classify it in 2019?
And even more importantly, given that burnout can become a precursor to major depression, general anxiety and even more serious mental health conditions, is there anything we can do to combat it?
First question first.
Freudenberger defined burnout as a state of mental and physical exhaustion caused by one’s professional life, so it seems obvious that burnout is so prevalent now because of the massive and rapid disruption that has taken place in the world of work and business over the past couple of decades.
Boundaries between the workday and the rest are so blurred that for many people they’ve become non-existent. Technology, the Internet and the rise of remote work, where the workday across multiple teams and multiple timezones can be pretty close to 24 hours a day, have all contributed to the feeling that there’s no off-switch.
Adding to that, the downtime many of us have become accustomed to, including many hours spent on social media or the on-demand nature of Netflix and YouTube, has not been downtime at all, at least not for our increasingly frazzled and distracted brains.
One of the great paradoxes of our time is that so many of us are inspired and compelled by the incredible opportunities the Internet and technology presents, which allows us to work, do business and make connections in ways that would have been utterly impossible a generation ago. But still, we often feel bewildered or confused by the onslaught of information, distraction and overwhelm that is present everywhere we look, in and out of the workplaces which technology enables to follow us everywhere we go in any case.
So to the second, even more important question: if we accept that burnout is classified as something to be concerned about, and that the environments in which we live and work make us more susceptible to burnout than ever before, and that burnout can be a prelude to deeper and much more troubling physical and psychological conditions, is there anything we can do about it?
Yes there is.
Below is not a rigid framework where you must do everything at once or fail at everything. Instead, it is a menu of options that can instil a greater sense of peace or calm in the everyday workday so that you can do what you want and need to do without diminishing your energy reserves to much that you’ll crash and burn a few months or years down the line.
Respect sleep as a goddess to worship
As Professor Matthew Walker, the English scientist who has become known as one of the world’s leading experts on sleep, says, "The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep."
In general, many people these days treat sleep with disdain. We are lulled into thinking that we can use our phone as an alarm clock, or a sleep monitor, or a late-night entertainment device, and that this behaviour — so unprecedented in the history of humanity — might not have profound repercussions for the quality of our sleep, and beyond that the quality of our lives.
In Why We Sleep, Prof Walker writes: "Humans are not sleeping the way nature intended. The number of sleep bouts, the duration of sleep, and when sleep occurs has all been comprehensively distorted by modernity... Inadequate sleep — even moderate reductions for just one week — disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly that you would be classified as pre-diabetic [and] routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer."
Action point: Buy an alarm clock and leave the phone out of the bedroom. Try it for a night. Build up to a week. See if you feel more rested and energetic.
Prioritise doing something you love
So often, the things we love to do, the things that are most beneficial for our wellbeing and sense of happiness and purpose in the world, are the things that fall off our schedule as urgent business bubbles to the top.
How long has it been since you did something solely because it was something you wanted to do? What might happen if every month you prioritised two or three such things? A scheduled, guilt-free afternoon at the cinema, or a slow walk along a riverbank, or that early bird with a good friend that both of you have been talking about for the last six months?
Action point: Once a month, pick two things you want to do, pick a day and time to do them, and protect those appointments like you would an appointment with the President.
Find your work harmony
Ponder these two questions for a moment.
- What work do you most love to do?
- What work do others value most from you?
Do the answers to those questions align? If they do, then you’re certain to be in a pretty small minority. But this is the harmony most of us seek. Doing work we love, and have that same work valued by others (valued as in praised and paid for — praise alone buys very few sliced pans…) If you’re not yet in complete work harmony, don’t worry. Almost no-one is. But as with every worthwhile change, the starting point is the awareness that a change is required.
Action point: Take out a pen and paper and list out all the work tasks you love to do, and all the tasks that others value from you. Circle those that appear on both lists, and try to spend focused time on those tasks every workday.
Select one task for deep focus each day
This is a natural add-on from the previous step. Having an awareness of the work you most love, and the work that others value most from you, is a great starting point. The next big hurdle to cross is to find the time to actually do it! Our environment is more distracted than it has ever been. From the moment we wake in the morning to the moment we lay our head down at night, distraction is closing in on us from everywhere.
Our phones are magical in what they make possible for us, but that power has also been seized by many of the biggest companies on the planet, which have grown so rapidly on the back of the smartphone over the past 10 years. All of them trade on your attention. Deciding consciously to set aside a distracted body of time for a deep work task every day can have far-reaching implications for your energy, productivity, sense of achievement, self-respect and general happiness.
Action point: Choose one deep work task every day. Dedicate yourself to focused work on that single task, without allowing email or Slack or Trello or WhatsApp or a million other buzzing notifications to close in. Feel free to start small, and build up to 2-3 hours a day. And be compassionate to yourself. If you’ve become accustomed to relentless shallow work, like so many of us have, the task of dedicating yourself to a big and important task for a period of time is certain to be a challenge. Stick with it. Return when you drop off. Over time it can be a game-changer.
Commit to a gratitude practice
If the practice is new, the first time you do it it will feel like the stupidest waste of time. But here’s the thing. It works. Committing to a gratitude practice, even something as simple as taking three minutes a day to write down three things you’re thankful for, can become a superpower over time.
Neuroplasticity is real. Committing a few minutes a day to conscious thought dedicated to gratitude can recircuit the brain, so that before long we automatically notice things we’re grateful for in the other 1000-odd waking minutes of every day.
Action point: Pick up a notebook and a pen. Take three minutes every day to write down a few things you’re grateful for. From seemingly insignificant things like the milk in the fridge and the electricity that keeps it cold, to life-defining moments, like the schoolteacher who gave you a boost just when you needed it many moons ago.
Set goals that are based on activities, rather than results
Goal-setting has always been a hot topic in the world of personal and professional development. Stephen Covey, he of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, encouraged us to "begin with the end in mind". For very many people, however, achieving a particular goal brings just momentary satisfaction before our mind moves the goalposts and we’re thinking of a different summit to scale.
A different way to think about goals could be to set goals for activities rather than outcomes. So if you’re starting out in business and you’d like to strive for €5000 revenue per month, for example, you could forget about the bigger outcome and set yourself an activity goal, such as making five phone calls a day. You have a lot more control of activities than outcomes.
Action point: Think of a goal. Then think of a few activities that might help you achieve the goal. You don’t have to forget all about the goal, but the activities are often much more important. Outcomes are passive, while activities are, well, active. Focus on taking the action each day and see if it makes a dent in the big intimidating passive goal.
With always-on digital connectivity, a multiplicity of messaging apps for every situation and the dissolution of boundaries between work and non-work, there can often be a feeling of being unmoored from our physical environment and actual reality as we drift in a sea of digital distraction.
Taking a moment to ground ourselves can have far-reaching positive benefits for our sense of presence and wellbeing, which can have a big impact on our productivity and ultimately our success.
Action point: Grounding ourselves is pretty straightforward. Stand and notice your weight on the ground, or take 30 seconds to watch the wind blow or a stream flow, or touch the leaf of a tree. Grounding, literally reconnecting momentarily to the ground beneath us, does something powerful to our bodies and our minds.
Schedule anti-burnout days
The number of annual leave holidays in full-time employee packages ranges from 20 to 30. That’s four to six working weeks a year. Or an average of two days a month (and that’s not including weekends!) But the idea of "days off" is being steadily eroded. Some companies offer "unlimited holidays" knowing full well that staff offered such latitude generally take very few holidays at all.
Business owners, on the other hand, are often their own worst enemies, grinding for 16 hours a day six or seven days a week. How many days do you take off? How many days do you really take off? Even on the days when you’re not at your desk, in your office or on the shop floor, is your mind at rest? Zoning out completely can be an almost impossible task at first, but setting aside days in advance to get away, visit someone or somewhere you’ve been meaning to visit, and just breathe different air than the day to day can have a transformational effect on overall health, energy and peace of mind. And what happens when we’re healthy and energetic? Our best work, very often.
Action point: Schedule anti-burnout days. A couple of days every 4-6 weeks is often enough. Taking them either side of a weekend and stretching the reset break to four days, and doing this with commitment over time, can have massive positive impact on health and wealth. The "fear of missing out" on those days away is a real one, but possibly the surest way to guarantee missing out over the long term is to try to avoid missing out on everything in the short term.
Re-Stór, a series of one-day business retreats designed to radically recharge your business and your life, is being organised by entrepreneurs (and experienced burner-outers) Sally Murphy and Shane Breslin. The next Re-Stór takes place at Rathmullan House in County Donegal this Saturday, November 9th. Tickets are available from www.restor.ie.