This is a series where I explore what a HR leader should be looking for when they seek to bring an external speaker or training partner to address burnout. It seeks to define what burnout is (as opposed to resilience, mental health and well being) and what great looks like in this space.
As a keynote speaker, I usually begin my talks with a provocation: ‘we’re experiencing mass burnout and are in danger of reaching a tipping point where we can’t recover.’
This is not hyperbole. According to Gallup's recent report, Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures, 76% of employees experience burnout on the job at least sometimes, and 28% say they are burned out "very often" or "always" at work. A study by Indeed, reveals that employee burnout has only gotten worse over the last year: more than half (52%) of respondents are feeling burned out, and more than two-thirds (67%) believe the feeling has worsened over the course of the pandemic.
When we think of burnout, we typically think of being signed off work. It’s actually a messy spectrum that’s hiding in plain sight. On one side, we are rested, fresh, revitalised; and on the other side, we are exhausted, lost our zest for life, and unproductive. How many of you reading this are on the depleted side of the spectrum? As a burnout keynote speaker, I like to start with the most obvious of questions: ‘When was the last time you felt fully energised?’
Most people cannot tell, and this is because the prevailing Issue is the normalisation of burnout. It has become the sea we swim in. It’s therefore helpful to return to the World Health Organisation’s diagnostic criteria, which characterises burnout along three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion
increased mental distance from one’s job or feelings negative or cynical towards one’s career
reduced professional efficacy.
Despite countless news articles dedicated to the subject, there’s still a relatively shallow understanding of the underlying mechanism of burnout. It’s essentially a physical phenomenon, where the demands of life become too much for our bodies to handle. Medically speaking, chronic stress increases your allostatic load: the cumulative burden of chronic stress on a physiological level.
Through a cascade of effects, burnout:
Disrupts your sleep, where you detoxify and renew at a cellular level
Impacts the gut, disrupting the microbiome which regulates our immune system; and mood via the gut-brain axis
Increases hypertension, lead to higher insulin and increased risk of a diabetes and heart problems
Taxes the adrenals, which produces these stress hormone adrenaline, eventually creating adrenal fatigue
Creates free radicals (unstable atoms) which damage the mitochondria cells, which are power house of the body
Triggers chronic inflammation which is at the root cause of many chronic illnesses
A 2017 Harvard study suggested that stress could be as important a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke as smoking or high blood pressure. The internet age is like living in a smoking room with people occasionally blowing smoke directly in your face.
As a burnout keynote speaker, I have to pause at this point, to give people a brief lesson on complexity science, which I will repeat for your benefit too.
Your body, like our climate system and the economy, is a complex system. Like all complex systems, it exists in a dynamic equilibrium or balance. All complex systems go through long periods of stability followed by rapid change into a new system state.
The reason they remain in a stable equilibrium for a long time is because they have buffers that absorb negative impacts and disruption. Think about how a downturn in an economic system can be absorbed by public finances if its running a healthy deficit; or how polar ice caps or rainforests are buffers that absorb carbon. Complex systems also have breaks on change. Think about Incumbent business resists reforms to capitalism, or how our Immune system fights off pathogens.
However, when a convergence of factors happen, it erodes our buffers and overwhelms our breaks on change. This creates a rupture point, where the system is pushed by converging forces out of one equilibrium and into a another one. This kind of change is alinear and rapid.
Once you’re in a new equilibrium, it’s very hard to get out of. The same applies to burnout. The compound effect of stress depletes your capacity over time. Your buffers are eroded and the breaks on change grow weaker. It only takes a small convergence of factors to shift our system into an incapacitated state.
How do we cope with the ambient stress of today? We numb, distract and avoid. As the Founder of Tough Cookie, Michael Matania, likes to say: we do this with the help of:
Booze: that evening glass of wine, that turns into half a bottle
Carbs: the rotation of biscuits, crisps, and chips; and
Smartphones: Endlessly scrolling on Facebook, being glued to What’s App, Instagram, LinkedIn and email.
I’ll also add overwork to this list. For many people, it’s an incredible source of validation that helps shield us from difficulties and dissatisfaction in our wider lives.
What is the mechanism of action here? Our nervous systems become dysregulated through stress, this triggers a fight, flight, freeze response, with a corresponding cascade of hormones (norepinephrine and cortisol) and these illicit feelings of anxiety and fear. It’s like a mini chasm opens up within us. We can’t bear to feel it and we fill it with whatever addiction best soothes us.
This is best captured in a tweet that came to define lockdown: ’the gap between my morning coffee and evening wine is growing shorter and shorter and this gap is filled with biscuits.’
I know all of this to be true from direct experience. I spent most of my twenties on the path to senior leadership, studying politics at Oxford, becoming a lead futurist to the Foreign Office at the age of 24. On the outside I was flying high, but on the inside I was struggling to cope with the overwhelming pressure. My buffers were being progressively eroded. By the time I was in my early thirties, I had become the Head of Political Strategy for the global environmental movement, Extinction Rebellion. At the time, it was a global protest movement in 60 cities around the world, a powerful feat of coordination and collective imagination. I had a plethora of responsibilities, including being a spokesperson in the media, presenting their live nightly TV show to a huge global audience, and developing their negotiation strategy with the British Government. I didn’t know how to cope with the chronic stress it brought, and so I numbed myself with valium, lunchtime drinking, and pain killers. I masked the problem while the allostatic load increased.
Then a convergence of factors happened. I took an over the counter dopamine supplement to manage increased PTSD symptoms, but little did I know when you introduce an exogenous supply of dopamine, your body’s complex system compensates by limiting its own supply. When I tried to quit cold turkey I went into a dopamine withdrawal for three months, which symptomatically is the equivalent of coming off a heavy cocaine addiction. I went from challenging Boris Johnson in the media to shivering alone in my bed with suicidal ideation.
Far from equilibrium, I tried to improve my situation by taking yet more medication, which just pushed me further into crisis. I woke up one morning with pain all over my body, which is the sorry state I’ve been in for three years. The doctors have diagnosed me with Fibromyalgia, a chronic pain condition with symptoms including non restorative sleep, chronic fatigue, and widespread pain, all of which I have.
My story is extreme, but as HR leaders, you need to be aware that this is where your teams and organisations might be heading. The thing to watch out for is that people can appear fine on the outside, but what they are doing is enduring, until one day they can no longer.
Endurance is one of the most beautiful aspects of the human condition. We have an enormous capacity to keep going through enormous difficulty. Where endurance goes wrong is when we keep pushing through and don’t listen to our bodies. In a work context, this looks like ‘I’m really up against it, but I’m going to plough on, white knuckle it’. We convince ourselves it’s just for this project, this sprint, but the break never comes. Does it?
The better response is resilience: ‘now more than ever, I need to take a step back, design my life for balance, set firm boundaries, tend to myself, and do regular practices for my well being’. The irony is that the more stressed we get, the more blinkered we get, the more we just plough on in unproductive ways. The latest request comes in and we respond to it instinctively. We go into firefighting mode, with dwindling levels of productivity. We know we need to take a break but It becomes harder to stop, as that would mean feeling what we’ve been avoiding.
To exit this downward spiral, we need to be aware that we have (often unconscious) competing commitments. We need to manage people’s impressions at work, and the surest way to do that is to go ‘above and beyond’. We have a genuine worry that if we don’t give 110% at all times, we’ll be replaced or out-promoted by someone who does. We also find it difficult to identify and maintain our own boundaries. This is because we are also driven by a strong need for approval, and find it very uncomfortable to let people down. We also find it difficult to respect other people’s boundaries. The stress of the moment overrides our longer term commitments. We tend to pass the stress on and often down to more junior employees.
These psychological factors are mirrored in wider burnout culture. There are of course systemic factors. Shareholder capitalism with quarterly reporting requires constant short term growth on growth. We also have work cultures that celebrate Endurance. Often those that are promoted are exemplars of stamina, people who work evenings and weekends. Teams bond from being in the foxhole together
Of course, we also (mostly) know what’s good for us and live in an age with good health awareness. We basically know, to stay resilient, we need to:
Soothe our nervous system when we get stressed
Have a meditation practice to control rumination
Exercise to maintain a good mood
Get into nature
Eat whole foods
Cut down on sugar, alcohol, and caffeine
Good phone hygiene
Bedtime and morning routine
These are the top things on many people’s New Year’s resolution list. The problem is sustaining it. We eventually get stressed, become dysregulated and we reach for what will allow us to quickly numb and distract. Then the f**k it window opens: ‘Well I’ve had that glass of wine, might as well finish the bottle’, ‘ I’ve eaten that slice of cake, might as well binge for the rest of the week’.
In this downward spiral, we lose our discipline and stop doing the things that are good for us. We then do more of the things that are bad for us to soothe us. We then feel worse, and it takes more energy to do the things that are good for us. We then have even less energy reserve, meaning we need to regulate ourselves further with things that are bad for us. Down we go along the negative spiral, feeling guilt and shame, until we reach some kind of rock bottom. It usually involves waking up with a terrible hangover. The pain and dissatisfaction motivate us to change again. We recommit: ‘No wine on a school night! No phone after 8pm!’. But then we’re up and running a week, and we have a slightly challenging day, and and we say: ‘f**k it’, and the window opens again.
As a burnout keynote speaker, I offer an eight step plan to go from a negative downward spiral to a positive upward spiral. It’s designed to help us regain a sense of control over our lives, which paradoxically starts with the ability to fully allow all the thoughts, emotions and sensations that are beyond our conscious control. Being able to tolerate difficulty and sit with ourselves (one of the main capacities that mindfulness gives us) means we are less likely to reach for additions to fill the internal chasm. From here it’s about listening to our body and prioritising renewal and recovery. Once we’re back on our feet, we need to actively anticipate threats to our resilience and where we’re likely to be over exposed at work, home, in our primary relationships and in our health. Prevention is better than cure. Of course, we can’t avoid adversity, so as a keynote speaker, I teach people the neuroscience of mindsets, and how the right beliefs and attitudes can help you weather any storm.
What they don’t tell you about burnout is that, like all life adversities, it isn’t a purely negative phenomenon. At its best, it's an invitation to radically change your life. The last three years have been gruelling for me. There hasn’t been one morning I haven’t woken up in pain, nor one meal where I haven’t been in pain trying to digest for an hour after. But it’s forced me to identify and change the patterns that led me to burnout. This is a journey that took me home to Ireland to confront the loss of my brother, who died in a car accident outside our house at the age of four, something I’ve written about here. In going within, I realised that so much of my drive was an attempt to run away from the trauma of that situation.
Many of you will be familiar with the classic book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ by Victor Frankel. Drawn from his horrific four year experience of the Nazi Concentration Camps, Frankel asked the question what separated the people who couldn’t take it and killed themselves and who endured until the end? It’s about the meaning you make of it: ‘Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”.
There’s a quote from Aychluses, the founder of Greek tragedy, that extends this insight: ”pain falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, we are given wisdom, from the awful grace of God.” Whether you believe in God or not is irrelevant. Life has an uncanny way of bringing you to your knees, but this is not the end of the story. Sustained adversity can either send you into despair, or it can be the making of you.
A bridge needs to be crossed to go from being broken to being made. This is moving from a ‘to me’ to a ‘by me’ mindset. A ‘to me’ mindset is a victim mindset, where the person sees everything as (unfairly) happening to them. A ‘by me’ mindset is a creator mindset, which has let go of the idea that life is supposed to be a certain way. In this state of mind, we end blaming ourselves and others for what is happening, and instead see the purpose of life as a learning experience, where every situation presents an opportunity to learn and grow. From this new vantage point, we can use any adversity as a catalyst into a deeper life of service, in some mysterious way becoming the person we were always meant to be.
This idea is echoed in psychoanalysis. We know the expression the grit in the pearl. Something so beautiful comes from dirt subjected to intense pressure. You are not just born a remarkable person; there has to be a challenge for the personality to come through in its fullness; for the small minded, less generous parts of ourselves, living automatically, in a trance, to be cleaned off; for us to refine and mature. Think about the parent, partner, leader you’ve become. It’s been forged through challenges where we had to rise to the occasion.
The key to this is a commitment to seeing the gift in every situation that happens. In shamanic culture, the person who gets the sickest, returns as the medicine carrier. They know what extreme states of suffering are like and how to truly be there for others. As bitter a pill as it is to swallow, my medicine right now as a burnout keynote speaker, is to be a cautionary tale. My deeper medicine is to reveal that this is also an initiation into a form of leadership the world desperately needs. No matter what hardship you are enduring, this gift can be yours today.
Ronan Harrington is a keynote speaker (ronanharrington.co) and a resilience specialist at Tough Cookie.