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Less burnout, more being

Burnout is a normal stress response (that we don't have to live with)

Sara Lobkovich
Sara Lobkovich
7 min read
Less burnout, more being

Cutting to the chase for once: here are a few great listens on burnout (which is widespread right now). The first two were pivotal in my own early burnout recovery earlier this year; the last came out this week and provides some excellent additional information on ways to move from burnout to increased well-being.

  • Breaking the Cycle of Burnout Debt via the Managing Up podcast talks about burnout including in the context of work you love (which, I find, is a pretty rare topic of conversation)
  • Burnout and How to Complete the Stress Cycle via Brené Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast, featuring Emily and Amelia Nagoski discussing the delta between doing and being and the phenomenon of compassion fatigue
  • and finally, the excellent Why Burnout Happens and How Bosses Can Help via the HBR IdeaCast with Christina Maslach, a professor of Psychology at U.C. Berkeley, which details six areas of fit at work that — if out of balance — can lead to burnout.

Christina Maslach said, in that last podcast link:

”Burnout is an occupational phenomenon: in a sense it’s a normal stress response to a stressful situation.”

Which it turns out is a riff on the WHO’s definition:

Burn-out is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:

- feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
- increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job; and
- reduced professional efficacy.

Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life.

So if you, friend, are experiencing burnout, you are not alone. And burnout is not a personal failing. Burnout is a sign that your needs are not met.

This week (and the last few months)(or maybe years) I’ve been thinking a lot about the balance of doing and being in my life, time and energy. It crystallized for me when I was pretty deep in my own burnout – when I was waking up, sitting down at the computer, getting up when Chris said it was time for dinner. Everything felt hard. High-friction. Nothing was coming easily.

Nothing fit.

My daily dog-walks were a minimum level of engagement with the world outside our house, and I’d usually spend them listening to podcasts.

That’s how I happened on the first two podcasts mentioned above. They helped me think of what I was experiencing differently — not as something wrong with me but as something that wasn’t working with the systems I was trying to exist within.

And at some point I heard the keyword phrase “compassion fatigue” — for the first time, in that Unlocking Us podcast. Defined here via Wikipedia:

Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress.

Now I will be the first to say: what I experience as a civilian knowledge worker with the privilege of working from home pales in comparison to what our front line workers are surviving right now. What I experience should have a different name, to not water down the words describing the experience front line and other essential staff are experiencing.

And the symptoms are also eerily familiar. Lowered concentration. Numbness, feelings of being stuck. Irritability. Lack of self-satisfaction. Withdrawal from relationships and engagement. Aches and pains. Work absenteeism.

(I will admit, I had a few stretches this year where I longed for the old days when we used to take “mental health days.”)

It’s been a huge source of comfort, and recovery, for me to become aware that:

  1. burnout is not a personal failing, it’s a systemic one, signaling that my needs are not being met and that my “fit factors” may be out of whack (and adjustable);
  2. compassion fatigue exists, and that burnout and compassion fatigue can be interwoven elements at play;
  3. and that in my own work, I get into dangerous territory when my scales shift too deeply into the doing of work and labor that doesn’t actually fit my strengths; that those phases diminish my being to such a degree that I fail to thrive.

At times in the last few years, even prior to learning all of the above, I’ve run a thought experiment around:

“What would it look like if I were just me for a living?”

What if I could be me for a living, instead of working so hard at work that is so friction-ful and challenging for me and such a mis-fit; where I have to fold myself and cut off parts and alter my shape to fit into the gap in the puzzle where I find myself, with my natural shape not at all fitting.

But I’ve never made it terribly far in that thought experiment. All the doubts and but-what-abouts pop up too loudly:

When I’ve tried that in the past I’ve been unsuccessful.

Why would anyone hire me to do what seems so obvious and natural to me?

What client in their right mind would hire me to be challenging when people are so averse to change? People just want the status quo, the path of least resistance.

I’m too shy — my social anxiety will hold me back and I'll fail.

What comes to mind is all the doubts and none of the facts.

What doesn’t come to mind for some reason is the frequency with which people do ask me how they can work with me and then I refer them out to Real Professionals.

Imposter syndrome is STRONG.

But despite the stubbornness of those unhelpful thought patterns, the universe has seen fit to challenge my self-doubt with facts: my work in my day job has evolved through what feels a lot like luck to be pretty darn close to “being me” for a living.

Now that's interesting.

I’m teaching, coaching, writing, building curriculum—I’m collaborating with brilliant and talented partners around branding and customer journeys and I'm getting curious and asking questions and studying up, and developing theories about how people and communities connect and intersect and affect each other. I’m working with partners to build something new. I'm helping others feel more confident about their work. It's all what I'm best at. And that is about as close as I can imagine getting to me “being me” for a living.

So it is possible. The facts don’t lie. Even I can’t argue with them.

And that change — that finding of fit —has had a huge impact on my well-being.

Now I struggle with putting the puzzle pieces down at the end of the day because they’re so interesting and my brain is so engaged with them, not because my system is overwhelmed by them. I feel better spending my time focused in areas where I provide unmistakable value – where I’m labor, yes. I’m doing. But it’s labor – it’s doing – that puts gas into my tank instead of depleting it. And that helps me feel like I’m pointed in a more “well” direction.

And an aside: because I’m in a place now where there is more flow, less friction, in the fit of my actual work, I’m finding my productive output to be much higher.

Note that this isn’t an issue about “productivity.” If anything, I’m focused right now on slowing down.

But my rhythm for deep work has typically been to look for large chunks of time in my calendar – typically 90 minutes – to get anything actually done that requires focus. Because it takes time to context switch, get organized, order my thoughts and dive in. It takes me time to reach “flow” when I’m working in a less-natural-for-me area. I can do it – being a lawyer, it’s literally a core competency. But it takes time and burns calories.

With the work I’m doing now, I don’t often get the luxury of 90-minute blocks. So I started looking for 50-minute blocks instead and what I rapidly noticed: when work is in my areas of strength, the overhead of getting into deep work is so much smaller. I’ll set a 50-minute timer to work deeply on something and then exhaust myself and look up and see that 20 minutes have passed and I’ve produced what might take someone else – reasonably – an hour or two.

So then I take a five or fifteen minute break to refresh and then I can do it all over again.

A few of these sprints and I’m through my “musts” for the day and working on getting ahead of what’s coming next (a phenomenon I haven’t experienced in years).

So I’m finding myself more energized around very small chunks of time. If I can exhaust my focus on a deeper project in 20 minutes, then I can take 5 minutes to fold laundry or unload the dishwasher or snuggle the dog, or check in on Chris’s girls. Or tackle a quick chore for his business, or check in on a friend or colleague who comes to mind, or write down an idea for one of my creative projects and tuck it into my “idea file.” And I do use my timer to hold myself accountable to my work schedule – a 5 minute “life break” can be hugely refreshing, and then I can turn back to work and focus again.

This rhythm is turning out to be much higher output, and so much more happier and satisfying. I feel more progress, and less cognitive overhead. It balances meeting the needs of my work and my colleagues; and also, take care of my own needs.

So with all of this, I’ve turned the corner on this round of burnout even though I am still burning the candle at both ends, between my day job, Chris’s business and my writing.

And because I’m still burning the candle at both ends, my focus now is shifting to  slowing down.

More on that another time.

Twitter truths of the week

Fun fact: Eeyore has been my favorite since I was a kid. Which will surprise anyone who knows me well exactly 0%.

Good question.

And lastly, a thread I can’t stop laughing about:

If any of the above sparks a reaction for you, I’d love to hear from you: whether it’s a question, an idea, a “you might find this read / listen to / watch [awesome resource] valuable” or “you should meet [amazing human].”

My hope is to make this a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m starting it, but this is only the start. Let’s see where we grow together.

And please, if you know someone else who might join us on this journey, use the big red Share button below to spread the love.

P.S. a reminder via @keeleyshawart on Instagram:


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