Are you at risk of burnout? Here’s what to do

Richard Jolly shares four techniques to beat burnout


About that email you just fired off. Did you really need to send it? What else should you have been doing?

In an era of noisy busyness, the only way to live a purpose-driven life is to stop doing busy work. “But,” I hear you cry, “I’m extremely busy!” That is exactly the point.

We used to answer to meaning, but today we answer to mobile. When did we become slaves to our mobile phone push notifications – social media updates, emails, WhatsApp messages? Trying to keep up with a heightened “on” mode and a constant state of busyness is exhausting.

Is it any wonder we’re burnt out?

What busy stops us doing

Busy leads us down a treacherous path to burnout. Apart from our health – exhaustion, tension, mood swings – what else is at stake? If anyone can illuminate this, it’s Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse responsible for patients in the last weeks of their lives. She recorded people’s biggest dying regrets in a blog, and subsequently in a book. Here are the top five regrets, as observed by Ware:

1. I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me

2. I wish I hadn't worked so hard

3. I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

“When people realise that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled,” wrote Ware. “Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made.” Among the top regrets, from men in particular, was a sense of time lost to work. “They missed their children's youth and their partner's companionship,” the blog read. She also described the excessive energy people spent suppressing their feelings to keep peace with others. “As a result, they settled for a mediocre existence and never became who they were truly capable of becoming.”

When the ties of busyness, stress and regret together weave a rope, the rope can eventually choke us.

How prevalent is burnout?

Some researchers have documented rates as high as 85% among financial professionals. In 2017, ComPsych, the world’s largest provider of employee assistance programmes, found that three out of five employees are highly stressed. Of those surveyed, 56% of employees see accomplishing basic tasks as the top work priority, while workload and people issues are the top work stressors.

“Blaming burnout on the company is just a form of learned helplessness.”

Who is to blame for burnout?

Many perceive employee burnout as a problem with the company, not the person. But Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, argues that recognising and curbing burnout is really a power vested in you. “Relying on an environment to change behaviour is a very passive-dependent approach. The most dangerous word I hear people say is ‘They’. ‘They should’, ‘They know’, ‘They won’t’. The more senior you get, the more you realise there is no ‘They’! We are all ‘They’. You, without consciously knowing it, have gradually become one of ‘Them’.”

“Blaming burnout on the company is just a form of learned helplessness.”

Okay, so why are you to blame for burnout?

“You set incredibly high standards for yourself. You never feel as if you’re done. It is many years since you said, ‘Right, it’s time to go home because I’ve finished my work.’ And if you’re in that situation, you’re probably worried you’ll be replaced by a computer quite soon. You’re self-critical. Your identity has become too dependent on your working life.”

You need to take control.

Taking control of burnout

  • Challenge untested assumptions

“When you’re providing emotional labour” – the process of managing feelings and expressions to fulfil the emotional requirements of a job – “you’re more prone to burnout. You feel you have less control over your own time and energy when you're providing a service. If your client wants a contract by 09.00 the next day, you work through the night to get it done. In a way, your life is serving at somebody else’s pleasure. So, in situations like these, how can you take control? Challenge untested assumptions. Ask your client, ‘Do you really need that contract by 09.00?’Have the courage and confidence to ask, ‘When’s the latest you need it by?’ This may seem easier said than done when you face an impossible workload. So remember to continually test your assumptions. What can you change, what is absolutely fixed? Once you start to operate differently, you become a champion of trying new things.”

  • Make mindfulness mandatory

“There is evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in treating anxiety. It not only helps you retain your mental sharpness, it can improve your resilience to stress. I work with a Buddhist monk to teach executives how to meditate. In one insurance firm, I observed senior management take this so seriously after mindfulness paid dividends that they made it mandatory. Now, the top team makes sure its employees across the world learn breathing and thinking techniques. You don’t have to be a Buddhist monk to pay more attention to the present moment, you don’t have to go to Tibet. Even simple breathing exercises can help. Apps such as Headspace offer guided sessions, allowing you time to practise. If you spend 10 minutes meditating a day, you will have significantly more than 10 extra minutes of productive time a day. If you feel you don’t have time, map how you spend your hours currently and you’ll soon see that you always have time to do the things you want to do.”

  • Avoid time-consuming busywork

“Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord, Germany’s Chief of the Army High Command before the second world war, was a celebrated military strategist. He divided his officers into four groups based on their behavioural habits – clever, diligent, stupid and lazy. Then, he combined them so that people were grouped as clever and diligent, stupid and lazy, clever and lazy, and stupid and diligent. He found that clever, lazy people made the best leaders. He thought they made good difficult decisions because they wanted to make everything easier, while having the mental sharpness to find innovative ways to do so. Clever, lazy people avoided busywork, such as pointless meetings, they delegated to others to get things done and they focused on the essentials rather than being distracted by excessive extras. Von Hammerstein-Equord said that the most dangerous of his staff were hardworking and stupid, because they were the ones to say yes to everything and ended up burnt out. The moral of the story is not to be a lazy leader, but not to get bogged down in busywork. Choose to do high-value work. Your ability to be proactive instead of reactive is a test of who you really are.”

  • Charge for your time

“It pays to prioritise. You can’t respond to everything and everyone – you can’t do it all. To help you choose your daily actions carefully, think about mentally charging for your time. The top team of one Silicon Valley firm – let’s call it TimeSave – was fighting employee burnout. Part of the problem was too many meetings. In a trial, management took all the clocks off the meeting walls and replaced them with digital systems. When executives entered the room wearing their security passes, the connected wall devices scanned the electronic barcodes. The clock allowed TimeSave to calculate the cost of the meeting in real-time depending on who was in the room, for how long, and to what end. Everybody had a price. After the experiment, TimeSave employees halved the average length of their meetings. This is a potent reminder that your time comes at a cost – personally and professionally.”

You don’t have to wait for your organisation to change – avoiding burnout is up to you. By cherishing your time, doing high-value work, taking your mental health seriously and stretching and testing your own assumptions, you can avoid burnout. The only person standing in your way is you.

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