By Dr Sarah Cotton
As the saying goes, if you put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it jumps right out. But if you put it in a pot of tepid water and bring it to the boil, the frog won’t become aware of the heat until it’s too late.
The same applies to burnout. Many of us don’t pick up on the warning signs before reaching crisis point.
Recent research found that 73% of professionals are suffering from burnout in the wake of the COVID‑19 pandemic, with 3 in 10 reporting it’s because of a lack of separation between work and life.
Even before the pandemic, workplaces moved at a relentless pace with too little downtime for workers – a phenomenon business owners weren’t immune to either. Now, with the added pressure of running a business amid a global pandemic, the psychological stress business owners face is creating an environment ripe for burnout.
While everyone experiences hard days, burnout is more than just feeling stressed. It is the result of chronic workplace stress that hasn’t been successfully managed. Under normal stress, we still have the capacity to do our work, but burnout is when we feel so spent that we have nothing left in the tank. Our energy, passion, motivation and mental health are depleted to the point where we can’t function.
The signs of burnout can include:
If left to boil away (remember the frog?), burnout can have a serious impact on not only our ability to successfully run a business but also on our mental health and wellbeing too.
While burnout is not a medical condition, in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised burnout as a syndrome and occupational phenomenon with health consequences such as depression, anxiety, alcohol or substance abuse, heart disease and high blood pressure.
Addressing burnout isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s about making conscious choices about how we want to integrate work and life for our unique situation.
We may not realise it, but we probably have transition rituals that provide a buffer between home life and work. Pre-pandemic, this might’ve been our commute home, but now it could be as simple as making a coffee before checking emails or changing into pyjamas to signal the end of the workday. While these are small acts, such habits play an important psychological role in preparing us for the day ahead and winding down in the evening.
We often set standards for ourselves that we would never expect of anyone else.
Step back and evaluate your work and personal responsibilities and ask yourself if they’re realistic when you take into account your time, values, needs and wants. Expectations that may have been reasonable before may not fit in with a changing work role, modified responsibilities, or your current personal circumstances.
Communicating consistent and clear messages to those around you will help you to set priorities and boundaries between work and personal time – people aren’t mind readers!
One upside of the pandemic is that it’s providing us with the opportunity to rethink the way we work. As a society, we’re moving away from long 15-hour days and paving the way to work in more sustainable ways.
There’s never been a better time to reaffirm your boundaries and use technology to help stick to them, too.
While it is important that we remain connected with staff, family and our wider social networks, it can be equally valuable to ‘switch off’. You would never expect your mobile phone to keep working without the opportunity to recharge at the end of the day – so why shouldn’t you? You can only do today what you can do today.
Set a clear work schedule and share this with your team. This will help compartmentalise your work and personal time, and allow you to engage wholeheartedly in activities that are important. The people in your life will appreciate having your full attention – especially children, if you have any.
It’s late. You’ve just caught up on work emails, the dishwasher is stacked and you finally have a few quiet moments to yourself. Instead of going to sleep, you stay up late binge-watching one more episode despite needing to be up early the next morning.
Welcome to the phenomenon known as ‘Revenge Bedtime Procrastination’. Working parents are especially prone to sleep procrastination as they try to carve out more personal time and juggle their competing priorities.
Good-quality sleep is crucial for maintaining both physical and mental health. So, ditch the technology, reach for a book or include a relaxation activity like a hot bath to help wind down in the evening before bed. Your brain will thank you for it.
Staying connected to others minimises feelings of loneliness, isolation and increases your tolerance of change occurring at work or in your personal life. In tough times, you might need to step outside of your comfort zone and ask for support from others.
The Partners in Wellbeing Helpline is a free and confidential one-on-one service that provides support for small business owners and employees through trained wellbeing coaches, financial counsellors and business advisers.
Remember your GP is an important source of support to reach out to if needed. Don’t forget those checkups, which we so often push to the bottom of our ever-growing to-do lists.
Be wary of any unhealthy habits that might creep in at times of high stress. Unhealthy habits, whether they come from other people or yourself, can disturb your ability to balance work and life. Personally, I know when my chocolate addiction cranks up a notch and I stop exercising that this is a red flag!
As the fallout from the pandemic has created additional financial and emotional stress, some people may find themselves drinking or using substances more as a way to cope. If you’re one of the many Australians whose alcohol consumption has increased, you might want to consider taking a break to help reset unhealthy drinking levels.
While we may think it’s relieving stress, consuming alcohol can disrupt our ability to have a good night’s sleep and make feelings of stress and anxiety worse.
There’s no quick fix for getting our health back on track, but we know that prioritising sleep, eating healthily and exercising regularly is beneficial for not only our physical health but our mental health too. Remember that when we feel busy and overwhelmed these healthy habits are often the first things to go – we need to hold onto them with two hands!
When you ask people what they value most in life, they’ll often say it’s friends and family, yet we often let work priorities or our phones crowd out these intentions.
Make sure you bring your values into your life and honour your highest priorities in practice, not just in theory. This may mean putting away your phone as soon as the workday ends or not checking emails between the hours of 6pm and 8am.
Make steps to prioritise connection and be more present with those who are important to you. If you want to revisit your values, you may find this exercise useful at this time: Building your Lighthouse.
It can be draining trying to remember every little detail of what you need to accomplish every day. Technology can take some of the weight off your mental load – for example, itemising purchases in an expenses app, setting staff priorities in Microsoft Teams or using a meditation app to help switch off at night.
There are plenty of productivity and reminder apps that you can use to keep track of all the things you need to do and when. Research tells us that those who write a detailed to-do list and get it out of their brains fall asleep 15 minutes faster than those who don’t.
Don’t feel selfish for prioritising your basic physical and mental needs. We so often advocate for everyone else before ourselves. It is important to ensure that we have fuel in our own tanks and our basic physical and mental health needs are met. As Libby Trickett, the famous Australian swimmer puts it best, ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’.
With increasing levels of burnout and workplace exhaustion being witnessed across the globe, now is a great opportunity to test the temperature of your waters so you can take stock and continue to live and work well.
Access the following resources for information and advice on managing your stress and mental health.
This adapted article was first published in partnership with Small Business Victoria.