In the lead up to burnout, I had this overwhelming need to be busy all the time. I mean, all the time. On top of working long hours, we would have people round for dinner or go out every night of the week and party at the weekends. I was also the “go to” agony aunt for my friends and family so when I wasn’t busy entertaining, I was busy looking after everyone else’s needs / latest crisis. Smartphones were new back then but rest assured, even at dinner I had mine on the table “just in case” work needed me, constantly refreshing my emails. Things are fast moving in the food industry and I had convinced myself that meant the 20 mins it would take me to wolf down a Spaghetti Bolognese couldn’t even be downtime. What if someone needed to contact me?!
The workplace “I am so busy” badge of honour
For a long time, I blamed work for “making me sick” and I absolutely believe employers and managers have a duty of care to their staff. I definitely worked outside of my remit. I had worked across many functions in the food industry which meant I could do more outside of my job description than others. With hindsight, just because I ‘could’, didn’t necessarily mean I ‘should’. So, yes there may have been times where my ability to do the job and work so hard was rewarded. There are definitely times when I feel that rather than encouraging it, the leaders within a business could have been encouraging a more balanced approach. However, one thing I have come to realise is that I am an adult, and it is my responsibility to look after my own needs. Honestly, if work hadn’t filled my time in the way it always did back then, I would have found something else to busy my time with.
Nevertheless, I do believe workplace cultures have a lot to answer for. It has become the norm to be checking emails late at night and, pre-covid, travelling halfway across the country for a meeting that could have been a phone or video call. I still see many places and people who wear the “I am so busy, indispensable and goddam tired” as a badge of honour. But here’s the thing – it doesn’t increase productivity. Ok, in short bursts maybe, when there is a crisis, and something needs sorting straight away it may. The reality is, there will always be another crisis around the corner, and this leads to chronic busyness and firefighting. Without the ability to rest and reflect, to take stock, then the poor productivity and firefighting will continue.
I distinctly remember standing in a freezing cold factory with one of the senior managers in the business, close to tears, telling him how I couldn’t sleep at night because I was worrying about the orders we were unable to make for a major retailer. I asked him if he felt the same. “No way, that’s not going to help the situation is it.” He went on to tell me how he made sure he switched off from work in the evenings as much as possible, got exercise and slept like a baby. This was an alien concept to me, I honestly thought it was normal to worry about work until the moment you went to sleep at night. Here was a guy that I really respected as a leader, telling me to do the complete opposite. I’d loved to say I listened and that’s the end of the story but I wouldn’t be here, writing about burnout, had that been the case.
I am not naïve enough to think that it’s as easy as that – “just switch off in the evening”. However, 20 years in a the fast-paced chilled food industry has taught me so much about how people cope with that stress differently. For some, it is easy to compartmentalise and switch off from the day. For others, it is much more difficult and more support is needed to do that. I now work with people to identify what is the best way for them to create balance in their lives and at work. Yes, there are some key themes but we are all individuals and what works for one person may not work for everyone. The key is for the individual to tune in and work out what’s best for them and create a what I call a “restorative toolkit”.
Rest and relaxation is essential for productivity
How does rest and relaxation make you more productive? Surely if I just get everything done on my To Do list then I won’t have to worry as much? Right? Wrong! I am a big advocate for the To Do list but equally important as “getting stuff done”, is “NOT getting stuff done”. When our brain is a constant state of “doing” it can mean:
- we are creating a “stress response” in the brain (which makes rational thinking harder)
- we are not allowing creativity to flow (not only is rational thinking harder, so is creative thinking)
- everything takes longer to achieve because your brain is fried
Ever noticed that you can be working on something for hours and getting nowhere, only to take the dog for a walk and then have your “aha” moment? That’s what I am talking about.
Finding ways to relax is different for everyone but there is evidence to say that an activity like exercise or an engaging hobby are more restorative than binge watching a TV series (although, I am a big advocate for that too!). Recognising what works for you is the key to making a habit stick (Spoiler: just because “they” tell you running does wonders to clear the body and mind, it doesn’t mean you’ll be able to stick to it if you absolutely hate it. You do what works for you).
You don’t have to earn rest
I feel like I need to point out here that resting, just to enable you to be more productive in the future isn’t the healthiest of mindsets – but if it’s enough to convince you in the short term to take some time out – we can run with it for now.
However, an idea that was revolutionary to me, even up until a couple of years ago was that you don’t have to earn rest by being productive every other minute of the day. For high achievers, this can be hard to swallow. We place so much of our self-worth on what we achieve, that we can’t just relax and rest ‘just because’. I won’t lie, I still grapple with this one, but I have come to realise that rest is actually essential, does not need to be earnt and everyone (including me!) is worthy of it.
The “restorative toolkit”
I learnt about this concept as I recovered from burnout, with the support of the local Chronic Fatigue clinic. They helped me to recognise the things that made me feel better when my health took a dip. To start with it was an emergency toolkit but it is now my preventative toolkit. Anyone who has worked with me in the past will not be in the least bit surprised that I turned this into a visual five-page powerpoint deck! But you know what? It helped me cement everything in my mind as I wrote it and also gave me a visual reminder that I stuck on the wall in my home office. I also have it to refer back to years later and in times when it feels like it’s all getting too much.
My toolkit has the following reminders: –
- My wellbeing tools e.g. mindfulness, balanced diet
- The daily habits that keep me balanced e.g. journaling, outdoor time
- The things that trigger me to spiral back into not looking after my needs e.g. work stress, energy zapping friends / colleagues
- My early warning signs e.g. headaches, tinnitus
- What to do and who to call upon when I am feeling close to burnout e.g. cancel plans, early night, ask for help at home
These are just a few of my examples. It all sounds so simple, doesn’t it? The reality is that so often, we don’t take time to sit back and think about what supports us and what zaps our energy and wellbeing. We walk around on autopilot doing what we have always done.
Everyone is different and your needs will change over time. What is realistic now may not be realistic in the future. For instance, since becoming a parent, I have adjusted my candlelit bath every night expectation to a more realistic, get some help so I can enjoy a cup of tea and a book on my own for 10 minutes. I also don’t create the amazing juice concoctions I used to (I don’t have time to wash up my super duper juicer any more while looking after a 2 year old) but I do make sure I have a homemade smoothie as often as possible (nutri bullet – minimal washing up!).
What I have come to realise is that it is more than a ‘nice to do’ to look after my needs. It’s essential. Rest and relaxation aren’t something that you have to fit in to become more productive (although this is a happy side effect). These have been hard lessons to learn. I envy the people that are naturally good at it. For everyone else (which, I fear, is the greater proportion of the population), I now offer coaching to help people identify what they need to do to regain that feeling of balance in their lives, before they burnout. Together, we create an individualised plan which, like my “restorative toolkit” that I devised all those years ago, they can take away and apply to their everyday life. With a restored sense of balance, they can lead happier, more fulfilling lives.
If you would like to know more about working with me, please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message via social media