Stop trying to be a Timex watch! You’re not! Remember the Timex watch commercial about taking a licking and keep on ticking. Yeah, well, That’s Not You…nor does it have to be! Once you’ve clarified your needs and considered self-care strategies, you’ll start to self-sabotage. You’ll tell yourself your needs are SELFISH. You’ll tell yourself you don’t have time. You’ll try to convince yourself that you should be able to handle this and that’s it not THAT BAD. Basically, you’ll talk yourself into an ongoing state of frustration. Interrupt that self-talk! Remind yourself that resilience is not about taking a beating like a Timex; it’s ultimately about having the resources you need to fulfill your purpose. Burnout disrupts your ability to do that. Remind yourself that you DO NO ONE any favors by continuing to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” The family you want to provide for will be worse off if your blood pressure skyrockets into a medical crisis or your heart condition and other health needs flair up because of the stress from your burnout.
Millions of Americans are returning back to work after being home during the pandemic. While this has been exciting for many, some are feeling burned out by their work. What do you do if you are feeling burned out by your work? How do you reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back”? What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
In this interview series called “Beating Burnout: 5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout,” we are talking to successful business leaders, HR leaders and mental health leaders who can share insights from their experience about how we can “Beat Burnout.”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pamela Denise Long.
Denise is principal consultant and CEO of Youthcentrix® Therapy Services, a provider of trauma-responsive allied and behavioral health and HR/talent management consulting to help mid- to large-sized organizations implement trauma-informed practices including self-care and workplace culture steeped in diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism. She is parent to a 20-year-old college student and dog mom to a 10-year-old Dachs-Russell Terrier that knows he’s really a bulldog. Her upcoming book, “Eight” focuses on helping others along the path of healing from childhood trauma to reclaim their voice and power.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Great question! For the longest time, I didn’t talk about my family history nor childhood. It was too raw, too painful, and too recent in my mind’s eye. It’s kind of like when somebody asks, “how are you.” The immediate response is to keep it light no matter how much of a burden you’re bearing. The reality is my childhood is the reason I do the purpose-driven work at Youthcentrix® Therapy Services.
I have experienced 8 of the 10 commonly reported adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The trauma of losing both of my parents at a young age changed my life trajectory. I lost my dad at two weeks old, and my mom passed a week before I turned three. Both deaths were seemingly preventable. My dad died of a massive heart attack, of unknown causes. As we know. stress, personal trauma, and community adversity can cause heart disease and other common medical problems. My mother died at 28 years old, from Rheumatic Kidney disease which developed from a case of untreated strep throat as a child. I experienced family-based foster care placement. I’ve survived horrendous physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional neglect, stunted growth from malnourishment, and more. For me, the importance of sharing one’s story is in releasing the shame and sitting with the pain. The grief of what could have been. The loss of what should have been. And, accepting the reality of what was. It’s less about who did what and more about what I need to do to reclaim ownership of my own trajectory. To take the reins of my life by owning my history and charting a preferred course.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Throughout high school, I wanted to be a psychologist. In discussions with older family members, I got the sense that psychology wasn’t the most secure route to financial stability. So, I changed my major to Occupational Therapy (OT). At that time, during the early 1990’s, OT was an up-and-coming career and mental health was a notable part of the profession’s footprint. It seemed the perfect career to practice a holistic approach to healing people’s bodies and minds…while having job security. Throughout my time as an OT, I was always noticing how the health care system, community dynamics, and our political processes created what I saw as unnecessary hardship and adversities for my patients. Whether I was working with elders, newborns, or families out in the community, there seemed too often be some systemic impact that had unintended consequences on their lives and healing. My own family experienced a version of these systemic issues when my child went through educational inequity and bias in her elementary school years. I’m thankful that experience of exclusion affects her less each year as she has additional positive experiences through a more responsive social network. But having to be momma bear to get her what she needed, steered me toward the work I do today.
I eventually decided to put my observations about systems to work by pursing a career in organizational development and learning. I figured if I could see the problems and envision solutions, I should be involved in system change. As a single mom, I went back to graduate school and in one year earned a master’s in educational psychology (concentration in learning and cognition) and am now writing my dissertation about exemplary executive leadership for implementing anti-racism systemwide. Though I didn’t earn a doctorate in psychology, the diverse professional concentrations I’ve practiced over the years help me to take a more nuanced approach to seeing people’s need and changing systems to serve them well.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
The most influential person for me was a supervisor named Patty who attempted to recruit me into health care leadership straight out of OT school. She was a dynamic personality and an inclusive leader. Her confidence in my leadership abilities and her willingness to give me room to grow and experiment with solutions planted a seed in my mind that I could become a leader that adds value. There’ve been multiple changes and a lot of life over the 20+ years since then. But, when I reflect on influencers on my career and leadership trajectory, Patty comes top of mind.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
Goodness knows I’ve made several career missteps. The funniest mistake that comes to mind relates to my time with Patty. The department chairs of the healthcare facility where we worked served on several committees. One of the projects our committee focused on was beautifying the parking lot at the facility. We wanted to make sure folks were parking only in designated parking spots to preserve the grass and decrease mud patches. So, I volunteered to spearhead the planting and landscaping of the “green spaces” in the back parking lot. At just over 25 years old I’d moved to the Bootheel of Missouri for this job, so wasn’t as familiar with the climate as I could have been. To get the work done, I spent days moving soil and planting plants, watering, and tending. Patty, being a native of the area, had noted that the summer heat might work the plants over. Boy was she ever right! There wasn’t enough water in the Mississippi to counteract the heat radiating from the concrete of that parking lot! Those poor plants took an absolute beating. I think out of mercy and sympathy folks just stopped parking on that landscaped area long after the plants saw their last days. I saw Patty about 5 years later and we got a kick out of that “I told you so.” I recall the laughter and that she’d watched and appreciated my willingness to get my hands dirty in commitment to the team’s efforts. I learned a lot about how important it is for leaders to allow experimentation and certainly took note of the importance of connecting with more experienced others in the process!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Not long ago, I heard Dr. Sonja Stribling say, “How I do anything is how I do everything.” This quote rocked my world! I don’t see the quote as a call to perfection; for me, it lands as a call to be whole, at my core. I repeat this quote to myself every time I am at a choice point where patterns of woundedness and pain are tempting me to come visit with them. As a trauma survivor, I still have moments where I must get out of my own head. To get my head out of my past. I didn’t just go through the childhood abuse and neglect; it defined me. It became a part of the narrative about my worth and about my value. Trauma changed my brain to be more vigilant and guarded in life. For decades after I became an adult, trauma drove me. I walked this world angry, and scared, and so still in need of what I didn’t get when I was a developing child. So, this quote was said at a time, where I had had enough of being less than my absolute best. I had had enough of being on guard. I wanted to live and needed to be free. So, the idea that how I do anything is how I do everything says that how I show up and how I perform is a manifestation of who I think I am at that moment. If my survival brain is activated and I become triggered by an incident. Or, if I am so lost in the hurt of the past that I miss the opportunity to be present, right now…it’s an indication of what’s going on at my core. I need my core to be whole and healed. So, if I show up with a place of wholeness and resilience as my everything, anything I do, will reflect that, and vice versa.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’ve always been a multitasker, so I have several irons in the fire! I’m finishing a dissertation project which I hope the whole project, and the smaller papers that may come from it, will help leaders see the personal experience other executives faced when they embarked on implementing equity and anti-racism in their organizational systems. I think leaders get so afraid of the backlash and the fear of saying/doing the wrong thing that DEIA efforts get stalled or inadequately resourced. I hope the research project helps leaders see those emotions and fears as a natural part of the process that can and must be worked through…and perhaps the experience of my research participants will serve as a model for how to move forward while managing the fears and navigating the learning curve. Secondly, I’m currently writing my second book about healing trauma and reclaiming who we were born to be. The book’s title, Eight, has several meanings. Eight is the number of adverse childhood experiences I’ve accumulated out of the 10 identified by the CDC. It also represents the spiritual hope that I have as manifested through the calls to action I issue to the reader. That hope is one of abundance, success, and newness of life.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three characteristics that have been instrumental to my success are will, resilience, and purpose.
1. Will — here I’m talking about being willing to reflect and repair rather than pursue perfection. I’ve made lots of mistakes along the way. Missteps in business. Mistakes in relationships. All the things! Rather than getting lost in the sauce of my errors or not knowing, I’ve learned to embrace curiosity. So, I’m willing to risk mistakes and missteps while being curious about who people are, about how things work, and learning to master myself. Now, when I make an error, I’m one of the first to apologize, in a relationship. Or implement a course correction in business. I no longer try to pursue perfection…I’m willing to reflect on how I showed up and what I do/do not know and fix what needs to be repaired, if possible. It’s humbling and helps me be more sensitive to my environment. It also helps me exercise a will to activate on the idea that “how I do anything is how I do everything!” Will helps me show up!
2. Resilience — I often say that we talk about resilience like the old Timex watch commercial from my childhood. Where resilience was considered your ability to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” While there is some truth to that, it’s really one part of the picture. Resilience is more about attending to your needs in the moments, giving yourself the resources and necessary supports while also being conscious of what is driving your decision to stand, sit, check out, or quit. For me resilience has been tied to what I need to do to keep pursuing my goals. To realize my purpose. For me, resilience has been about being able to say when enough is enough. To stop taking unnecessary hits and especially from the same source. My resilience has been punctuated by moments where I did need to sit down or check out for a bit…to collect myself before I was ready for another round. While the clock of life does keep moving us forward, my resilience is determined by my choices and behaviors during my time. Unlike a professional boxing match, life lets you get creative about how to conquer the challenges of this round to advance to the next one.
3. Purpose — For me, purpose is everything. The work that I do at Youthcentrix® is a culmination of everything I’ve learned, intentionally studied, and my trauma history. I often say that trauma-informed care found me. I do this work because it is me. The hurt, the trauma, the harm is carried in my bones. The healing is too. So, it’s not just a job, it’s a calling, for me. Purpose is what keeps me innovating. It’s what keeps me telling the tale of trauma science and healing for myself, my family, and others. Fulfilling my purpose is what helps me feel satisfied with the time I’ve spent.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
I’ve studied resilience and trauma-informed care since about 2012. I’ve trained over 2,000 professionals across education, law enforcement, and business in the science of trauma, resilience, and quality of life. I addition to the fact that Youthcentrix® provides professional development training to organizations about how to prevent burnout and improve worker quality of life, I’ve personally experienced burnout. I’ve experienced burnout as an employee, getting to the point of being worn down by the toxic work environment that was neither trauma-informed nor committed to diversity, equity, inclusion, and antiracism. I’ve also experienced vicarious trauma…where I took on the life burdens of the people I was caring for.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about beating burnout. Let’s begin with a basic definition of terms so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define a “Burnout”? Can you explain?
It’s important to think of burnout as a state of being rather than a “lack” on the part of an individual or group. Burnout to me is the state of fatigue where you absolutely have nothing left to give to your work or the people you work with/for. Burnout happens when you’ve tried to manage the hardships, the caregiver burden, and the relationship dynamics, to little avail. So, for example, you’ve tried to resolve the conflict, but it hasn’t been sufficiently repaired and continues to weigh on your psyche. You’ve talked to your supervisor about the workplace culture, and it remains toxic and an energy drain. In your personal life, you’ve given so much to your care recipient (child, dependents, spouse, parent, students, etc.) that you are drained mentally, emotionally, and/or physically.
Burnout behaviors look like leaving work early, clocking in late, giving minimal effort, a pattern of calling in sick, lacking creativity, feeling like everything about an organization is bad, lacking patience, unexplained shifts in mood and temperament, being more easily triggered to fight, flight, or freeze mode when presented with roadblocks or frustrations, and so on.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
Great question! People often say the opposite of burnout is engagement. I disagree. The opposite of burnout is generativity. The concept of generativity comes from developmental theory. Being generative is a manifestation of giving, creativity, vibrant engagement, and innovation. It’s a space where a person is generating energy in a productive and mutually fulfilling way. The aspect of mutual fulfillment is important. Mutuality indicates that what is being generated helps others while also providing positive input for the giver. In some ways, mutual fulfillment creates a sort of sustainability loop through responsive giving and receiving. It’s a sweet spot, if you will, between being the giver and being the receiver.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to expressly articulate this. Some sceptics may argue that burnout is a minor annoyance, and we should just “soldier on’’ and “grin and bear it.” Can you please share a few reasons why burnout can have long-term impacts on our individual health, as well as the health and productivity of our society?
True burnout is more than a minor annoyance. Burnout is more than being tried and needing a break. Burnout is a state of being that a person cannot give anymore. It’s a state of being where their resources to “solider on” have been depleted. Because, typically, they’ve been soldiering for some time! Burnout is not just a lack of gumption, it’s a depletion of available resources. People often use the metaphor of a cup when talking about burnout and self-care. If the cup is empty, there literally is not more to give. We can replenish resources to counteract burnout. The countermeasures that are most effective are determined by the conscious or subconscious needs of the individual who is experiencing burnout.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
The main causes of burnout are caregiver burden and unmet resource needs. When we give to others without replenishing ourselves and our resources, we can get to a place of not having anymore to give. That is a state of burnout.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. What can an individual do if they are feeling burned out by work? How does one reverse it? How can you “get your mojo back?” Can you please share your “5 Things You Should Do If You Are Experiencing Work Burnout?”. (Please share a story or an example for each.)
Chances are burnout is not just related to the workplace. It’s likely a combination of personal pressures, workplace issues, and unresolved adversity from the past showing up in the present moment. Trauma tends to do that. I’m going to apply trauma-informed care and trauma-informed practices (or TIPs) to prevent and address burnout, through the use of self-care.
TIP NUMBER 1. Acknowledge that you are tired. So often professionals and personal caregivers deny the reality of their fatigue. We ignore the signs that work is making us ill. We ignore the signs that we are becoming overwhelmed by caregiving to a dependent loved one. Being tired, even of things and people who care about, is well within the realm of normal human experience. Once you acknowledge that you are tired and have a right to be, sit with that truth. Give yourself the right to experience your fatigue, without judgement.
TIP NUMBER 2. Ask yourself, “What do I need?” Caregivers and those who are focused on “productivity” spend little time assessing their own needs. Once you’ve sat with your fatigue, perform a self-check. This will require you to assess what you need to be okay in this moment…. not tomorrow…not a year from now. Focus on right this moment. Accept the answer without judgment. No negative self-talk about what you should be able to tolerate. About what others are needing right now. Listen to yourself and give yourself the space to human.
TIP NUMBER 3. Implement self-care strategies. After you state your needs, write them down before your mind finds all the reasons it’s impractical to give yourself what you are asking for. Self-care is the practice of clarifying what you need to rejuvenate your spirit and replenish your energy. Maybe you need to practice relationship hygiene by managing or clearing out negative pressures in your social network. Perhaps you realize you must figure out how to have an uncomfortable conversation with your supervisor or colleague. Perhaps you realize a change in jobs in the necessary next step. Write it all down so you can give your need an opportunity to be made clear. When we’re frustrated, we’re tempted to state our needs in passing. Jotting the need down gives it space to breathe. Room to exist. Once it’s clear that the need is indeed a solution to your fatigue, start putting that self-care plan into action. Begin with small but consistent effort until you can fully implement your self-care solution.
TIP NUMBER 4. Stop trying to be a Timex watch! You’re not! Remember the Timex watch commercial about taking a licking and keep on ticking. Yeah, well, That’s Not You…nor does it have to be! Once you’ve clarified your needs and considered self-care strategies, you’ll start to self-sabotage. You’ll tell yourself your needs are SELFISH. You’ll tell yourself you don’t have time. You’ll try to convince yourself that you should be able to handle this and that’s it not THAT BAD. Basically, you’ll talk yourself into an ongoing state of frustration. Interrupt that self-talk! Remind yourself that resilience is not about taking a beating like a Timex; it’s ultimately about having the resources you need to fulfill your purpose. Burnout disrupts your ability to do that. Remind yourself that you DO NO ONE any favors by continuing to “take a licking and keep on ticking.” The family you want to provide for will be worse off if your blood pressure skyrockets into a medical crisis or your heart condition and other health needs flair up because of the stress from your burnout.
TIP NUMBER 5. Get an accountability partner. It takes at least 21 days to form a new habit. A new focus on self-care and self-compassion will require practice and external support. You’ll need people and tools on your side to not fall back into your old ways of self-neglect. An accountability partner is someone who will champion your success and encourage you to meet your goals. Identify at least one self-care partner and/or tool that can help you implement your self-care strategies. Use the calendar or alarm on your phone to provide yourself positive messages and/or set reminders to perform your self-care strategies. Join a social networking group that is focused on the need your identified as a self-care strategy. Be honest about your need for support. Most people are willing to provide encouragement and even accountability check-ins to those who are actively seeking to strengthen their well-being.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
I think it’s important to understand, if not fluently speak, the language of our personal and professional relationship partners. Here, I think it’s important to support our relationship partners in their self-care practices. If someone in your life is experiencing burnout, be the consistent and supportive accountability partner they need, even if they didn’t ask. They probably won’t! Help relieve their stress and sense of selfishness by reminding and encouraging them to dedicate time and resources to the self-care strategies that rejuvenate their spirit.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
This! Yes! Employers must understand the needs of their workforce. They must also be diligent and attentive to workplace culture. We get so accustomed to the unspoken dynamics of a company. The toxic patterns can become invisible though they may have profound impact on employee’s wellbeing and productivity. Employers can offer supports through adequate total rewards programs, have a robust employee assistance plan, practice an open-door policy where people can freely share struggles and innovative solutions to workplace challenges, adequately compensate workers for their education, experience, and/or unique value add, and offer hybrid work arrangements, if possible. Essentially, remove the work-related barriers and burdens that add to the adversities of life.
These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest raising awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?
Employers really must understand the science of toxic stress and trauma and its correlation to burnout and worker performance. Employers must get trained to be trauma responsive. To recognize that 60–70% of the American population has experienced at least one event that overwhelms their ability to cope in their personal and/or professional lives. Without knowing about trauma and toxic stress, a supervisor would simply write off “burned out” behavior as a performance issue alone, instead of also understanding the correlation between unexpected work absences, worker performance, the effects of psychological trauma/ACEs, and experiencing psychological overwhelm. To become “trauma-informed” requires that staff/leaders become aware of the science of trauma/toxic stress and have strategies/tools/approaches in place for the day-to-day human interactions with overwhelmed people. That’s our specialty at Youthcentrix®. Helping leaders create trauma-informed and equity-focused environments where people can thrive and not just survive.
What are a few of the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they try to reverse burnout in themselves or others? What can they do to avoid those mistakes?
I think this goes back to thinking self-care is selfish. Thinking resilience is about the ability to take a beating and keep moving forward. Resilience is necessary but not enough. We organizational leaders must create environments where hits aren’t regularly being given. Where people are challenged to grow and stretch, certainly, but are not expected to reside in toxicity and unnecessary burdens.
We avoid these mistakes by humanizing our systems and leaning into our own human frailty, at times. By accepting our humanity and the humanity of others, we can be more sensitive and responsive to our needs.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The work happening at Youthcentrix® is how I’m using my influence to serve the greater good. By supplying our professional development trainings and consulting to business leaders, we help them create spaces where the psychological safety and wellbeing of leaders and frontline workers are prioritized and served well.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Hands down it would be Oprah Winfrey, a fellow native Mississippian and trauma survivor! Followed closely by Dr. Bruce Perry. Through her book club and her willingness to be vulnerable, Oprah helped validate my absolute love for reading and healing. Through his work with Occupational Therapists like me, Dr. Perry first introduced me to the science of trauma and toxic stress. It thrills me to know they are now working together in this arena of trauma and resilience.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow me personally on Twitter @PDeniseLong. Readers can follow @Youthcentrix on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube.
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!