Dr. Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry: “Socially”

Socially: When you are feeling the busiest and most stressed is exactly the time you should make room for social connection. Intentionally plan meeting with friends and loved ones. Even for small amounts of time. The power of a friend or partner (or dog or cat) to remind you of your life outside of the […]

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Socially: When you are feeling the busiest and most stressed is exactly the time you should make room for social connection. Intentionally plan meeting with friends and loved ones. Even for small amounts of time. The power of a friend or partner (or dog or cat) to remind you of your life outside of the causes of your burnout is extraordinary.

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 Dr. Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, Psy.D.

Dr. Cassandra Aasmundsen-Fry, Psy.D is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist. She worked as a Psychologist seeing individuals and couples in Boston, MA until founding a company, MindWell: Modern Psychology & Therapy in KL, in Malaysia. As well as seeing clients, Dr. Aasmundsen-Fry provides business consultation, content creation and speaking engagements focused on burnout over boundaries, and developing satisfying and meaningful relationships and lifestyles.

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?

Of course. I grew up in a little bit of everywhere and am what is called a “third culture kid”. I am technically half Norwegian and half Malaysian. I was born in Singapore, where I lived for two years before moving to Sweden, then spent most of my childhood in England before moving to Saudi Arabia where I attended high school. Most people ask if my family was in the military, but it actually comes down to my parents love of pursuing new experiences, cultures and opportunities. I myself settled in Boston, MA where I spent the past 16 years pursuing a doctorate, working for a group practice and having a family before deciding to branch out to KL, Malaysia. I used to think that I wanted the stability of staying in one place but with the pandemic, realized that I wanted more. I wanted to explore my roots in Malaysia, live closer to family and give back by increasing mental health awareness in Malaysia. Moving around, being a part of different cultures and meeting people from all walks of life has made me who I am.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

Being a third culture kid, I have always been interested in the human experience and how we form the narratives of our lives. For example, going to high school in Saudi Arabia was a fascinating experience in that I attended first a British then an American school, whilst living in a compound of foreigners and expats with very different lifestyles than those of the local individuals. We faced unique challenges there including the 2004 bombings which changed my outlook on the diversity of the human condition and the importance of connection with others and your core self above all.

I do not have a particular culture of my own and in that respect am aware of the intersection of different cultures people belong to- work, sociocultural, friend groups and began to explore how individuals develop and balance their individual needs with those of their cultures. Moving to the US and studying psychology in college and then in a Doctoral program was a magnetic pull to me. My interest in understanding a person as a whole within the context of their lives only grew throughout that experience. As I have developed in my career, my focus has shifted to specifically how we maintain and develop more satisfying relationships and lifestyles., with so many competing demands, responsibilities and expectations for ourselves and from others.

This led to my specialty of preventing and overcoming burnout through the use of boundaries (Boundaries Over Burnout! More to come on that.

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?

I put a lot of thought into this one and I would say it takes a village in this case. It comes down to the parents who raised me and instilled the confidence and support to know that a woman has no less potential than a man in leadership, that you should always think bigger and expect more for yourself and that if you need to, you can always so ‘No.’ End of story. No explanations owed. They have pushed me to know my value and the value of making mistakes, learning from them and becoming more. In that same vein, my husband, sister and children remind me every day to be the best version of myself and make me strive to set the boundaries I need- for me, and them. It is them that have made me realize that you can have a fulfilling career and strive to be a good partner and mother but you need to create space for yourself at the center of it all.

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?

I recently moved to Malaysia to start a company, MindWell: Modern Psychology & Therapy. I don’t think this is funny in the hilarious sense but more funny in a “the universe has a humor” sense. It has been a dream of mine to expand mental health in Malaysia where there is significant stigma as an obstacle and not enough mental health experts to fulfill the needs of the country. Moving here has been the perfect storm of mistakes, challenges and testing my own limits since of course, this unfolded during the height of the pandemic in Malaysia. It has been a humbling and inspiring experience. The lesson I learned from the pandemic and this move is to engage with what gives you meaning. As many mistakes as you make, and obstacles you encounter, if you are working towards something of meaning to you, you can weather those difficulties, and come out of it (relatively) unscathed.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

It is certainly hard to pick one. One I use most often and ascribe to both personally and professionally is the quote, “We don’t see the world the way it is, we see the world the way we are.” When I sit down with a client for a first session, I love connecting to their inner world and experience and talking about how their early experiences and family have shaped their perspective and choices today. Your childhood experiences and attachment in relationships to important family members provide models of how relationships go, how to connect with others and yourself and begin to establish your values. From there you always have this lens in viewing your experiences and relationships. I do want to note that this knowledge is power to make choices about your life and not a shackle to your past. The more you know about yourself and how you see things, the more you act of your own accord.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I am really enjoying interacting more with the public around my project ‘Boundaries Over Burnout’ (B.O.B). I think that the concept of burnout is having its moment in culture. People are understanding in a profound way that they do not have to accept poor working conditions and their mental health and well-being should be addressed in the workplace. More than ever, people are asking employers how they can provide more than just a salary and holding employers accountable for reflecting a company’s stance on valuing an individual as a whole and their well-being. I believe this is due to a mix of the pandemic causing individuals to question their priorities and increased psychoeducation about burnout.

I still think there are limitations to how we speak about burnout. Most of us hold many roles such as parents, siblings, daughters, employees, employers, to name a few and have to manage the competing demands and sense of obligation attached to those roles. However, burnout is mostly discussed in relation to the workplace. ‘Boundaries Over Burnout’ (B.O.B) focuses on helping individuals recognize their value and accept their needs in order to set realistic boundaries within their lifestyles and workplace. I currently create content and give talks on the topic. I also work with businesses and leadership to discuss how to make tangible changes to prevent and overcome workplace burnout through boundaries. This includes leaders using boundaries to prevent their own burnout at work and in their personal lives.

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?

  1. Authenticity: If anything, I try to be authentic and transparent in how I communicate with others, particularly to those who I may supervise. I think that people want leaders they can relate to and understand, in a way that feels genuine. I have been in a situation where burnout was widespread in a company and like most companies, there were limitations about changes that could be made to alleviate employees in a meaningful way. Being authentic about my own understanding and these limitations helped me join with people struggling and open conversations on how to make realistic changes.
  2. Openness: to being wrong, making mistakes and learning to be better from others and experience. This is a tough and humbling lesson to learn but there are always going to be people who know and can teach you more. No matter how smart or experienced you are, there are so many intelligent, creative and brilliant people out there with perspectives and experiences you could never imagine up in your own head. As I am currently living in Malaysia, I am constantly humbled by my evolving experience of mental health in this country.
  3. Compassion: I do not believe in leading through fear, I would much rather have employees feel able to discuss their needs, limitations and desires for professional growth and connect as a positive culture than having disconnection and discontent in the workplace. I have been there and it is hard to weather the trying times we now live in when feeling unsupported and disconnected from your team and company.

For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?

My interest and awareness in burnout started in grad school when I realized how much people struggled to manage their workloads with their lifestyles and create boundaries to prevent burnout. This led to my doctoral research and dissertation being on protective factors against burnout. Since then I have based my work with clients, as a supervisor and as a consultant on the use of boundaries to prevent and overcome burnout. I currently provide talks and workshops and create content aimed at increasing awareness of burnout and giving tips as to how to set boundaries, limits and create lifestyle and perceptual changes to have more satisfying and effective work and personal lives.

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?

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged stress and resulting in feelings of helplessness. It is indicated by a sense of disconnection from others, dread and emotional exhaustion, and feelings of reduced personal accomplishment. Burnout is most often talked about in workplaces with limited resources and social support, which have high demands of their staff, such as doctors and teachers. It is important to note that burnout is not just stress, it does not disappear overnight or after taking a day off. It is culmination of mismanagement of stress which has a profound impact on your everyday functioning.

Burnout manifests itself in the following ways:

Physically: headaches fatigue, heartburn & gastrointestinal symptoms

Social withdrawal, alienation and hostility towards others.

Emotional exhaustion: dread, drained, unable to cope

Increased potential for alcohol, drug, or food misuse.

As you can see, burnout is a prolonged process. The good news here is that burnout happens slowly and can be prevented when armed with the right knowledge, setting helpful boundaries and making meaningful changes.

How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?

The opposite of burnout is a sense of well-being, purpose and accomplishment, and connection to others. The others in this case may be friends, colleagues, the company you work for or something larger in a social or spiritual sense depending on your beliefs. It is not that a person does not feel stressed, down, or come upon hard times, but that they feel capable of weathering these hardships and limiting the extent of stress on other aspects of their lives.

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?

Burnout is an epidemic that affects not only us but everyone from our loved ones to the doctors we entrust with our health and the teachers we rely on to educate our children and the emerging generation. In fact, it is professions like healthcare and teaching that have the highest rates of burnout due to the unrelenting nature of their jobs.

There is a common misconception that burnout is just stress, and that if you just power through it, you will be fine. The problem is that stress and burnout are not equal. Stress is temporary and situational. Burnout is a prolonged wearing down of someone’s physical and mental health. As mentioned earlier, burnout will not disappear after a day off, or a bubble bath. People often have to work with psychologists and doctors to manage the affect burnout has had on their mental and physical health.

We know that burnout causes physical issues such as gastrointestinal issues, headaches, muscle tension and increased susceptibility to illness. The person who is experiencing burnout will be absent from work more frequently, have difficulty engaging effectively in their work and if undealt with, experience chronic stress related illnesses such as heart disease and heightened risk of stroke. At the same time, feelings of dissatisfaction and reduced personal accomplishment resulting from burnout cause people to question their ability to work overall and their choice in career. Lastly, the person experiencing burnout either disconnects and withdraws from loved ones and colleagues or appears short tempered, irritable and on edge to those around them.

It is not uncommon for someone with burnout to make dramatic life changes in desperation to feel unburdened. While drastic changes may be needed, they have to be thoughtful and intentional, not reactionary. People can leave behind relationships, families and jobs that can be salvaged with attention to boundaries.

From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?

I view burnout as a problem with overextending yourself and having limited boundaries, leaving people feeling overwhelmed, helpless and hopeless. Workplace, lifestyle and personality factors all contribute to burnout.

Since we are focusing on work burnout, the main causes of burnout are workload, poor communication and transparency from leadership, time pressure, limited resources, and disconnection from a company’s vision and culture. It is not the amount of workload or stress someone has that causes burnout, it is their perception of their ability to handle burnout.

If we take a closer look, a person with perfectionistic standards, a ‘type A’ personality and tendency to control and micromanage is more likely to burnout. They have trouble ending and setting boundaries around the extent of their involvement in projects and are more likely to blur the lines between work and home.

Next, lifestyle choices cause and worsen developing burnout symptoms. The more someone has to juggle and the weaker the boundaries are between those responsibilities, the higher their chance of burnout. Take parents for example, in the pandemic parents are often acting in the roles of supporting teachers, parenting throughout a workday, and attempting to do their jobs from home. Childcare is more limited than ever. A runny nose in a child no longer a small matter you can take a wait and see approach to, now there are doctor’s appointments, covid tests and quarantine periods. Navigating systems you used to know how to handle like healthcare and school are suddenly dramatically different. This is the reality of the situation and a perfect storm for burnout. However, a person has choices within their lifestyle in how much they ask for help, accommodations they ask for at work and how much they choose to take for their child on in terms of activities as a parent.

Lastly, but certainly not least, work is the quintessential source of burnout. People with large workloads and limited help, who work long hours and have few boundaries between work and their personal lives are at extreme risk of burnout. If you are at a job where you never feel like you are offloading work off your plate, that your plate is always half full or full then a sense of being unable to accomplish and succeed starts to develop. Now certain factors like support and company programs around wellbeing can buffer developing burnout, but say you are in a toxic work environment or there is no flexibility at your job, then you feel like the burnout causing storm of a situation is never ending. This is particularly relevant to current times in the pandemic where remote work demands sharp learning curves around gaining skills, using new technology and naturally disconnects people from their colleagues.

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.)

  1. Connect with others: The human condition is to want and need human connection, meaningful human connection. Unfortunately, burnout will make you want to pull away from others, or perhaps you have found yourself acting short and irritable with those you loved and turning into someone you do not want to be. Do not be too hard on yourself for struggling to connect right now, just focus on using relationships for the support and help you need to feel like yourself again.
  2. At work: Connect with colleagues, speak to people about your problems and concerns. More often than not, you will find that others share the same feelings and problems. They can help you think of solutions on how to manage your workload, tackle new technology or just feel validated that you are not alone in feeling how you do. If your work offers groups or social events, go even if you don’t feel like it. It may be hard at first but it will get easier.
  3. Socially: When you are feeling the busiest and most stressed is exactly the time you should make room for social connection. Intentionally plan meeting with friends and loved ones. Even for small amounts of time. The power of a friend or partner (or dog or cat) to remind you of your life outside of the causes of your burnout is extraordinary.
  4. Boundaries: Think about how much room each aspect of your life takes up. Are the sources of your stress taking up more room than they should? While it may not feel like it, the sources of your stress are only one aspect of your life. If the source of your stress is work, put physical and mental boundaries down around your time and level of engagement. If it is your lifestyle and relationships, use boundaries to show others how to treat you and what your limits are.
  5. Work the hours you are paid to work. Yes, sometimes you may need to work outside those hours but do not make it common practice. If you need to work past your agreed upon hours, plan ways to balance the associated stress.

Physically transition away from work. Set a boundary between your workspace and the places you live and feel safe. Put away the laptop, take your email off your phone. Disconnect when you have decided the workday ends. Don’t even look at it. Transition away from work to your personal life. Commuting used to naturally create this distance and transition, if you no longer have that, it may be helpful to go for a walk or engage in an activity that deals with your stress from the day and releases it.

Think about your relationships. Which relationships fill you with a sense of dread or feel draining in some way. Do you hesitate or not want to answer calls from someone in particular? This is your mind’s way of telling you that this relationship is contributing to your burnout and you need to set boundaries. It is ok to wait till you are in a better mental space to speak to someone or to limit your conversations with draining people. It is also ok to end relationships which are toxic or to choose to engage in relationships to a certain extent only, based on accepting the limitations of that person.

Take breaks: Do not eat at your desk or while doing work. Take a real lunch break and at least one more break during the day. Get up from your workspace and do something different. With remote work, you now have the privacy and accessibility to do a yoga class from home or take your dog for a walk. If you are at work, let colleagues or employees know that a closed door means you are unavailable. Make the time non-negotiable. Don’t “just” answer one email and if thoughts of work creep into your mind, redirect yourself towards your break. Be consistent, you are setting important boundaries here to show others how to value your time, and most importantly how you can value your time.

Take mental health days and vacations: Don’t be that person that doesn’t use your vacation time. Stress is not a badge of honor. You do not need to sacrifice yourself to be dedicated to your cause or career. Take vacations, I recommend taking at least a two weeks off at once at one point each year. You need that amount of time to disengage from work and connect with your relationships and other parts of you and your life. When you are gone, put away messages on your phone and email making it clear that you are unavailable.

If your work offers mental health days, take them! It is becoming a more and more common practice. Some companies like LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/company/linkedin), Bumble (https://www.linkedin.com/company/bumble) and Nike (https://www.linkedin.com/company/nike) have all offered their employees entire mental health weeks. I cannot think of anything better that a company can offer their employees. If your company does not officially offer mental health days, speak to your supervisor about how to use sick days to accommodate your mental health and well-being. If a longer break is needed, programs like short term disability and FMLA are available to provide job security and sometimes compensation for those who need it.

Connect with your sense of meaning and interests that make you, “you”: Nothing builds resiliency like knowing and feeling firm in who you are and what you stand for. If you are feeling unsatisfied and unaccomplished, think about what you can engage in to connect to a bigger picture. This does not have to be something on the scale of fighting for social justice, it can be something like learning to be a compassionate leader, taking a class to feed your creative side, or getting involved with a group which provides social connection and is connected to an interest of yours. If you do not know what your interests are or what is meaningful to you, explore and try new things. Commit to being open instead and making room to connecting to meaning, creativity or whatever it is that draws you.

What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?

I recommend starting a conversation with asking how you can help. Do they need you to listen or offer solutions? Both are valuable but fulfill very different needs. Help your friend, colleague or loved one recognize and acknowledge their needs. Validate those needs, let them know they should expect and do deserve more. People often struggle to feel comfortable with and advocate their needs and it is often easier to minimize the causes of stress. Having the support and encouragement of someone they trust can be instrumental in discussing needed changes in lifestyle and work conditions with the appropriate people.

Additionally, speak about creating balance and boundaries between work and home and creating time for themselves. Recommend lifestyle changes like limiting time with draining people, taking breaks from technology, creating a gratitude practice, connecting to a larger sense of meaning, and engaging in activities for joy versus the outcome. Think of ways you can help make those changes happen. Could you look after their kids for a while? Organize a meal train with your group of friends? Or could you join them in solidarity in going to the gym together? The options are endless and you do not have to come up with the answers alone, just brainstorming with your loved one will increase their ability to breathe and feel like they have options.

What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?

  • Promote connection to colleagues
  • Find ways to empower employees
  • Clarify roles & expectations
  • Find ways to connect to company vision, culture and values
  • Evaluate whether staff have right tech and tools, especially with COVID changes
  • Provide adequate vacation, and promote taking vacation for the sake of well-being.
  • Offer programs which allow employees to focus on their mental health
  • End meetings 5 minutes early to give time for people to transition and regroup before their next meeting.
  • Provide a mental health week or at least mental health days. If you cannot, be flexible in allowing sick time to be used for mental health reasons and burnout.
  • Create a culture of separating from work and allowing employees to answer emails when they return to the work day.
  • Organize social events which focus on appreciation towards employees.
  • Create team building events where the focus in on fostering connection.
  • Ask supervisors to discuss the individual needs of each one of their team members. This shouldn’t be a one time conversation but an ongoing conversation.
  • Show them how you prevent burnout and utilize boundaries, lead by example.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

Burnout is having a moment, and people are starting to understand the cost of burnout. The biggest step a company can take is to label this social phenomenon and bring in specialists to speak about burnout prevention and recovery. Investing resources in psychoeducation and hands on training to managing burnout ultimately will result in more satisfied and long-lasting employees.

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?

Commonly burnout is spoken about as in a way that may provide education but does not provide realistic and lasting changes in a more systemic way. We unfortunately have promoted a culture which causes burn out in itself. The biggest mistake I see people making on a systemic and individual level, is to treat burnout as a one time phenomenon. Companies offer one time events based on social connection or well-being, or tokens of appreciation like a gift card.

Instead, make burnout prevention and the promotion of well-being a part of your culture. That starts at the top and has to be embodied in the practices of the company in terms of approaching time and energy placed into work, and flexibility around having a life and 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.

My movement would be ‘Boundaries over Burnout.’ (B.O.B). It is an idea that started growing as I’ve focused more on burnout and more importantly the solution to burnout prevention. Boundaries are indications of your emotional, physical and psychological space. Boundaries separate you from others and inform them on how to treat you. Importantly, boundaries require increasing your awareness and knowledge of your needs, limits and how you want to interact with the different domains of your life such as work, home and in relationships. Setting boundaries is the key to burnout prevention in that they help you understand your worth, promote resiliency and teach you how to communicate with others in your life.

BOB is accessible to companies, and empowers individuals and people of all socioeconomic statuses, BIPOC and LGBTQ+. It is about you and how to own your life and make it more meaningful and satisfying. We all need a little BOB!

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 🙂

Without a doubt, Arianna Huffington. My passion and focus lies in the concept of ‘Boundaries over Burnout’ and she is the embodiment of that concept and proof that you can take care of yourself and be successful. Her mission and values with Thrive Global around burnout prevention and educating people on a global level about the social epidemic of burnout inspires me to continue down this path and help to be part of the solution. If someone could make the changes we need to understand burnout and make the world listen, it would be her. I would love to meet her, share ideas, and mostly tell her how incredibly inspiring it is to see a woman in power who equally values her work and setting boundaries around ones values and needs.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I would be happy for readers to follow along with my work online, here is how.

Website: www.mindwell.biz

Blog: www.mindwell.biz/blog

Instagram: mindwell_kl (www.instagram.com/mindwell_kl)

Facebook: mindwellkl (www.facebook.com/mindwellkl)

Twitter: @MindWellKL (https://twitter.com/MindWellKL)

Linked n: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cassandra-aasmundsen-fry-psy-d-152123b8/?originalSubdomain=my

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!

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