Exercise — change your physiological state by changing your physical condition. Put on some music and dance! Go to a group exercise class, clean off your treadmill or exercise bike, and just move.
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 Brantlee Underhill.
Brantlee Underhill serves as Managing Director, North America at Project Management Institute (PMI), the world’s leading professional association for the global community of project professionals and changemakers. In her more than 20 years at PMI, Brantlee has led chapter and volunteer leadership development, creating greater value and engagement opportunities for PMI members around the globe. In her current role, Brantlee is responsible for the North American business plan and performance. Brantlee holds a bachelor’s degree in German, Russian and political science from West Chester University, and she is a Certified Association Executive (CAE) through the American Society of Association Executives.
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?
I grew up on a farm. Living on a farm is a cyclical existence; every day, every month, every season, routine work is required to care for the land, the animals, the family, and the community. A day doesn’t pass where there is no commitment and responsibility in this way of living. Many of my memories are imprinted with wintery days cleaning horse stalls and trekking through woods to the local dairy or calling upon neighbors on hot and humid nights to stack hay bales before the rain would arrive. The space in this environment — fields and open sky — presented the backdrop to create adventure and imagine the future beyond farm life. It’s also there on the farm where I developed a firm sense of discipline and routine because it was required of the lifestyle.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
In the 8th grade, we had a choice to learn a foreign language. I was ecstatic to learn German because my grandfather was of German descent, so there was a familial connection to the language and heritage. I continued studying it through college but never wanted to teach it, which most people assumed a student would do when learning a language. I paired language with a study in political science and thought I’d work in Washington D.C. Instead, I found an opportunity with a global nonprofit membership organization where I interact with people from all around the world to advocate their profession. I discovered that I am a good listener and a connector who inspired people to take action. After a few years in the job, I learned that association management was a profession, pursued professional development and certification, and now I call myself an association executive.
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?
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot while working with leaders about who not to be. Often, I was the only female in a male-dominated group, whether in a department, at an event, or within athletic training. I didn’t want to be different or stand out; I tried to blend in and prove that I deserved to be there like everyone else based upon my work and contributions. Reflecting on some of those experiences, it is astounding how isolated I was. When I opened my eyes to this exclusivity, it taught me how I didn’t want to be. I felt that I had to work twice as hard as the men in my group to receive recognition and access to information readily available to everyone else. This also taught me how equity and equality are essential attributes in the workforce as they enable people to feel seen, appreciated, and valued for who they are.
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?
Brantlee does not have an answer for this question.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I had an internship experience alongside a cosmonaut, and he used to say, “life is silly without risk.” It always stuck with me. Here was a person putting himself into orbit for scientific experiments to better humankind, proving that some risks are worth taking. When faced with choices, I often consider where I want to play and ask myself whether that entails playing it safe or taking a risk. Any decision is a risk, and I use this mantra to get out of my comfort zone, grow, and experience the fullest potential of what life offers.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
The world is digitizing faster than ever, and there isn’t enough talent to meet the demands. We’re teaming up with organizations and tech companies to offer digital skills to students around low code/no-code development, to help them become “citizen developers.” Gartner predicts that low code application development will account for 65% of all application development activity within the next three years. This means that one does not need to be a software developer to create an app; it can be someone like you or me who may or may not have a technical software development background. Also, Microsoft’s research predicts that 500 million new apps are expected to be built in the next four years; 450 million of those will be developed using a low-code tool. Regardless of age or time in the workforce, we grow when we learn, and helping individuals and organizations gain citizen developer skills will help advance society while offering a much-needed skill.
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?
- Holding space and finding connection with others — there’s always something interesting to learn from others, and I like to exploring what that is and live a little vicariously through it! It requires being open to the discovery, allowing the time and space for it to happen, including all the awkward pauses in conversations.
- Be accountable — know what your “why” is, what you stand for, and live it through your actions.
- Demonstrate courage — have the tough conversations and ask for things beyond what you believe is within the realm of possibility.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
As someone who works with people to advocate for their profession, making it a priority to enhance the world for the betterment of society, I have seen firsthand how people lose sight of their priorities, goals, even happiness due to the negative repercussions associated with burnout. I see signs of trouble emerge when people work longer and become less productive or lack drive and motivation. As a mother, I know the toll that burnout takes on the person experiencing it and on those they love, and who they are surrounded by. In my role as a managing director at PMI, I make it my purpose to ensure our business plans move forward, and the people behind those plans have what they need, both professionally and personally, to be successful in their role and in integrating their work and personal life. I’m also a yoga teacher, which prompts guidance-seekers on living with less stress and a healthier lifestyle. I’ve developed a powerful toolbox throughout my life that I leverage daily, and if I can share one of those tools to help someone in need, you can count on me.
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 can be defined as a state of mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion often brought on by prolonged stress. Consider the feeling that the word itself invokes: heat and friction. Burnout in anxiety, poor sleep, fatigue, mental fog, lack of creativity, emotional numbness, and more.
A work environment that operates with unclear direction, high expectations, and constant demands can put employees under a lot of pressure. If employees are not supported or “seen” in such an environment, they could feel overworked, exhausted, and underappreciated. They may disengage and, by this point, are likely experiencing burnout. Burnout can show up in other aspects of their life, too — at home, school, etc. — simply put, any time a person feels overwhelmed by responsibilities or expectations and has trouble managing their response, they may be experiencing burnout.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
Fulfilled and engaged. Being mentally and emotionally present and involved is the antithesis of burnout. Employees engaged with their work are more likely to be productive and more in touch with their environment and connected to its people. A sense of purpose, where work-life integration is emphasized and employee wellbeing is at the core, reminds employees why they do what they do. It gives them the motivation to carry out their responsibilities.
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?
Sure, there are appropriate times where we need to buckle down and put in long hours and effort, but to make that the standard operating procedure is destined for disaster. Some societies take pride in a “0 to 60” culture, and I regularly ask, “how quickly can you go from 60 to 0?” A culture that constantly puts pressure on employees to work long hours to outperform their peers or personal bests can negatively affect their sense of self-worth and how they perceive their achievements and occupational fulfillment, all of which have lasting impacts on individuals both inside and outside of the workplace. It can affect their relationships, wellbeing, and motivation to try new things. We need to be able to turn it off on-demand.
Burnout is a phenomenon that has existed for years — it’s constantly discussed and studied by research professionals and has shown to be a detriment to one’s mental and physical health. Using vacation time, respecting boundaries (such as not working during non-work hours) and taking breaks throughout the workday must be taken seriously by employers if they want to keep employees happy and healthy, which will in turn boost enterprise performance. However, employers must understand that this isn’t important simply to increase performance at work; it’s imperative to a conducive atmosphere for employees’ wellbeing, as well as to society as a whole. Employers should ask themselves how to enable a “60 to 0” culture to turn off the switch and establish boundaries for employees. We must prioritize individual mental health because it’s the right thing to do for the people around us.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
Multiple factors can lead to burnout, but the most common is a heavy workload and little or no personal autonomy, manifesting in various ways. If you work in a constantly demanding profession or require high energy and “always-on” attention, it can be an all-consuming, chaotic environment and cause fatigue. This feeling can increase into a lack of control within your environment. An inability to make your own decisions regarding your job — whether that’s your schedule, your projects, or your workload — can further disillusion you with your occupation and your sense of purpose. It’s critical to have transparent and honest communication with your supervisor and colleagues — if that social aspect of your profession is missing and you feel as if you don’t have the proper support from your leadership and team. If left unattended, it will only further escalate the stress you are experiencing.
Suppose you find yourself questioning your motivation or feel disillusioned with your occupation, even if you’re feeling a lack of satisfaction from your achievements at work. If that’s the case, you’re likely experiencing 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.)
The first step is realizing it. Pay attention to the signals. How are you when you are feeling engaged, fulfilled, and present? What’s different when you are feeling burned out? What starts to happen to your body and mind? Do others offer observations that suggest you are showing signs of burnout? Fatigue, alienation, lack of engagement, and reduced performance are the most common symptoms of burnout, so it’s essential to identify these feelings both in yourself and those you work with to help combat burnout. Knowing and being aware of these signals and behaviors can then spur you into action to manage and stop your burnout experience.
That’s when you access your toolbox, and if you don’t have one, build it. Grow your “60 to 0” muscle. Put things in your toolbox like:
- Breathwork exercises, especially those that tone the parasympathetic “rest and digest” system, include a longer exhale. Try the 5–7–8 breath (inhale for a count of 5, hold the breath for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8)
- Gratitude practice — write down or meditate on one thing (or more!) that you are grateful for
- Connect to nature — Use the nature that’s around you — it doesn’t have to be complicated. Walk outside your door, breathe fresh air, go for a walk, or sit against a tree.
- Exercise — change your physiological state by changing your physical condition. Put on some music and dance! Go to a group exercise class, clean off your treadmill or exercise bike, and just move
- Take rest — a quick nap can recharge the brain
Ask for/accept help — know when you cannot do it alone.
Also, consider the following:
- Celebrate your successes and look for silver linings. Sometimes it feels as if nothing matters but the project deadline. However, it’s always critical to celebrate success, no matter how small. Sharing wins can revive wavering energy and remind everyone of the momentum the team is making, both holistically and on the individual level.
- Stay connected to people. Communication and collaboration are key. Talk to your managers and other team members regularly to make sure the workload is spread out evenly, helping to prevent burnout. Check-in and ask how they are doing and encourage truthful, authentic conversations to ensure people are heard.
Know that you have choices, so now and then, check in with yourself. See how you are doing. When confronted with burnout or tough times, assess your options, and make your choices. That includes choosing how you wish to respond and how you want to be throughout the situation.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
It’s always helpful to see where you can lessen the load for someone you care about. Sometimes the simplest thing you can do is to be present and listen. Showing up for people can be one of the best ways to help them. Don’t apply more pressure. Words of affirmation are tremendous, but acts of service seem to be the defining factor in helping people when they need it most.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
Creating an empathetic and communicative workplace culture can lead to higher collaboration, less stress, and fewer conflicts, ultimately preventing burnout. Ask your employees for “real talk” and create a safe environment to express their feelings without fear of retaliation. The past year has been a challenging time for everyone, and we’ve all had to balance our personal and professional lives in an unprecedented way. According to PMI’s recent research, 76% of workers feel more productive now than six months ago. Much of that stems from having the space to take breaks and prioritize self-care and mental health throughout the workday, all of which can result in a more fulfilling, healthy work-life integration in the long term. We’re seeing leaders emphasize purposeful work, where expectations are balanced with empathy, allowing employees to maintain a healthy mindset related to work-life integration that keeps productivity high without sacrificing mental health.
Embracing collaborative tools has allowed for more transparency and better communication — enabling us to get work done even if we need to take off for personal needs, such as childcare. In fact, at PMI, we chose to close for two weeks at the end of the year to ensure all of our employees had time to recharge. It starts with honest communication — engaging in dialogue with your employees and then acting on the feedback is an integral start to reducing burnout in the workplace.
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?
One of the easiest things employers can do right now that take minimal to no effort is to create a forum for dialogue with their employees. Ask people how they are doing and what they are feeling, what’s hard for them, where they might be able to lessen the load and how the organization can help employees find the balance and boundaries, they need is a crucial first step.
Sometimes, it takes an employee to open up about how they feel to see that someone cares enough to ask them how they are doing. It can be challenging to open up about something as serious as burnout and mental health concerns if people are afraid of any negative feedback or repercussions. So opening the door for them to share where they are honestly is the best way to get the conversation started and get your people back on track to feel fulfilled in their work.
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?
Getting stuck. Not knowing where to begin. Giving up before it begins. Just as it can be harmful to take on too much at once, trying to reverse too much can have adverse effects on what you are trying to correct. It might be helpful to identify the stressors in your life and choose one to tackle at a time versus trying to “fix” everything. Scale back expectations, choose one thing that will decrease stress and bring harmony to your work and personal life. Find an accountability partner to help you out — a co-worker or a friend outside of work — with whom you can verbalize your goals and who can check on you to ensure you’re taking the time to care for your 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.
Commit to one act of self-care each day. That could be finding a peaceful moment, saying a kind phrase to yourself, moving your body, going on a date with your significant other, indulging in a book or movie, or eating a healthy meal, for example. Self-care can also be saying no, including avoiding negative self-talk and unhealthy vices.
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.
I’m a big fan of CrossFit, and with the conclusion of the 2021 NoBull CrossFit Games, I would love to enjoy a healthy meal and maybe brave through a workout with Annie Thorisdottir! Annie, a new mom, overcame many odds to compete this year, demonstrating the strength of the human mind, body, and spirit along the way. She’s a true inspiration to anyone who’s been told “probably never again” and trusted herself and her journey to be even better than that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!