Explore your burnout. When you find yourself in the midst of burnout, journaling is a great way to explore what’s going on and what you can do to support and free yourself from burnout. Use the questions below to help you explore what’s going on and why. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind, whether it’s work, home, or life related. This is a judgement-free activity, so be sure not to judge whether your responses are good or bad, right or wrong. This is only information that will help us uncover what’s going on.
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 Ashley Cox.
Ashley Cox, PHR, SHRM-CP is the Founder and CEO of SproutHR, a boutique HR consulting firm that helps women-owned businesses hire and lead thriving teams with smart and simple strategies. SproutHR will help you hire the right people for your team (in the right way), with a focus on values-based hiring, compassionate and intentional leadership, and amplifying your impact in the world. Ashley is also a speaker and author of the book, Transform Your Stories.
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 in a small town in southern West Virginia alongside my sister, Sara, and my brother, Troy. We lived at the top of a mountain with our parents and an elderly neighbor couple. My fondest memories are the times we spent playing outside in the woods surrounding our home, working together in the garden, and sledding down the big hill in our yard during the winter. I remember a childhood full of creativity, imagination, and endless possibilities; all things that I still give me joy and that I bring into my work today.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I love to tell this story because Human Resources (HR) found me, not the other way around! My degrees are in management and marketing and HR was never on my radar. However, when I landed my first management position after college, I naturally gravitated toward all things people related. Company leadership soon recognized this as well and selected me for a special hiring project. The assignment? To hire and train 350 employees for a new store that would be opening in just eight weeks. At 25 years old, I had hired many employees, but only two or three at a time; never this many at once. I was both terrified and excited for the opportunity. After successfully completing the project, I was approached by four senior leaders individually about applying for an open position in our HR department recruiting entry-level management trainees throughout our five-state region. I applied, got the job, and have been in HR ever since! After spending 10 years in corporate HR, I ventured out on my own to start SproutHR five years ago and have loved working with small business owners around the country and the world. I truly believe that this career found me because it’s where I belong and where I will be able to make the greatest impact in the world. I’m grateful that someone saw potential in me in a way that I didn’t or couldn’t at the time, and that they gave me the opportunity to do work that has been incredibly rewarding and deeply fulfilling.
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?
While I have had many incredible mentors and advisors throughout the years, the person who has had the most profound impact on my life and career has been my mom, Diana. Her unwavering belief in me, endless support, and loving encouragement forged a strong foundation upon which I have been able to build my life and career. She has taught me many valuable lessons that I carry with me every day, like trusting my intuition, standing up for myself, chasing my dreams, and taking chances.
As a young girl, my mom read to me every night. I honestly can’t remember a time in my life when books weren’t part of the picture. In kindergarten, I took a book to school to read to the class for show-n-tell. Ever since then, I wanted to write a book. In 2019, I published my first book, Transform Your Stories. I remember calling my mom to celebrate when the book was released and the flood of emotions I felt that day — I couldn’t believe I wrote a real book! She said, in a very matter-of-fact way (yet still with an obvious sense of pride), “I never had any doubt you would make this dream come true baby girl.” When someone believes in you that much, it’s difficult not to believe in yourself.
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’ve had some real forehead-slapping moments in my life, but I’ll share this one story about a time when I was giving a training. I had been asked to give a training virtually for a company that I was really excited to work with. My content was on point, my slide deck was sharp, and my tech was all working great. I was ready to go. I was under the impression that the webinar program would show both my slides, as well as me when presenting. However, when the presentation started, I could only see my slides. No worries, I’m a pro. I’ve got this. So, I lean back in my chair and don’t worry about what I look like on camera since no one can see me. I proceed to deliver an exceptional training, nailing every key point, all while swiveling about in my chair and looking everywhere but the computer screen. After I wrapped up the presentation and the audience dismissed, I mentioned to the host that I thought the audience would be to see my video for the training, but that maybe I was mistaken because I couldn’t see my video on my end. She replied, with a sly smirk on her face, “Oh no, the video was working fine. We could see you. You looked like you were having fun!” Needless to say, I was slightly embarrassed, although she did make light of it and we shared a good laugh. Lesson Learned: Always act as though you are on camera, because you just might be!
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
Ahh, yes! My favorite quote of all time is one by André Gide: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” I honestly can’t remember where I first heard this quote, but it’s been many, many years ago now. Whenever I’m feeling afraid or nervous about taking the next step toward a big goal or project, I look to this quote. It’s a quote I’ve relied on many times myself throughout the years, as well as shared with others.
What resonates with me the most about this quote is that it makes courage feel more like a journey than a destination. Courage is deciding to go. Courage is getting on the boat. Courage is setting sail. Courage is looking toward what lies ahead and what’s possible. Courage is one decision and one step at a time. And when you put it like that, I feel like you can do anything you put your mind to!
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
One of the biggest challenges I see small business owners face, especially women, is that they put off hiring for far too long. They tell themselves they’re not ready to hire yet or they’re not cut out to be a leader, so they forego hiring the help they need and deserve and continue working 7 days a week, 12–14 hours per day, and sacrificing not only time with family and friends, but also their own rest and well-being. I work with so many women who are either on the verge of, or living in, burnout. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Something that I’m really excited about that we just launched at SproutHR is our Hiring VIP Day!
A friend and fellow business owner, Marva, recommended that I consider creating a one-day service (rather than our longer three-month program) to help small businesses take action more quickly with their hiring — and I loved it. I ran it by a few of our past clients and got a great response to the idea, as well as some valuable feedback to help refine the idea and make it super valuable. Now I’m proud to say this service is live at www.sprouthr.co/hiring and we’re currently taking clients! We’re also excited to be working on a hiring course that will be coming out very soon!
At SproutHR, we’re on a mission to help women-owned businesses create 10,000 new jobs by the end of 2025. Both new services will help us achieve this goal, along with helping more women step into leadership roles and grow thriving businesses and teams. It doesn’t get much better than that!
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?
I love this question! My three traits would be: Self-Awareness, Intuition, and Compassion.
Self-Awareness: This is an essential trait for all leaders. Without it, we can’t grow and we can also cause a lot of harm within our teams. I’ve used self-awareness to identify opportunities when I haven’t communicated as clearly as I could have with my team. I like to say to my team members that, “If you’re confused, I’m confusing.” As a leader, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that our team members weren’t listening, don’t care, or that they just don’t “get” our vision or idea. However, it often comes back to our own ability to communicate, delegate, and lead effectively. Without self-awareness you simply can’t identify those areas where you play a key role as a leader in the success or failings of your team or be able to course correct when things go off track. Self-awareness is also the precursor to being able to admit your mistakes (because you can’t admit when you’re wrong if you’re not aware of your wrongdoing) and being vulnerable with your team, both of which can amplify trust and build a deeper connection with your team.
Intuition: Some might also refer to this as having a “gut instinct” or “feeling.” Whatever you call it, this has been instrumental in my career success. When I’ve trusted my intuition, I’ve made better decisions, developed better relationships with others, and stood up for what was right (even when it wasn’t popular). A great example of this is being able to tap into how my team is responding to whatever I’m sharing, whether it’s a policy change, a new process, or tough feedback on their performance. Being able to put myself in their shoes, consider their perspective, and lean into my knowing has helped me tune into how they might be thinking and feeling in the moment, which then allows me to direct conversations in more intentional and supportive ways. Using my intuition has also been a huge asset in making sure every team member feels seen, heard, valued and respected in our daily interactions.
Compassion: Too many businesses and leaders today fail to realize the humanity in what we do. Yes, we sell products and/or services — but what we do is so much more important than that. Our most critical role is to take care of people. The people who are working every day to keep our businesses alive and thriving. Without our teams, we don’t have much of a business, if any at all. Compassion is lacking in today’s workplace. In my early years as a manager, I was often dinged on my performance reviews and conversations for being “too soft.” What I’ve learned over the years, however, is that people respond better to compassionate leadership vs. ruling with an iron fist. I’ve also learned that we can be both compassionate and still establish healthy boundaries, set clear expectations, and hold our teams accountable. These things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they work beautifully together, both for us as leaders as well as for our teams.
To me, success isn’t only defined by revenue or business growth, but the way we treat people along the way to reaching those goals and milestones. At the end of each day, if I can say, “I put people first today and loved them well,” then I know everything else will take care of itself.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
Having worked in leadership and HR for over 15 years and being a business owner myself for the past five years, I’ve seen and supported my fair share of employees, colleagues, supervisors, and peers who have suffered from burnout. I’ve also faced burnout myself, so I understand it from a deeply person perspective, as well. While many view HR as the department that handles the hiring, discipline, and firing of employees, it’s about so much more than that. It’s about taking care of people and part of that is helping to create work environments that not only support the business needs, but take care of the people running them.
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 the point of mental, physical, and emotional exhaustion that one reaches when they’ve been under intense and prolonged periods of stress. Even the simplest of tasks can seem daunting and life in general feels very overwhelming. You feel exhausted, possibly agitated, and unmotivated to do things you typically enjoy. You might find your asking questions like, “What is wrong with me? Why can’t I just get it together?!” Burnout can leave you feeling disconnected and closed off to the world around you, whether at work or at home.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
I believe that the opposite of burnout is vibrancy. When you’re in a state of vibrancy, you are present and engaged in life, and you likely feel a sense of hope, optimism, and joy. However, I do want to point out that living in vibrancy does not mean that you’re happy 24/7. It simply means that you have the skills and tools you need to navigate and handle whatever life, family, or work throws your way. People who are living in a state of vibrancy radiate a sense of peace and harmony that others can feel.
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?
While burnout isn’t a medical condition or diagnosis, it can often lead to physical and mental illnesses when left untreated. According to experts, those who suffer from burnout could also face insomnia, fatigue, a weakened immune system, and prolonged burnout can lead to even more serious illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, as well as alcohol or substance abuse.
Burnout doesn’t just affect the individual who has it, but everyone around them. At work, employees will experience a lack of motivation, focus, and productivity in their work. They may become cynical or critical of the company or their work, disinterested in their job, and irritable or impatient with co-workers or customers.
At home, a person may have a short temper with their spouse or significant other, feel too fatigued to play with their children, and lose interest in hobbies or activities they once loved. Friends and other family members might notice the person pulling away and becoming disengaged, which could lead to misunderstandings and broken relationships.
Burnout isn’t about having a bad day. It’s a serious issue that can be detrimental to our livelihood, our families, and our communities.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
Employee burnout can be the result of many different factors, including:
- Long work hours
- Heavy workloads
- Unclear job role or responsibilities
- Poor boundaries
- Unsupportive management
- Dysfunctional workplace or team
- Lack of control
- No work-life balance
- Unrealistically high expectations of self
- Type of profession (for example, helping work such as healthcare)
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.)
- Explore your burnout. When you find yourself in the midst of burnout, journaling is a great way to explore what’s going on and what you can do to support and free yourself from burnout. Use the questions below to help you explore what’s going on and why. Write down anything and everything that comes to mind, whether it’s work, home, or life related. This is a judgement-free activity, so be sure not to judge whether your responses are good or bad, right or wrong. This is only information that will help us uncover what’s going on.
- How am I feeling right now?
- What has caused me the most stress and tension?
- In what ways do I run myself into the ground?
- What have I done recently take care of myself and when?
- How would I like to feel instead?
- What can I do to support myself in feeling like this?
2. Identify your burnout activators. Review your answers to the journaling prompts above and consider the following question: What is the greatest factor that has led to your burnout?
- Are you working longer hours or is your workload heavier than normal?
- Have you been struggling with boundaries and communicating your needs?
- Is there something significant happening in your personal life?
3. Determine next steps. Now, it’s time to get your plan together and decide what steps you will take to overcome burnout and get back to a state of vibrancy. Consider this question: What do you need to do in order to support yourself in the area you identified above?
- Do you need to speak with your boss about your current work schedule or workload?
- Do you need to establish a boundary that you will not work when you’re at home or with family?
- Do you need to take a vacation or leave of absence from work to deal with a persona situation?
- Get support. Life isn’t meant to be lived alone. By nature, humans are communal and need one another. So don’t try to go it alone. Share why you’re feeling burned out, how you would like to feel, and your plan for achieving your goal. Ask your support person or team if you can check-in with them regularly to help ensure you follow through on your plan — and ask them to reach out if they don’t hear from you. Here are some options for where to find the support you need and deserve:
- Manager or supervisor
- Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
- Therapist or counselor
- Support group
5. Plan ahead for burnout. Burnout isn’t typically a one-time thing for most of us. It can come and go throughout the years, as your job and life change. Even unexpected things will come up (like a global pandemic), which can result in feeling burnt out. It’s important to develop your self-awareness when you’re not in the throes of burnout, so you can more easily identify what specific things lead you to feeling burnt out before it happens. A regular journaling practice is a great way to build self-awareness and avoid burnout.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
Concerned friends, colleagues, and partners can help walk their loved one through the steps above to work through and reverse their burnout. It can be very difficult to help ourselves out of burnout when we’re in the midst of it. Always start by asking for the person’s permission to help them explore what has them feeling burnt out, then once you’ve been given consent, proceed with the journaling questions in step number one. You can ask these questions to the person out loud and write down their responses so you can refer back to them throughout your conversation. Offer to give your loved one the notes at the end of your discussion, so they can either use them to reflect on or destroy them, as they may be something private that they don’t want to be shared.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
If you notice an employee on the verge of or experiencing burnout, you should take immediate action. Consider what resources you already have readily available, such as paid time off, a leave of absence, or an employee assistance programs (EAP). Have an open and honest conversation with the individual about how they’re feeling and what type of support they need in the moment. Offer what you have available and allow the employee to choose what feels like the right option for them. Save any heavy discussions around revising their role and responsibilities, changing their work hours, or shifting a big project to another team member until after you’ve helped them address their immediate needs. If the employee has decided to take time off and you have a time sensitive project you need their input on, limit your conversation to only what is most relevant and necessary for you to move forward with the project while they are out. Everything else can wait until they return and are feeling better.
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?
You are so right! I wish it was as easy as snapping my fingers, but unfortunately that won’t work. Employers have an incredibly important responsibility to take care of their workers. Fortunately, burnout can often be avoided or reduced without adding a large additional expense to your budget, and in fact, many ideas can be implemented for no cost at all. So there’s really no reason why more employers can’t support their team members in this way. Here are a few ideas for how employers can help their employees avoid or reduce the chances of burnout:
- Set a maximum for work hours per day or per week by employee role
- Ensure a balanced distribution of work and check in with your employees frequently
- Maintain healthy staff levels and provide extra breaks when you are short staffed
- Make sure every position has a job description with clear roles or responsibilities
- Provide training around setting and maintaining healthy boundaries at work and home
- Properly train your management team so they know how to best support their team members
- Survey employees to understand how they feel about the workplace culture and adjust accordingly
- Allow employees to share ideas and concerns about decisions being made that affect them, when possible
- Promote better work-life balance by offer flex scheduling, shortened workweeks, and other benefits
- Create opportunities to support your employee’s overall well-being through options like Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), wellness stipends, or onsite yoga classes or massages
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?
Trying to change too much at once. Too many changes or significant changes can be overwhelming. Think of the last time you made a New Year’s resolution to exercise every day, eat better, lose weight, and get in the best shape of your life. In the beginning, you had all the motivation and excitement in the world. You were drinking 8 glasses of water daily, exercising every day of the week, you threw out all the junk food in your pantry and were only eating the leanest protein and the freshest veggies. Things likely went well for a couple of weeks, but then they started to go off track. You swapped some of the water for your old friend coffee, started skipping workouts here and there, and sneaked snacks when no one was looking.
The problem is that we often put off making small changes that would be beneficial for too long. Then, we hit a breaking point and skip straight into a full overhaul. When we try to change our entire lifestyle at once, it becomes daunting, overwhelming, and not very rewarding. The same is true for burnout. It’s easy to reach the point where you feel like, “Something has to change!” and you try to overhaul your entire life. However, if you just start with one small habit change at a time, you’ll see the rewards much more quickly and they’ll be far more sustainable. Don’t try to change everything at once, or you might find yourself back where you started.
Small changes add up over time and are what lead to the best results. Rather than implementing an entire wellness plan to help you avoid burnout, try establishing one healthy new habit today, such as: no cell phone before 8am or after 8pm, meditate for five minutes in the morning or afternoon (again, don’t start with 20 minutes or more if you’ve never meditated before; this is a practice and takes time to build the skill), or practice saying “no” this week. When you’re feeling confident with your new habit, add another one. Gradually, you will build healthy and functional habits and practices that will support you without leading to overwhelm and further burnout.
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 deepest desire is to help more women move into leadership roles. I believe that when women are equally represented in positions of power, we will be able to create a more inclusive, innovative, and compassionate world that emphasizes and supports what’s best for all people, including workplaces that are designed specifically with employees’ mental health and well-being in mind.
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 🙂
Yes, I love this question! Without hesitation I would say Oprah. I find so much inspiration in her story, her determination, her grace, her joy, and her fierce advocacy. I would love to sit down to brunch with Oprah one day. That would be a complete dream.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can learn more about SproutHR and our services at www.sprouthr.co and I’d love to connect with you on Instagram and LinkedIn, so come say hi! And if you’re a small business owner who’s ready to hire the help you need and deserve, but aren’t sure who to hire first, take our 2-minute quiz to find out.
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!