Ask for help. Burnout happens when someone feels like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders with no help, understanding, compassion or empathy. Often individuals who are suffering do so in silence as they incorrectly perceive asking for help as a weakness. On the same note, talking to a toxic boss might not be helpful but going above them or speaking to a colleague may prove useful in getting the ball rolling to make things better. You can also reach out to a therapist and problem solve ways to cope with the situation. Therapy doesn’t mean you do it “forever.” It means you are in a situation where you need outside eyes to help you navigate the dense forest.
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. Bethany Cook.
Dr. Bethany Cook is the author of For What It’s Worth — A Perspective on How to Thrive and Survive Parenting Ages 0–2. She has been called in as an “expert” for Parade Magazine, Today, WGN-Morning News, PureWow, and more. She is “officially” a full-time parent of two, a licensed Clinical Psychologist, Health Service Psychologist, Adjunct Professor, and a Board Certified Music Therapist.
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? What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
I have always had a passion for music and helping others. When I was 12 years old I was volunteering at a nursing home playing my violin for the residents and as I was packing up to leave I saw an interview on the television of a woman talking about music therapy. I had never heard of this approach to helping others and instantly knew that my career would involve helping people through music. Once I had earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in music therapy I realized I wanted to understand and learn more about psychology and why humans “do what we do,’’ but I wanted to do it from a more hands-on perspective compared to a setting in a laboratory. That’s when I decided to get my doctorate in clinical psychology from a program that focuses on clinical work. Once I had finished my internship working in Community Mental Health I decided to continue to push myself and do a postdoctoral study in neuropsychological assessment because understanding how the brain works and functions fascinates me.
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 would have to say both of my parents have always been super supportive and used to say to me “It doesn’t matter what you do, just do your best.” That being said, when I was quite young I remember telling my mom I wanted to sing and dance on Broadway or be a chef. She told me to get a formal education first so I had something to “fall back on.” But the great irony is that now that I am “Dr. B” I am returning to my first loves and have created several Reality TV shows involving me, psychology, food, humor, and families! HA! My mom also taught me to never be afraid to hear the word “no.” It wasn’t the end of the road, merely a diversion. My dad, may he rest in peace, loved my passion for music and worked hard so I could have violin, piano and voice lessons when I was younger. I composed my first song when I was around 15 and he immediately went out and bought me an electric keyboard and music writing software. This was in the early 1990’s and none of these items were cheap, nor did my family have a lot of money. Both my parents sacrificed to ensure I was afforded the music lessons and formal education to get me where I am today. I am very grateful.
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?
In the field of psychology, as in many other jobs, there isn’t a lot of room for mistakes. Given this, I work very hard to prevent this from happening by staying on top of current research, doing my own personal work in therapy/formal supervision and making sure I don’t experience burnout.
That being said, during my very first internship as a music therapist I was running a group for those living with dementia. I was playing familiar songs from their youth and processing the feelings and stories that were arising from the music. One man in particular became emotionally invested and started sharing stories of his life and was really getting into the session. My final song was a sad one that stirred up many memories for him and he began to sob. I validated his experience and processed his feelings (all the things I had been taught) and then I ended the session. My supervisor was observing and told me right away that it’s not healthy or helpful to leave a person in a state of emotional distress and I should have gone over the session time limit and played 1–2 more songs which would have shifted this man’s mood state. I will never forget that moment and I have never ended a session due to time when a client was in distress.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
At a practicum placement during my doctorate program I worked at a clinic on the West Side of Chicago. One afternoon, I peeked into the waiting room to glance at my new client filling out paperwork. I noticed she had several kids with her, the youngest was in a saggy diaper and he was drinking orange soda pop from a bottle. My mind immediately began judging this young woman and her choices. I had a massive reality check midway through our initial intake session when I said to her “You are a very bright young woman. Why do you put orange soda in the youngest’s bottle?” She looked at me, calmly, slowly and deliberately said “I can buy 2–3 two- liters of soda for the same cost as ½ gallon of milk. And ain’t nobody wanna feel hungry.” That line about not wanting to feel hunger stuck with me. It gave me a reality check on my own prejudices about individuals and their personal choices. I was quick to dismiss this young woman as “not very bright” only to learn she was exceptionally clever and was merely born into a family system filled with generational trauma and financial difficulties which she was trying to overcome. Whenever I feel myself judging another person’s actions I always think “Ain’t nobody wanna feel hungry” and give myself a reality check.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
A couple of years ago I noticed the massive divide in families and people across the country that has led to fighting about everything from how to parent to politics and more recently how to cope with a global pandemic. I used my educational training in psychology and my passion for theatre and cooking and have been inspired to create a Reality TV show focused on helping families learn how to cook and communicate in productive and healthy ways. Think Supernanny meets Gordon Ramsey’s Restaurant Takeover with an Oprah feel good take away message; except that I’m “taking over” a family unit which isn’t functioning well and teaching them not only how to prepare a delicious meal together but also how to relate in ways which are healthy and beneficial. Restrictions, due to COVID, have literally put a wheel lock on my car but hopefully once the “biz” opens back up so will the road to a TV Show.
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?
In the field of psychology the term “grit” is defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” Success doesn’t come easily and definitely not without learning from countless mistakes and wrong turns. I was around 10 years old when I first told my parents I wanted to sing and dance on Broadway. I was 11 when I told my parents I wanted to be a chef. Both of these career ideas were kai-boshed and I was told to “get an education to have something to fall back on.” So after 3 degrees, including a doctorate, I am now taking all this knowledge and putting it back into my original childhood dreams of using the medium of theatre and teaching people life skills through cooking and creating together. I never gave up on my goals and continue to work toward helping as many people as I can (another childhood goal) using my education mixed with my passions.
What doesn’t bend breaks. You must be willing to change and shift as opportunities come and go on your way toward achieving your goals. Sometimes you take a pause from your dreams to fill in the “gaps” to ensure the foundation is set for your future. I came up with my TV show idea 2 years ago. Since then I’ve been slowly asking around for how to best “make this dream happen” and in the process realized there isn’t “a straight line.” Consequently, I’ve had to keep my eye on the prize and have been doing various things to help lay the foundation for my dreams. If there isn’t a TV deal at the end of my rainbow, I have other career ideas and will simply focus 100% of my energy on them if one path ends. Life isn’t linear and the only thing constant is change so if you don’t remain flexible you may break somewhere along the way.
Sense of Humor:
Humor has always been a coping mechanism for me when the stark realities of life set in. Being able to find the silver lining and adding a twist of laughter to it is always a drink that goes down easily. I use humor in all my interactions with others; from my family to clients to the check out people at the store. Humor has a way of calming an intense situation, deflating anger, building relationships, offering a shared experience, and validation. Laughter also allows the release of the body’s natural “feel good” hormone, endorphins. A person can’t go wrong with adding humor to any interaction.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of burnout?
I’m a mental health professional who has worked in the field for over 20 years helping clients recognize and work through their own personal burnouts (related to work or relationships). I have a successful track record for helping others succeed and rekindle their inner fire again.
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?
Interestingly, psychologists are not in agreement as to a definition of “burnout” which makes it difficult to not only treat but to realistically know how many people are suffering from it. I define burnout as prolonged response to interpersonal stressors related to work or relationships. The term has primarily referred to “work” situations (outside the home) but I have worked with plenty of people who feel burned out in their relationships as well as parenting.
The symptoms include; overwhelming exhaustion, detachment from a job/relationship, a decrease in feeling/being as effective in your job/relationship, absenteeism, irrational thinking and low motivation to name a few. Often people who are in the helping profession experience burnout a lot. This includes nurses, doctors, prison workers, childcare workers, teachers, full-time parents or anyone who self-sacrifices at the expense of their own mental health. Often individuals who are caring and kind become victims to those with a predatory personality (e.g. narsisstics) and their relationships begin to feel like a “job” always catering to someone else’s moods and manipulations.
How would you define or describe the opposite of burnout?
The opposite of burnout is when you are thriving and creating. Life is going well, you’re inspired at work to do your best and your relationships bring you happiness. A good sign is when you are feeling inspired, you have mental space and energy to think about “non-essential” items and you feel you have a little “extra” of you to give back to society in big or small ways. This could be reading to an elderly neighbor, watching a newborn so a mom can shower and eat, getting involved in the local parks department, coaching a kids sports team, volunteering at an animal shelter…etc.
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 NOT a minor annoyance in your life. While it allows you to function (albeit to a lesser degree) continuing to work whilst your mental health is suffering is like breaking your leg and continuing to walk on it everyday. Over time your body will eventually say “enough” and cause another physical symptom to force you to “stop and heal” like a heart attack. Stress is a huge factor in burnout and study after study continues to show the adverse impact that stress plays on our bodies and mental health. Anyone who says “grin and bear it” is 100% misinformed about the best way to cope with burnout. Just look at society right now: we are all burned out from trying to survive a global pandemic on top of a “jam packed lifestyle” and it shows in the marked increase in overdoses, mental health appointments, doctor visits, crime rates, suicides, etc. Stressed people are not productive, happy citizens.
From your experience, perspective, or research, what are the main causes of burnout?
I believe burnout stems from a lack of feeling appreciated, cared for, understood and valued. It also can stem from a toxic work/home environment, lack of control, an imbalance with work/home life, extreme focus on one thing and unclear job descriptions without proper equipment to be successful.
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.)
- Sit down and make a list of all the things that bring you joy and energy in life and a list of the things that drain your energy. Once done, write a new list which offers a realistic balance and ways to harness energy from preferred activities. A few months into the pandemic I started to notice I wasn’t finding pleasure in cooking, didn’t want to call my friends, was irritable and didn’t feel “myself.” I spoke to my wife and bestie to give myself a reality check because I thought I was becoming depressed. After chatting with both (two people who know me the best) and reflecting on things in my life that did bring me joy, I realized I was completely burned out and in need of “alone time” to reboot. I asked my wife to just “…leave the house with the kids. I don’t care where you go, just be gone for as long as you can. I need space from people, chores and parenting.” She was amazing and took the kids for a couple of nature walks for 2 consecutive days giving me 4 hour breaks each time. I can’t begin to explain how much those 8 hours rejuvenated me. I felt “myself” again because I was doing things on my replenish list “just for me” for 4 hours straight. After that I always monitored my “list” of things that filled me up versus those that weighed me down.
- Self-care is vital and many who experience burnout are “helpers and self-sacrificers.” So taking time for yourself or spending money on a massage will be quite difficult at first. Force yourself to do something, even something tiny, which makes you feel good about yourself. This doesn’t have to be something that costs money. It can be as simple as learning to say “no” to someone who asks you to do something which is above and beyond. Or it can be calling for that massage you’ve been putting off because your pain “isn’t that bad.” I started budgeting for massages during the pandemic as I realized my body and mind greatly benefited from massage. It was hard for me to justify spending money for something that only I benefit from. Then I realized that my family actually does benefit from me getting a massage because I’m less of an asshole when I feel better about myself and my body isn’t screaming from aches and pains. Many times it’s about reframing your thoughts rather than creating new ones.
- I know it’s cliché to suggest exercise, but when every study points to the overwhelming benefits of exercise and mental health, it can’t be ignored. Exercise doesn’t mean you have to join a gym or suddenly start working out 6 days a week. It means do 10 sit-ups and take a walk around the block during your office break. You want to start with bite-sized changes so you will be able to sustain and build on your success. I’ve been suffering from plantar fasciitis for almost a year now which has seriously impacted my ability to exercise in ways I’d like to. Consequently, I’ve switched up what I do and even though it’s not nearly enough it’s still better than nothing. Do what you can with what you have and when you get more, do more.
- Ask for help. Burnout happens when someone feels like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders with no help, understanding, compassion or empathy. Often individuals who are suffering do so in silence as they incorrectly perceive asking for help as a weakness. On the same note, talking to a toxic boss might not be helpful but going above them or speaking to a colleague may prove useful in getting the ball rolling to make things better. You can also reach out to a therapist and problem solve ways to cope with the situation. Therapy doesn’t mean you do it “forever.” It means you are in a situation where you need outside eyes to help you navigate the dense forest.
- Disconnect from screens. Burnout is largely associated with work or job roles so when you get home and the office keeps pinging you or you’re checking messages to “stay ahead of it” this is a sign you need to unplug and reset. It’s not easy to do this but if you don’t make time to rest, your body will force you to. Arriana Huffington once shared that she was working so hard that she literally passed out on her desk.. She broke her cheekbone and had to get 4 stitches around her eye. She shared “I wish I could go back and tell myself that not only is there no trade-off between living a well-rounded life and high performance, performance is actually improved when our lives include time for renewal, wisdom, wonder and giving. That would have saved me a lot of unnecessary stress, burnout and exhaustion.” –Arianna Huffington
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to help someone they care about reverse burnout?
Kindness goes a long way. A small gesture of humanity can completely turn someone’s day around. If you see your colleague struggling to work with a boss who undermines their efforts, take them aside and let them know you “see this” and want to support them in whatever way you can even if it’s just validating this person’s difficulties. If you know the boss and are in a position to speak to them directly I would encourage you to do so. Humans are social creatures meant to work together and get along for the survival of the species. Modern lifestyles mean we don’t “need” others for our survival the way our tribal ancestors did. That being said, the majority of humans can’t live a solitary life and need interactions with others to feel fulfilled, happy and connected. It’s just in our DNA. So reach out and connect to whomever is struggling and ask them what you can do to help. This isn’t necessarily about solving their problems or getting involved (you can if you wish) but the point is to merely validate their emotional experiences and let them know you have their back. Reflect on the last time you had a really bad day at the office. Did you want someone to “fix it” for you or merely listen to you vent, validating your day by saying things like “Wow, that sounds awful,” or “I can see you’re really upset by this, talk to me.” The power of feeling “seen and understood” can’t be understated. This is a meaningful way to help those suffering. It may initially feel counterintuitive as your knee jerk reaction is more than likely wanting to “solve the problem” rather than validate the emotions.
What can employers do to help their staff reverse burnout?
Employers can encourage employees to take time off and use their vacation days. One way of doing this is making sure you have enough staff to cover for other staff to take time off. No one wants to take a holiday only to come back to a pile of things to “catch-up on.” So make it easy for your employee to take a day or two off.
Encourage and implement 15 minute breaks for employees after they’ve worked for 1–1 ½ hours. Research shows this increases productivity and decreases burnout. Our brains can only process and remain focused on a task for a limited amount of time before it negatively impacts our mental health. And you will want to take the break before you feel tired. We want to maintain a steady level of energy, not drain ourselves to exhaustion then take a break trying to fill the energy bucket. Our bodies don’t work efficiently this way.
Have a family/employee appreciation day. It doesn’t have to cost a fortune, it can be as simple as a few outdoor games, drinks and some snacks. The point of this is to make an effort and show your employees you value them enough to spend money and create an “experience” which hopefully energizes them rather than drains them.
Hire a massage therapist to come and do chair massages for employees once a month. These sessions could range from 10–30 minutes. Whilst you might say “What can someone really do in 10 minutes?” ask your friend/spouse to gently brush your hair, rub your feet or scratch your back for 10 minutes straight. How did that feel? Now imagine someone professional trained doing it during a stressful day at the office. Those 10 minutes sound pretty amazing right?
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?
I would say to all employees and society to stop projecting the message “I’m exhausted and burned out but I still show up to work” as a badge of something to be proud of. Humanity is showing us everyday that the “rat race” is killing us. The opioid pandemic, a startling increase in suicides, a drastic increase in childhood mental illness and addictions are a few indicators that our current “normal” is actually killing humanity as a whole.
Employers can start promoting mental health awareness by creating company wide policies promoting mental health. This can be monthly guest speakers who talk about relevant topics related to the job, a family therapist who offers advice and guidance to parents, or a communications expert who provides specific tools each employee can use, just to name a few.
Stop making fun of or demeaning people who use “mental health days.” Have someone come in and present about “office culture” and how seemingly innocent microaggressions can create a toxic work environment. Pay for mental health services for your employees if it is not covered under their health insurance.
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?
The primary mistake people make when they are trying to reverse burnout is making impulsive decisions in an effort to feel an immediate relief of symptoms. This could be quitting a job which otherwise would have worked with you to make conditions better. Another pitfall to avoid is throwing yourself 100% into something new (even self-care) instead of easing into the new “coping strategy.” Change, even good change, creates stress. Don’t overwhelm your system with extreme change. Start slowly and integrate changes as needed by making space for the positive by removing the negative.
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.
I would like to inspire a movement that encourages people to set healthy boundaries, learn how to effectively communicate their needs, understand and accept that someone can have a different opinion from you and it’s not “personal,” encourage families to put down the screens and connect with one another and change an entire generation’s idea of parenting toward one that stops generational trauma and begins healing the family tree. Bottom line, our first relationships in life begin at home and if home is an unhealthy place we spend our adulthood undoing the trauma from childhood and then bleeding on those in our lives who didn’t even create the wound to begin with. How can society change, when it’s filled with wounded people who don’t have the life skills to change?
Helping families (of all ages) connect and communicate would 100% shift the direction of a generation towards one of thriving health rather than stress and dying.
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 🙂
The list of individuals I would love to have a chat with is pretty long. I am drawn to these names for various reasons but primarily because I see them as survivors who have fought and won many of their personal battles to be able to get to where they are in life. The list includes: Cardi B, Adele, P!nk, Lebron James, Serena Williams, Lizzo, Jimmy Carter, Will Smith, Tom Robbins, Oprah, Prince William, Harry and their families, Cate Blanchett, Angelina Jolie, Huge Jackman, Robert Downey Jr., Viola Davis, and Dave Chapelle, to name a few.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Your readers can find me on all major social media platforms. My handle is @drbcook.
I also run a parenting group on FB which offers advice, a place to ask questions in a supportive environment, humor and I personally respond to all comments and questions.
My website is www.doctorbethanycook.com.
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!